Sunday, 30 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday + Book of 1946

the book: The Mystery at Orchard House by Joan Coggin

published 1946


[Lady Lupin wakes up at the guest house where she is recuperating]

“Oh Staines, I never turned all night. That was a good idea of yours, locking the door.”

“Did anyone try to come in, my lady?”

“Not that I know of, but I was so busy sleeping I shouldn’t have noticed if they had. I dreamed I was at a parochial council meeting, in a pair of step-ins and a biretta, and the bishop accused me of eating the manuscript of his sermon. I suppose I was thinking of poor Miss Dyson-Drake’s manuscript. Have you heard any more about that, Staines?”

“No, my lady, except that Barker tells me her mistress is very upset about it.”

“Why on earth? Surely no-one suspects her? What would she do with it?”

observations: I’ve already done a crime book of 1946 for Rich Westwood’s November meme on his blog Past Offences: check out the entry on Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey to find out more about the challenge. But at the very last minute I am sliding another one in under the wire. This one is about as cozy as it gets, and doesn’t contain much in the way or jeopardy or murder, but it IS a crime story – and very Golden Age at that. The sleuth is an Earl’s daughter, everyone is very class-conscious, and there is a list of characters at the beginning. All that is missing is a floor plan of the house.

Lady Lupin is married to a vicar – the first book in the series was called Who Killed the Curate? – but leaves the vicarage behind to have a restcure at a friend’s guest-house. Here, all kinds of things are going on, and the missing manuscript is just the tip of the iceberg. Lady Lupin wafts around trying to work out what is going on. Her portrayal is rather good – she is shown as being ditsy to the point of simple-mindedness, but occasionally via either a complete mistake or some very intuitive appraisal she gets something right and finds out what is going on. The book is enjoyable and very slight, but you feel much more could have been done with the central conceit. Lupin almost falls into being extremely annoying (and certainly would be in real life) but somehow just about manages to be charming, probably because she is so good-hearted. Though she has one splendidly bitchy moment when the inspector asks:
“Who do dyou think might have had a reason for wanting to murder Miss Dyson-Drake?”

“Almost everyone I should think.” 
“What makes you say that?” demanded the inspector.
 “Haven’t you seen her?” replied Lupin.
Credentials as a 1946 book: completely non-existent. The book is set in some dreamworld of the 1930s, and there is no mention of the War.

Step-ins have been a subject of some interest on the blog in past entries: our good friend Ken Nye put us right in the comments on this entry, and we followed up in this one.

So we are particularly delighted with this advertisement, explaining the whole issue, from the New York Public Library collection. Can’t wait for the pettibocker to turn up in a book.

And this is what a biretta looks like – although this one looks like an upmarket box of chocolates. It’s usually worn by RC clergy, and suggests that Lady Lupin’s husband was very High Church.  This isn't the first biretta on the blog: a key character in Aldous Huxley's The Devils wears one, and there is a picture and discussion in this entry, referring back to a Barbara Pym book. Birettas take you everywhere.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

published 2012

[Amina has come to the USA from Bangladesh to marry George. She is trying to get a job in a yoga studio on the reception desk]

She had come for her interview on the first of August, and Kim had called her the night before to help her prepare. She had reassured her that the guru was a kind and open-minded person, but had suggested that Amina might want to wear her own clothes to the interview… Kim thought the guru would like Amina better if she dressed the way she had in Desh.

“I don’t want you to pretend to be someone you’re not,” Kim said. “It’s just that you don’t have a ton of experience, and I was thinking that the way you look might help..”

“Would I have to wear shalwar kameez every day?” Amina had asked. “I mean, if I get the job?” She thought her mother might be able to find a way to send more, but that it wouild be hard to explain why she needed them

“Oh no,” Kim had said. “The last girl always wore jeans. It would just be for the interview.”

observations: Later on, when she is returning to Bangladesh for a visit, Amina will change into the same shalwar kameez an hour before her flight lands:

But perhaps there was something wrong with the way it hung on her body now, because all of a sudden she noticed that the men calling out to her had switched to English.
--- a standard metaphor for being caught between two cultures.

This is a very strange book. It tells Amina’s story as she meets George online, eventually goes to the USA to marry and live with him, then comes back on a trip to see her parents. Almost everything is seen directly through her eyes, and it is totally convincing as such. However, this is not (as far as it is possible to tell) remotely autobiographical – Freudenberger seems to say in the acknowledgements that she met someone on a plane who had a similar story, and took it from there. It seems odd to lift someone else’s story so whole-heartedly (with the permission of the original apparently.) She’s an extremely good writer, and is obviously both fascinated by, and very good at thinking about, the immigrant experience. The other book I have read by her, The Dissident, was about a Chinese artist coming to live with an American family in California, and again she seemed to do a very convincing job.

The book reminded me of other books: Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera (with more pictures of Salwar Khameez); Anne Tyler’s Digging to America; and – many parallels in plot – Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.

It was difficult to know what was going to be important in the book: it seemed to go off on odd trails at times (for example, when she applies for a job at Boston Kitchen, when they go to buy a bed). But then you did feel that these were someone’s convincing random thoughts, it made her seem real. I thought when her parents applied for a visa, and had to answer questions about their daughter’s marriage, that the fact that she had lied to them about it would be key. But it wasn’t – and that didn’t seem to make sense either. Amina was a very real character, but a very annoying one too. I felt rather sorry for George. But Freudenberger’s style is very hypnotic – I find it hard to describe the way the story pulls you in, and how you can see what other characters are thinking. Her descriptions of social events are marvellous.

The picture is from Zamina Fashions.

Friday, 28 November 2014

PD James RIP: Shroud for a Nightingale

published 1971

[Miss Beale is inspecting the nurse training school at The John Carpender Hospital]

Miss Beale knew from her own student days what could be done with a couple of white-tipped hat pins… The [hospital] uniform struck her as interestingly out of date. Nearly every hospital she visited had replaced these old-fashioned winged caps with the smaller American type, which were easier to wear, quicker to make up, and cheaper to buy and launder.

Some hospitals, to Miss Beale’s regret, were even issuing disposable paper caps. But a hospital nurse’s uniform was always jealously defended and changed with reluctance and John Carpender was obviously wedded to tradition. Even the uniform dresses were slightly old fashioned. Their skirt lengths paid no concession to fashion, and their sturdy feet were planted in low-heeled black lace-up shoes…

“Right, Nurse,” said Sister Gearing. “So we are faced with the problem of a post-operative patient, already seriously under-nourished and now unable to take food by mouth. That means what? Yes, Nurse?”

“Intra-gastric or rectal feeding, Sister.”

observations: Anyone who has ever read this book should be shivering by now, and looking with horror at that quite innocent picture above. Of all the many many crime stories I have read, and all the gruesome and revolting ways of committing murder I have taken on board, this is the one that gives me bad dreams, because it is so homely and then so horrendous: the poison is going to be introduced into a young woman’s stomach via the gastric feed. She will be killed during a student demonstration, the toxin poured unstoppably into her via tube. There is something absolutely vile about this method.

PD James, grande dame of crime fiction, has died at the age of 94. I think this was the best of her books – they got longer, and more diffuse, and more pretentious as she went on. I mentioned favourite policemen recently: if there were to be a list of my least favourite ones, her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh would be right up there at the top, with his wonderful poetry, his miserable face and (in this book) the realization that someone must have been a person of taste because she has one of his slim volumes.

But this and the even earlier Cover Her Face (on the blog here) are both excellent reads, which stand up well over time. The atmosphere and details of the student nursing home are wonderfully done, and the long blowy walk from the main buildings on a dark stormy night is very creepy. Only Christianna Brand, in Green for Danger, made a hospital seem more sinister.

There are a few problems with this one – I’m not convinced all the timings and ages work out correctly, and the ballroom dancing scene is pointless and unpleasant. The murder coming above makes for a startling opening section, but it’s hard to imagine the guilty party choosing this method. But it’s not the day to carp about PD James – she achieved much, wrote well, took her place in the establishment, and gave people hours of enjoyment.

The picture is from the Ministry of Information, and shows exactly the process featured in the book, at a hospital in Surrey.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Thanksgiving Special: Getting to be the Grown-Ups

the book: The Other Side of Winter by Benjamin Markovits

published 2005


Amy’s father called, some Saturday afternoon in October, to say that why didn’t the whole family come to hers for Thanksgiving, if she didn’t mind. From that moment she stopped at least two or three times a day in the middle of whatever she was doing to look forward to it…

She spent the afternoon of their arrival, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, growing increasingly anxious. Charles had slept over the night before, since her holidays began that morning… Amy kicked him out of bed at last, and out of her door, claiming the hundreds of things she had to do to prepare for Thanksgiving…

When the turkey had been got, and everything else in the fridge left on the counter to make space for it, and the cans of candied yams stacked neatly on top of the shelf. When the bags of stuffing, two kinds, had been stuck behind the cereal boxes, and the sack of potatoes, despaired of, pushed to a corner of the floor. When she had bought not only a blend of fresh coffee for her dad from the toniest deli in her neighbourhood but a coffee-maker to brew it in… and hauled two six-packs of beer up the walk-up... When she had stripped her bed and laid on fresh sheets and a duvet for her parents… When she had begun to be overwhelmed by a sense of consumption outstripping the heartiest appetite, of the leftovers to linger week-long in her fridge, kept under saran-wrap on a fatty platter as token and evidence of her family visit, then discarded at last, with a heart as cold as the turkey.

Then she sat down and waited for them to come.


Outside the USA, we think we know a lot about Thanksgiving – from films and TV series mostly – but really we don’t. I lay claim to knowing a bit more, from having lived in Seattle for six years, and have very fond memories of the feast – of its friendliness, its inclusiveness, its happy feeling, its co-operative nature, and just the idea that you would celebrate being grateful.

In the nature of things I didn’t do a family feast – our friends were our family – but I think everyone can empathize with Amy above: she has become the hostess, she is no longer the young woman flying home for Thanksgiving. She wants everything to go well, and at first it will… but this is a serious literary novel, so don’t expect too much happiness.

The book is a set of four interlinked short stories, one for each season of the year: each one takes up a minor character from a previous one. It seems to have also been published under the name Fathers and Daughters. Markovits looks at their lives and their thoughts and their dreams in detail. More New York intellectuals doing some over-thinking, you could say. Similar to Brian Morton’s A Window Across the River, on the blog recently but I think the Morton was better. Also, not sure about the ‘that’ in the first line above.

I did like this:
There are two kinds of things that happen in the world, the things you can’t do anything about and the things you can. The first writers call description; the second, plot.
A neat aphorism.

Have a great Thanksgiving, even if you’re not in America.

The picture is from the NYPL.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

How Not to be American by Todd McEwen

collection of pieces from various dates, published 2013

extract from Thoughts on the New American Uniform

I was sitting in the parking lot of Walmart, wondering how I was going to feed myself, when I suddenly realized that everyone in the parking lot was wearing the same thing (except for me, of course, still ludicrously togged out in plus-fours and Inverness cape). What they were wearing was this: a baseball cap, a T-shirt, shorts, and what I was brought up to call tennis shoes but are now called running shoes, or in Europe, trainers. This is what the poorest people on earth are wearing right now, I thought. Reaganomics has foisted the third world upon us…

You can spot my countrymen in Europe by this
uniform of T-shirt, shorts and cap. The American used to be spottable by a crisp new Burberry acquired in London and… a very silly hat. And for my older fellow Americans this is still true - but if you get underneath the Burberry (yeccch!) this is what they’re wearing. So I think of this now as a uniform – the New American Uniform.

observations: Todd McEwen has given us two very memorable clothes moments on the blog – the hilarious Killer Barbie from his collection of stories, Five Simple Machines, and the curious case of Cary Grant’s suit, a way of looking at the Hitchcock film North by North-West. Just thinking about either of these two McEwen pieces makes me smile a lot. (The Cary Grant is included in this book too.) When he is on form and on target he is unbeatable: unique, hilarious, clever, thought-provoking, provocative, rude, and with a great use of language (and, evidence above, italics).

These pieces vary enormously, but the book is well worth it for the good ones. You can get an idea of this piece from the title, and the extract above. There’s another one, called Curse of the Sand People which also deals with clothes and appearances:
Everywhere you looked, people and their possessions were getting paler and paler. It must surely be counted a signally black day in the history of wester domestic ecology when people started to buy clothing that was already half washed away, half DESTROYED, by big machines, in the name of fashion, or to put it more bluntly, in the name of making themselves disappear.
He certainly has his own way of looking at the world, and he simply doesn’t resemble any other writer. He writes here about his childhood, about Thoreau, about bluegrass music. And he has a nice piece called When I Become King! – we could all write our own diktats, but I did enjoy his.

My only complaint about the book is that it doesn’t tell you where the pieces originally appeared, nor does it give any dates of writing – I’m guessing this one, featuring Reaganomics, is quite old.

I really must read one of his novels next.

Although I’m quite happy to read Todd McEwen on the subject, It seemed unfair to find a picture of some casually-dressed US citizen just to mock him. So the big picture is a very unobjectionable advertising image. However it is true that men in the t-shirt/shorts combination do look like boys, so Charlie Brown seemed an appropriate image too, and so would Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes - but I explained in yesterday's entry why there can be no picture of him...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Tuesday List: Books that Make Me Laugh

My blogfriend Christine Poulson suggested that she and I should make lists of books that make us laugh: that seemed an excellent idea, especially as we had such good interactive fun when we did our favourite Agatha Christies a few months ago. And given a cold dark November – we can all do with ideas to cheer ourselves up…

So we’re posting our lists on the same day, and will link here's the link to Christine's list.

These are my choices, in alphabetical order by author:

Lucky Jim's girlfriend, a right go-er in a paisley frock

1) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis I have very mixed feelings about Amis and his works and his political views and his attitudes to women. But Lucky Jim is one of the finest and funniest books of the 20th century, and it never fails to make me laugh. Jim’s faces – the madrigal singing – the burnt sheets on the bed – ‘not the paisley frock’: all splendid. And a link with one my favourite poets, Philip Larkin. (I guess I appreciated him at opposite ends of his career: the other very funny book was his 1986 Old Devils, or History Boyos as I like to think of it.)

2) The Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson are going to be televised again in the UK this Christmas – fans will be hoping and fearing: can TV really do justice to the social battles of Tilling? It’s a matter of life and death because the stakes are so low. Au Reservoir, darlings, time for some Moonlight Sonata (uno duo tre), a chota peg, and some homard a la Riseholme.

3) Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbishire books are like PG Wodehouse crossed with the sublime Molesworth (both of whom I’m sneaking onto the list here). The charm of the two little boys, the fact that Buckeridge never makes them clever, and the plotting which is beyond description – all key factors. My favourite moment in all the books comes when Jennings, on the roof, shouts down a chimney pot ‘I’m looking for a ray of light in the darkness’, which portentous sentence goes straight down the flue, ‘amplified like a megaphone’ and is sent booming out of the fireplace, causing Matron to jump a mile and spill her tea.

4) Christopher Buckley’s father was a very right-wing American political and grammar commentator: his own take on life is different. His books are very American, which perhaps is why they are not better-known in the UK, but they are so funny they would appeal to anyone. Thank You For Smoking is a hilarious take on the tobacco industry (I mean, just the title...), and The White House Mess is splendidly funny not only on politics, but also on office life everywhere.

5) Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon is another blog favourite – the setpiece scenes in the book – literary gatherings and Passover – are among the great, funny party scenes of literature. Just click for more than you could need. 

Bridget Jones in her teddy

6) Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. I get pointlessly exercised when people describe the books as romcom or chicklit. The first one is House of Mirth for modern times, and I think all three books are wonderful observational satires that can tell you a lot about British life in the past 20 years. And make you laugh and snort and spill your coffee.

7) Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Anyone who looks at this blog much must know I am obsessed with her, and these books still make me laugh no matter how often I read them. So I won’t say any more this time – just click here to see endless blog entries.

8) My search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket This is my most obscure choice, a book I have banged on about on the blog several times. It is a modern version of the Aspern Letters, as a young academic weasels his way into the household of a woman he thinks may have valuable documents. It is compelling and intriguing, and asks questions about the mistresses of presidents, and our rights to privacy. But it is also hysterically funny, laugh-out-loud funny, don’t-read-on-public-transport funny.

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar, Bonzo Jock and the big borzoi (I didn't even have to look that up)

9) The short stories of Saki - favourites are Cousin Teresa, The Un-Rest Cure, Sredni Vashtar, The Way to the Dairy, The Open Window and – oh joy – The Story-Teller, a tale that any sensible child will love to bits.

10) Calvin and Hobbes The comic strip by Bill Watterson was part of our family life: adults and children could all be felled with a quote: “Ya like that Susie?” and “I just like the word smock” and “IF you get A present…” and “Mom was up too late packing.” Our collection books fell apart with re-reading, so we had to shell out for the complete C&H in 3 massive hardbacks…  Bill Watterson always refused to license the image for any purpose whatsoever – so ANY Calvin and Hobbes t-shirt or mug or sticker you may ever see is pirated. He must have missed out on, literally, millions of dollars because of this, but obviously doesn’t care, and you can only respect him for his decision. Still - I had hoped to be able to reproduce a strip here, but this is apparently complete impossible: you cannot (legally) use C& H online. So please go to this website and see some sample strips. 

That’s 10 – but I would have liked to have fitted in Adrian Mole; Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell (very amusing but also serious and clever murder story); The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (young Americans in Paris in the 1950s); Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera – a very recent read, hilarious on the joys of growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s; Penelope by Rebecca Harrington and Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell – two brilliant campus novels, 50 years apart; and Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon – it’s really just a collection of anecdotes, no doubt many of them traditional and mythical, but overall the book is delightful and knockout funny. And what about the Provincial Lady? And...? Stop me before I blog forever. 

Now I’m hoping for more laughs from Christine’s selections - and some more suggestions from readers and commentators below.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

published 1956

[At a girls’ grammar school in the Lake District in the 1950s]

Penny whispered to Sue:

“I’ve decided!”


“I’m going to have them.”

“The tangerine ones?”



Penny was referring to a particularly daring pair of slacks which had been brightening a shop window in Castle Gate for the past week. Most of Penny’s closest school-friends had been taken to inspect them. The general verdict had been that they were very gay and dashing. But… well… Penny was one of the very few girls who could possibly wear them. By that, they didn’t just mean that she had the right measurements...

On Monday she returned from the lunch-hour clutching a big parcel… she undid the string and the slacks dangled floorwards in all their lengthy glory. As Penny had foretold, “glory” was the word.

“I got this too,” she said, holding up a floppy black sweater in her other hand. “I just couldn’t resist it.”

[her schoolfriends persuade her to try them on in the 6th form common room]

The verdict was favourable. With Penny’s black hair and creamy-white skin, the slacks and sweater made her look like something on a magazine cover. After another minute or two of heated discussion on appropriate lipstick shades, her friends began reluctantly to open books and begin their studies. At that moment [headmistress] Miss Florey, having knocked twice without reply, opened the door and walked in.

“Oh dear!” laughed Mum when Sue reached this point of the story. “And was Penny still in her tangerine slacks?

“Well,” said Sue, smiling at the memory, “yes – and no.”

observations: Found it! I explained last week how the writer Lydia Syson told me of the awesome tangerine slacks in this series: I tremendously enjoyed reading through 3 of the series in order to find the reference, and would happily re-read the remaining two if they weren’t so difficult/expensive to get hold of.

This is a splendid final entry in the series: and what I love is that Miss Florey has come to find Penny to discuss the possibility of her making ambitious plans for university. For those younger than me: such a nice juxtaposition of scenes - Penny allowed to have a big interest in clothes as well as her studies and career - would be vanishingly rare in any YA fiction of the 1950s or 60s, let alone a book by a man.

And as I said last time – Trease just seems to be such a nice man, as well has having very proper views.

The narrator Bill has already applied to and (hardly a spoiler) got into Oxford. The process is described in some detail. Nice historical point – he goes off to do his National Service for the next 18 months, meaning he and Penny go up to University at the same time. The book then describes their first year: an adventure about lost treasure, as well as the usual May morning, student plays, studies and activities. It’s a joy to read, as well as being full of contemporary references, and a great picture of Oxford life. Lydia remembered the slacks: the detail that stuck with me for 30 years was that Penny used a hatbox as a kind of extra suitcase:
She said, in that curious voice girls use when trying to talk and to apply lipstick at the same time: “You don’t have to use hat-boxes for hats! What an old-fashioned idea!”
Penny becomes Pen, the two of them wonder whether they should be finding different friends, and there is a discussion about the integrity of historical research exactly paralleling the key plot point in Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, 20 years before.

Great books, well worth reviving. I loved them as a teenager, and I love them now – they deserve to be read by a younger generation, even as historical fiction...

As Lydia Syson Tweeted to me: “Glory!”

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Death Wears a White Gardenia by Zelda Popkin

published 1938


Singularly, Mr. Swayzey's promenade came to an end in the silk underwear department, in, to be specific, that section of the department devoted to handmade lingerie designed in France, and executed by the sight-destroying labor of underpaid Chinese and Porto Ricans. The tables in the center of the section drew his discerning eye. One was heaped with nightgowns, pink, peach, orchid and white, looking like old fashioned valentines with blobs of lace and fine spun cobwebs of embroidery; another with panties; a third slips. He looked at a price tag, speculatively, saw "$19.75" in red ink, below the crossed-out typed figure of "$24.50."…

A dim night light burned in that corner of the main floor. Blue denim had been stretched over the tables. Mr. Swayzey lifted the shrouds. With lightning rapidity he picked out nightgowns, slips, chemises, and crammed them into his bag. Selection was easy. During his brief pause less than a half hour earlier, he had decided what he would take. A careless amateur might have grabbed at random and scattered, but not Joe Swayzey. He left the tables as neat as he had found them, piles of merchandise smaller, but otherwise not visibly disturbed. Swayzey had technique.

observations: Zelda Popkin – isn’t that a great name? I’m surprised she picked the mundane ‘Mary Carner’ for her detective. My attention was drawn to this book by Les Blatt, who reviewed it at his Classic Mysteries blog here. He didn’t like it all that much – and I tend to agree with his criticisms – but nothing was going to stop me reading a murder story set in the lingerie department of a large NY department store.

Popkin wrote several books featuring her store detective – if I’d got there sooner I could have added her to this week's list of young female detectives: Mary’s a great heroine, smart and appealing. A body is found in the store: management fear bad publicity; the police allow themselves to be pushed around (this is, Les and I agree, unconvincing); and Mary keeps her ears and eyes open and solves the crime. I read the book on Kindle, and regret very much I didn’t have the Mapback edition with a plan of the store – it looks exceptionally pleasing in a photograph, as well as helping with the mystery. (I must say that I didn’t quite get the layout of the area where the body was found.) 

There’s an excellent description of a big sale at the store:

A mob of women fought for sheer silk stockings at fifty-two cents a pair; they pounded one another's ribs, lacerated each other's skin, knocked off hats to get to house dresses at sixty-seven cents, to gloves at two pairs for a dollar.
- that could have gone into my recent stockings piece for the Guardian, and matches up with the guest blogger’s piece on Elizabeth Smart earlier this year: “I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…. Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.”

There’s a nice contemporary reference to a character – a kept woman or professional mistress – having ‘more negligees right now than Wallis Simpson.’

Irene, another single woman working at the store, is shown to be having a male friend stay over, even though she has no intention of marrying him. The police inspector says: “You’re a pretty unmoral person, aren’t you?” but isn’t allowed to get away with that – Irene defends her position very thoroughly. And Popkin adds in a tiny scene in which a penniless unemployed man shoplifts clothes for his new baby: he is treated with sympathy and understanding. And, isn’t that interesting above about the underpaid sweatshop workers making all those lovely clothes? – not just a modern phenomenon.

This is not a cozy mystery, despite the setting, and Popkin tries quite hard to be hard-boiled about it. It’s a bit of a strange mixture, but I enjoyed it, and am grateful to Les for the tipoff. As I say, I agree totally with his criticisms of the mystery, but I liked the setting and period details so much that I didn't mind.

The pictures are of the lingerie department at Burdine’s store in Miami, and are from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

published 1986, written 1942-45

Lady B and I entered for the Bowling Tournament. She drew the Admiral as her partner, and I drew Colonel Simpkins. Neither Colonel Simpkins nor the Admiral was pleased, but they generously decided to make the best of it. Lady B and I were, of course, delighted when we found we had drawn each other in the first round as opponents.

[The women play, then leave the men to get on with it]

‘Now they’ve got the whole rink to themselves,’ said Lady B, settling herself comfortably on a seat. ‘I like your shirt, Henrietta. Where did you get it?’

‘I made it out of some of Charles’s old pyjamas. I used the legs for the sleeves.’

‘My dear, how brilliant of you! I often wonder why men wear out the seats of their pyjamas the way they do. The collar’s good.’

‘I lined it.’

‘Just pull up your jersey and let me see the back. Yes, it’s definitely a success. And the colour is delightful. Charles must have looked sweet in it.’

‘He did rather.’

A shadow fell across our knees, and we looked up to see the Admiral standing before us. ‘Would it be too much to ask you ladies to pay a little attention to the game?’ he said in a shaking voice.

observations: This entry explains how I first came across Henrietta, via my friend Chrissie Poulson, and Henrietta is also one of my Older Women Winning Through, list here

When I finished Henrietta’s War, I instantly downloaded this one, the second volume, and read it straightaway. It is just as good as the first one, and takes us right through to victory. Again, there are fascinating contemporary issues as well as the excellent jokes: A burning question of the day seems to have been how much compensation was paid to those who lost relations in air raids, with the insult that women are valued less than men. This leads to one of the group speculating on potential widowhood for her husband’s benefit:
‘Well, if I were left a widow I know what I’d do,’ said little Mrs Simpkins, clearly and unexpectedly. ‘I’d move into a much smaller house, and I’d sell your roll-top desk.’ After that there was an awkward silence.

In the section above, the two women were looking forward to the game as a chance to chat, but Lady B suddenly & disappointingly gets good at bowls – ‘Halfway through the game she had a brandy and soda brought out to her from the bar’. Luckily, eventually ‘inspiration left her and she began playing in her old and, to me, more attractive style’ – as Lady B says ‘Being good at games takes all the fun out of them.'

The two women stare at a beautiful new hat in a shop window, but they can’t justify buying it.
‘If you were to wire the brim of the hat you wore at the Thomson wedding, you could make it very like that one.’

‘But I’d never get a quill that colour. I like the quill.’

‘There are seagulls on the beach,’ I said, ‘and I have some coloured inks.’
- the result, apparently, is splendid.

Henrietta’s daughter is called Linnet: the only other instance of this name I have come across is in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile – Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in the world.

The picture from the Imperial War Museum shows a young woman making her own blouse – probably a lot smarter than Henrietta’s, and not made from old pyjamas, but illustrating the make-do-and-mend attitude of the war.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

published 2005, set in the mid-1950s

[Penelope is attending a ball in a large private house in London]

She was dressed in an unflattering off-white crinoline, a heat rash creeping over her plump shoulders… ‘Penelope! What are you doing here?’ she yelled, speaking aloud what I had been wondering about her. ‘You look different . It’s your hair, isn’t it?’ I nodded, my heart sinking with shame. Why should the only person I knew at this gathering be Hope Allen? She glanced around and her eyes lit upon Charlotte, deep in chatter with the Wentworth twins.

‘Heavens! Don’t look now , but that’s Charlotte Ferris and the Wentworth girls over there,’ she hissed, swinging her back to them, ‘I read something about Charlotte in the Standard last month. They said she was the only girl in London who can wear Dior, identify a great claret and talk to the Teds,’ she added in one of those whispers that comes out louder than a normal voice. I wanted the polished floors of the saloon to swallow me whole. And I had my doubts about the Standard. The only thing I had ever heard Charlotte say when consuming wine was ‘Yum’.

observations: I recently did a list of ‘Books like I Capture the Castle’ – I defined them as books about ‘Young women growing up in amusing circumstances, and how they achieve what they want in life’ – ICTC being the very best of these. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was recommended by Sam Eades, publicist at Pan Macmillan and the person who triggered my list, so of course I had to read it.

It’s a fun read, and very much falls within my category (it mentions Constant Nymph, one of my list): Penelope lives in a crumbling mansion with her family, she makes friends with the Charlotte mentioned above, they have adventures together while looking for love and a purpose in life. The 1950s setting is nicely done: there are Teddy boys, and the girls are big fans of pop singer Johnny Ray, and are slowly becoming aware of Elvis Presley.

I liked the simplicity of the book: there is no real jeopardy, it’s obvious there’s going to be a happy ending, and it’s obvious who with, and almost everyone in it is good-hearted. The first meeting between Charlotte and Penelope is unconvincingly contrived, but in that regard prepares you for the completely hopeless secret connection between their families which is (un-tensely) kept till near the end.

There was a problem with the derelict mansion where Penelope and her family live: it had been in her family for hundreds of years, and her father had died leaving behind her mother, herself and her brother. It would seem obvious (given the time and situation) that her brother would inherit the estate, not her mother, but this is never mentioned, never arises: that whole section of the plot didn’t really make sense, and didn’t seem realistic.

Also, After Eights did not exist at the time, so Penelope could not have been eating them. And a couple of times Ms Rice seems to have changed something in the plot and not followed through – times and clothes aren’t always right.

But that’s just me being picky. This is a nice book, a good Sunday afternoon comfort read if that is what you are after, and certainly should be on my list of books like ICTC.

The big picture shows a debutante ball in 1959.

The two young debs in the other picture are – wait for it – Vanessa Redgrave and Lady Antonia Fraser. Those were the days. [Antonia Fraser's creation, Jemima Shore, was one of our top female detectives in yesterday's list, and her book Oxford Blood is on the blog here.]

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Thursday List: Young Women Detectives

Ruth Galloway - doing a little light archaeology between murders 

Last week’s list featured books about Older Women Winning Through. There were some great suggestions from readers, and quite a few of them were female detectives - some of whom didn’t quite make it onto my list.

So female detectives need their own list – and I’m going to divide them into two groups by age. It’s a pretty arbitrary division – in the end I decided that the women should be self-selecting. So if they consider themselves to be an older lady, they are on next week’s list. This week we have the young and wonderful. No sidekicks (sorry Amanda and Harriet), and (with one exception) they have to be part of a series. All of these were created by women, though that wasn’t a deliberate decision.

1) Ruth Galloway from Elly Griffiths' archeological mysteries. I love these books, and I love Ruth. And in any list of my favourite male detectives, the wonderful Harry Nelson would be there too – the thinking woman’s policeman. (And a list of favourite druids would include Cathbad). Two of the books, here and here, have featured on the blog, along with a short story.

2) Dandy Gilver in Catriona McPherson’s
wonderful series. She’s a wealthy married lady living in 1920s Scotland, who solves crimes together with her detective partner Alex, along with occasional help from her maid, Grant, and her dog, Bunty. Her husband puts in the occasional appearance, her children feature even less frequently. She is quite splendid, and wears wonderful clothes. Three Dandy books have appeared on the blog, and one of McPherson’s standalones.

3) Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James. Academic sleuth, mysteries set in Cambridge in colleges and museums and bookshops - what’s not to like? Wonderful stuff - click on the link to see more. And not only that, but I have got to know Chrissie online via blogging and a shared love of crime fiction and many other books – our tastes coincide so much, it’s unsurprising that I like the ones she writes so much.

4)  Antonia Fraser wrote about Jemima Shore - TV journalist and detective, and I loved these books, which are SOO redolent of the 1980s. Jemima was an excellent heroine – I wish Fraser would write us an update. Oxford Blood is on the blog here – the Sloanes, the Ball, the dresses. You could re-create the Thatcher era from this book.

5) Sarah Caudwell and the women of the New Square Chambers at Lincoln’s Inn: Julia Larwood is my favourite lawyer in literature, and Selina is pretty good too. Julia is an expert on tax (though not her own), and she is messy, joyful, and likes young men. Her adventures in Venice are outlined in Thus was Adonis Murdered, one of my top 10 mysteries of all time. (There’s the question of whether Hilary should be on this list…)

6) Marion Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close was a book I wasn’t expecting to love, but actually I adored it. It IS part of a series - she has written many books about one Dublin family, the Walshes – but so far as I know this is the only one where Helen Walsh is a private detective. I sincerely hope she will write more about Helen.

7) Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn No murderer will go uncaught in Regina Saskatchewan, where our favourite academic, TV personality and family woman goes about her business. She tells us what she eats and what her children are up to, and she has unashamed feminist and left wing views. Love her.

8) Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. Another star of the 1980s – still sitting there, as Grafton moves towards the end of the alphabet, with only a few years, at most, having passed in Kinsey-land. You know where you are with Kinsey and her polyester black dress for special events.

9) Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan – Baltimore beautifully realized, Tess doing her rowing, leading her complicatrd family and personal life, and investigating crimes.

10) Laurie R King Some might argue that her

heroine Mary Russell in her historical novels is a sidekick to one of the most famous detectives of all, but I would say she’s an equal partner. And this author has another series featuring modern-day detective Kate Martinelli solving crimes in San Francisco.


This list just about wrote itself, I didn’t have to search around, nor make difficult decisions on whom to omit. But I’m sure readers would have quite different lists, and I hope you might put them below, or just tell me where I went wrong. Or, put in your suggestions for next week’s older lady detectives.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

False Step by Veronica Heley

published 2008

[Bea Abbot has been employed to clear the house of a dead actor]

Bea opened the first wardrobe to inspect the dresses within. Each costume had been carefully put on a padded hanger, and fitted into a zipped plastic cover. Full-length dresses, sequinned, cut high across the neckline, three-quarter sleeves. Shimmery sheaths. The grey satin outfit he’d worn for the portrait. Not much black. No red. Nothing to hint at a pantomime dame.

She pulled a full-length dusky pink sheath out at random and held it out to Oliver. ‘How tall are you? You’ve grown a bit recently. Five nine? About that. Do me a favour, and try this on.’

Oliver gaped. ‘No way!’

‘Don’t be absurd, Oliver. I need to test a theory, a suspicion of … just do it, will you? I promise not to take photographs.’

‘I couldn’t.’

‘The colour’s too bright? Let’s try this blue outfit, then.’ The blue outfit had a feather boa to go with it. A fine silk jersey, with a draped bodice, slender over the hips.

observations: I am embarrassed to say that I cannot remember who recommended this book to me – one of my lovely fellow-bloggers, maybe Bernadette? Please accept my apologies, and if you tell me in the comments I will add your shoutout.

Whoever it was knew that the clothes conundrums in this cozy mystery would be right up my street. The body of an older male actor is found, covered in a fancy gown and with a pair of red shoes. It seems he has committed suicide, but Bea Abot, who gets involved via her domestic agency, has her suspicions. He is a renowned drag artist, and she doesn’t think the dress he is found with is quite right, and there is a shoe that doesn’t fit.

I’ve read books from Veronica Heley’s other series, with cleric Ellie Quicke, and enjoyed them, but this is my first from her Abbot Agency series. It’s not going to rock the world or win any awards, but I enjoyed it for what it was: a good mystery. There is something unusual about the structure: it is obvious to the reader from the beginning who one of the two murderers must be. Halfway through, the second one seems to emerge. But Heley still managed to surprise me at the end. The book is obviously part of a series with several continuing characters, but there was no problem with coming in late, and the details of contemporary London life were interesting. I was surprised that Bea thought that ‘properly trained nannies knew how to deal with’ being ‘pawed by the client’s husband’. It seemed out of character for a woman of unashamed Christian principles. There seemed an almost miraculous plotline regarding pregnancy near the end (Christian principles again?). And I was delighted by a reference to a ‘curling iron staircase’ – I thought it might be something to do with the drag artist’s hair arrangements, but I think it was merely descriptive, piling on adjectives.

The butler dressed up in this recent entry on Barbara Neil’s The Possession of Delia Sutherland, and Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Corner has some ‘vamps from another era’ dressing up to play cards.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is a New Zealand drag artist of the 1960s, Kiwi Carmen.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Women Fashion Power: Exhibition at the Design Museum

Exhibition continues until April 2015

For today’s entry: no book! Last week I visited an exhibition called Women Fashion Power at London’s Design Museum, and for anyone interested in any of those three topics it is absolutely riveting.

The show looks at the history of clothes, including underwear: corsets are always a great interest here on the blog, including last Sunday's entry, and there are plenty of them on show here. There is more detail as the timeline heads into the 20th century, and the Museum uses magazines and photographs as well, and looks at the influence of film and TV on fashion.

There is another timeline looking at women in power from the earliest times – Boudicca - to modern times, and considering what they wore.

The third section of the exhibition is perhaps the most fascinating: the Museum asked 25 modern women to contribute an outfit each, and to write a piece ‘sharing their personal style philosophy’ - that's the display in the picture above.

Those taking part include Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, journalist Kirsty Wark and many other businesswomen, entertainers, and activists.

Among the other items on display there are suits worn by the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died last year. She was a great one for formal suits:

There were two blog entries on her appearances in fiction  last year – in Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty here, and Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love here.

Other blog entries of relevance:

 - Louisa M Alcott argued strongly for Rational Dress in her book Eight Cousins – she wanted to put corsets on the fire.

- Fans of Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds – set in a fashion design studio – can be conflicted: key character Val is a hugely successful designer and businesswomen, but at the end accepts a proposal of marriage that some of us who love the book find difficult to swallow:
'Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give to your career, your time and your thought?'

- Virginia Woolf has some fascinating thoughts about women and clothes in Orlando:
Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us…. Had [men and women] both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same...

- Dorothy L Sayers' alter ego Harriet D Vane has this to say in Have his carcase:
Were men really stupid enough to believe that the good old days of submissive womanhood could be brought back by milliners’ fashions? ‘Hardly’ thought Harriet ‘when they know perfectly well that one has only to remove the train and the bustle, get into a short skirt and walk off, with a job to do and money in one’s pockets. Oh well, it’s a game, and presumably they all know the rules.’

- Samantha Ellis’s terrific book How to be a Heroine, a look at our female role models (?) in literature would also make great reading for anyone interested in this area. 

- Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes takes clothes very seriously – but that is so her young heroines can get jobs (dancing and acting). They are going to use clothes to get economic independence, freedom, the ability to do what they want. And, of course to get the name Fossil into the history books.


Women Fashion Power is a fabulous exhibition, very thought-provoking, but fun and informative at the same time. Highly recommended. The Design Museum is opposite the Tower of London on the other side of the Thames, and the exhibition is on till the 26th April.

PS I was lucky enough to go with my daughter: there were plenty of other mother/daughter pairs there, and it is the ideal way to see the exhibits – when it gets to the 60s/70s/80s sections you can lecture your daughter about which outfits you once had resembling those on show…. and she can laugh at you.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Under Black Banner by Geoffrey Trease

published 1951

[A group of young people hiking in the Lake District]

“Well is that the top?”

Penny’s voice carried a note of good-humoured despair, as if she had really given up hope.

Susan, a dim grey figure against the dim grey stones above, yelled back thinly against the wind:

“Can’t see anything!”…

They went zigzagging up the grey slope in single file, first Tim with the rucksack, wearing his navy Rugger shorts, with his red-topped football stockings making the only specks of colour in the whole gloomy landscape, and then Penny in her belted school mackintosh, with the moisture glinting on her black hair.

They never turned round to ask if I was all right. Now that I had handed over the rucksack to Tim, with all the food inside, I was free to fall over a precipice, sink into a bog, or just lie down and perish of exhaustion, as soon as I liked.

On the whole I preferred to plod on.

observations: One of the joys of Twitter is the people who recommend lovely clothes in books to me: recently the YA author Lydia Syson said there were some awesome ‘tangerine slacks’ somewhere in Geoffrey Trease’s Black Banner books, so naturally I had to look for them – women in trousers is very much a continuing theme on the blog: click the label below, and see my Guardian article here.

There are five in this series - YA books before (I think) the term was invented. Trease wrote many many historical novels (and very good they were too) and then apparently his daughter asked for something with a contemporary setting, and he produced these – taking a group of young people through their teens in the Lake District in the 1950s. I loved them when I read them as a teenager myself, and I’ve loved re-reading them now. I haven’t found the tangerine slacks yet… though in this book there is a ‘weird female in cherry-coloured slacks’ – a famous artist visiting Penny’s father’s bookshop. Perhaps like this, used for an earlier entry:

[STOP PRESS: I have now found the tangerine slacks, look out for an entry soon....]

At some point in my extensive early reading of Trease, I had taken in the fact that he was very left-wing in his personal politics, but I’m sure I wasn’t aware of the slightly subversive nature of these books - that was quite a surprise. They are very good examples of the home/school/adventures genre: the young people get lost in the fells and have to camp out. The school sports day looms large. Friendships are built. But the big plot here concerns a farm that has been requisitioned by the War Office during WW2, and then not returned. The young people campaign to have it released – and Trease goes into our duties as citizens, the proper ways to try to effect change, the importance of respect for democracy, and the ways some people will try to manipulate the world. It’s like the best-ever (and most subtle) citizenship lesson, and very much carried and hidden by an excellent and interesting plot, which is never boring. I thought they’d all start singing the wonderful Woody Guthrie song ‘This Land is My Land…’ at one point.

The picture shows young hikers in Yorkshire a few years earlier, and is from the Imperial War Museum.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Matriarch by GB Stern

published 1924


[The Matriarch, Anastasia, has a man restoring her carpets, and is telling him family stories]

She sat by him while he worked, and told him all about her cousin Marie, ‘poor Julius Czelovar’s eldest child’.… Uncle Julius had never been happy with Aunt Gisela, who was an overbearing woman, as all the Bettelheims’ were – ‘Except my mother, who was an angel,’ said the Matriarch firmly. ‘You remember my mother?’ 

The Persian carpet-maker did not. 

‘So, of course, it was the best thing that Marie could have done; the best thing. But Aunt Gisela one day came to see me about the whole affair, when I was in Paris, and she actually brought along, for my Truda, a corset – “pour lui faire du ventre”, she said. I must say, it was black satin embroidered in forget-me-nots, but Truda would never wear it, she said a “ventre” did not appeal to her.’ Anastasia laughed heartily, and the Persian carpet-maker laughed too; he understood French. ‘Poor Marie had no dowry; and you know, young man, girls were not allowed a choice in those days; her mother’s choice fell on August Goldstein, and Marie had two younger sisters growing up, Henrietta and Laura; three unmarried grown-up girls were not to be thought of…’

observations: I explained in this entry how I came to read this book (thank you Hilary McKay) and how much I loved it. It is a great read, but also it is full of clothes – Stern tells us properly what the characters wear. There is a minor character who keeps wearing gowns with very fancy names: ‘Peacocks will dream tonight’ , and Toni – who has a flair for choosing and selling clothes which will stand her in good stead when the rest of the family has money troubles – knows them:
“Tulips-in-my-garden —Three shades of pink, mauve and blackish-red … Yes, we had the offer of it,’ put in Toni, professionally.

(It’s rather like the Soupir d’Automne in Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train, here, published a few years later.)

However, it’s not at all clear what was special about the corset mentioned above. The French phrase means ‘to give her a stomach/belly’. Variations in women’s shapes, and the desirability of different sizes, is something often mentioned on the blog, but actually wanting a large stomach seems very unlikely. I’m hoping expert blog friends Ken Nye or Daniel Milford-Cottam may be able to throw some light.

The Matriarch of the title gets stranger and stranger – chatting away about family history & corsets to the carpet man is the least of her problems. Her eccentric spells come in fits, and there is this lovely description:
And then – smell of rain in the air; a wind getting up behind the stillness; distant tramp of feet that could be felt rather than heard; a spirit of goblin unease … They found it difficult to describe how they knew a ‘bad fit’ was coming on.
There are also great scenes where family councils are taking place, and the children try to find out what is happening – which young sprig of the family has committed some terrible transgression, or failed at something, and what must be done about them. (Sent to South America seems to be the best idea.) Again, this reminded me of Agatha Christie, where a lost ne’er-do-well son is often a feature. What a shame for the novel-writers of today that such scenes are lost in history.

It also seems an even bigger shame that this book is lost and forgotten – I’m sure many many people would enjoy it.

The picture of a black corset is an advert from Harper’s Bazaar magazine.