The Tuesday Night Club is a group of Golden Age crime fiction fans, writing on a different theme each month. A frequent contributor, and one of our founder members, was the wonderful Helen Szamuely, who died in April. There’s an obituary for her here, and a personal memory from someone who obviously knew her well here.
At the TNC we all, I think, knew her only through our communal love for Golden Age Detection fiction, but that was an enduring bond, and we all have our own Helen-based memories. She was a wonderful character – argumentative, knowledgeable, full of ideas. She had very strong political views, and looking at her online presence you can see that in the crime fiction forum she was much more mellow than in the rest of her life: we can hope it was a relaxing change from her other activities.
We have decided to nominate May as a tribute month: Helen's Month. Posts could feature an author or a character called Helen, or be involved with her great interests in life: Europe, History or Russia, or in my case today feature a book she recommended.
We hope Helen's friends and contacts will spread the word, read the posts, or join in - all are welcome. Please comment below or on Facebook to contact any of us.
Bev Hankins has done the splendid Helen logo for us.
Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime has started off well with a post on Andrew Garve's Murder in Moscow. Ideal book for Helen...
Brad at AhSweetMystery writes about Helen Szamuely, about the name Helen, and about Helens in Agatha Christie.
Today I am going to write about a book she recommended to me. This is what she said:
And talking of clothes in books, I have just picked up for next to nothing a copy of "Murder á la Mode" by Eleanore Kelly Sellars, of whom I have never heard and about whom I can find out next to nothing. As far as I can tell, this is her only detective novel but other people might know better. It centres on a Fifth Avenue department store and there are clothes galore. In fact, one of the murders takes place almost immediately after a fashion show.
Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars
After an appraising look, which made me thankful that my suit had been designed by Creed and that my hat was a little thing which Rose Valois had dashed off in one of her more inspired moments, he inquired deferentially, “Do you wish to be glamorous or very elegant?”
There was a choice for any woman!
“It will be a little difficult to manage either,” I replied, with pretty modesty, “but since you are so nice as to give me a choice, suppose we aim for elegance.”
Each of the four dresses which he brought in from an adjoining room proved to be an achievement in pure, unadulterated chic. “For your colouring,” he explained, “I have selected only warm tones. Now this,” tenderly gathering up one of the dresses and draping it against his arm, “this is my choice for you.”
commentary: The strange thing is that in a book full of clothes, and very keen on the importance of clothes, Sellars barely describes this actual dress – although it is going to be deeply significant, because it turns out there is one more of this exclusive beautiful gown. Our heroine Debby works in advertizing in a department store, and she has been invited to a working/social event at the owner’s fancy mansion. When she arrives she is going to find out that the owner’s wife is wearing the same dress. But all we know is that it has a full tulle skirt and that it is neither blue nor green.
And (very slight spoiler from early on) the other wearer of the dress is going to be murdered – could it be that there was a case of mistaken identity? (see many blog entries on the dangers of wearing/borrowing/having distinctive clothes.)
This is what Helen said about the book as a murder story:
Not bad though at least one crucial clue is not revealed: though there are helpful maps of both floors of the mansion where the first murder takes place, important information is missing. … the motive for one of the murders is a little inadequate, but the clothes sound absolutely fabulous Moira. Published in the US in 1941 and in the UK (the edition I have) in 1943 “in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards.”I think I have the same edition, and the maps are tremendous, but I should also point out that the book has been reprinted by Coachwip, so is easily available. The new edition has an intro by our friend Curtis Evans, who has also done a blogpost on book and author. And in an act of great gallantry, Curt also sorted out my confusion between this book and the rather similar Murder in Style by Emma Lou Fetta. He did a whole blogpost to explain the differences…
“Pink with black was very knowing just then, and not at all naïve, [so] her handmade blouse and the excuse for a hat were pink. She looked stunning.”
So with both these experts on the case, I can concentrate on some other aspects of the book. Although set in a department store – and with a lovely description on the opening page – the book has, disappointingly, virtually no scenes on the shopfloor: it concentrates on office life, and might as well be set in an advertizing agency (like Mary McMullen’s Stranglehold, ten years later, and Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise 10 years earlier). But it is very much about working women and their jobs. The characters are somewhat conflicted:
“Whoever thought up this idea of careers for women didn’t look ahead.”
“They can have mine,” she sighed.
- but Sellars is firm about their seriousness, and about how good they are at their jobs. When Debby does a career favour for someone, and a man comments on this, she says that it is just what men do for each other day – an exchange that could come from 2017.
There is one of my favourite clothes/detection tropes: could someone in a negligee have been hiding a gun? (see also post on Murder at the Vicarage, and one of the all-time best comment discussions). There is also a question concerning the difference between day and evening makeup, which turns out to be relevant.
The Creed suit is interesting – the name and label were not big in the USA just then, but Charles Creed (son of the firm, about to push it in into high fashion success) had been visiting the US in the early 40s, promoting British wool as part of the war effort (UK already at war, US not yet), so it is a clever detail. Of the top pair of photos, the black/white tweed is a Creed suit from 1939, but Debby probably looked more like the lady in blue, whose ensemble was designed by Hattie Carnegie. Creed were famous for discreet tailoring and riding clothes: Charles changed their direction. Wikipedia gives us the extraordinary detail that Charles’s father designed the clothes Mata Hari was shot in…
There were too many murders – by the end there weren’t many suspects left – but the book was such a fun read that any sins were easy to forgive.
And the clothes were excellent, as Helen promised me.
A belated thank you to her, and a tip of the Rose Valois hat.
"Jane Kingsley, in a mustard-coloured jacket, was roaming about the room in what might have been described as a 'state'."
My friend Lissa Evans had better watch out: we recently had Madame Lisse in a Ngaio Marsh book, and here one of the victims is called Lissa….
There is another book called Murder a la Mode, by Patricia Moyes, also set in the fashion world, and obviously it has been covered on the blog…
Hats by Rose Valois, 1940, early 40s evening dress from Kristine’s photostream. Black and pink, and yellow jacket, and blue tweed also from Kristine.