Monday, 31 October 2016

Halloween Parade with Zombies


the book:  The Long And Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

published 2015

Halloween Long and Faraway 2

[Halloween parade in Oklahoma City]

Night fell. The crowds along Broadway built. Wyatt had to squeeze his way through the park across from the old newspaper building. By the time he reached Bricktown and the bleachers set up in the parking lot across from the baseball stadium, the marching band at the head of the parade— their plumed shakos splattered with fake blood, of course— had caught and passed him. They played a slow, gloomy version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” from the Broadway musical Oklahoma! A nice touch. Wyatt found a seat in the bleachers and watched the rest of the parade from there. The ballerinas in the graveyard twirled and scissor-kicked. A squadron of drag queens buzzed by on roller skates. The German shepherds, released from their truck, trotted somberly past in tight formation, their tarantula legs jiggling. A dozen demonic clowns piled out of a slow-moving hearse. And then back in. And then back out. Some of the floats were charmingly half-assed. One was just a beat-up old Chevy with a pair of beach balls glued to the hood and painted to look like eyeballs. The crowd applauded everyone and everything. After an hour or so, flames began to flicker in the dark distance, beneath the Bricktown bridge. Wyatt heard the hollow boom and shiver of a gong. A current of anticipation ran through the spectators on the sidewalks, up through the bleachers. The people around Wyatt stood, so he stood, too.

Halloween  Long and faraway

Here came the Marching Zombies. Until now Wyatt had seen only the unpainted papier-mâché heads. Now he got the full effect— crazed eyes, convincingly rotted and bloodstained teeth, missing chunks of cheek and jowl. The oversize heads were three or four times the size of a normal head, so when you added in the stilts, each zombie was nine or ten feet tall. And there had to be at least a hundred of them, tiki torches ablaze, lurching forward with every beat of the gong. Wyatt had to admit it was pretty damn impressive.

Halloween Long and Faraway 3

commentary: I loved this book, which I blogged on earlier in the year. It is a superb thriller/crime story, it is very funny, and the writing is wonderful. I’m not a great one for descriptions, particularly in what I hope is a fast-moving crime book, but Berney completely won me over. He’s a very visual writer, I really could imagine the scenes he portrays, and by the end I felt as if I knew Oklahoma City well. These few lines come just before the excerpt above:
The sun dropped beneath the horizon and then detonated, torching the racks of clouds stacked up above the downtown skyline. Wyatt had forgotten how quickly, in the vast empty sky of the southern plains, the ordinary could turn so flamboyant.
- marvellous writing.

The Halloween Parade doesn’t truly advance the plot much – our hero Wyatt merely needs to talk to somebody after it finshes – but it’s a memorable part of the book.

The dancing zombie is in New Orleans, and the second picture shows other Halloween participants in the same city. The walking zombies are from Pelotas, Brazil. All pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Halloween Clothes…




the book: Six Were Present by ER Punshon
published 1956
Six were present

Mrs. Outers was sitting up in bed, propped against pillows. She was wearing a woollen bed-jacket and looked pale and ill. Not to be wondered at, Bobby thought. But what struck him immediately, and far more forcibly, was a certain serenity in her expression, an air of peace as it were— or was it resignation?— that surrounded her, as if now she knew the worst had happened and there was nothing more to fear. “The doctor,” she said after a word or two of greeting, “told me I wasn’t to talk to you for more than two or three minutes, but I don’t think I shall mind very much about that. I feel quite strong, and then he seemed so much more fussy than he is generally.”

six were present 3
“That’s Cousin Owen,” Rosamund put in, still disapprovingly. “He upset him terribly.”

“All in the way of duty,” Bobby explained with no great outward show of contrition. “Duty comes first.”

six were present 2

commentary: Not very Halloween-y pictures, you might be thinking. But a very Halloween-y book, and a clothes connection you might not be expecting – see below.

I’ve done a piece for the Guardian newspaper on séances fortune-telling and general spiritualist mumbo jumbo in books – and this post is another celebration of that.

It’s the last of ER Punshon’s Bobby Owen mysteries – I featured a 1936 one on the blog earlier this year: Punshon is definitely an author who deserves to be rediscovered.

This one has a murder during a séance in a locked room in a lonely tumbledown tower. Six people survive the séance, while one man lies dead. One of the best features of the book is the murder weapon, which I can’t reveal without spoilering (and be careful if you read about the title – some references can’t resist telling us the secret). The plot also has an interesting background in Africa, with some discussion of witch doctors and native powers and beliefs. The book divides – there are some very wince-making notions of the time, including objectionable language about black people and attitudes to physical disability. But at the same time, Punshon shows people rejecting dire colonial views. One character says:
‘I was trying to get at what the Africans really thought, giving them the idea there might be something worthwhile in their beliefs instead of teaching them their own ideas were all wrong, all evil, and they must learn European beliefs, ways, thoughts.’
Probably a rare view in 1956, and I loved this description of a medicine-man:
The Africans said he was older than anyone had ever been before. They said he was kept alive because the dark powers feared that if he joined the dead people they might become too strong and he would lead them back into the world again.
There is also mention of the Hand of Glory, a Black magic item well worth looking up on Wikipedia, and something that has featured in the Harry Potter books and in Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys.

Unfortunately this whole strand – including a mysterious voice talking in a language known to only a handful people in England – rather peters out, and so far as I could tell, quite a few aspects of the case were left completely unexplained. I don’t know if I was missing something here, but I finished the book having no idea where the voice came from. I also felt that we didn’t learn the ultimate fates of many of the characters, particularly what might become of the excellently grumpy young woman Rosamund, one of the main characters.

Bobby Owen, our hero, is always entertaining, and even his pompousness is revealing - someone he dislikes is
evidently a devotee of the new fashion of addressing all and sundry by their Christian names.
With an un-co-operative doctor:
Some doctors were always inclined to think their duty to their patients came before their duty to the law. And then this particular doctor had twice been summonsed and fined for small parking and speeding offences.
There are almost no clothes mentioned in this book - very disappointing as Punshon’s The Bath Mysteries had quite splendid clothes. But luckily Clothes in Books has something of an obsession with bedjackets – see here and here with links to more – and it seems our customers do too, there are particularly good comments on this post. So I was happy to go with this extract.

Pinterest has the most wonderful collection of pictures of bedjackets of all kinds. Do you know the way Halloween costumes are divided up in serious costume shops in the US – sexy witch, pretty witch, scary witch, ugly witch? Well – and here’s my real Halloween connection – I think you could classify the bedjacket pictures on the web in the same way. (Or you could give them Spice Girls names I suppose.)

There is a very sweet pattern at the vintage knitting site which has matching bedjackets for mother and baby, a lovely idea, I wish that was a thing now. Whereas picture number 3 above – from the same site – well, she has a look in her eye doesn’t she? I think Miss Marple would say it was a ‘Come hither’ look.

One last extraordinary if tangential item: At the back of this book there is a list of crime fiction, much of it from long ago, and long-forgotten. The one that caught my eye was ‘Murder among the Nudists — A mystery from 1934 by Peter Hunt, featuring a naked Detective-Inspector going undercover in a nudist colony.’

WHY is this book not in print? I naturally immediately tried to find it, but there are only very expensive copies online, and I am so longing to read it. Surely it would be worth someone’s while to reprint – wouldn’t we all buy it? I’m pretty certain you could crowdfund a new edition – you could probably Kickstart a film of it with enough publicity…

Friday, 28 October 2016

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

published 2012

WAAF Mechanics
The ground crew was aghast at the idea of a girl flying the broken Lysander.

‘She won’t be strong enough. With the tail set for take-off yon slip of a lass won’t be able to hold the stick hard for’ard enough for landing. Don’t know if anyone could.’

‘Someone landed it here,’ Maddie pointed out. She’d already been given the chit for the job and wanted to leave while she could still see the Pennines. ‘Look, I’ll just set it neutral by hand before I get in. Easy peasy –’


And she gently pushed the tail into place, stood back and dusted her hands on her slacks (navy, with an Air Force blue shirt and navy tunic and cap). The mechanics were still frowning, but they’d stopped shaking their heads. ‘It’ll be a pig to fly,’ Maddie said. ‘I’ll just keep the climb-out and landing nice and long and shallow. Come in fast, 85 knots, and the automatic flaps’ll stay up. It’s not too windy. Should be fine.’


commentary: There’s a slight issue with books like this. If I say ‘I don’t know why it is described as Young Adult’ that sounds as though I’m putting down the idea of YA, and that would be far from my intention. But really, this book is as good, and as compelling, and as adult, as many of the straight or literary novels I have read this year. It is an immensely clever book, and one that lingers in the mind.

It’s about two young women who as they grow up find themselves in the middle of WW2: the first half of the book has one of them, Verity/Queenie/Julia, captured in France: she is in German hands, being interrogated and accused of spying, and she is writing the story of her life as a ‘confession’. She tells of her life, and her friendship with Maddie. The second half of the book looks at Maddie’s version of what happened: Maddie is a working-class girl, obsessed with flying, who joins the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and then moves on to the Air Transport Auxiliary, where she could fly. Verity is part of the Special Operations Executive.

On Reflection...Join the WAAF

The book gives a great picture of life in Britain in the 1930s, of the class divide, and of the way the war changed things. At the same time it has a thriller-esque plot of spying, secrets and mysteries, and – as must be obvious – two terrific female lead characters. I defy anyone to start reading the book and not get caught up in it: you will certainly end up whizzing through the final sections, and shouting things at the book and the characters and the author.

There are wonderful descriptions in the book, such as this, with Maddie and Verity going out on her motorbike:
But for five minutes Cheshire seemed green and sparkling. Maddie’s granddad owns a bike shop and he got some black market petrol for her specially when I visited. I am putting this down (even though it’s nothing to do with Aircraft Types) because it proves that I know what I’m talking about when I describe what it was like for Maddie to be alone at the top of the world, deafened by the roar of four winds and two cylinders, with all the Cheshire plain and its green fields and red chimneys thrown at her feet like a tartan picnic blanket.
I loved this book: I’m sure I will read it again, and I strongly recommend it to anyone, but particularly anyone looking for fabulous, strong female characters.

The top painting is from the War Artists collection at the IWM: it is an oil painting by Charles Ernest Cundall and shows WAAFs working on aircraft.

The black and white photo shows an ATA pilot, Pauline Gower, delivering a plane in 1940.

The colour photo, from 1942, shows a woman pilot in an Avro Anson, the plane Maddie trains on.

The recruiting poster, like the others, is (of course) from the wonderful Imperial War Museum.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Author Interview with Christine Poulson


One of my favourite authors is Christine Poulson – who for a long time combined a career as an academic and art historian with writing excellent modern mysteries. We got to know each other online because of my enthusiasm for her books – and so she is now a friend. We share a lot of tastes in books, and have done joint blog booklists and joint reviews. You can see some of her appearances at Clothes in Books here. (We both enjoy these projects enormously, but we actually wish we could disagree more. One time, with a whole world of books to choose from, and no conferring, our lists were pretty much identical…)

She has a new book out this week, Deep Water, the first book in a new series. I am looking forward to reading it, and will blog on it then, but thought it would be a good idea to mark its publication with an interview with the author, and Chrissie graciously agreed. So here we go:

Moira: So – I have my copy but haven’t read it yet. I don’t need any persuading, but how would you sell your book to other readers, what’s it about?

Christine: A cure for obesity, worth billions. A death in a clinical trial. When patent lawyer Daniel Marchmont agrees to act for Calliope Biotech, he doesn’t know what he’s getting into. The first lawyer on the case is dead, and a vital lab book is missing. Daniel and his wife Rachel are hoping biotechnology will also provide a cure for their daughter Chloe, who suffers from a devastating genetic disorder. But events take a turn they could not have anticipated . . .

Meanwhile researcher Katie Flanagan working alone at night in the lab begins to suspect that something sinister is going on . .

M: Sounds most intriguing. A departure from your academic mysteries, but does it have similarities with your 2014 standalone book, Invisible?

C: My first thought was that they are both suspense novels rather than whodunits, but don’t otherwise have a lot in common. On reflection though, I see that they both have at their heart the parent-child relationship, which I find endlessly fascinating. In both the natural protectiveness of parents towards their children is heightened – perhaps even distorted - by their circumstances. In Invisible, Lisa has a son with cerebral palsy, while in Deep Water, Daniel and Rachel are desperate for a cure for their daughter’s rare blood disease.
M: You have had a very difficult few months: your husband the distinguished architectural historian Peter Blundell Jones died after a very short illness. That must be very hard. Was he a helpful reader of your crime novels?

C:  Peter could always tell me what kind of car my characters would drive, something I didn’t have a clue about! And I could rely on him for advice about anything technical. As for reading what I had written, he could be a pretty fierce critic and I used to save him up for my final drafts.
But perhaps what I will most miss is his robust attitude and his belief in me. Some years ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology of horror stories. I was inclined to say no, feeling that it wasn’t really my thing and I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Peter wasn’t having any of it. ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘So write something!’ And I did.

M: Do you have a regular writing routine?

C: Yes, I try to keep every morning clear when I’m writing. Ideally I go straight to my desk after breakfast and don’t even look at my emails until I have a break mid-morning. How often do I do that? Well, I did say ideally . . .

M: You were an art historian and academic – have you given up the day job... ?

C: It is quite a while since I did any teaching or wrote an academic paper. But art is still very important to me. I love visiting galleries and exhibitions. I found teaching rewarding, but it is a luxurious feeling, knowing that I don’t have to explain anything to anyone any more.

M: Your new book is first of a series, which is good news. But – and I know this might be a question an author hates – is there any chance of a return of Cassandra James, your wonderful Cambridge University sleuth...?

C: You’re not the first to ask me this, and I am always flattered. I have a very soft spot for Cassandra. But I am up against the realities of publishing. Publishers don’t like to take on books mid series – unless of course they have been hugely successful. And Robert Hale who published the Cassandra James books are no longer in business. So I doubt if there are going to be any more. Short stories are another matter and I would love to revisit Cassandra in that form.

M: Thanks Chrissie, and good luck with the new book.

Deep Water is available in Paperback fromLion Fiction | Book Depository | Amazon | Hive | Waterstones
And in eBook from Kindle | Kobo
Christine Poulson’s webpage is here, and you can find her  blog, A Reading Life, at the same site.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Holmes and Costumes

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 October is:

Crime in Costume

- with a subhead of Masks and Masquerade

Tuesday Night Bloggers Costume

Thanks to Bev for the usual great logo, and to Kate for yet again volunteering to collect the links – see them over at her Cross-Examining Crime blog.

Earlier in the month I looked at Fancy Dress Balls and Parties in crime fiction, and last week my theme was harlequin and columbine.  

The other tempting theme would be theatrical costumes – but we are trying to avoid those (leaving them for another Tuesday Night theme) so I decided to look instead at one of the great costume parties in crime fiction, from the Sainted Dame Gladys.

This is pretty much a re-run of an entry I did three years ago, with nods at another one, but it seems to me the book, and the party within it, are worth another look, as surely every fan of traditional crime fiction would think this the dream event, and would love to be invited to a Sherlock Holmes costume party. The Tuesday Night Club should organize one.

Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell

published 1955

[Mrs Bradley and Laura Menzies are involved in a country house party featuring a Sherlock Holmes fancydress party]

Laura… invited Mrs Dance into her room and displayed the outfit of Mrs Grant Munro. ‘Not really my kettle of fish,’ Laura mournfully observed. ‘Wish now I hadn’t taken it on. I’ve been re-reading the script, and it seems to me that something in the line of Miss Mary Sutherland would suit me ever so much better. I’m big enough, goodness knows, and I’d adore to wear a boa and a picture hat, and look good-hearted and common…’

‘Mrs Grant Munro?’ said the enraptured Mrs Dance, eyeing Laura’s preparations. ‘Married to an African, and a black baby thrown in for good measure? My dear, this is where we change parts! It may take us all night and all to-morrow morning to make over the clothes, but who cares? And dear Bobo will be frantic at having his arrangements upset, and I do love him when he’s frantic!’

‘Here, I’m not a bit of good in the dressmaking line,’ said Laura hastily, alarmed by the suggestion that needlework would be involved in the changeover.

‘No need. I have a certain genius that way...'

So, to Sir Bohun’s inarticulate fury, Mrs Dance, mischievous and pretty, appeared as the adventurous, experimental Mrs Grant Munro, and Laura scored a major success as the inhibited, faithful, cruelly misled bride-left-at-the-altar, Miss Mary Sutherland, boa, picture-hat, and all. This shock to the host came at a bad time. No sooner had Mrs Dance first broken the news to Sir Bohun that she and Laura had changed costumes than she added that she refused to dine wearing her bustle...

observations:  Clothes in Books does love a fancy dress party in a crime novel, and this is an exceptionally good one, not subject to my frequent complaints that not enough is made of the party.

The interest starts with Mrs Bradley’s discussion with Laura on receiving the invitation:
‘We are to go in fancy dress, it seems. Each one of us is to represent a personage in a Sherlock Holmes story.’
‘Really? Bags I Irene Adler! Didn’t she appear as “a slim youth in an ulster” towards the end of the affair?’ [see also blogpost here]
‘Irene Adler is already provided for. Sir Bohun has sent a list showing those parts which are already filled. There seems to be a nursery governess who will represent “The Woman”.’ 
‘Too bad! Still, never mind – although there is scarcely much choice of women’s parts in the Holmes stories.’
And once the party gets going – after the sewing bee above - there is deep fog outside, locked rooms with sinister explanations, and a giant dog with luminous markings jumping in through the French windows.
Plus a lot about the damn bustle.
‘Nobody asked her to wear a bustle,’ snapped Sir Bohun. ‘No bustle is mentioned in the text, so far as I am aware, as being part of any lady’s costume. Nobody but Brenda Dance would have thought of wearing such a tasteless and frivolous appendage.’

I always enjoy reading the Mrs Bradley books – see earlier entries here and here – but they are very strange and most unlike other crime books of the era. The plots don’t really make sense, there are thousands of loose ends, all kinds of strands are raised and followed for a bit and then ditched. So they’re not for everyone. But who could not want to know what happens after this sentence:
She had become aware of a stealthy footstep on the stair and had seen a shadow appear where the thin winter light picked out the banisters.
And what about this piece of important detection:
Nothing but a love affair – preferably a clandestine one – should keep a girl of her age from toboggans and skis, I feel.
Mrs Bradley is definitely one of the great heroines,  and this is definitely one of the great parties, in all  detective fiction.

The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr

Monday, 24 October 2016

American Adulterer by Jed Mercurio

published 2009
American Adulterer

['the subject' of the book is a president of the USA in the early 1960s]

The problem in those days was the creeping realization that he could never have enough premarital sex just as one can never eat a big enough meal to fast without eventually getting hungry. He’d been accustomed to so much that, paradoxically, he might have adjusted better had the opposite been true, since he wouldn’t have missed it so very much. Married men who don’t miss other partners must not have been particularly interested in women in the first place…

American Adulterer 3

A few weeks into their marriage, after the gourmet bingeing of honeymoon had slumped into the TV dinners of monogamy, the subject’s attraction toward other women visibly returned and she responded with a cold, possessive outrage that so infuriated him he made his natural needs more manifest, at parties flirting with other women, on one occasion removing a girl for a quickie that narrowly escaped his wife’s discovery. He maintained this strategy of insidious humiliation until her response was no longer controlled and possessive, but shattered and defeated. This was her punishment for failure to comprehend the potency of his urges. He made the point in order to establish a modus vivendi for their marriage. One will had to overcome the other or else they would have split. And he never felt guilty; once a man starts on that road, who knows where he’ll stop?

American Adulterer 2

commentary: This is a strange, compelling and unlikely book. Jed Mercurio is one of the UK’s leading TV writers, and usually writes about doctors or the police. It is not clear why he decided to take on a fictionalized account of the Presidency of John F Kennedy.

I love to read about the Kennedys (there are other posts about them on the blog here and here and here), and this book is a corker – I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it before. It was mentioned on my friend Col’s Criminal Library blog, and I downloaded it almost immediately, and read it in no time at all.

It’s written in a very unusual style, as if for a psychological report, and Mercurio usually refers to JFK as ‘the subject’. But this is not as distancing as it sounds, and the book is very gripping as it describes important movements in the Cold War, and the President’s relations with other celebrities, and his endless need for women. You have to know a fair bit about him to start with, it’s not a book for beginners, as characters are dropped into the story with no introduction. (There’s even a tiny bit part for ‘Bill from Arkansas’).

Usually when I read fictionalized versions of history I end up anxious to know what is true and what is not, and wish that I had read a straight account of the times. But when a novel transcends that, you feel you actually learn more about the times than just the facts. American Adulterer does that, and one comparable book is, coincidentally, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld about a Laura Bush-like figure. Laurie Graham wrote a very insightful novel about the Kennedys. (And Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel does the same job for a much older story…). Mercurio flat out tries to imagine the thinking and morals of the President, and he makes you feel he succeeded.

The book makes clear JFK’s appalling medical problems, and suggests that his manic philandering was going to result in Clinton-esque troubles (and see below) – and that’s if he had survived his many illnesses. It also suggests that JFK should have been able to duck when shot at, but was unable to move because of the back brace he had to wear.

The sexual antics are very off-putting, because so soulless and selfish. The author makes the point that:
In the past, men in his position never had to consider how they conducted themselves behind closed doors, for they knew they would be judged on what they delivered to the people. The only exception would be acts of criminal depravity, and, as far as he is concerned, fornicating with consenting adult females does not constitute depravity.
Which while true is no defence. We are used to hearing a slight defence of ‘morals of the time’, but this was abusive and creepy by anyone’s standards.
He counts five minutes till the next appointment. “Be quick,” he says, hurriedly making room for her under the desk.
This is one of the points at which the story of JFK is morphing into the story of Bill Clinton – the book is most definitely a novel, items are added. Some reviews say Mercurio is ‘drawing parallels’ between the two presidents in such scenes, but I think he is making his own picture, and adding items from the Clinton era, including a straightforward description of what constitutes ‘sexual relations’.

Mercurio does a great job of explaining the politics of the time (although there is the odd fact that Bobby Kennedy doesn’t feature in the book at all), and his background as a doctor gives the medical details conviction. And he does an even better job of persuading you that he knows how the Kennedy marriage worked, that yes, these were the ways that two people made each other very unhappy. The story of Jackie’s late pregnancy includes this:
The First Lady withdraws from Washington life to assume the position of Cape Cod’s magazine-reading smoker-in-residence, where she can keep her blood pressure down and her swollen ankles up, returning once every week or so to attend the more glamorous social events in the White House diary.
--- and you can read between the lines about her reluctance to be a First Lady (spelled out in this blogpost here) and the fact that she left the White House every weekend possible, from Thursday to Monday. And that her being with JFK in Dallas was unprecedented: it was the first time she had ventured west of Viriginia since the Inauguration, and she did not ever accompany JFK on  formal domestic visits as the President’s wife. (I find those to be the two most astonishing facts in the whole real-life Kennedy story).

A sad story, enthrallingly told, and one that makes you wonder about the alternative history…

One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Kennedy wedding picture, by the marvellous Toni Frissell, is from the Library of Congress.

Jackie accompanying her husband after he has spinal surgery, 1954, also LOC.
Official White House picture of Jackie Kennedy, also LOC.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dora Thorne by Charlotte M Brame–Part 2

started appearing as a magazine serial in 1871, published as a book later


Dora Thorne
Beatrice Earle was alone at last--alone with her happiness and love. It seemed impossible that her heart and brain could ever grow calm or quiet again. It was all in vain she tried to sleep. Lord Airlie's face, his voice, his words haunted her.

She rose, and put on a pretty pink dressing gown. The fresh air, she thought, would make her sleep, so she opened the long window gently, and looked out. The night was still and clear; the moon hung over the dark trees; floods of silvery light bathed the far-off lake, the sleeping flowers, and the green grass...

Into the proud, passionate heart there came some better, nobler thoughts. Ah, in the future that lay so brilliant and beautiful before her she would strive to be good, she would be true and steadfast, she would think more of what Lily loved and spoke about at times. 

Then her thoughts went back to her lover, and that happy half hour in the rose garden. From her window she could see it--the moon shone full upon it. The moonlight was a fair type of her life that was to be, bright, clear, unshadowed. Even as the thought shaped itself in her mind, a shadow fell among the trees. She looked, and saw the figure of a tall man walking down the path that divided the little garden from the shrubbery. He stood still there, gazing long and earnestly at the windows of the house, and then went out into the park, and disappeared.
commentary: In a previous entry on Dora Thorne I explained how I came to read this book – it is mentioned in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as an example of bad literature. And indeed, you can pretty much tell what kind of book it was by the excerpt above: melodramatic, full of incident, plenty of toffs and servants, and a romantic turn of phrase. Somewhat like Downton Abbey in real time.

We’ve already seen that posh Ronald has married poor girl Dora, but the marriage has fallen apart. Dora sets off back to England with the babies to rejoin her parents, who by now have moved away from the estate of Ronald’s parents - to Knutsford. How nice, I thought, small Cheshire town, the basis of Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford. But no, this place is on a clifftop in Kent. Here the twin daughters grow up in a strange situation: living with farmworkers but heirs to a grander life.

Beatrice – restless and beautiful – forms a secret attachment which is going to bring her nothing but pain. Lillian, we are told several times, is more ‘spirituelle’. This is a splendid word I’d never heard of before, meaning ‘of a highly refined character or nature, especially in conjunction with liveliness or quickness or mind.’

Eventually the old Lord dies: the girls are brought to live at Earlscourt, and Ronald is summoned home from his travels – he has not seen wife or children since they all left Florence. The girls are a huge social success and attract two very eligible suitors. At this point Beatrice’s long-ago boyfriend reappears and everything goes horribly wrong…

The book Undine features in the story – that’s what Jo March wanted to buy herself for Christmas at the beginning of Little Women.

I was delighted that a character read a letter ‘with a muttered imprecation of disappointment’. Biggles was a great one for imprecations, and they are a sign of high-level tosh in my view. And that’s what this is – high-level tosh. But it must have given great enjoyment to many people. It is a most eventful and entertaining story: you can quite see why it was a bestseller.

When someone finally gets a happy marriage, the couple is given this advice:
"Heaven bless you, my darling!" whispered Dora to her child. "And mind, never--come what may--never be jealous of your husband."
"Goodbye, Lionel," said Lord Earle, clasping the true, honest hand in his; "and, if ever my little darling here tries you, be patient with her."
The story of a life time was told in these two behests.

It’s a pity the book didn’t end there – then we could have missed out this gem:
She never troubled her head about "woman's rights;" she had no idea of trying to fill her husband's place; if her opinion on voting was asked, the chances were that she would smile and say, "Lionel manages all those matters."
I don’t suppose I’ll be looking for any more by this author, but I did enjoy Dora Thorne, and propose to describe myself as spirituelle from now on.

The picture is by Whistler, from the Athenaeum website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

published 2011
Rivers of London
I saw [a] man watching me from the across the Piazza. What with the proliferation of gay pubs, clubs and chat rooms, it is no longer necessary for the single man about town to frequent public toilets and graveyards on freezing nights to meet the man of their immediate needs. Still, some people like to risk frostbite on their nether regions – don’t ask me why.

He was about one-eighty in height – that’s six foot in old money – and dressed in a beautifully tailored suit that emphasised the width of his shoulders and a trim waist. I thought early forties with long, finely boned features and brown hair cut into an old-fashioned side parting. It was hard to tell in the sodium light but I thought his eyes were grey. He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliché police. 

When he strolled over to talk to me I thought he might be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all. ‘Hello,’ he said. He had a proper RP accent, like an English villain in a Hollywood movie. ‘What are you up to?’

Rivers of London 2

commentary: This book came to me highly recommended: Daniel Milford Cottam and TracyK both mentioned it to me. This is the first book in a series, and Tracy’s review at Bitter Tea and Mystery includes a very interesting discussion of Urban Fantasy- her blogpost would be most helpful for anyone thinking of trying the books. For some reason Daniel and I got into a discussion of the books in the comments to a book by Peter Robinson

I did like Rivers of London very much – it is an easy and entertaining read. A police procedural in a recognizable London has been overlaid with a strong supernatural element, and there is a mysterious plague on the loose: one that makes people unexpectedly violent. Our hero Peter Grant is being trained in a special department for magic investigations. There are hints of Harry Potter, of books like recent favourites The Blondes and Station 11. There are ghosts, zombies, vampires and spells. It is all done with great confidence and humour. And, even better, Aaronovitch has a good stab at describing people’s clothes.

The Division of the Thames, and the Mama and Father of the river, were wonderful – this strand reminded me both of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem (featuring Mark Rylance so memorably) – the river daughters in all their glory were particularly well done.

Aaronovitch seemed to be trying to mention as many kinds of popular culture as possible – from Dr Who to Coronation St, from opera (Billy Budd?) to Punch and Judy. Good for him.

There are now six books in the series.

The top picture is of the suave singer-songwriter Ivor Novello in his prime, from Library of Congress. The picture of policeman and clown, from the Tyne and Wear archives, seemed very much in the spirit of the book.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Conclave by Robert Harris

published 2016


[The cardinals are gathering at the Vatican to elect a new Pope]

Across the piazza, in the nearest corner of the basilica, the melodious clock chimed the four quarter-hours in quick succession; then the great bell of St Peter’s tolled three. The anxious security men in their short black coats strutted and turned and fretted like crows.

A few minutes later, the first of the cardinals appeared. They were wearing their everyday long black cassocks with red piping, with wide red silk sashes tied at their waists and red skullcaps on their heads. They climbed the slope from the direction of the Palace of the Holy Office. A member of the Swiss Guard in his plumed helmet walked with them, carrying a halberd. It might have been a scene from the sixteenth century, except for the noise of their wheeled suitcases, clattering over the cobbles.

Processed with Snapseed.

commentary: Continuing the Italian theme this week – a novel set in Vatican City, inside Rome.

That final sentence in the extract, about the 16th Century, could apply to a lot of scenes in the book – there are moments of unchanged traditional magnificence, then everyone climbs into black minivans, or works the photocopier, or gets a tray of food at the cafeteria. It’s one of the many reasons that a book about an obscure religious ritual becomes absolutely unputdownable – you feel Harris has researched thoroughly how the election works, and then put in the local contemporary details and the tension and plot turns we expect from him. The result is another winner from the man who brought us Enigma and Ghost Writer and An Officer and a Spy and made them such page-turners.

This one is set in the very near future and a Pope (who is not the current one, but resembles him) has died. We see the action through the eyes of one of his senior clerics, Cardinal Lomeli, who has the duty of organizing the Conclave, the meeting of Cardinals who will elect the new Pope. The main action of the book takes place over a very short time, around 72 hours: the book has an excellent rhythm of sections set in the Sistine Chapel, where the long-drawn-out secret ballots take place, and then the buzz and gossip and electioneering in the block where the Cardinals are saying.

There are a couple of scandals and shocks to unfold, and there is plenty of discussion of the different wings of the church – liberal and conservative. The thoughts and considerations seem convincing, although of course we can never know, as the whole process always has been and will remain very secretive.

There are special opportunities for Catholics to enjoy this book, but I think the plot and the curiosity value would entertain everyone. In fact, I anticipated at least two of the surprises in the book, and afterwards (but only afterwards, after breathlessly racing through the final third with no time for thought) had some questions about certain issues. But none of that prevented me from enjoying the book hugely, and feeling I had been informed as well as entertained. Highly recommended.

With thanks to TKR for the excellent gift…

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of Cardinal Giorgio Gusmini, who was Archbishop of Bologna, and died in 1921. (He is wearing a biretta rather than the skullcap, zucchetto, mentioned).

The second picture, by my favourite photographer, Denise Perry (see her website here, and see her pictures all over the blog, for example here), shows young priests (NOT Cardinals) choosing books in a bookshop in Florence.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Harlequins and Columbines

A Florentine toy theatre, memento of a recent visit, courtesy of two very kind friends

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 October is:Tuesday Night Bloggers Costume

Crime in Costume

- with a subhead of Masks and Masquerade.

Thanks to Bev for the usual great logo, and to Kate for yet again volunteering to collect the links – see them over at her Cross-Examining Crime blog.

Earlier in the month I looked at Fancy Dress Balls and Parties in crime fiction, and one of my last examples featured harlequin and columbine, which reminded me and many other readers of their prominence in the crime genre – see the comments below the blogpost for some fascinating contributions. So that’s this week’s theme.

The ur-text with regard to harlequins is surely the 1933

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Murder Must Advertise harlequin

The black-and-white harlequin… was climbing the statue-group in the centre of the pool – an elaborate affair of twined mermaids and dolphins, supporting a basin in which was crouched an amorino, blowing from a conch-shell a high spout of dancing water. Up and up went the slim chequered figure, dripping and glittering like a fantastic water-creature…
The black and white figure raised its arms above its fantastic head and stood poised… the slim body shot down through the spray, stuck the surface with scarcely a splash and slight through the water like a fish… The girl Dian ran forward and caught hold of the swimmer as he emerged.
‘Oh you’re marvellous, you’re marvellous!’ she clung to him, the water soaking into her draggled satin. ‘Take me home, Harlequin – I adore you!’

I said in my blogpost that Sayers seemed a lot more at home writing about the advertising agency than talking about the high-society riff-raff parties, and truly these are not the best parts of the book. “Lord Peter Wimsey in a onesie” as it was memorably described by my good friend Col of the Criminal Library – not a man who shares my love for DLS.

harlequin 4

Then there is also:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Harlequin 3
- a 1930 collection of short stories featuring the unpindownable figure of Harley Quin. He appears and disappears, and helps the prissy Mr Satterthwaite solve crimes – usually connected with love. Looked at objectively, these stories are atmospheric but not her cleverest, and are often sentimental. They may well have been money-making fillers for her: I imagine they were easy to sell to magazines. But all that admitted,  I and many hardcore Christie fans have a soft spot for the stories, with their almost-supernatural hints and their settings in country houses and on the Riviera. And Christie did say herself that she liked the two main characters.

For the sake of completism: Mr Satterthwaite also appears in Three Act Tragedy, and there are a couple more Harley Quin stories not in this book, but easily tracked down in the later collections of Christie short fiction.

masquerade 1

Somewhat later – 1949 – comes

Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell

As I explained in the blogpost on it:

By happy chance, I came across this book via a fellow member of the Tuesday Night Club, my blogging friend Helen Szamuely. A while back she bought a copy of the book and shared the cover in a Golden Age forum.Death in Clairvoyance
I loved the picture, I always love anything to do with
harlequins, and am very partial to a murder story dealing with the paranormal, so naturally I had to get hold of this book straightaway – on Kindle, so no lovely cover, but great news that the excellent Bello Books imprint has republished it as an ebook.

It has the most extraordinary setup: at a fancy-dress ball in a seaside hotel (this is just after the war, in England) there are six spare costumes available to guests who don’t have another outfit: they are identical clown/harlequin costumes. Mrs Hamilton, a psychic, has a premonitory vision that one clown kills another clown. She tries to prevent the crime – by racing round the hotel tracking down men in green and white – but fails. When a dead body is found, the police must discover which of the men in these costumes was the killer. Fortunately they are going to be helped by Bell’s regular sleuth, Dr David Wintringham, who happens to have been one of the green-and-white men…

It’s an enjoyable book, even though this reader quickly got tired of the initially enticing setup - it would be a hardened soul who kept track of the whereabouts of every one of the costumes and the suspects during the course of the evening.


Pierrots were the third main characters in the commedia dell'arte - and I looked at their role in British life in my entry on Angela Carter's Wise Children - here - illustrated by the picture above, which is one of my all-time favourite photos used on the blog.

It does seem that harlequin, columbine and pierrots were standard fancy dress costumes in the first two thirds of the 20th century  - they are nearly always mentioned in any fancy dress party of any novel of the era, not only in crime books. Nowadays I think the Harlequin costume would only be used for a Batman villain – a shame. We should re-introduce these iconic characters.

And then there are the splendid pictures: The top one is a beautiful toy theatre from my recent visit to Florence (Italy being where the commedia dell'arte originates), then there's Nijinsky playing harlequin. The harlequin and lady painting is, surprisingly, by Edward Hopper. The b/w photos of seaside entertainers and the Hamlet-esque clown are from the Northern Ireland record office.