Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Body in the Drum, and what it was wearing

the book:

The Summer School Mystery by Josephine Bell

published 1950





[A dead body has been found in the tympanum used by a music school orchestra]



She was dressed in the universal young girl’s printed summer frock, with short sleeves and a full skirt

Brenda took up the tale. ‘We wear black dresses, long ones mostly, for concerts, and the men wear dark suits. We change afterwards. Nobody would go home on a bus or train in a long black dress in the middle of a summer afternoon.’

‘No,’ agreed the Inspector. ‘They wouldn’t. So you saw Miss Power changing. What did she put on?’

‘Her ordinary dress. One of her summer ones…with a pattern on it. I’ve never noticed the pattern much; I couldn’t say exactly what it was— flowers of some sort.’

The other girls agreed. A … printed dress, either cotton or rayon, and sandals. No coat. ‘You are sure she had no coat with her?’ asked the Inspector.

‘She was going to pack up her timps. She said so. I think she had a coat and left it on her peg.’



Observations: This is all going to be more relevant than it seems at first sight, and an experienced detective-story reader won’t have trouble guessing some of the twists. While this isn’t a book to make you sit up with astonishment, it’s got an interesting plot, and a very un-cozy picture of the relationship between two woman teachers. Best of all, it has a splendid atmosphere of 1950s Britain - the New Look skirt, the creation of the National Health Service, a young working girl who is too poor to have a wristwatch: “Of course she didn’t ’ave no wrist-watch. Wot d’you think we get ’ere? Miners’ wages?” A young girl who seems about 9 takes herself off to the park to play with friends without any supervision.

 Josephine Bell wrote a huge number of detective stories, while also working as a doctor – there is a House-like diagnosis in this book – and her occasional detective, David Wintringham, seems an amiable fellow. From this book you would guess she had some solid musical knowledge too.

Links up with:
London Particular and Tiger in the Smoke are murder stories set in the same era and place. There is a minor trail in this book – a gang of spivs and deserters – which, like Tiger, gives a glimpse of the people who found it hard to settle after the war. Big drums feature in Cousin Teresa’s music-hall act. Clothes to play music in featured in this entry and its follow-up.

The photo is from the
Smithsonian Archive of American Art and is of a woman called Katherine Schmidt, taken by her husband Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

2 comments:

  1. Moira - Such a lovely quintessentially '50's dress. And the mystery sounds interesting too; of course, I am a sucker for academic mysteries. You're right about how prolific Bell was, and I'm glad you've called attention to her work.

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  2. I love academic mysteries too, which is why I obtained this one (very cheap on Kindle!), but I was disappointed that Bell doesn't make much of the academic side - it starts as if it will be very much about the summer school, but that dwindles away... but still a good fun read.

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