LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Fan was about to knock on Lilli Cluj’s door when, behind it, she heard Peter laugh. It was a low, intimate laugh, the kind that Peter had no business to share with other women – especially with Hungarian cabaret artistes who were Quite Something… If she flung open the door and confronted them, it might be misconstrued and give Peter a certain gratuitous satisfaction…
She did not want to make a fool of herself. She had once seen Bertha furiously snatch open the studio door to find Hugo not, as she had expected, rolling around with a Burmese model but playing with the cat next door.
She compromised. She knocked and opened the door at the same time.
Lilli was lying on the bed in a coffee-coloured negligee. Her spectacular hair hung over one eye. She had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Peter sat at the foot of the bed with one of her small, bare feet in his lap. He was tickling its sole. There was a potted bush in the middle of the room…
observations: The Wooden Overcoat starts off well. The third sentence reads: ‘A pain in the neck had driven all other thoughts from his mind’ – a moment or two later you realize this apparently unremarkable reference means that Benjamin Cann had feared he would be hanged for murder. He has just been acquitted. Wrongly. He then has a most understandable rumination about what the black cap would have looked like: At that time, a British judge giving sentence of death put a square of black silk on over his wig.
But the book went downhill from there: Cann joins a club comprising other acquitted murderers, and goes to lodge next door with the two couples mentioned above (Fan and Peter, Bertha and Hugo). Various deaths result, and some frantic efforts to get rid of the bodies. This is a comedy murder story – a genre I am very prejudiced about, so perhaps I am the wrong person to read it. I found it tiresome, heartless and unfunny. But many people love it: if you look up reviews you can find much more positive opinions, and people who re-read it (and Branch’s other books) regularly.
The murderers’ association is called the Asterisk Club, a reference to a poem by Longfellow.
Of the women in the book, Bertha wears ‘sensible blue pyjamas’, Lilli has some gold tissue pyjamas as well as the negligee mentioned above, but Fan appears to wear nothing but a necklace in bed, and keeps a shawl to hand so she can wrap it round herself if she needs to leave the room. So although Lilli is shown to be a bad woman, it is not her bedwear that makes her so.
The picture is from the Library of Congress and is meant to show Ophelia from Hamlet, dressed according to the caption in that most Shakespearean of outfits, ‘a flimsy negligee’.