Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Corpse Diplomatique by Delano Ames

pulbished 1950


Corpse Diplomatique 1

[Jane and her husband Dagobert are staying in the South of France, and investigating a crime. She is going for a swim at the beach]

Corpse Diplomatique 2
Just beneath us we had both simultaneously recognized the body of Suzette Рon further inspection she was wearing two bits of beige material which could be called a bathing suit, and stretched beside her was Dagobert. They were eating choux a la cr̬me and chocolate eclairs.

We climbed down the concrete steps and joined them. They were talking animatedly in French, but broke off when they saw us…
Joe retired to a cabin to change while I slipped out of my dressing-gown. I felt over-clad in my one-piece navy blue bathing suit from Harvey Nichols. Suzette examined it in wonder, evidently taking it for some kind of fancy dress. After a moment’s stare she put on her large sun-glasses and returned to the more interesting occupation of picking the scarlet varnish off her toe-nails.

Corpse diplomatique 3

commentary: As sleuthing couples go, Jane and Dagobert aren’t bad – there are worse out there. I’ve covered two other Ames books on the blog - Murder Begins at Home (set on a ranch in New Mexico) and Murder Maestro Please – set in the Pyrenees and with some similar tropes to this one.

Our happy pair are staying in a pension in the south of France: one of the residents, Major Arkwright, is murdered, and Dagobert (for no good reason) decides to investigate. I found the beginning of the book very confusing, and wondered if I’d missed a chapter or two out at one point, as there appeared to have been all kinds of people and events that I had no recollection of. I didn’t really get to the bottom of this, because the narrative picked up and I just carried on, enjoying the weird collection of people assembled in the boarding-house.

Jane is supposedly writing a murder story based on the events, and this was rather meta and very annoying. It also seemed an unexpectedly modern touch, although much else was of its time: everyone drank hugely the whole time, there was a lot of consciously-modern discussion of open marriages, and Jane is not long married and hasn’t yet given up her own passport to have herself added to her husband’s. (Hard to believe, but presumably this was what young women did in those days.)

My friend Col over at the Criminal Library looked at this book last year, and gives a much more coherent idea of the plot than I have. I enjoyed the investigations, but there were rather of the Jessica-Fletcher mode: everyone is given a motive, everyone is suspected in turn, and in the end a solution is pulled out of the hat. But it was an enjoyable read, and as Col says, ‘You get a feel for the life of a small hotel owner and the travelling tourist’, and very much a feel for the times.

The pictures are fashion adverts of the era – I love illos of vintage swimwear – see also this entry on Ellery Queen and these pictures of what to wear over your swimsuitMax Murray’s The King and the Corpse, the book in questions, has some similarities with the Ames – it’s a 1949 murder story set in the South of France…

Friday, 29 July 2016

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

published 2016

Truly Madly Guilty
When she performed she wore heels and long skirts made out of floaty material, wide enough so she could fit the cello between her knees. Seeing Clementine sit with her head bowed tenderly, passionately towards her cello, as if she were embracing it, one long tendril of hair falling just short of the strings, her arm bent at that strange geometric angle, was always so sensual, so exotic, so other to Erika. Each time she saw Clementine perform, even after all these years, Erika inevitably experienced a sensation like loss, as though she yearned for something unattainable. She’d always assumed that sensation represented something more complicated and interesting than envy because she had no interest in playing a musical instrument, but maybe it didn’t. Maybe it all came back to envy.
commentary: I didn’t set out to have a theme in this week’s books and blogposts, but it turned out there was one – this book is very different from The Long and Faraway Gone and Spencer’s List, but the three authors have a shared trait – read on to find out.

I loved two previous Liane Moriarty books – The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies – and so was very happy to read this one, courtesy of the publishers. She specializes in brilliant, hilarious, truthful observations of modern life, and in extremely tense situations and guessing games. This one is particularly difficult to talk about: you know from the beginning that something dreadful happened at a backyard barbeque on a Sunday afternoon. There were six people present, and some children, but you have no idea what happened till a long, long way into the book. Moriarty does well to keep the secret, as the reader tries to guess or work out from the tiny clues along the way. And there are a number of other surprises and revelations along the way. In fairness I can’t say much more about the major incident, and must be a bit vague about some other issues that come up.

So: the book is also a look at friendships, marriages, and different ways of life. It is laugh-out-loud funny, and also tremendously touching and affecting – parts of the ending had me in tears, over a most unexpected character.

As with her other books, the action is in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, and I learned a number of new words such as sunbaker, whipper-snipper, lolly, and galah.

Clementine and Erika, above, are the two women whose friendship is at the heart of the book, and although their particular issues are very specific and unusual, Moriarty’s picture of the ups and downs of friendship, the annoyances and compromises and negotiations, is perfectly done. What might have been formulaic – one messy one not, the question of children, the two mothers, the history of schooldays – is very much not so.

But all the other characters are excellent too – the third couple, Vid and Tiffany, hosts of the BBQ, are tremendous, fully realized and so believable. Tiffany’s sisters, even, not named or numbered, have more personality in their occasional mentions (like a Greek chorus in Tiffany’s life, though mostly in her head) than  leading characters in some other books.

Moriarty shares with two of this week’s other authors - Lou Berney and Lissa Evans -  a striking ability to make someone very annoying on one page, seen through one character’s eyes, and then to turn it round so you see things differently – but without necessarily subverting the earlier view. I will say: all three authors have a good-heart, and a generous way of looking at the world.

The ending is not as harsh as it might have been, and I felt very pleased with that - I think it was a tribute to Moriarty’s characters that I wanted as good an outcome as possible, or at least nothing too bad, after all that had gone before.

The picture of a cellist is from Wikimedia Commons, with this credit: By Nick Thackeray. - photo: Nick Thackeray. May 2007., CC BY-SA 3.0.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Spencer’s List by Lissa Evans

published 2002
Spencer's List

Iris, standing outside the library with her petition, didn’t bother to target the two men who were strolling out of the covered market and along the pavement towards her, but instead turned her attention to a studenty girl who had just crossed the road and was heading towards the post office. The three successive Saturdays that she had spent collecting signatures had turned her from a nervous rookie… to a focused assessor, skilling in predicting the exact response of a given passer-by, homing in on the keen and the weak with ruthless accuracy. She felt she could publish a leaflet on the subject.

The girl was in her early 20s and was wearing a jacket that looked vaguely ethnic. This was a good sign, as were her clumpy lace-up shoes. Other items of clothing that seemed inexplicably linked to an interest in the fate of the library were zipped-up anoraks, hats with brims (this included flat caps) and knitted scarves. It had been a chastening moment when Iris realized that she simply had to look out for people who dressed a bit like her.
commentary: On a not very cheerful day recently, I took down this book hoping for distraction, and entertainment in a re-read.

It succeeded beyond my wildest expectations: I stopped thinking about my problems and cried laughing at the scenes at the Cockney pubs* and at the surprise party. This book is hilarious, charming, clever, heart-warming – it is everything a novel should be. I think I might be Lissa Evans’ biggest fan – see entries all over the blog for proof – which is slightly embarrassing because now I know her, and I feel like a stalker fangirl. But I just am really, and we both have to accept that.

Spencer’s List was her first novel, and follows the lives of three people in London over the course of a year or so. Fran is stuck in a crumbling house in an un-cool part of London: in negative equity and sharing with her brother. Her neighbour Iris is trying to cope with her father and her teenage sons. Spencer has lost a close friend, and is supposed to be getting himself out and about again. The three wander into and out of each other’s storylines to great effect. Evans seems to be able to get under the skin of any character at all – I really don’t know how she wrote so effectively about being the mother of teenage boys when she has no such experience at all. And she has that ability to show you how irritating someone is, and then turn it round so you see them a different way. Tammy McHugh in her tartan skirts and crimson lipstick is a splendid example here. And she knows her clothes, as you can see from the excerpt above.

I think she isn’t given the credit she deserves just because she is so heart-breaking and funny at the same time. She should be on the Booker list or winning the Baileys or Costa prizes. That’s all I can say really – read her. And if you are having a bad day, then she will help you out of it. What could be a higher recommendation?

*This is the Cockney pub:
Sidling into the bar, he had witnessed a group of Japanese businessmen being taught the words to ‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road’ by a man dressed as a chimney sweep.
Libaries always a subject of interest on the blog (Lissa to blame there too). And the fight for libraries continues – the picture is a protest at Friern Barnet in London. You can support them here.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Long And Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

published 2015

[Julianna is following a man she wants some information from]

After a few miles, he stopped at a bar, a big wooden barn of a place, lots of cars and motorcycles in the parking lot. THE DOUBLE R RANCH. Julianna circled the block twice, to give Crowley time, and then parked. She waited. She wanted to go inside and sit invisibly in a dark corner and observe Crowley… She waited until the next group of people entered the bar, three bearded biker dudes and a woman too old for the tight leather miniskirt she was wearing. Julianna slipped in behind them. Inside, the place was dim and crowded and the smoke hung heavy, struggling to rise all the way to the wooden rafters. Music pounded: Led Zeppelin, maybe? Julianna looked for Crowley. He was sitting at the end of the bar. Not watching the mirror behind the bar but instead the shot glass in front of him. He turned it, lifted it, tipped back his head, let the booze roll down his throat. Not rushing anything, a committed drinker.

The barstool next to Crowley was empty. Julianna watched him lean over, heavily, and say something to the woman sitting on the other side of it…

The woman that Crowley was talking to had moved over onto the empty barstool between them. She had one thick brown braid that fell almost to her waist and wore a denim vest, nothing on beneath it.

commentary: Sometimes the stars just align. In the same week, Bernadette at Reactions to Reading and Col at Col’s Criminal Library both recommended this author, so I chose this book and bought it. And I am properly grateful to them both, because I LOVED it – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It has an intricate plot – two crimes in the past, and who-knows-what going on in the present – and two leading characters whose alternating chapters bring joy in every sentence.

Wyatt, a PI, accepts a job because he doesn’t realize till too late that it will take him back to Oklahoma City, where he grew up, and where he was a survivor of a horrible murder. Julianna lives in the city, and has never got over the disappearance of her older sister. Both of them are moving round the area, looking for something, trying to find what’s going on, locked in memories of the crimes that touched them, crimes they have never recovered from.

But both are just great characters, delightful, lovable and funny. I’ve already got hold of another book by Berney, published before this one, but I am so hoping he might be going to do a followup to this one, with more about these people, and about Candace and Haskell and Lyle Finn.

I am amazed at Berney’s ability to write terrific women: Julianna and Genevieve are perfectly drawn, totally believable, real people with a great relationship.

And the book is funny at the most unlikely places:
Wyatt saw the robber check out Karlene as she passed, his eye on her. Just one eye— the rubber pirate mask had a rubber eye patch. It was a terrible mask for a robbery. Who wore a one-eyed mask to a robbery?
The movie theater operated under a special lease— it was a sovereign tenant, the self-important term Mr. Bingham liked to use. The Vatican City of the Pheasant Run Mall.
The crimes in the book are serious and not underplayed, the action and investigation are excellent, very well done. But it seems also that Berney is an old softie, with his ability to see the good in almost everyone, and his basic kindly view of a difficult world.

This was a five-star read, highly recommended.

The red building is a bar in Oklahoma City. Biker girl in a denim vest is Miley Cyrus.  

Monday, 25 July 2016

Ha’penny and Half a Crown by Jo Walton

books 2 and 3 of the Small Change trilogy

(Farthing, Book 1, published 2006, blogpost here)

Ha’penny, book 2, published 2007

Half a Crown, book 3 published 2008

Hapenny 2

[From Ha’penny. Viola, who is about to play Hamlet in front of Hitler, has been invited to an event at the German Embassy in London.]

Mollie explained that she was worried about what I was going to wear to the reception. She’d brought me in the engraved invitation; it had arrived at the flat that morning. There was a swastika embossed into the card…

[Molly said:] ‘I’ve thought what to do about clothes. You could wear your first act costume. It was made for you. And while it isn’t in fashion, it isn’t out of it either, it’s timelessly Elizabethan. And I know it’s finished, because I saw you trying it on.’

Hapenny 1

My first act costume was a dark blue velvet gown trimmed with gold, high-necked – all my Hamlet clothes were high-necked – close fitting and embroidered to the waist, then flaring out below to give me room to do all the things I had to do. The only time I word doublet and hose was at the end because even Antony could see that I couldn’t fence in a skirt. ‘It would look awfully odd,’ I said. It was a rich dark blue and this year’s colours were all beiges and pastels.

Hapenny 3

commentary: These are the 2nd and 3rd books of the Small Change trilogy – Walton’s alternative history books looking at life in England if the UK had made an uneasy peace with Germany in 1940. The first one, Farthing, was on the blog here. TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery first mentioned the books to me, though I think she hasn’t actually reviewed the trilogy as such. I am very grateful to her, because I liked the books enormously, and they are enthralling, thought-provoking page-turners. (Tracy, I believe, liked the middle one least, whereas I liked the third one least.)

Each book has a similar structure: alternating chapters from a 1st person young woman and a 3rd person policeman, Carmichael. The young woman is different in each book.

In Ha’penny Viola Lark is an aristocrat turned actor – she is about to play Hamlet. Her family is plainly based on the Mitfords – it is amazing to me that I can have NOT read this book before now. An alternate history suggesting different futures for the different sisters, along with a thriller plot,, and a production of blog favourite Hamlet – what book could be more up my street?

Farthing resembled a traditional country-house murder mystery. Ha’penny is more of an action thriller: it is obvious from the beginning that there is a plot to kill Hitler at the theatre, and a lot more is told us in the early chapters. Viola is a great character, and I found the scenes in the theatre milieu very absorbing. (With the three books I had to stay up late to finish the books and find out what happened, each time.)

Half a Crown is set in 1960 and the young woman is Carmichael’s ward, a would-be deb without much clue what is going on in the world.

All three books show a world of anti-semitic laws, legalized bullying and deep corruption. There are small, discomfiting details such as people being asked to ‘show their papers’ – not something that happens in the UK outside wartime. Fascists and neo-Nazis are in charge, and the country is sliding farther and farther into a police state. The role of Carmichael is deeply equivocal.

I liked all three books, though the third had an ending which defied belief – although I think perhaps Walton had her reasons. She comes from a fantasy fiction background, and I was interested to read some reviews and critiques of the series from that world. I don’t read much in this genre, not in alternate history, and there are obviously certain rules and structures and ways of looking at the stories…

All three books are full of references to other authors and books – there are rosette-toed pumps for fans of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, a glance at Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, and I did wonder if the deadly-serious Watch owed anything to Terry Pratchett. I’m sure there were many more I didn’t recognize.

A great trilogy, and one I am sure I will read again. Highly recommended. 

Top picture, from NYPL, shows  actress Diane Venora as Hamlet in a scene from the 1982 New York Shakespeare Festival production. (This is, I think, a woman playing a man, whereas in the book, Hamlet has been switched to be a female character).

Second picture: Used it before but it’s so beautiful -  Julia Margaret Cameron’s Ophelia, from George Eastman House.

Third picture: Viola talks a lot about her turquoise dress from Paris – this one is from Kristine’s photostream.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Red Threads by Rex Stout

published 1941


Red threads

[Fabric designer Jane Farris has just taken delivery of a new outfit, and wants to try it on]

She had the lid off and the top garment unfolded and was holding it up for inspection. ‘Oh my God! … Hey what’s that? Oh – snip that thread, will you, Cora? Isn’t it pretty fine?’… She laughed. With the smock off and likewise the dress that had been under it, the pink silk hanging from the shoulder straps left almost as much bare skin displayed as if it had been a fashionable swimming-suit.

The skin was nicely tanned. She touched the pink silk. ‘Have you seen these, Eileen? Brettons are featuring them – they call them Shapesheers! Isn’t that terrible? Sheepshears, Shakespeares – it will haunt you. Cora, please dear, the brown pumps from that cupboard – no, over there – I’m glad it isn’t sweltering, because I do want to show this sort of casually – and oh, I forgot to phone Roberts & Creel to send samples of that two-sixteen mixture - ’

Miss Delaney was emptying a drawer, trying to find stockings to go with the brown pumps.

commentary: I first mentioned this book in one of our Tuesday Night Club entries on Rex Stout, but felt I hadn’t done it full justice. I loved the clothes content of the book – there’s a great description of a fashion show, plenty of detail of how the business works, and a lot about traditional weaving. We find out that eight or ten women in the New York fashion industry earn more than the US President. There is a discussion of whether an outfit should be priced at $200 or $300 – a lot of money in 1941 (still is).

Jane, above, is trying on a jacket and skirt – she has woven the fabric, to incorporate the very-important red threads, which have come from her boyfriend’s vintage (as we might now say) jacket. So it is a striped tweedy material, and that thin red line is going to be vital evidence in a murder investigation. As the proprietor of Clothes in Books, I don’t lightly say this, but it is actually quite difficult to visualize either the boyfriend’s jacket or the suit created by Jane. I wish I knew exactly what Stout had in mind.

Later on Jane wears a ‘straw falcon hat… at an angle that stopped before it touched the tilt of freakishness.’ I don’t know what a falcon hat is…

The designer setup resembles that lodestar of fashion/murder, Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham, over on this side of the Atlantic a year or two earlier – the plots are completely different.

Jane’s undergarment is going to be important again – because she is mugged for the vital clothes, and left to wander round a country estate in her slip.

I did enjoy this book, but feel it really suffered from the lack of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, who would have raised it to higher levels.

Red Threads 2

There’s more discussion of slips in this recent entry on the book that inspired the musical Pajama Game.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Wintle’s Wonders by Noel Streatfeild – Audition Dress

also published as Dancing Shoes

published 1957


[Rachel has to accompany another child from stage school to an audition]

‘What ought I to wear, do you suppose?’ Rachel asked Mrs Storm while Dulcie was out of the room. ‘Is a studio a place where I’ll have to wear my Wonder’s uniform?’

Mrs Storm had no idea what Mrs Wintle Wintle's audition dress 1would have answered to that, but she knew her own feelings.

‘For goodness’ sake don’t, wear what you like, nobody’s going to look at you.’

What Rachel liked was an orange woollen frock, one of the dresses which Uncle Tom had designed for her. Over it she put on a brown coat. She did not wear a hat. Under her arm she carried her favourite book, The Wind in the Willows, which she knew from experience was wonderful for making time disappear.
‘Very nice too’ said Mrs Storm approvingly when she saw Rachel. ‘Those colours suit you.’

commentary: As I’m always saying, the clothes are wonderful in Streatfeild books, nobody does it better, and what you wear to an audition is known to be particularly important. In this case there is a marked contrast between the outfit above and what Rachel had to wear for a previous audition:
[The Wonders’] audition dresses had been designed to make the children look younger than they were, so it was not a kind dress to many of them. They were made of seersucker, very full without a waistline, with frills on the shoulder and round the bottom.
Wintle's audition dress 2

Rachel is going to the studio just because there is no-one to look after her at home: the other (horrible) child, Dulcie, is apparently a shoo-in for the part. Any Streatfeild fan will guess what is going to happen…

I explained in two earlier entries why I thought this was such an unusual book, and why I liked it so much. It is much more cynical and cool than the whole of the recent Babbacombe’s, which was a book for adults supposedly.

And there are few scenes in any of Noel S’s books to match the heart-breaking moment where Rachel is going for an audition, and her sister Hilary (they are unloved orphans) is trying to make her ‘look as if more trouble had been taken over her than any of the others’ even though Rachel doesn’t suit that blooming dress, and doesn’t come close to getting the part. Dulcie openly laughs at her, and it is a dreadful, painful moment. So, when Hilary slaps Dulcie, readers everywhere cheer loudly.

This one seems like all the other Streatfeild books (they are now all published in Shoes titles, as if they were a real series) but actually it is very different. And excellent.

I think the top pictures are probably what the dress did look like, but they are not the pictures I had in my head when I first read it – and I was a child who would have looked particularly awful in the frills dress. I too could imagine a really wonderful plain dress that suited Rachel (and of course me) and I wish I could find the right picture – but it probably exists only in my head, and the heads of every other Wintle’s Wonders reader who knew she was Rachel inside.

Another classic Streatfeild audition-clothes-panic here on the blog.

And this audition blogpost had the helpfully descriptive title ‘Gasp at the Dodie Smith heroine in her Bo Peep outfit’, and an unmissable picture.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Thunderball by Ian Fleming–Part 2

published 1961

James Bond book 9, the 8th full-length novel

thunderball 1

Not bothering to open the low door of the MG, the girl swung one brown leg and then the other over the side of the car, showing her thighs under the pleated cream cotton skirt almost to her waist, and slipped to the pavement…

Thunderball tropical 2Thunderball tropical 3
Thunderball tropical 4Thunderball tropical
He was wearing a very dark blue lightweight single-breasted suit over a cream silk shirt and a black knitted silk tie. Despite the heat, he looked cool and clean, and his only concession to the tropics appeared to be the black saddle-stitched sandals on his bare feet. It was an obvious attempt at a pick-up. He had an exciting face, and authority. She decided to go along.

She wore a gondolier's broadrimmed straw hat, tilted impudently down over her nose. The pale blue tails of its ribbon streamed out behind. On the front of the ribbon was printed in gold “M/Y DISCO VOLANTE .'' Her short-sleeved silk shirt was in half-inch vertical stripes of pale blue and white and, with the pleated cream skirt, the whole get-up reminded Bond vaguely of a sunny day at Henley Regatta. She wore no rings and no jewellery except for a rather masculine square gold wristwatch with a black face. Her flat-heeled sandals were of white doeskin. They matched her broad white doeskin belt and the sensible handbag that lay, with a black and white striped silk scarf, on the seat between them. Bond knew a good deal about her from the immigration form, one among a hundred, which he had been studying that morning. Her name was Dominetta Vitali.

commentary: Earlier entry talked about the strange genesis of Thunderball and its continuing disputes, and dealt with the first part of the story.

Sixty pages in, the proper plot begins, and along comes Blofeld.

And I was almost immediately completely distracted from the plot, by this sentence about Blofeld's early life :
He soon realized, for he was a man of almost mimosaic sensibility in matters of security, that the pace could not possibly last. (my italics)
Mimosaic is an attractive word, but doesn’t seem to exist in any dictionary. Looking for any other uses at all, I found a possibility of, in Bible studies, mi-Mosaic (as in some way not Mosaic, against Mosaic, in the sense of Mosaic Law in the Old Testament). Didn’t seem likely. The only other viable  instance was as a translation of the German phrase
die mimosenhafte Empfindlichkeit der Turken
It is from a book  on German responsibility in the Armenian genocide, and is a quote from  German ambassador of the time,  Count J. Bernstorff - it is translated as ‘the mimosaic sensitivity of the Turks’. So I consulted my friendly team of language experts, who say that it would mean ‘over- or hyper-sensitive’. The reference is to mimosa leaves, which curl up if you touch them.


I was then delighted to find this quotation from a letter from Fleming to his publishers:
“I gratefully note all your cuts and digs and accept them all with the exception of 'mimosaic', a word which I saw somewhere and have taken to my heart. Do please let me leave this in if only to make my readers read at least one of my words twice over.”
He certainly got his way with me, I have spent a lot of time chasing it up, and involved other people.

And perhaps I am deliberately lingering around page 63, because I found the rest of the book rather a disappointment. I liked Bond arriving in the Bahamas, meeting up with Domino (above) and Felix Leiter – but the long dreary chases and fights in the ocean were not enthralling for me.

I enjoyed the distractions – Domino’s long story about the figure on the Players cigarette packet, and Felix’s disquisition on how to make money out of selling Martinis. It reminded me of the wonderful Peg Bracken , who quoted the passage in her Instant Etiquette Book then said ‘Felix Leiter was an admirable private eye, and I couldn’t have been sorrier when he was eaten up by the sharks. But he made a surprising omission here: the tip’. This was her intro to her own section on tipping – excellent.

There’s an odd and rather graceless moment when Felix and James swoop in their tiny plane over a woman sunbathing naked on the roof of a cabin cruiser and Felix says ‘authentic blonde’.

Emilio Largo is a good villain – used his picture from the Thunderball film before, in fact:

Thunderball 3

And I like that his boat is called Disco Volante – Flying Saucer – in an era before, I presume, that Disco meant something else.

And a few questions– I don’t want to be tasteless here, but Domino is tortured using a lit cigar, and ice cubes, ‘applied scientifically’. I don’t know what the ice cubes were for?

And, after giant squids and octopuses in previous books, is Fleming having a game with us by immobilizing Bond with a baby octopus?

And, the ransom letter from SPECTRE: is it meant to be weirdly written and at times incomprehensible:
The whereabouts of this aircraft and of the two atomic weapons, rendering them possible of recovery, will be communicated to you in exchange for the equivalent of £100,000,000 in gold bullion, one thousand, or not less than nine hundred and ninety-nine, fine.
What does that last bit mean? Reads like an unchecked draft?

Bond’s clothes come, of course, where else, from the fabulous and highly-recommended Suits of James Bond website.

Thanks again to the language helpers.

First entry on Thunderball here.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Thunderball by Ian Fleming: Part 1

Published 1961

James Bond book 9, the 8th full-length novel

Thunderball Lippe

[Count Lippe] was extremely handsome – a dark bronzed woman-killer with a neat moustache above the sort of callous mouth women kiss in their dreams.

He was an athletic-looking six foot, dressed in the sort of casually well-cut beige herring-bone tweed that suggests Anderson and Sheppard. He wore a white silk shirt and a dark red polka-dot tie, and the soft dark brown V-necked sweater looked like vicuna. Bond summed him up as a good-looking bastard who got all the women he wanted and probably lived on them—and lived well.
[Patricia] was an athletic-looking girl whom Bond would haveThunderball smock casually associated with tennis, or skating, or show-jumping. She had the sort of firm, compact figure that always attracted him and a fresh open-air type of prettiness that would have been commonplace but for a wide, rather passionate mouth and a hint of authority that would be a challenge to men. She was dressed in a feminine version of the white smock worn by Mr. Wain, and it was clear from the undisguised curves of her breasts and hips that she had little on underneath it. Bond asked her if she didn't get bored. What did she do with her time off?

commentary: After the placesaver of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only (did a blogpost on Quantum of Solace recently) it’s back to the proper books, which suit Fleming and Bond much better, without any doubt. But actually this one still isn’t a full return: Thunderball has a very strange and difficult history, and the lawsuits went on for years.

Briefly: Fleming was very keen for there to be Bond films, and it is hard looking back from the other end to see how difficult it was to achieve this - it seems very surprising but he was working away at it and trying to sell film rights for years. He had complex agent-ing arrangements, he wondered if TV was the way to go, or a different series character. In the midst of all this, a film producer told him that none of the books to date was really suitable: what was needed was a brand new treatment, a plot and story designed for a filmscript. Four people (apparently) were involved in what came next: Ian Fleming, his friend Ivar Bryce, producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham came up with an idea for an adventure involving an underwater shenanigans around the Bahamas.

Nothing came of the film (at that time) and Fleming needed a new book, and took parts of the plot and turned it into the novel we are considering now. McClory tried to get an injunction to stop the book being distributed – that failed, but a subsequent court case did give him certain rights over the story and book. That didn’t stop the lawsuits, which went on for years.

The eventual producers of the Bond films we know didn’t want to mess with Thunderball while the court cases were ongoing, and so (apparently almost randomly) Fleming suggested Dr No.

When Thunderball did come to be made, McClory had the right to be involved in the production, which he took up, and also the rights to a ‘remake but not sequel’ – which is where that odd, non-canon, Never Say Never Again came from in 1983.

The whole story is strange and twisting and actually fascinating and sad. There is a whole book just on the case – The Battle For Bond by Robert Sellers, a book that the Fleming estate attacked, forcing the pulping of one edition. Most of my information comes from a riveting and highly recommended piece by Len Deighton called James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for his Father, some of which is in an introduction to the Sellers book. Are you keeping up with this? – I am the least likely person to be explaining this, but I did find it riveting.

Whatever the ins and outs, I found this one odd and think I could have guessed there was something strange about its genesis. For a start there is a terrific opening third (one I remembered well over the years) featuring Bond in a duel of wits at a health farm, Shrublands. Those wits aren’t up to much: Bond tries to do some research in an easily overheard phone conversation in a public phone booth, alerting the enemy. But it’s good knockabout stuff: the problem being that it has only the most tenuous connection with the rest of the book. The man he defeats, Count Lippe, described above, is vital to the wicked Thunderball plan, and as a result the plan is delayed by several days. That’s it.

My favourite line here is when Bond has left the health farm with its tiresome regime: that night he
[scores] a most satisfactory left and right of Spaghetti Bolognese and Chianti at Lucien’s in Brighton and of Miss Patricia Fearing [the masseuse above] on the squab seats from her bubble car high up on the Downs.
The glamour is almost too bright for the reader’s eyes. Although she has been massaging him with special mink-covered gloves:

Thunderball mink glove

Earlier on, Bond was seen to be
executing a passable Veronica
- which doesn’t mean that he killed off a random young woman: it’s a matador’s move, and the only way that he could save Patricia from the path of an oncoming car.

There’s something very English about this section, along with the cool young man whose ambition in life would be to become Tommy Steele. I enjoyed it all hugely, but was then ready to head off for the Bahamas as the real plot began… More later this week.

The man in the suit is a young-ish Laurence Olivier, and he is wearing Anderson and Sheppard tweed.

The young woman is advertising modern spa-wear from My first thought was to find a still from a Carry On film for Patricia, but I decided to give her some respect. And there weren’t any good pictures anyway, disappointingly.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

published 1995


I decided I had to see Angier's new illusion for myself, and when I heard at the end of October that he was starting a two-week residence at the Hackney Empire I quietly bought myself a ticket for the stalls. The Empire is a deep, narrow theatre, with long constricted aisles and an auditorium kept fairly well in the dark throughout the performance, so it exactly suited my purposes. My seat had a good view of the stage, but I was not so close that Angier was likely to spot me there.

I took no exception to the main part of his performance, in which he competently performed illusions from the standard magical repertoire. His style was good, his patter amusing, his assistant beautiful, and his showmanship above average. He was dressed in a well-made evening suit, and his hair was smartly brilliantined to a high gloss. It was during this part of his act, though, that I first observed the wasting that was affecting his face, and saw other clues that suggested an unwell state. He moved stiffly, and several times favoured his left arm as if it were weaker than the other.

Finally, after an admittedly amusing routine that involved a message written by a member of the audience appearing inside a sealed envelope, Angier came to the closing illusion. He began with a serious speech, which I scribbled down quickly into a notebook. Here is what he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen! As the new century moves apace we see around us on every side the miracles of science. These wonders multiply almost every day. By the end of the new century, which few here tonight shall live to see, what marvels will prevail? Men might fly, men might speak across oceans, men might travel across the firmament. Yet no miracle which science may produce can compare with the greatest wonders of all… the human mind and the human body.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I will attempt a magical feat that brings together the wonders of science and the wonders of the human mind. No other stage performer in the world can reproduce what you are about to witness for yourself!
With this he raised his good arm theatrically, and the curtains were swept apart. There, waiting in the limelight, was the apparatus I had come to see.

Prestige 2

commentary: The Prestige – as in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film featuring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman – is one of my favourites: wonderfully eerie and clever and mystifying, and despite its surprises and revelations, a film you can watch over and over again.

There are differences between book and film, and the book has a strange framing device in modern times – it is not really resolved, and I think Nolan did well to ditch it. But the book is just as fascinating and strange as the film. Both tell the story of competing magicians around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The two men get caught up in a ridiculous escalating war (given a better motive in the film) and at the heart of their rivalry is their wish to perform a Transported Man illusion: one where a person is visible at one moment, then re-appears somewhere else completely. They go about achieving this in quite different ways. To say more would be to spoiler.

It is clear that the author is very knowledgeable about the world of magicians, the illusions they perform and the historical era – and also that he has an amazing imagination: the story is intricate and powerful and also wide-ranging and very very clever.

Both film and book excel at creating an atmosphere, and tell their complex stories without too much confusion. I would highly recommend both…

The posters are from the Billy Rose collection at the NYPL.

Another great magician book is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, on the blog a while back.

And of course Elly Griffiths’ second series (after Ruth Galloway) features illusionist Max Mephisto – see for example Zig Zag Girl, also with excellent magician pictures on the blogpost.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Silver Intervenes

published 1943


Miss Silver Intervenes

Mrs Spooner’s letter arrived at breakfast time next day. Meade read it, and enquired in a laughing voice, ‘What on earth is a spencer?’

It was a bright sunny morning. Her heart laughed and sang. Her cheeks had colour and her voice lilted *. Everything in the garden was quite extraordinary lovely.

Mrs Underwood, looking across the table, said, ‘Good gracious – he’s not writing to you about underwear, is he?’

‘It’s not Giles – it’s Mrs Spooner. She wants a spencer out of her chest of drawers, and I shouldn’t know one if I saw it. What do I look for?’

‘It’s an underbodice – long sleeves and high neck – at least they’re generally that way. What does she want it for?’

Meade’s eyes danced. ‘To wear under her uniform now that the evenings are getting chilly.’…

She found the spencer at once. It was a horrible affair of natural wool with mother-of-pearl buttons down the front and a crochet edging round the high neck. It smelled of napththalene. It would certainly be warm, but oh dear, how it would tickle! She hung it on her arm and came out upon the landing, to find the door of the opposite flat wide open and Miss Roland standing there.

[ *  note: it actually says ‘filted’ in my edition. I’m guessing lilted? Anyone confirm or have a better idea?]

Miss Silver Intervenes 2

commentary: I read this book for one reason only: to find out if my 1944 book (for Crimes of the Century) The Clock Strikes Midnight spoilers it. In that book (on the blog this month), Miss Silver is praised for having solved another murder, the one here, and someone is named. I was curious as to how much of a spoiler this was. And the answer is – 50/50: the name mentioned does not occur till a long way in, but one element of the name does give a clue. Is that all clear then?

Doesn’t matter. The book was vintage Miss Silver and stands up well. It is wartime: in a small block of flats in London, people are coping as best they can. Mrs Spooner (above) never appears – she has gone into the ATS while her husband does other war work. Meade (where does Wentworth get her heroine names from?) lives with her aunt after a bereavement. There is ‘a very devoted couple – one of those finicky little men, always getting up to open the door for you, and taking the temperature of the bath water, and putting new washers in the taps – got on my nerves.’

There are eight flats, so it is actually just about feasible to keep track of them all.
The lady at the top is no lady: she is up to no good. You can tell because this is her outfit for an evening of bridge-playing:
Black satin trousers, a green and gold top, and emerald earrings about half a yard long.
Eventually there is a murder in the block of flats. Just as with the night-wanderers in The Clock Strikes Twelve, every blessed person of interest manages to put his or her self in the frame by visiting the flat of death at around the vital time.

There is blackmail, amnesia, lost partners, incriminating letters: all the essentials of a good murder story. I guessed one of the plot twists very easily, and the murderer more or less by elimination. But the picture of London in wartime was very nicely done - this is the perfect book for those of us who like homefront books, and I think TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery would enjoy it.  

As always, Wentworth has good clothes descriptions. There is a splendid moment where a putupon daughter, patient slave to a tyrannical mother, finally snaps and breaks free, ready to change her entire life, apparently mostly because of her desire for a beautiful skirt her mother is trying to claim: ‘in one of the soft shades between brown and sand with the least coral fleck in it.’ I think we can all sympathize with that.

I was interested to find an early appearance of this language construction – Miss S is trying to track down the blackmailer:
‘She gave you no clue as to the person’s identity? Not even by the use of a pronoun? She never said he or she?’
Ella shook her head. ‘No, it was always they. “They think they can do this or that, but I’ll show them” – you know how one talks. It isn’t grammar, but everyone does it.’
-people tend to think this is a very modern thing, a sign of the degeneration of life.

As Mrs Underwood says, a spencer should be long-sleeved and high-necked, but it is very difficult to find any picture of exactly that, so this is a selection of skimpier thermals described as spencers. The small second picture that looks right is actually a cheat – note lack of scale in the photo: these two are baby garments.

The Vintage Knitting Lady has a quite splendid collection of knitting patterns to mull over.

Miss Silver’s underwear was the main topic in one of my favourite blogposts of last year, and there are plenty more Wentworth books on the blog - click on label below.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Joint Lists: Books Set in Universities and Colleges

Academic list 4
We’re off to find the right books…

Writer Christine Poulson and I enjoy doing joint lists and joint reviews: when the idea came up of doing a list of books set in universities and colleges, we actually had to check that we hadn’t done it before – it is SO MUCH the kind of topic we both love, and love to compare notes on. But we haven’t till now – so here goes. 

As usual, Chrissie is posting her list at the same time, and here is the link to her post.

Eight Excellent Reads set in Higher Education


–  no particular order. Links to reviews  on this blog where available.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Contrary to what we all remember, quite a small proportion of Brideshead Revisited takes place at Oxford. Waugh creates the idyll and the relationship, and then the story moves on over many years and places. But still – that’s the picture we have of the book. My favourite part is the page or two on advice to the undergraduate - all of it is hilarious, but Cousin Jasper wins the prize:
'Don't treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home... You'll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first...Beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm...'
Finally, just as he was going, he said, 'One last point. Change your rooms … I've seen many a man ruined through having ground-floor rooms in the front quad,' said my cousin with deep gravity.

Academic list
Taking notes and paying attention
All Souls by Javier Marias

Marias is a great author: the pride of Spain, and not known nearly enough in the UK. I said about him before: It’s hard to know who the British equivalent of Javier Marias might be: he is a wonderful novelist, something of a superstar in his own country, and an academic, and he has also translated many classic English authors into Spanish. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that you can’t imagine Ian McEwan or Martin Amis doing a new version of Don Quixote.

My favourite of his books is A Heart So White, but I also love this one for its fabulous take on the foreigner-in-Oxford meme. It’s a charming book, and you never know where it is going next. The narrator is a visitor to the college of All Souls – and it seems not unreasonable to think that some of it might be semi-autobiographical…

The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

Trease wrote marvellous YA books – historical fiction, and the modern series of which this was the final entry. He wrote from the 1930s through to the 1990s, but I think the 50s was his best era. In this book, old friends Penny and Bill go off to Oxford from their grammar schools in the Lake District – there’s the usual collection of stories of college days, and the way friendships change, and a historical mystery as a diversion. When I re-read these books recently, I was surprised and impressed by how feminist they were: Trease himself was always overtly political and leftwing, but that by no means always went along with an interest in women’s rights. But his female characters are ambitious and delightful. And Penny wears tangerine slacks

Academic list 2
The height of technology, and of fashion sense

King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

A slice-of-life novel set in the West Country, but with a strong connection with a local university, a lot of academics around. I said in a review:

The book is reputed to have made Philip Hensher very unpopular in Exeter and at its university (to the point of his leaving?), where people saw it as an unflattering picture of them. But it is truly a picture of England today, and a majestic overview of the good and the bad.

My favourite plot strand was where the sharp Miranda was asked by one of her students for leeway, because ‘her parents are getting divorced and she is upset’. Miranda’s response to that is beyond perfect, even if it gets her into trouble – she writes to the parents…

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Most of this book is not, admittedly, set in academia, but the glimpses of Oxford life via Fanny’s marriage to the academic Alfred are hilarious and convincing. The dinner parties on the Banbury Rd, the undergraduates, the don’s wives and lives…

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

Having recently done Tuesday Night Club on academic mysteries, I am tending to avoid murder stories in this list. But this one earns its place by means of its absolutely wonderful, and hysterically funny, picture of bitchy academic politics, hatreds and relationships.

Academic list 3
The joys of the common room

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

I have a soft spot for this one, because it is set at Durham University, where I was a student many years ago. She writes wonderfully well about universities, about the Church of England, about religion in general. But most of all, she writes wonderfully well about people: I wish she was better known. Nowadays she writes about an imaginary diocese called Lindchester – two books so far, and a third one being written and sent out online every week. (Catch up and then sign up, and it will appear in your inbox every Sunday night.)

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

An odd book, and theoretically a memoir, but he has plainly fictionalized it a lot. It’s a very patchy read, but the best bits are very good – membership of the film society, being an extra on a film, and his decision to write some of his Finals answers in rhyme:
The Papal sanction menaced the unwilling;
they too would have to lend a hand at killing.


So there’s my eight: the only problem with Chrissie’s and my joint ventures is that we tend to agree on so many things, and choose the same books. Looking forward to heading over to her blog in the hopes that this time we might have a varied selection - and yes, it looks like we have.

And of course should say that Chrissie wrote a marvellous series of academic mysteries featuring her sleuth Cassandra James – they are highly recommended, and you can find out more on her blog.

All the pictures are from the LSE Library collection – as I’ve said before this is a marvellous resource for anyone looking for pictures of studious persons of the past…