first published 2014, though written in the 1950s
[Trouble at a London performance of a top ballet company – the policeman goes backstage]
They pushed their way past a few members of the corps de ballet – girls who wore peasant costume for the first act of Giselle. Seen near at hand their heavily made up faces looked strange and he knew that already a rumour of disaster must have reached them. A murmur rippled through them as he passed with Lucien Darielle.
He caught a glimpse of the stage and the scenery for Giselle – the two cottages and the backcloth of hills and a distant castle – and also glimpsed what he had read of but never seen before; dancers warming up, chatting and wandering about behind the lowered curtains….
[he enters the dressing room] There was something fantastic about the sight of Sarne Saxilby, with her smooth black hair spreading out amongst the pots of greasepaint.
She was wearing Giselle’s peasant costume, the blouse of which left her neck and the upper part of her back bare…
commentary: Some of us round here (and you know who you are, Kate and Bernadette) are getting far too tied up in the Greyladies Press, who have the irresistible marketing line of Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone. I myself have both reviewed Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders (I mean, just the title tells all) and lured in Bernadette (I think Kate has only herself to blame). And after this I will have to get The Chimney Murder by EM Channon, which both of them have read. I have also been dabbling in their Susan Scarlett books – the lost oeuvre of Noel Streatfeild. And, there’s a book called Gin and Murder which sounds like a must-read.
And here we have what must be an archetypal Greyladies book. It was written in the 50s by Mabel Esther Allan (whom I associate with children’s books) but not published until Greyladies discovered it recently. We have a splendid Scottish policeman, DI Ewen Gilbride, who happens to be at the ballet the night the prima ballerina is murdered. Luckily he is an expert not only on ballet but on folk customs too, which turns out to be nearly relevant.
He interviews all the friends, relations and colleagues of the dead woman. He visits France and Italy in pursuit of witnesses. And in the end he solves the crime.
I enjoyed the whole thing hugely – it did not shock, or amaze, or startle me, there was nothing complicated or difficult about it. The writing style – and this is not an insult – was rather like a 1950s YA book. But it was a nice comfort read, and absolutely full of fascinating details of its time and milieu. When an up-and-coming but very young star dancer comes to be interviewed, Gilbride
had vague ideas that she might appear in slacks and a pullover. However when she came she wore a black fur coat over a turquoise blue frockA nice distinction to show a moment in the timeline of the theatrical world.
After another witness interview, Gilbride thinks:
[Dale] looked, on first acquaintance, a man of integrity, but he also looked a man of strong passions. Perhaps not entirely English. Ewen made a mental note to look up [his] history… Foreigners were not always necessarily more passionate than Englismen but he was obviously deeply in love…When Ewen finally gets home to his beautiful violinist wife
The sight of her slim figure in the graceful full-skirted blue velvet housecoat lifted his heartIt sounds a lovely garment, and the two of them and the housecoat belong to a simpler, statelier time. There is a moment where Ewen uses religious beliefs and practices to get to the truth of something – you just can’t imagine it now.
The book is prefaced by a rather interesting account from Mabel Esther Allan of her writing career: she was amazingly prolific, but also took it in her stride that some of her books remained unpublished.
I will certainly be looking out for more from her, and anything else Greyladies offers.
And this is for Wendy, in memory of a trip to see Giselle, without any murders, but quite as dramatic in its way.
Janet Karin as Giselle and Kaye Goodson as Berthe, 1962.
Anna Pavlova in her Act 1 costume for Giselle, and dancing Act 2.
All from the archives of the National Library of Australia.
Louis MacNiece’s lovely poem Les Sylphides was on the blog a few years ago with another great picture from the NLA.