Friday, 30 September 2016

Book of 1930: Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1930
strong Poison
[Miss Climpson, on the instructions of Lord Peter Wimsey, is trying to drum up an acquaintance with a home-care nurse]

Miss Climpson ordered another cup of coffee and a roll and butter. There was no window-table vacant, but she found one close to the orchestra from which she could survey the whole room. A fluttering dark-blue veil at the door made her heart beat, but it proved to belong to a lusty young person with two youngsters and a perambulator, and hope withdrew once more. By twelve o’clock, Miss Climpson decided that she had drawn blank at the “Central [cafe].”…

At half-past three she sallied out again, to indulge in an orgy of teas. This time she included the Lyons and the fourth tea-shop, beginning at the far end of the town and working her way back to the ’bus-stop. It was while she was struggling with her fifth meal, in the window of “Ye Cosye Corner,” that a hurrying figure on the pavement caught her eye. The winter evening had closed in, and the street-lights were not very brilliant, but she distinctly saw a stoutish middle-aged nurse in a black veil and grey cloak pass along on the nearer pavement. By craning her neck, she could see her make a brisk spurt, scramble on the ’bus at the corner and disappear in the direction of the “Fisherman’s Arms.”

“How vexatious!” said Miss Climpson, as the vehicle disappeared. “I must have just missed her somewhere. Or perhaps she was having tea in a private house. Well, I’m afraid this is a blank day. And I do feel so full of tea!”
commentary: This is my entry for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences – this month we are all writing about a 1930 book, and I am just getting in under the wire…

Miss Climpson’s mission is to inveigle her way into the house of an elderly woman, and find her will. To this end she is staying in a small town in the Lake District, and haunting the cafes in her attempts to find the nurse who looks after the old lady. It is an enthralling part of an excellent book, and one of my favourite sections in the whole of Sayers. Miss C will make the acquaintance of the nurse, and realize that spiritualism is the way to her heart. She will then stage a couple of fake séances up at the big house, with the old lady silently sleeping above. It is tremendous stuff, with all the details Sayers does so well.

The purpose of this elaborate operation is to prove the innocence of Harriet D Vane, who makes her first appearance in this book. Wimsey has fallen in love with her, and also believes her to be innocent of murder, and he throws all his resources at the miscarriage of justice. By chance (the least likely event in the book) Miss Climpson, as above, was on the jury at Harriet’s trial, and held out against a guilty verdict. In those days there was no room for a majority verdict, and a retrial is called. Lord Peter has a month to get new evidence.

It is a fascinating book, as we follow all his different searches and investigations. Given that Harriet is innocent, there isn’t a wide range of possibilities for the guilty party, but that doesn’t matter: the story is tense and exciting, with its grave disappointments (the incident of the white powder!) and its clear indication that Harriet is being judged as much for her unmarried relations as for anything else.

Recently some of us were suggesting which Agatha Christie book we could recommend to a new reader: it occurs to me that this would be the ideal book for someone wanting to try out Lord Peter Wimsey. It does not have the slight silliness of some of the earlier books, and has real, believable characters with dilemmas and ideas. Many of us really enjoy any appearances of Miss Climpson, and in this book there is a Miss Murchison too, who does a tense undercover job in a solicitor’s office, again beautifully described. To this end, she learns lock-picking from a retired burglar. There are also scenes of Bunter vamping the help at a suspect’s house: flirting with the cook and maids in a most satisfying way.
The book also contains a full account of how to make a jam omelette, though as I explained in a Guardian piece on food in books:
this happens in court, during a murder trial, with the unusual purpose of explaining that the dish could not have been poisoned. The cook’s technique is praised, and the appalling judge says ‘I advise you all to treat omelettes in the same way’. You could certainly make one from the description, though it doesn’t sound all that delicious.
As a book of 1930, the moral judgements and the old boys’ network are key features. And Sayers always does such (convincing) details about characters’ lives that you feel there is sociological interest there.

More Dorothy L Sayers all over the blog - click on the label below.

Picture from the Library of Congress.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

published 1938
Antidote to Venom 3Antidote to Venom 2
Antidote to Venom 1
[George Surridge is out with a friend, unaware that a neighbour is observing him]

First George Surridge emerged from the driving seat, and hurrying round, opened with solicitude the opposite door. Miss Corrin was pleased to see his attention to his wife: she had sometimes feared there was less love lost in that menage than was meet. But when, instead of Clarissa’s somewhat considerable bulk and dark colouring, there appeared a petite and elegant stranger, whose Antidote to Venom 5dark hair was surmounted by a coquettish little hat of vivid red, Miss Corrin fairly goggled with amazement and a fierce ecstasy.

She sat staring fixedly across the road even after the unconscious objects of her regard had disappeared into the inn.

commentary: I wasn’t going to write about this book, but the  'coquettish little hat tipped the balance: I couldn’t resist the idea of doing a quick short entry. I spent a most enjoyable time looking at many a 1930s hat, and considering the word coquettish. It means flirty and I think in regard to hats (as with so many things) it is impossible to say what exactly gives a hat that tendency, but you know it when you see it. Many a charming hat I dismissed out of hand – pretty or elegant or attractive maybe, but not coquettish.

I think the only definite conclusion I reached was that a hat needs to be worn tilted on the head to be truly coquettish.

Antidote to Venom 4What is it makes me think my friend Bill from Mysteries and More might have an opinion on this?

The book itself is one of the British Library Crime Classics – the recent reprints, with an introduction by our friend Martin Edwards. There were some very standard tropes – the murder seen from the guilty point of view, middle-aged man finding a new love, extravagant and not very nice wife, money worries, tension and fear. But there were also some much more unusual ideas. The zoo setting was rather splendid, and the actual murder method one of the most bizarre I have ever read about – you think it’s venom, stolen snakes, zoo expertise: and you are right. But it’s really not that simple.

I have a take it or leave it attitude to Crofts – he wrote good solid detective stories, but I never feel the need to read them all.

He certainly researches his topics, and I learnt a lot about running a zoo in the 1930s. My favourite bit in the whole book was this:
[George has ordered two elephants from India, and they are arriving in Liverpool. The letter from the shipping line says:] 

‘We shall be obliged if you will kindly arrange to take delivery as soon as possible.’ 

This matter George had already dealt with. Transport of elephants through England was rather a job. They were too big to send by rail, and it would have cost a considerable sum to fit up a road lorry to take them. The elephants would therefore have to walk the hundred odd miles to Birmington. They would take it in easy stages and he had arranged for sheds for them to sleep in each night. Two Indian keepers had travelled with them, and he was sending his own man Ali with a couple of assistants to render help in case of need.

Such an exciting prospect – and I’m sure Crofts couldn’t have made this up.

And above is my collection of hats – in the end I could not confine myself to just red – all from the marvellous fashion archive at the NYPL.

Monday, 26 September 2016

In The Woods by Tana French

published 2007
In the Woods 4In the Woods 3
In the Woods 1In the Woods 2

When I made the Murder squad, I had already had my new work clothes – beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest of blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves – hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code. It was one of the things that first fascinated me about the job – that and the private, functional, elliptical shorthand: latents, trace, Forensics. One of the Stephen King small towns where I was posted after Templemore had a murder: a routine domestic-violence incident that had escalated beyond even the perpetrator’s expectations, but, because the man’s previous girlfriend had died in suspicious circumstances, the Murder squad sent down a pair of detectives. All the week they were there, I had one eye on the coffee machine whenever I was at my desk, so I could get my coffee when the detectives got theirs, take my time adding milk and eavesdrop on the streamlined, brutal rhythms of their conversation…

You learn by osmosis, as soon as you set your sights on the job, that you are expected to look professional, educated, discreetly expensive with just a soupcon of originality. We give the taxpayers their money’s worth of comforting cliché. We mostly shop at Brown Thomas, during the sales, and occasionally come into work wearing embarrassingly identical soupcons.

commentary: Oh what a failure. No, not the book – it is I who am a failure. Having loved Tana French's The Secret Place and the newly-published The Trespasser, I am supposed to be rationing out those of her books I haven’t read yet, to make the joy last longer. So I downloaded this one to my Kindle, to have in reserve, for some future moment. I have review books, and promises, and commitments, and many many books to read – Tana can wait for a while.

Only she can’t. I read it, swallowed it down at a great speed, and have already downloaded the next one. Oh dear oh dear: I am going to run out of books by her quite soon…

This was her first, and must have exploded onto the crime scene like a grenade – I remember hearing about it, and can’t imagine why I didn’t read it then.

It’s a police procedural set in the Dublin Murder Squad (as are all her books) and features the murder of a 12-year old girl at a small town outside the city. The narrator and his female partner set out to investigate, but the narrator has a secret: he comes from the same place, and has a parallel story in his childhood – he survived a still-unsolved incident in which his two best friends disappeared.

It is, admittedly, a lot to swallow that he takes up the case without telling anyone this, and it is unthinkable that he could take such a major part in the new investigation, or think that the story won’t come out. But once you get past this, the book is absolutely compelling, long and satisfying (98%) and highly entertaining. The relationship between the two lead officers is very well done. At times I thought ‘hang on…’ but on the whole French is ahead of the reader – certain things will become obvious is all I’m saying. I didn’t have any trouble working out the outline of the murder, but the details were sufficiently unguessable to keep my interest. I would have had a few questions for French and her narrator at the end…

The ending is very controversial if you look online: many people were disappointed, even devastated by a certain lack of resolution. I found it uncomfortable, but can understand that the author was trying to do something specific. I would definitely have liked more information.

As ever, there is a lovely, funny, colloquial feel to it. I liked the senior policeman whose marriage has broken up:
The grapevine had picked up a series of awkward attempts at relationships, including one spectacularly unsuccessful blind date where the woman turned out to be an ex-hooker he had arrested regularly in his Vice days.
.. and the gentle introduction of a supernatural element:
‘She always said it was the pooka took them.’
This one took me by surprise. The pooka is an ancient child-scarer out of legend, a wild mischief-making descendant of Pan and ancestor of Puck. He had not been on Kiernan and McCabe’s list of persons of interest.
An absolutely brilliant thriller, one that kept me reading for hours when I should have been doing other things.

There are more books by Tana French, but don’t expect any more reviews soon. Of course I am going to be able to hold off from reading them soon, I have the willpower…

Last year I had a similar reaction to Ariana Franklin’s Adelia books – the setting of her crime novels (12th century Europe) couldn’t be more different, but I loved them and read them all in a short space of time.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Dress Down Sunday: The Right Kind of Underwear



Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

published 1946

Murder Among Friends 1
‘You remember how she was dressed that evening at Cecily’s?’

‘I’m not likely to forget it,’ said Alice.

‘Well that was just typical of her,’ said Kitty. ‘And her underclothes too – they were always awfully good. You know what I mean, good heavy silk, well cut but no frivolity. She’d simply never have dared to wear a pair of pink satin cami-knickers or a chiffon nightdress. She’d have said in a slightly embarrassed way that she couldn’t see what use they were.’ Kitty laughed. ‘I tried to tell her once what use they were and she just looked cool and interested in my psychological peculiarities and rather amuse – by then, I suppose, she must have been able not to give away even her embarrassment. I thought marriage to Ian would cure her, but she seemed to go on being just as aloof and serious about everything…. I say, I’m sure I’m not telling you the sort of things you want to know. I’m sure Janet’s underclothes can’t have anything to do with the murder.’

‘I’m not so sure,’ said Alice. ‘The way a woman dresses and what she thinks about it always tells one a good deal about her.’

Murder Among Friends 2

commentary: My friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery reviewed this in June, and I immediately ordered a copy – it has a WW2 setting (something we’re both fans of) and clothes play an important part…

I was impressed and intrigued by it – I like Ferrars, but this reads very differently from others by her. It is much less of a conventional detective story, and she was obviously trying to do something different, something very psychological.

A group of people gather for drinks in the blackout. We see the whole story through the eyes of Alice, who knows none of the other guests, only her hostess. One more guest, a writer, is due – he lives in the flat upstairs. Then, a murder takes place – discovered by a stranger – and it seems clear that it must have been someone at the party. The culprit seems obvious, and is arrested, tried and found guilty.

Alice – who was never under suspicion – thinks about the situation and the people involved, and sets out to discover more about the relationships. She wants to know what motivated the murderer. She talks to the other guests in turn, and begins to suspect that there may be more to the story. (It is interesting that she is NOT trying to prove the condemned person’s innocence to begin with, just trying to find out more.)

I’m not usually a fan of the straightforward ‘small, closed circle’ murder story – we all suspected X, but it turns out to be Y. Imagine. But this absolutely transcended the genre, I thought it was unputdownable. In fact it was more like a novel of relationships – we see the different characters through different eyes, and there are passing mentions of unmarried sex, adultery, homosexuality and abortions – these are respectable, if slightly Bohemian, people, but they have desires and make mistakes and live their lives. Alice feels that she is among ‘a group of utterly rootless people, living on their nerves, their gifts and their emotions in two-room flats’.

I found this very unusual in what might be thought of as a GA mystery. It reminded me much more of, for example, Rosamond Lehmann’s Echoing Grove, a serious novel, also full of scenes in the blackout in London. Ferrars’ characters are complex, three-dimensional, not easily divided into the bad and the good. Kitty describes herself as a young girl: ‘ I was lazy and frightfully stupid and always stuffing sweets and smoking on the quiet and telling any lie that’d make life more comfortable for me.’ I think that’s a brilliant characterisation – both the easily-imaginable teenager, and the older woman looking back with clarity.

And clothes are vital. There’s a scarf that matters, there’s a distinction between bobbed and shingled hair, and the colour of the dresses is very important. Many excellent outfits are described in detail – and, as the book says above, tell you about the character of the wearer.

Some of Ferrars’ later books resembled romantic thriller - adventures of a feisty young woman who is going to find love as well as uncover a crime – see for example this one, Alibi for a Witch. Murder Among Friends couldn’t be more different.

Top underwear ad is American and from much earlier, but looks like the right kind of thing.

The other picture, a 1940s advert, is the kind of thing Janet supposedly would avoid…

Friday, 23 September 2016

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

published October 2016

Today Will be Different 2

[Eleanor has come to New Orleans for the engagement party of her sister Ivy]

The mansion door swung open courtesy of a courtly black man in tails with white hair and white gloves. He was Mister, the husband of Taffy. Both uniformed servants to two generations of Fannings, and hopefully a third, now that Bucky had returned from New York with, of all things, a bride.

Today will be different 4

Eleanor and Joe entered. The living room was aswish with ballgowns and tails. Just as an “Oh”” was about to escape Eleanor’s mouth – Today will be different 5she’d worn flats and a knee-length dress she had no time to iron – a mint julep was thrust into her palm. The shock of the frosty silver tumbler slapped Eleanor’s face into a smile.

“Eleanor! Joe!” It was Ivy wearing a pleated Today Will be Different 3chiffon gown, lime with orange flowers and sleeves that hung like calla lilies. She gave it a twirl. “1972 Lilly Pulitzer! It belonged to Bucky’s mother. Did you know that if you admire something, the person has to give it to you? That’s the Southern way.”

commentary: Many of my UK readers may not know what a Lilly Pulitzer dress is, so it is my pleasure to introduce the brand to them. When a fashion magazine described a style as ‘Lilly Pulitzer on acid’, a friend (in America) said ‘how could you tell?’ so I looked up the whole business and saw what she meant. LP is famed for her wild, brightly-coloured prints, striking and startling to the eye – particularly as they are very upmarket in the US, worn by women whom you might more expect to be in beige cashmere. Lilly had married into the Pulitzer family (yes that one), and was making money by selling oranges and juice at a roadside stand in the family orange groves in Florida. This was a messy business, so she designed a dress in a splashy print that wouldn’t show the stains, and her customers wanted to buy the dress too, and you can guess the rest. 

(These people's lives

None of this, no little bit, is a very UK way of carrying on, for a variety of reasons.)

Today Will be Different

So that’s Lilly. Now to Maria Semple, an author I love to bits. Her Where d’you Go Bernadette was one of my favourite books of 2012, and I also enjoyed her This One is Mine. The new book, like Bernadette, is set in Seattle, and part of my enjoyment is recognizing so much about the place, from the simple geography and settings to the kind of people she describes. The schoolkids will go to Wild Waves, the pedestrians will not cross the road without a WALK sign, no matter how empty of cars the road is. And there’s this:
… the epidemic of haggard women in their 40s trapped in playgrounds, slumped on boingy lady bugs, unconsciously pouring Tupperware containers of Cheerios down their own throats, sporting maternity jeans two years after giving birth and pushing swings with skunk stripes down the center of their hair.
Was the sight of us so terrifying that the entire next generation of college-educated woman declared “Anything but that!” and forsook careers altogether to pop out children in their 20s? Looking at the [school] moms, the answer would be: apparently.
I hope it works out for them.
Eleanor is a classic Semple heroine – glorious, deeply sympathetic, but also annoying, quite wicked, and mad as a box of frogs. The book follows her through the one day of the title (with frequent and extended flashbacks) via various farcical events and childcare challenges. She meets a poet and an artist, she goes to her child’s school, she worries about her husband.

Her clever confident comments on life include this:
My friend Merrill told me that on the first date, a guy without realizing it will tell you why the relationship will ultimately fail. He’ll say he doesn’t want kids, or he’s not the type to settle down, or he’s in a fight with his mother.
Every person has it in them to be either the Competent Traveller or the Helpless Traveller.
There are great observations, and glimpses of darkness and sadness. Eleanor at one point explains her husband’s odd behaviour with a brilliant invented story – I so wanted it to be true. I laughed a lot, and read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which fits well with its all taking place on one day.

Tucked away in the book is the astonishing true fact that the tenth President of the USA, John Tyler, was born in 1790, was president in the 1840s, and has grandsons living today. (By means of having children into his 60s).

B/W photo is a 1930s WPA picture of a New Orleans Mardi Gras ball photo from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Trespasser by Tana French

published 2016
Trespasser 3


It takes two rings before Lucy answers the intercom, in a voice coated with sleep. ‘‘Lo?’

Steve says, ‘Lucy Riordan?’

‘Who’s this?’

‘Detective Garda Stephen Moran. Could we have a word?’

A long second. Then Lucy says, and the sleep’s fallen off her voice, ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’

She opens the door fast and wide awake. She’s short and fit, the kind of fit you get from life, not from the gym – she wears it like it’s owned, not rented. Platinum hair with a long sweep of fringe falling in her face – pale face with clean quick features, smudges of last night’s mascara. She’s wearing a black hoodie, paint-splashed black combats, nothing on her feet, a lot of silver ear jewellery and what looks to me like a fair-sized hangover. She has bugger-all in common with Aislinn Murray, or with what I was expecting.

We have our IDs out and read. ‘I’m Detective Garda Stephen Moran,’ Steve says, ‘and this is my partner, Detective Garda Antoinette Conway.’ And he pauses. You always leave a gap there.

Lucy doesn’t even look at the IDs. She says, sharp, ‘Is it Aislinn?’

commentary: The book has many references to clothes: what people wear is important, the styles of Aislinn and her friend are very different, for good reasons.  We can take note of who has an expensive coat, who has nice-boy clothes. But I have an admission to make, which is that from quite early on I more or less stopped making notes, or seeing those clothes as blog fodder, or anything really except clicking my Kindle as fast as possible. It’s a long book, maybe even repetitious, it could probably have been shortened. But I ripped through it, endlessly anxious to know what happened next, and what the truth was about the case. What more can you ask for from a book?

Earlier this year I did a post on Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the best new-to-me writers I’ve encountered. This is her new book about the Dublin Murder Squad, and, yes, it’s another zinger. Conway and Moran are the two detectives from the earlier book, and they’ve been given what looks like a routine domestic killing: a young woman who was preparing to entertain a young man at home has been murdered. Surely it’s obvious that her date did it? There seems to be pressure for the case to be wrapped up quickly and comfortably. Antoinette and Steve aren’t happy with that – but can’t work out exactly where the problems lie.

The interviews with Aislinn’s friends and acquaintances are very absorbing, and (as with Secret Place) the book takes place over a very short time frame – I was puzzled that a particular witness hadn’t been re-interviewed, but then realized that very little time had passed.

She’s great at descriptions and characters – you feel you know this Dublin and these Dubliners by the end – and she is very funny in glancing lines:
If she slapped him down, his inner Hulk could well have burst his good going-out jumper.
Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination.
She could have helped him alphabetize the feng shui section. Jaysus, the romance.
The book’s not for the faint at heart – it has harsh language and attitudes, nobody is pulling any punches. There were a few moments where I had mental arguments with the main characters – but everything was more or less resolved in the plotline. But none of that seems to matter anyway, compared with the joy of a book that pins you to your chair and makes you read it.

Blogging friend Cleo at Cleo Loves Books has done a great review of this one, with more details of the plot (she was better at making notes than I was…)

Pictures from Pinterest and ASOS.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Children in Crime: A Cheating Entry


The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are an informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays.
Our theme for September is:

BEv logo


Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. Kate at Cross-Examining Crime has kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

We tend to write about traditional crime fiction, often from the Golden Age – in previous weeks I chose The Bad Seed by William March (1954) and The Third Eye by Ethel Lina White (1937). This week I was short of time, but rather than post no entry, I will write about a recent French thriller – one that revolves round lost babies. So a compromise…

After the Crash by Michel Bussi

published in English in 2015, translated from the French by Sam Taylor

After The Crash

September 1998

Were they lovers, or brother and sister?

The question has been nagging at Mariam for almost a month… At this hour of the morning the bar was still mostly empty and Mariam took advantage of the quiet to clean tabletops and arrange chairs.
The couple were sitting, as they usually did, near the window, at a tiny table for tow, holding hands and looking deep into each other’s blue eyes.
Mariam sighed. The lack of certainty bothered her. She generally had a keen instinct when it came to her students’ love lives. She snapped out of it: she still had to wipe down the tables and sweep the floor; in a few minutes thousands of stressed students would rush from the metro station…

IN terms of money, Emilie’s standard of living appeared to be the very opposite of Marc’s. Mariam had a knack for evaluating, in an instant, the quality and cost of the clothing worn by her students, from H&M and Zara to Yves Saint Laurent.

Emilie did not wear Yves Saint Laurent, but she wasn’t far off. What she was wearing today – a simple, elegant orange silk blouse and a black asymmetrical skirt – had undoubtedly cost a fortune. Emilie and Marc might be from the same place, but they did not belong to the same world.

And yet they were inseparable.
commentary: A passage from near the beginning of this book, which is a French thriller with bestseller status wherever it is published. It has a great setup: it begins with a plane crashing into a mountain in 1980. Everyone on board is killed, except for a baby found near the wreckage. But there is nothing to indicate who she is, and there were two girls of the right age on the plane - she could be either. Both sets of grandparents step forward to claim the child, each set convinced they are the rightful ancestors – each has already lost son and daughter-in-law in the crash. One family is very rich, one is very poor. An agonizing court case follows. At the time there was no easy way to identify the correct family.

The main part of the book starts 18 years later, when the young woman (Emilie above) and Marc – who might be her brother or might not – get some information. A private eye has been pursuing the case all this time, paid by the rich family, still trying to collect evidence which will establish her birth.

She and Marc have their own worries, and what on earth has happened to the investigator? Extracts from his notebook tracing the events over the years are interspersed with events in 1998.

The years and timing of the book have been chosen, you would say, for one particular reason: in 1980 there was no possibility of DNA testing to establish who were the grandparents. Bussi (and his private eye) then give good careful reasons why the DNA test did not immediately resolve the situation when it did come over the horizon. 

Everything comes to a climax as Emilie approaches her 18th birthday, and the story swirls round France then and now, with much action and several deaths.

My friend Christine Poulson wrote about this book on her blog recently – that’s what prompted me to take it down off the shelf in fact – and said she guessed early on what was going on. I didn’t – though I did have a plot turn idea that I frankly think was better than the author’s. I found the first half very compelling, the second half rather less so but kept reading because I did want to know the explanation for various items, and exactly who Emilie was. It’s certainly a rattling good yarn, and excellent holiday reading. (Unless you are in an aeroplane anywhere near a mountain of course… ) I think afterwards you start thinking of rather obvious questions and objections, but that’s fair play for a page-turning thriller.

I enjoyed reading the book mostly because it was so very French, in a way I find it hard to define. The private eye was like a character from 50 years ago, and his florid writing style in his journal wouldn’t do at all in the UK, but seemed to fit him. In fact he is very like the private eye in Sebastian Japrisot’s Very Long Engagement, which is set in the 1920s – this was my picture for him in the blogpost:

After the Crash 2

- and he seems in a line going back to Inspector Javert from Les Miserables – the portentous air, the declaiming, the conviction of rightness and high moral tone.

Everyone’s attitudes seem endlessly French – I cannot explain it better than that. I loved Robert Harris’s French-set book on the Dreyfus affair, Officer and Spy, but it was always the work of an Englishman, you could never confuse him with a French writer.

Café pic is from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Sali Sasaki.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Christie Firsts: The Best Introductory Books

Christie firsts
Our heroine, Agatha

Kate Jackson is a fellow Tuesday Night Club-er and crime fiction fan who blogs as Cross-Examining Crime, and she had a brilliant idea for marking the birthday of the blessed Agatha Christie today, 15th September, in this, the 40th year after her death.

She said:
On this day I decided to do a post called Christie Firsts which suggests to new Christie readers which novels are the best introduction to Poirot, Marple, the Beresfords, Superintendent Battle, Christie's thrillers and Christie's stand alone novels. I've done my picking and given a reason why.

And then she extended the challenge to other bloggers. So I wasn’t going to miss that chance. These are my choices, and Kate will list other people’s as well as her own over at her blog.

So – these are chosen with a view to best introducing a new reader to Christie… (links are to reviews on this blog)

Christie firsts 1
Looks innocent. Ancient photos provide the clues

For Hercule Poirot: Mrs McGinty’s Dead My favourite Poirots tend to be the 40s and 50s ones, and this is slap bang in the period (1952) and a very appealing entry. It contains proper detection, and there is the excellent setup: Mrs McG died after saving a newspaper cutting about former murderers. Which of them is lurking in this very English village – who has a secret worth killing for? Anyone who believes, incorrectly, that Poirot deals humourlessly and over-respectfully with aristocracy in stately homes should read this one and be surprised. The details of life in the 50s are splendid too, and the hideous b&b is glorious.

Christie firsts 2
Land girls, impersonation and the black market

For Miss Marple: A Murder is Announced. (1950) Village life after WW2 – and far from being cozy despite surface appearances. The local paper contains an advert for a murder to take place that night: Is it a game or a joke? Everyone turns up at the address given, and someone dies. The plot is ludicrous, but everything else is excellent – great structure, a large cast of well-defined characters (some of whom seem like stereotypes, but then you never know with Christie), and great conversations and pictures of life, and of the uncertainties after the war. A really memorable Marple.

Colonel Race/standalone/foreign setting/flapperChristie firsts 4 adventure: One book to cover all of these: The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). This is a good introduction to Christie because it is such an enjoyable and unexpected book – it’s not particularly typical of her later work in fact, but the roots are all there – it’s funny, contains some wonderful female characters and some very clever tricks. Travel details (if not crimes) based on Christie's own round-the-world journey - that's her on board ship to the right.

For Superintendent Battle: Towards Zero (1944) Clever, well-worked out, nice characters and dialogue. A nasty murder and a chilling plot in an enjoyable holiday setting – there’s a lot of the ‘psychology’ she often mentions rather randomly, but in this case it is beautifully woven into an excellent plot.

Now I’m supposed to pick a Tommy & Tuppence book to recommend, but oh, look at the time! Must dash!... I'm supposed to be persuading you to read Christie not putting you off, after all. (But you can read about Secret Adversary and N or M? on the blog if you want to…)

Thanks to Kate for a great idea – do go over and look at her blog.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Children in Crime: The Worst School in the World?


The Tuesday Night Bloggers are back - 

this week with some schoolgirls & teachers in jeopardy…

We are the informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers choosing a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays.

Our theme for September is:

BEv logo


Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. Kate at Cross-Examining Crime has kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

The Week 1 links are here, along with Kate’s own piece.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

Last week I looked at killer-child classic The Bad Seed by William March, with a very small child who is in the frame and should be in the dock. This week the children are schoolgirls at a highly unusual school in this Ethel Lina White book. She did groups of people really well – but they weren’t much like anyone else’s, and this is one very weird school…

The Third Eye by Ethel Lina White

published 1937
[It’s the last day of term: Caroline is a PE teacher.]

Third Eye 3
...or I'll hit you...
“Well, I must give the wretched girls a last hockey practice."

It was a cold grey day with a bite of north-east wind which pinched faces and nipped fingers. When Caroline reached the field, she found the girls standing together in a forlorn huddle, grumbling about the weather.

"Have a heart, Miss Watts," they pleaded. "Let us off."

"Do you good," declared Caroline. "Jean, you play centre-forward— Mary, goal——" She broke off at the sound of a noisy burst of coughing behind her. "Who's the crooner?" she asked.

"Me," replied a muffled voice. Caroline swung round and saw Flora Baumgarten—— the fat intelligent pupil. Her face was flushed and her eyes were streaming, as though she were in the grip of a heavy cold. "Idiot," stormed Caroline. "What possessed you to come out in this wind? You ought to be in bed."

[She sends Flora back into the school.]

Third Eye 1

After Flora had gone, Caroline tried to forget the incident. She had stopped the game to give a demonstration of passing on the left wing, when she heard a laugh. "Flora's come back, Miss Watts," a girl told her. Caroline turned and gazed with horrified eyes at the over-developed form— ludicrous in shorts and sweater— stumbling slowly down the field.

commentary: Caroline is a classic White heroine – independent, decisive, unafraid, and about to get into real danger. The first half of the book takes place in a girls’ school, Abbey School, a posh fee-paying place which is having some problems. She is warned before she goes there, taking up a post at short notice:
"I know from personal experience that these places can he hotbeds of jealousy and scandal."
- and worse: the reason there is a vacancy is because a teacher died suddenly **.

It is not a rigorously academic school:
"Its main line is social. To quote from an advertisement, we train the girls 'to become beautiful ladies.' …Girls must have the proper preparation for the life they are to lead. Our pupils are society girls. Never a term without a title.”
- but the young ladies will be prepared for life in some unexpected ways. The Matron is a terrifying figure, a truly wonderful villain with some amazing clothes: ‘a tailored dinner-suit with a frilled white shirt’, ‘As she swaggered on to the field, wearing breeches and a polo jersey…’, ‘An ancient bath-robe of orange towelling was open to display creased purple pyjamas.. her hair was set with metal clips and she wore a rubber chin- strap with perfect unconcern’.

Third Eye 2
confrontation between teachers

Matron has drinks parties to which she invites the senior girls – those with titles anyway – and she shows them life in other ways:
"I know I've been criticised for taking girls into a cocktail bar at Plume. But it would be a fine advertisement for the school if they got tight at their first party."
Exactly what we all want from our daughters’ education.

And, as it turns out, the hideous Matron can also turn her hand to being a medium when a séance is called for – and this is one way she keeps the headmistress under her thumb.

When someone dies, Caroline has evidence that the Matron is to blame – though through laziness and negligence rather than something more sinister: too much time spent ‘stretched on the divan, smoking’. As Caroline travels back to school by coach after the Christmas break, someone is going to try to get hold of the vital piece of evidence from her luggage. The story changes gear dramatically, and turns into the regular White trope of a young woman amongst a gang of passengers – who can she trust? Who is the villain? We have a little more info than Caroline, but White handles her groups well, and we don’t quite know when the danger level has been turned up, or is receding – as ever, it is cleverly done.

By now the school and the schoolgirls have little to do with it – this is very much a book of two halves. Both are excellent in their own way, though the transition is slightly awkward. But the school itself is quite splendid – completely outrageous, verging on St Trinian’s territory, and tremendous fun.

Abbey School is truly the worst school in the world.

Flora is the only one of the schoolgirls to have a real character, and it is interesting that White always refers to her as fat Flora, but this never sounds offensive or mean-spirited: it is not fat-shaming.

** One sideline intrigued me: the games mistress who died before Caroline arrived had ‘strained her heart getting her Bergman Osterberg Dip.’ I looked this up, thinking she was perfecting a difficult gymnastic move, but now I deduce it means her B-O Diploma. Marina Bergman Osterberg was a ‘Swedish-born physical education instructor and women's suffrage advocate who spent most of her working life in Britain’ – that’s according to her Wikipedia page, which is well worth a read. Now frankly it all sounds a lot like Leys teacher training college in the revered Miss Pym Disposes by Jospehine Tey, with its Swedish instructor and women going out to teach. I think the dead games mistress might have been the unfortunate Rouse if she’d managed to survive Leys instead of dying there – she was doomed to be murdered sooner or later…. (Miss Pym is much featured on the blog, and will be the topic of the chapter I have contributed to a forthcoming book edited by Curtis Evans.)

John at Pretty Sinister Books took a thorough look at The Third Eye here and has a lot more detail of the plot and atmosphere, and Curt at Passing Tramp similarly gives it a good going-over here – these two blogposts would very much complement my tangential view of the book for anyone interested.

The pictures are from a girls' annual from a few years before the date of the book.

Plenty more Ethel Lina White all over the blog, and plenty more books set in schools – click on the labels below.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

published 1930

Swallows and amazons 3

In the little boat were two girls, one steering, the other sitting in the middle thwart. The two girls were almost exactly alike. Both had red knitted caps, brown shirts, blue knickerbockers and no stockings. They were steering straight for the island.

Swallows and amazons

In the middle of the camp a tall stick was stuck in the ground with a black pirate flag blowing from the top of it. But there seemed to be nobody there. Then, inside their own tents, they saw two figures, kneeling, one with a bow ready to shoot, the other fitting an arrow.

“It’s not the houseboat man,” said Titty. “It’s the pirates from the pirate ship.”

“And in our tents,” said Susan.

“Let’s take them prisoners,” said Roger.

“Hands up,” said the pirate girl from the Amazon, who was in the captain’s tent.

“Hands up yourselves,” cried Captain John, and made as if to leap to his feet. Both the pirates shot off their arrows.

“Now,” shouted John, “before they load again. Swallows for ever!”

The four Swallows were up and half-way across the open space in a moment.

The red-capped Amazons leapt up out of the tents to meet them.

Swallows and amazons 2

commentary: Either you love Swallows & Amazons or you don’t – they seem to induce strong feelings.

I’ve recently been praising Ferdinand Mount and his writings on books, but on Ransome we disagree: he says the books are ‘to be avoided with horror and loathing by any young person with the slightest vestige of humour or subversion’ and he longs for the children therein to be ‘deported to the island in Lord of the Flies.’ He criticizes their middle-classness, their sanitized world – which, tbh, you think he probably shared. Given his background, he hasn’t really got the workingclass credentials to mock child siblings who sail together and play together.

I, on the other hand, am a child of the city, and sailing would have seemed as unlikely as flying in my childhood, but I loved every word of this whole series, and borrowed them repeatedly from the library. (In Mount’s world, he makes clear, they would have been hard-backed books bought as presents for the children.) I asked friends if they had read the books, and those who liked them, loved them – the others couldn’t get on with them at all. No lukewarm feelings here.

There’s been a TV series and two films of Swallows and Amazons – a new one out this year. The previous one, filmed in 1973, lives on in many hearts and you can find a lot of discussion of it on the internet. Mate Susan was played by the intensely beautiful Suzanna Hamilton, who went on to appear as an adult in films such as 1984 and Out of Africa - and I have met her. Sophie Neville, who played Titty, has been interviewed, and has written, about the experience of making the film several times.

The new film has had an extra plotline (about spies) bolted on, and has taken some features from the 1974 film rather than book, but is highly enjoyable. If you can’t thrill to the sight of small dinghies skimming across the water in the Lake District (even if you would hate to be on one) then you are dead inside, and that is that.

The books are still tremendous fun to read, though looking at this as a mother I was faintly horrified by the lack of care and safety. A running joke is that young Roger can’t actually swim, he just pretends to be able to, in order to go on the camping trip. There isn’t a lifejacket in sight as far as I can tell. The author certainly sides with the children, who finds the parents (‘natives’) very dull and liable to worry, and there is a telling and convincing moment when the children nearly blow it by turning up late to collect their milk, of all things.

Some people are quite sniffy about Mate Susan and her interest in cooking and keeping the camp ship-shape - but those are essential skills for outdoor adventurers. And think of Nancy Blackett, the terror of the seas. She was one of my favourite heroines when I was about 10: I’m a lot older now, but I still think she’s great, and that she was an excellent role model. Nothing girly about the adventurous Nancy.

Top picture is a still from the most recent film. The pirate hat is available on etsy

Person in a rowing boat (John? Nancy?) is from the Library of Congress’s collection of views of Britain – it shows Broomhill Point on Derwentwater.