Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Blanche Among the Talented Tenth by Barbara Neely

published 1994

Blanche Talented 3

[Blanche is packing for a stay in an exclusive resort]

Clothes would be important at Amber Cove. Black people, even well-off black people, seemed to believe in looking good. She’d cleaned and cooked for plenty of rich white people who dressed like they got a kick out of being mistaken for a homeless person. No black people she’d ever known or worked for played that stuff…. A black psychologist [had] told Blanche it probably was partly due to African peoples’ belief in body adornment in a spiritual way, and partly because, consciously or unconsciously, black people in America hoped clothes would make them acceptable to people who hated them no matter what they wore…

Blanche Talented 2

In either case, Blanche knew Taifa would be mortallyBlanche Talented 1 embarrassed if Mama Blanche didn’t look just so. It wasn’t an attitude the child got from her, but Blanche had made sure that the sand-beige, washable silk skirt and shirt, the off-white linen dress and slacks with matching jacket and Bermuda shorts, the pastel floral print sundress and the dressy, pale-blue halter dress with its bolero jacket from the Cosmopolitan Consignments shop, all had designer tags and were all so conventional, and, originally, so expensive, they would undoubtedly meet with Taifa’s approval.

observations: I wrote in an earlier entry about how revolutionary the Blanche detective stories were in the 1990s, and how they are being republished as ebooks by Brash Books.

The title of this one comes from a quote by W.E.B DuBois:
The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people… The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.
Blanche (because of the events related in Blanche on the Lam) is able to send her adopted children to a very upmarket school, while herself still working as a cleaner and housekeeper. She and the children are invited to join another family at a very upscale resort on the Maine Coast: one used by Black families, and very wealthy ones at that: it is exclusive. But Blanche knows that ‘in black America, exclusive could, even now in 1994, still be about not only wealth and social position, but also skin color.’

This is a very important part of the book: Blanche and Barbara Neely look hard at the choices and decisions of Black people. Blanche was bullied as a child because she is so dark, and she knows that many other Black people look down on her because of her colour. She is worried that her children are taking on these attitudes, preferring light skin and straightened hair.
She could picture herself a hundred shades lighter with her facial features sharpened; but she couldn’t make the leap to wanting to step out of the talk, walk, music, food, and feeling of being black that the white world often imitated but never really understood. She realized how small a part her complexion played in what it meant to her to be black.
I knew a little of this milieu from the novels of Stephen Carter, otherwise the world was completely unfamiliar to me, and I found it to be absolutely fascinating. Neely unpacks the issues at length, and convincingly, and I thought this worked well within the framework of the murder story. It works somewhat better as a novel in fact – the murder plot was of the Murder She Wrote kind. An unpopular woman has died, and it turns out that every single person in the vicinity had an equal motive to knock her off – though the motives are quite extreme and unusual. I’m not completely sure I really understood everything that had happened by the end, though Neely produced a couple of good surprises. I did feel considerably better-informed about the issues dealt with in the book.

In a recent entry on a Laurie R King Mary Russell book I complained about authors giving too much detail of the characters’ meals. In Blanche on the Lam I quite enjoyed the cooking the heroine did – it was part of her life, there was more justification – but in this one Neely let herself down by actually telling us which menu items Blanche and a friend didn’t choose:
They both decided to skip the shrimp toast or pate appetizers, as well as the vichyssoise or curried cream of pea soup. They both has the broiled monkfish as opposed to the fettucine alfredo, or the grilled chicken breast in honey-mustard sauce.
She has a slight point to make – that this is white people’s food – but it is still a bit much…

The pictures are from a Maryland resort called Carr’s Beach: not an exclusive upscale resort as in the Blanche book, but a segregated beach from the 1950s and early 60s.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

published 1999

Fifth Elephant

[Sam Vimes and his wife Sybil are on a diplomatic mission to Uberwald, home of the dwarfs. They are attending the opera there. Vimes is late, so Sybil catches him up]

‘It’s nearly over,’ whispered Sybil. ‘they’ve only performed the bit concerning the baking of the Scone, really, but at least they’ve included the Ransom Aria. Ironhammer escapes from prison with the help of Skalt, steals the truth that Agi has hidden, conceals it by baking it into the Scone, and persuades the guards around Bloodaxe’s camp to let him pass. The dwarfs believe that truth was once a, a thing… a sort of ultimate rare metal, really, and the last bit of it is inside the Scone. And the guards can’t resist, because of the sheer power of it. The song is about how love, like truth, will always reveal itself, just as the grain of truth inside the Scone makes the whole thing true. It’s actually one of the finest pieces of music in the world. Gold is hardly mentioned at all.’

Vimes stared.

observations: I was reading this book to get information about wolves, obviously, in order to write some more about Wolf Hall and Ford Madox Ford - you can see the results here. Sadly, my reading became very pertinent with the death of Terry Pratchett, who was remembered on the blog here.

The book was the usual terrific fun: amusing, entertaining, brilliantly clever, and satirizing everything in sight, from the Enigma spy machines to Chekhov’s – three sisters who have a cherry orchard, the gloomy and purposeless trousers of Uncle Vanya, and a great longing to get to Ankh-Morpork, which they see as ‘A veritable heaven of culture and sophistication and unattached men of quality.’ Vimes is astonished.

The Patrician has a very high hitrate with great lines in fleeting appearances: he describes how in the past ‘young men from Ankh-Morpork used to go on what we called the Grand Sneer, visiting far-flung countries and cities in order to see at first hand how inferior they were.’ When The Watch goes on strike, he tells Corporal Nobbs ‘I gather you have withdrawn your labour. In your case, I am sure this presented a good deal of difficulty,’ which Nobby is very unsure about.

At one point a list of werewolves are named to include ‘Nancy …Unity. The pack’s all here then?’ (Special unexpected Mitford reference for Col). The werewolves are horrifying and quite splendid characters:
People don’t like wolves that can think like people, and people don’t like people who can act like wolves. Which just shows that people are the same everywhere, even when they’re wolves.
On posh occasions, Lady Sybil normally ‘wore ballgowns of a light blue, a colour often chosen by ladies of a certain age and girth to combine the maximum of quiet style with the minimum of visibility.’ But she always has great presence, as she demonstrates when she sings the dwarfs favourite song, Ironhammer’s Ransom song.
The dwarfs were staring at Lady Sybil as she changed up through the gears into full, operatic voice…. Snow slid off roofs. Icicles vibrated. With a spiky corset and a hat with wings on it she could be ferrying dead warriors off a battlefield.
Everything turns out all right in the end, Vimes and Sybil get a holiday, and the final words are
‘Wolves never look back,’ he whispered.
Oh Terry Pratchett you will be sorely missed, though at least you produced a really satisfying quantity of work in your lifetime.

The picture, from a book about opera, shows Hagen and Alberich-the-dwarf from Wagner’s ring Cycle. As a Terry Pratchett expert reminded me, Albrecht Albrechtson (practically the same name) is a very important dwarf in Uberwald, so it seems a particularly good choice.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Some Luck by Jane Smiley

published 2014


Some Luck
[section set in 1948]

In seven years, she had become the most sophisticated woman Frank had ever known, and he was a little intimidated; even the women he’d dated in Washington, including Judy, were frumpy by comparison. But she did it so naturally and quickly that he was fascinated rather than put off by it.

Girdle, stockings, slip, blouse, skirt, jacket, hat, hairpins, makeup, heels, coat, corsage, gloves: she passed through the process automatically, usually talking, and then she was ready to go, and off they went. This led him to believe that she would pass through the complementary removal process as easily, though she hadn’t done that yet with him. It was amusing to think about, and exciting too…

observations: Frank is the eldest of the next generation in this family saga – see this entry for more about the book and the unusual setup of one chapter for every year between 1920 and 1953. He has just met up with a girlfriend from before the war: when they announce they are to be married, his mother Rosanna ‘seemed more suspicious than any of the other parents’ – the reader knows why, though Frank doesn’t.

Frank – a sniper during WW2, his adventures described in some detail – has the most interesting post-war life of any of the family, and is the only character who seems completely unfamiliar, he is totally unlike the normal range of characters in books, which is a rare achievement, the reader doesn’t often think that.

Enough people leave Iowa to add interest in these years – as Rosanna thinks, ‘At first you thought of people like Eloise and Frank and Lillian as runaways, and then, after a bit, you knew they were really scouts.’ Frank has a job going through papers recovered from Germany after Hitler’s downfall – something that must have happened, but I’m sure hasn’t occurred to most of us. He is also (very unexpectedly) lured into a nifty bit of counter-espionage by his brother-in-law, Lillian’s husband. Things are really perking up in the plot.

Smiley is very good at describing clothes, and a world where in the 30s and 40s ‘Mama and Granny Elizabeth had sewn Lilian just the outfits she wanted [for high school], ones she’d seen in a magazine’, and there is some discussion of what bolts of material are available at the general store.

Later an upandcoming acquaintance has a wife in a ‘mouton’ coat – apparently a 1950s phrase for sheepskin cut and dyed to resemble beaver fur or sealskin.

Some Luck DD 2
This mouton coat is a lot more showy, designed to look like a more exotic animal.
The top picture is from the Clover vintage tumblr.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot

published 1944

Snow Rim of the Pit

Jeff went to the closet and returned struggling into his coat…Rogan emerged with his coat.

The snow has advantages. It shows marks. If there are tracks on the roof there must be more on the ground. …If people would wait until the evidence was all in, there’d be fewer ghost stories.

Near the front of the house his light picked up the main path from the lodge as it curved to meet the steps at the side of the porch.


Lights appeared over the brow of the hill. Madore’s eyes darted to them in superstitious terror. Rogan took advantage of this to step in, catch his wrist and twist it behind him until he dropped the knife. Rogan thrust the pistol into his coat and shouted.

Six heads showed over the hill above. A flashlight picked out Madore and then swung to Rogan…

The low bulk of the lodge sprawled on the crest of the ridge, its blind lightless windows staring down at them.

observations: I’ve been waiting for more snow locally, thinking I might run this blogpost on a snowday, but I’ve given up hope – the weather is positively spring-like. Which is a good thing.

I had never heard of Rim of the Pit until comparatively recently: but then I read that it had been voted the second best locked-room mystery of all time, after John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man. I’m a big fan of Carr and his impossible crimes, so I thought I’d better get hold of this one. Apparently the author was a well-known magician who produced just a couple of crime stories, of which this is the best.

A disparate group of people have gathered in a remote spot in New England – there’s a cabin and a lodge, some solid and sinister forest, and a lot of snow. There is a complex plot involving the lumber business, and rather too many characters. A séance is held to get a dead man’s permission for a (lumber) business deal, and things start to look up – there’s nothing like a séance for improving the mood. The usual mixture of fraud and possible reality ensue: could the dead man really have come back to interfere with the living? Has he taken possession of his wife’s new husband? Impossibility is piled on impossibility – there are endless searches in the snow (the sections above have been spliced together from different pages of the book) and a lot of footprints, and missing footprints, and inexplicable footprints. Recently, quoting from Russell Thorndike’s The Slype, I said this:
‘Splendid! Recent footprints in the snow, of course?’ Such an archetypal Golden Age sentence…
I liked the book, and it gets a lot of credit for being short and to the point. I guessed some of what was going on – and it was very clear to me who must be the main culprit. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable: and also, guessing is helped by my having read so many similar stories, written since this one – I imagine Rim of the Pit was very influential.

You would definitely think the author must have been a really good conjuror or magician – he really knew his tricks. As a writer, not so much. I think the book could have done with a good edit - I had to read the opening page about six times because I couldn’t work out who was speaking to whom, or where they were, or why, or whom the dog belonged to. But I’m glad I persevered, and the atmosphere of the snow-bound lodges was very well done. And it is a real pity he didn’t write some more.

For séances and snow, click on the labels below.

The picture of a snowshoeing trip is from the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

published 2015

Ghost Fields

‘There are a lot of these abandoned airfields in Norfolk… They call them the ghost fields.’

The ghost fields. Nelson’s not a fanciful man but, just for a second, he imagines the sky full of lumbering Second World War planes, rising into the clouds and heading out to sea. He thinks of the men inside the control tower listening to their final briefing, not knowing whether they’ll ever come back.


[As she investigates a body found in the wrong place, Dr Ruth Galloway goes to a museum of RAF history]

‘I’ve sorted out some photographs for you,’ says Ray, pointing towards the table.

Ruth leans over to look. The faded pictures show huge aeroplanes with men standing on stepladders to reach the propellers, sprawled on the wings doing repair work or just grinning beside the monstrous creatures, dwarfed by the great khaki wings.

‘They were B24s and B17s,’ says Ray. ‘The B17s were the famous Flying Fortresses.’

Ruth is looking at the men. They are wearing overalls and leather jackets, flying goggles still perched on their heads. They are laughing and gesticulating, as if the killing machines behind them are nothing more than a backdrop. Two men are holding up a sign saying ‘Lucky Bastards Club.’

‘If you completed 30 missions, you were part of the Lucky Bastards Club,’ says Ray. ‘Not many did.’

observations: This book tells us that ‘in 1942, a new airfield was built every three days.’ The action is set entirely in the present day, but that atmosphere of the lost flyers, the planes taking off, the doomed young men with no future – is all beautifully conjured up. The plot concerns a crashed plane dug up in a field, and the body that shouldn’t have been in it.

The usual splendid cast of characters gets involved: Judy is having a baby imminently, Cathbad is ‘much in demand as a spiritual counsellor.’ Clough has quite a big role this time. Kate starts school, Ruth ponders the possibilities of a relationship with Frank. A TV crew is yet again in the offing – this might seem an unlikely repeated plot turn in the books, except that you there are so many archaeology/history programmes on the box these days that it is wholly convincing. The weather is terrible, floods are threatened, and Ruth’s part of the Norfolk Coast is as lonely and dark as ever. And the book is full of the usual clever perceptions and funny remarks.

Old photographs are a feature: I particularly liked the woman who has put the key pictures in a cookery book for safekeeping. The perfection of Elly Griffiths’ writing comes in their ‘emerging from Delia [Smith]’s Spanish Pork with Olives’ – exactly the right book, exactly the right recipe.

This is one of my favourite current crime series, Ruth is one of my favourite sleuths, and Harry Nelson is definitely my favourite policeman of all time, the thinking woman’s detective. So I am happy to report that The Ghost Fields is well up to scratch – the best so far. I hope the series goes on forever.

Past books in the series have featured on the blog, and also the first of Griffiths’ new series, Zig Zag Girl.

I am a devoted crime fiction fan, but I would happily read a straight novel about Ruth and her life.

Meanwhile, Elly Griffiths told us on Twitter that a Guardian interview with man-of-the-moment Mark Rylance convinced her that ‘he IS Cathbad’. Plainly that should be his next role after Thomas Cromwell.

Then, when I read this:
The gleam of purple cloak is unmistakable. Cathbad, in full druid’s regalia, is making her way over to her, accompanied by another, similarly dressed man.
‘Hail,’ says Cathbad, possibly thinking that the occasion calls for more than a simple ‘hallo’.
--- I knew it was time to resurrect this picture of druids from an earlier entry on Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave:
Ghost Fields 2

It is by George Henry, painted around 1890, and is from the Athenaeum website.
The top picture is from the Imperial War Museum, and shows a Bomber crew at Whitley in 1941.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Thursday List: Young Women Called Linnet, and One Old One

Linnet Death on the Nile
Boyfriend-stealer Linnet Ridgeway, with a snooty look and an expensive gown

The first time I came across the name Linnet was in Agatha Christie’s 1937 Death on the Nile, where Linnet Ridgeway, later Doyle, is the Richest Girl in England. I was intrigued by the name, because it sounded like Lynette, but obviously wasn’t. Perhaps she was called after the bird Linnet, perhaps it was like being called Wren or Robin? Where the name does exist, it definitely seems to be pronounce Linn-it, rather than Lyn-ETTE.

Linnet Henrietta's War

In wartime young Linnets did their duty 

I tucked this interesting name away, and didn’t come across another Linnet until recently when, wouldn’t you know, two came along at once. (Apparently the collective noun for linnets is a parcel….)

Joyce Dennys produced two books about the Home Front in the Second World War: Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees it Through. (I was introduced to them by blogfriend Chrissie Poulson). The protagonist, and avowed Dennys alter ego, has a daughter called Linnet.
Illyrian Spring Linnet

And then I read Ann Bridge’s Illyrian Spring – 1935 – and there was another young woman called Linnet.
The three young women with this name, although fictional, would all have been around the same age, so it seems the name was having a moment. According to name statistics, it never became popular enough to hit the general radar.

Elegance in Illyria

When I mentioned my interest in the name on the blog, helpful readers pointed me in the direction of some other instances.

Blogfriend Daniel Milford-Cottam told me that the name crops up in The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston, published 1954 – it’s an important Toseland family name, and the grandmother is called Linnet. (Which doesn’t quite make sense, but we’ll move swiftly on.)

Green Knowe 3

 Old lady called Linnet

Sara O’Leary mentioned that ‘There's also Linnet Muir in Mavis Gallant's stories’ – I’d read the stories but didn’t remember this character. But Mavis Gallant herself said in the Paris Review: ‘The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be… Linnet Muir is fiction, but people who knew me then have said, “That’s you. Every gesture, every word, every everything is what you were like.”…The Linnet Muir stories are based on things that actually did happen.’ She doesn’t explain why she chose the name. Gallant was born in 1922, so again is a similar age to the other women with the name….

Most Linnets in recent books are in romance novels – it seems to be a Mills and Boon kind of name.

But there are a couple more notable examples by modern authors. Barbara Taylor Bradford’s best-selling 1979 blockbuster A Woman of Substance was followed by a number of sequels, in which the original heroine, Emma Harte, has many descendants, including one called Linnet O’Neill. Katie Flynn’s Mersey Girls (1994) follows the story of an Irish girl called Linnet Murphy through the 20th century.

And in 2012 mystery writer Liza Cody wrote a novel called Gimme More featuring a rock widow whose name is Linnet Walker, though everyone calls her Birdie.

linnet bird

Going backwards in time from my original parcel or flurry of Linnets - there’s a 1907 book by Arthur Quiller-Couch called Major Vigoureux, which has a girl called Linnet in it.

Grant Allen, a well-known Canadian science writer and novelist of his day, wrote a book called Linnet: A Romance in 1900. This Linnet is a Tyrolean cow-girl with a wonderful singing voice – her real name is Lina, Linnet is a nickname because she sings like the bird.

And then there was Linnet’s Trial, a book published in 1864, by an author with the mellifluous name of Menella Bute Smedley. The character’s real name is Leonora, Linnet is a nickname. She is a ‘terrible bluestocking’, but very much the heroine.

None of these early examples of heroines seems sufficiently influential to have made Linnet a popular choice of girl’s name…

There is a Linnet in the Oscar Wilde story The Devoted Friend (from the Happy Prince collection) but that is plainly just a bird: other ‘characters’ are called Duck and Water-Rat.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote a much-loved children’s book called Linnets and Valerians (The Runaways in the US), published 1964, but Linnet is the last name of the family of children there.

And, still with last names, the 18th century playwright Samuel Foote’s has a Linnet family in his 1771 play Maid of Bath.

While researching the name, I came across a long thread on a mothers’ forum: a pregnant woman had quite the discussion going, asking others if she should call her child Linnet, and getting a very positive reaction. So perhaps the name will come back into favour.

I would love to hear of any other Linnets, real or fictional.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

published 1968

By the Pricking of my Thumbs 1

The door opened so suddenly that he nearly fell backwards. A woman stood on the doorstep. At first sight Tommy’s first impression was that this was one of the plainest women he had ever seen. She had a large expanse of flat, pancake-like face, two enormous eyes which seemed impossibly different colours, one green and one brown, a noble forehead with a quantity of wild hair rising up from it in a kind of thicket. She wore a purple overall with blotches of clay on it, and Tommy noticed that the hand that held the door open was one of exceeding beauty of structure…

She led him through the doorway, up a narrow staircase and into a large studio. In a corner of it there was a figure and various implements standing by it. Hammer sand chisels. There was also a clay head. The whole place looked as though it had recently been savaged by a gang of hooligans.

observations: Various people led me to re-read this book: when I wrote about The Secret Adversary recently, with my routine complaints about Tommy and Tuppence, respected blogfriends Sergio and Daniel both recommended this one as being a better book featuring the pair. 

Meanwhile Lucy Fisher made the valuable point that Tuppence (in the photo on the entry) should really have her cloche pulled down over her eyes, for reasons of tension, disguise, secrecy and of course fashion. She has demonstrated this for us:

By the Pricking of my Thumbs 3And so I was delighted to come across this in Thumbs, an elderly General reminiscing:
Cloche hats, they used to wear at one time… Had to look right down underneath the brim before you could see the girl’s face. Tantalising it was, and they knew it!
I feel he would have liked Lucy.

The book is annoying for this reason: it’s got some great ideas, great characters, and some surprises. It creates a very sinister atmosphere, and a real sense of fear. But it keeps losing its way and degenerating into long rambling pointless conversations. Tuppence talks at length to a character called Mrs Copleigh:
‘there was no chronological sequence which occasionally made things difficult. Mrs Copleigh jumped from 15 years ago to 2 years ago to last month, and then back to somewhere in the 1920s…. Mrs Copleigh just put in a lot of things which have made everything more difficult. I think she’s got all her times and dates mixed up too.’
You wonder is she a subconscious substitute for Mrs Christie: this is a fair description of the book and everyone in it. And, as Robert Barnard points out in his excellent book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, when you look back you find that 90% of the information Tuppence gathers is completely pointless, never explained, and serves no purpose in the book. And ‘mixing up times and dates’ – let’s look at the bizarre fact that Albert – who cannot be less than 60, and has lived with T&T all his adult life - is suddenly given a wife and small children.

It’s a shame because this could have been one of the greats: even with these shortcomings, it is a very entertaining and mysterious read. The house at the centre reminded me of the one in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair – and Christie describes it very well. The scene with the jackdaw down the chimney was memorably discomfiting, as was the old lady saying ‘Was it your poor child behind the fireplace?’ The book is about old people, which makes an interesting change. The sudden jacking up of tension and creation of atmosphere comes and goes, and suddenly there’ll be something irritating: eg Tuppence is knocked out and suffers from concussion and amnesia, and thinks she is 18 again. But then suddenly she’s all right and normal, with no mention of the incident.

In the excerpt above, ‘At first sight Tommy’s first impression’ is surely a phrase that should have been edited. I can’t decide if ‘the hand… was one of exceeding beauty of structure’ is a really terrible phrase or a good one….

The top picture is of American sculptor Betti Richard: it’s from the Smithsonian, which has a fascinating collection of photos of sculptors, artists and writers.