Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Tuesday Night Club: Helen’s Month

 

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.


 
Helen's Month



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.



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I doubt I shared a single political ideal or belief with Helen, and we had a couple of arguments on various subjects, but we never had a cross word on crime books.

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



published 1941 in the US, 1943 in the UK
 
 
 
Murder a la mode 5Murder a la Mode 6


Murder a la Mode 2After 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.”


 
 
 
Murder a la Mode Rose Valoiscommentary: 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…


 
Murder a la Mode 3

“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.


Murder a la Mode 4

"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.




































37 comments:

  1. Very apt book recommendation on Helen's part (and also a great way to kick start this month's theme). This book came on to my radar through Curtis' post, though I haven't tracked a copy down yet. Thanks for the review.

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    1. It was such a good recommendation for me! And made me remember her fondly. In fact, she got the name of the book slightly wrong when first telling me about it, and we ended up having a tremendously long conversation trying to work out the exact name!

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  2. I think it's a great idea remember Helen in this way, Moira. And this book does sound like a lot of fun. And the murder of someone wearing the same dress is an interesting trick. Very glad you enjoyed this, and glad you're remembering Helen this way.

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    1. Yes, it was the ideal book for me as well as a way of commemorating Helen. And I do enjoy a book that takes women's working lives seriously - as I think Helen did too.

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  3. Yes, a lovely way to remember Helen, whom I actually met last year briefly at the Bodies in the Library event. I also enjoyed an online exchange where we agreed that we would like to go dancing with Archie Goodwin.
    As for this book, Moira, it sounds so 'Clothes in Books,' that I could almost think that you had made it up. However if you had, it would certainly also feature a bed-jacket, so I must reluctantly conclude that you haven't.

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    1. Oh dancing with Archie! Between sips of a glass of milk. I always imagine him as being very sharply, almost showily dressed. And I long to know more about Lily Rowan...lucky girl.
      I know, I might have just invented it. The absence of the bedjacket is to put you off the scent!

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  4. Some amazing pics here Moira - politically I can't have been further away from Helen's stated stance either, but so glad to see her remembered this way.

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    1. Yes indeed, but it certainly did me good to see her differing views - none of my other friends was so far from my own beliefs. It is good to have someone disagreeing with you from time to time, makes you construct your arguments better...

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  5. Well, from what I am reading here on the blog and comments, I wouldn't have agreed with Helen either. I hope she wasn't pro-czar (sigh), as my grandparents fled anti-Semitic pogroms in czarist Russia. I can't comment as I didn't know of her.

    But what I can say is that I like the top right photo of the green/gray suit with the dark red vest or blouse, etc. And I like that hat.

    I must comment on the pink/black combination. Hilarious. Did anyone really dress that way outside of a 1940s movie?

    And that bright yellow outfit. I like it but in a different color and I like the hat.

    I think I should have lived in the 1940s only because I like the suits and hats.

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    1. She was anti-communist rather than pro-czar, I would say.
      I really want that top right ensemble. I dress very casually in real life, but am convinced if I lived in the 1940s I would have looked like that every day as I set off for work...

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  6. Oh goodness, how am I going to rein in my book spending (not that I'm trying too hard) if you keep recommending mid-century mysteries set in the fashion/advertising world? I loved Stranglehold, and now I may have to find this one.

    I love it: “Do you wish to be glamorous or very elegant?”

    And yes, that wonderful trope, victim/non-victim/mistaken outfit.

    Thanks Moira.

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    1. Thank you - as you can tell, I cannot resist a book with that setting - great clothes, and fascinating details of working lives and attitudes to women.

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  7. I love all the book excerpts you've picked, Moira. Intriguing, and a fitting tribute to your friend Helen.

    These clothes appeal to me. Forties clothes are perfect for my body type. I still have a great Bullocks suit I bought at a second-hand shop in Venice -- grey wool chalk stripe with nipped waist, wide lapels and an inverted pleat (front and back) in the slightly A-line skirt. And it fit perfectly. The girl working in the shop said the owner was going to be disappointed, because she had been trying to lose weight to fit into it. My mom also had tons of great suits from her working years in San Francisco -- a lot of which she bought at The City of Paris. Such an evocative name for a department store!

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    1. The City of Paris! That's fabulous. Yes, I love those styles, and feel it would have been my era. I have one beautiful blue tweedy suit, made by a long-gone British designer, but I don't really have anywhere to wear it...

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  8. I love those 1940s tailored suits and hats, but I have the WRONG body type to wear fitted clothes. I just, in fact, gave away a black and white checked wool jacket with lapels as the shoulders were too big and it just didn't fit me.

    But I always enjoy seeing these clothes in old movies.

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    1. I can usually tell when a movie isn't grabbing me when I'm noticing the clothes and the decor more than the story!

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    2. That raises an interesting question, both of you. I think I automatically clock clothes and décor, I've never thought it might show the film wasn't compelling enough... and of course sometimes the details are important. But yes, will always be looking for clothes in films too...

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    3. Oh, yes, I always notice both. It's just when the movie is less than engrossing, I find myself noticing them more.

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  9. There's always Georgette Heyer's contemporary novel "Helen", although I've not read any of her contemporary novels and they apparently didn't age very well.

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    1. And of course, not a crime novel! As far as I'm aware, mind.

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    2. Wow - I thought I was at least aware of all the Heyer works, but never heard of this. Just looked it up and only very expensive copies. I have an old biog of Heyer, will have to get it down and see what it says about this one.

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  10. I always notice suits, coats and hats in 1940s movies. Just rewatched a Thin Man movie a few weeks ago, and coats with fur collars and lapels were made for Myrna Loy. She was dazzling.

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    1. Another thing I notice while watching a Thin Man movie a few years ago -- the size of the cocktail glasses. There's a LOT of drinking going on in a Thin Man film, so you see a ton of examples, and they were TINY back. Seriously small like nearly thimble sized. Three or even four of those glasses would be equivalent to one cocktail today.

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    2. I keep meaning to watch The Thin Man again, and now I have more things to look out for. That's very interesting about the glasses, Paula. And I agree, Kathy, Myrna Loy was so beautiful.

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    3. Myrna Loy attended Venice High School, and the statue in front of the main school building is a nude of her. She was beautiful all over! Interestingly, she was originally cast in dramas, but the Thin Man movies showed how good she was at comedy and changed her career trajectory.

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    4. Interesting extra info, thanks!

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  11. A few books mentioned I could do well without, thanks!

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  12. Best movie couple of a certain era: William Powell and Myrna Loy.

    I'm not negating Clark Gable and Carol Lombard or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or others, but Powell and Loy were perfect in every movie. And she was stunning in all of her outfits.

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    1. Actually, yes, I agree with you: they were stunning together.

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    2. I also liked Powell very much with Kay Francis. They were in a somewhat unusual melodrama called "One Way Passage." Rather nice. They made eight (?) movies together and were a good match, too. And Kay Francis was a fashion stunner as well. There are scads of luscious high fashion photos of her on the net.

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    3. INdeed - I came across her in a crime story where she is the sleuth, it's here https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/murder-at-belmar-by-bc-stone.html
      and had a tremendous time looking at old photos of her. She wasn't an actress I'd been much aware of until then.

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    4. Thanks so much for the link -- that book sounds great! Sadly, Kay Francis retired relatively early from acting. She had a slight lisp (which I thought was actually very attractive), and one of her directors harassed her mercilessly about it. Sad.

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    5. I need to see more of her films...

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  13. Helen sounds like an interesting person, and this is a good way to remember her. And she suggested a perfect book for you.

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    1. She was SUCH an interesting person - she won't easily be forgotten. And she certainly could pick out a book for me!

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