Saturday, 18 July 2015

Book of 1987: A Masculine Ending by Joan Smith



published 1987


Also: Why Aren’t they Screaming?, same author, published 1988




masculine ending 001
 


Then there was the business of the dead girl, Melanie something. Loretta wished she knew more about that. Climbing out of the bath, she dried herself, and dressed in black ski pants and a thick jersey knitted by her mother. The weather had changed abruptly from unseasonably hot to unusually chilly, and most of her shopping needed to be done outdoors in Chapel market. Then she wrote out a cheque in payment of the forgotten parking-ticket, put it in an envelope and went out.

Walking the half-mile to Chapel market, she turned over and over in her mind the many questions about the murder that remained unanswered. The case against Sykes looked weaker by the minute. As she made her way from stall to stall, Loretta remembered her promise to ring Bridget. She would welcome her friend’s view on the current state of the case. She hurried her way through her shopping, returned to the flat, and rang Bridget’s number.
 
 
observations: This is my contribution to Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme on his Past Offences blog – 1987 is the month for July.

Joan Smith is a well-known feminist writer and political commentator. Mostly she writes non-fiction, but between 1987 and 1995 she produced the Loretta Lawson books: five excellent mystery stories with leftwing feminist academic Loretta investigating various crimes she comes across.

In this one Loretta has borrowed a flat in Paris (to attend a conference of course – she is a classic academic) but finds evidence of foul play, and is unsure what to do. Safely back in England, she tries to find out who else has been at the flat and who might be involved. She is looking for someone who might have been murdered. It is a good old-fashioned piece of sleuthing, with clues, and phonecalls, and help from a journalist ex-husband – plus enjoyable details of Loretta’s life,  her take on feminism, and her work on the collective of the imaginary-but-all-too-convincing women’s magazine, Fem Sap.

I read all the Lawson books when they first came out, and I have now re-read the 2nd one too – Why Aren’t They Screaming? (quoted, I presume, from the Philip Larkin poem The Old Fools), a very political book about a women’s peace camp, like Greenham Common, and the murder of a peace campaigner. Both books are excellent, and both have abrupt and not entirely satisfactory endings. They are certainly not stories in which good and right prevail at the end.

I will move on to the rest – they are available on Kindle.

As a book of 1987, Masculine Ending is unmatchable for anyone who lived through that time, as is the 2nd one for its year of 1988. There is the simple fact that no-one has computers, it is hard to get in touch with people (it didn’t seem so at the time) or to find out details such as addresses. Answering machines feature hugely, and phone boxes, pips going, are a big feature of the 2nd book. And the details of the peace campaigners permeate the book with the authentic feel of the late 80s in the UK.

More: If you wanted to find out uptodate news you had to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin. There is a smoking section in the cinema Loretta visits. Hard to credit in one way, but the flat she and the other professionals use in Paris has a shared squat toilet in the communal landing. All too convincing to those who used to visit the world’s most romantic city in the 1980s.

In an earlier part of the book, Loretta goes on a breaking-and-entering expedition in an Oxford college dressed in a cream linen suit. It is hard to imagine anything less suitable, and predictably the outfit is ruined. The clothes above are far more suitable for a little off-grid sleuthing, and I was very glad to have the chance to use this fabulous picture, which is from a fashion magazine, and shouts out its date of 1985 - the wide shoulders, the pose, the gloves and the hat. It is illustrating a knitting pattern so perhaps this is the one that Loretta’s mother used. In fact knitting exotic sweaters was all the rage with young people too at that time – check out also this blog post on Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot for some full 1980s styling of a Kaffe Fassett sweater.

Publishers Faber & Faber seem in the late 80s to have been trying to boost their crimelist with some contemporary women writers – Lesley Grant-Adamson, featured on the blog here, is also of the era: I comment in that post on various aspects of the 1980s, and there is another ace fashion mag photo.

And I am glad to say that coming right up to date, Faber & Faber are now publishing my good blogfriend Sarah Ward’s crime novel – see here and here on the blog for In Bitter Chill.













16 comments:

  1. Oh, I really liked this series, Moira, so it's great to see it featured here. Looking back now, it seems dated in some ways. But certainly reading the novels, you're right back there in the late '80s - the era is depicted beautifully. And I do like Loretta Lawson. OK, the Oxford setting for some of the stories is a major draw for me, too...

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    1. I too remember enjoying them very much at the time Margot - it was nice to read about a strong female character in a contemporary setting, and I liked the academic background as well as the political one.

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  2. I read and enjoyed these in the eighties and early nineties, Moira. What a horribly long time ago it seems!

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    1. I know! It sounds ridiculous but I was thinking 'as long as 20 years ago' but it's much more than that. And they were ground-breaking back then.

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  3. Thanks Moira, a completely new-to-me author. Has that jumper got shoulder pads?!

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    1. That's a really excellent question Rich! and one I was mulling over myself - you wouldn't normally put shoulder pads in a hand-knitted sweater (even in the late 80s) but if those are her real shoulders she could have played American football without padding.... So maybe...

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  4. I had lots of sweaters with huge shoulder pads - not hard to buy for home sewing....

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    1. Thanks Katy - I obviously missed a trick! I knitted shedloads of sweaters in the 1980s and never thought to add shoulder pads to them....

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  5. Interesting books which I hadn't heard of before, but probably not ones I'll seek out.

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    1. No - if one turned up in the tubs I would recommend you try it, but you shouldn't threaten the embargo...

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  6. I had not heard of this author before this post. Sounds interesting although I often have problems with amateur sleuths. The factors you mention for books written in the late 80's are why I like books written in that time. I can do without computers in a mystery. But I am pretty old so that is just a personal issue.

    The books are a nice length which is good when you want to try a series. Right now I have so many books; I can look at the book sale but it is rare to find UK books (especially of that vintage) there. You never know, though.

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    1. If it turns up do read it Tracy. I have to say, I don't see it much as a 2nd hand book here in the UK, so it doesn't seem likely there are many around in the USA...

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  7. I've only known Joan Smith from her journalism - her book 'Misogynies' is both devastating and unputdownable, with a particular notable essay about the hunt for the 'Yorkshire Ripper'. Grim but brilliant.

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    1. Oh yes - I read that years ago, and remember it as being very good, it is still on my shelves somewhere. I am reading another of her crime novels, and there is an excellent scene set at the reunion of a women'[s group - very uncomfortable ('You were all so het! I couldn't tell you!') but hilarious and all-too-convincing.

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  8. We used to joke about the shoulder pad obsession on 80s TV show costumes all the time in college. Joan Collins wardrobe on DYNASTY alone may have contributed to making them very trendy over here.

    Hard to believe how every day life has changed in just 28 years. Your mention of lack of computers and how news was learned in this book reminded me of the few culture shocks in reading my 1987 book. It was kind of fun to read about pay phones being used so matter-of-factly. Though I depended on them for decades I can't remember the last time I even saw one! But the reminder of cocaine as the party drug of choice had just the opposite effect on me. Too many friends lost to that addiction.

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    1. The whole shoulderpad thing is vaguely inexplicable - did the TV shows lead the way or follow the trend? In those days you could buy a kind of stretchy vest with shoulder pads in it, so you could wear that under any of your very out-of-date clothes that had no pads. I wish I could find a mention of that in a book...

      I'm sure every generation thinks 'oh there have been more changes in my lifetime than in any other', but I think we really do win some kind of a prize for seeing change.

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