Party Girls Die in Pearls by Plum Sykes
Ursula was curious about the twenty or so girls she did see. They glittered like exotic birds among the sea of white tie and tails. Their party dresses, each one pouffier, shinier and more extravagant than the last, were made of brightly coloured taffeta, silk, velvet or lace, underpinned by generous sticky-out net underskirts. A few of the most glamourous girls even had thigh-high mini ballgowns that looked like they might be from Christian Lacroix or Bruce Oldfield, famous designers whose dresses Ursula had seen in Vogue. The young women were lavishly bedecked with diamante bracelets, heavy paste earrings and reams of pearls at the neck. Gone were the swishy pony-tails – in their place was the curled, waved and crimped ‘Big Hair’ that was so fashionable now. Their eyes were circled with heavy eyeliner and their mouths painted with gleaming lip-gloss.
commentary: I am going to start with the positive aspects of this book. It has a truly wonderful cover:
And the descriptions of clothes are hilarious and actually spot on – they sound unreal and exaggerated but I don’t think so:
A teensy-weensy, skin tight mini dress made of ruched, neon-yellow Lycra, fuchsia pink suede Maud Frizon stilettos and an enormous silver down jacket.
She was dressed in a green bat-wing sweater, bubble-gum-pink pedal pushers, a trilby hat and white trainers.
[She wore] a scarlet taffeta strapless mini dress printed with huge black polka dots… a fake-fur crimson stole… glitzy faux-ruby and diamond earrings… silver fishnet tights… red suede shoes.
…gold pedal pushers, a sparkly green boob tube and lilac suede stilettos.
My friend Chrissie Poulson was inspired to discuss terrible clothes over at her blog recently - there’s a new book out where people show off their worst fashion choices – and the 1980s will always come up in any such listing. ***
Sadly the rest of the book doesn’t live up to this: Party Girls is set at Oxford University in 1985, and deals with murder and mayhem among students, while apparently explaining the strange customs and morals of the university, and the British upper-classes, along the way. As a slapstick, unreal comedy it may work for some people. As a crime story it isn’t very good (when I first guessed who she was going to pin it on, I hoped I was wrong, for several reasons) and as a picture of life…. Well, one of my notes read ‘like Harry Potter only not so realistic, less rooted in fact.’ It's a complete fantasy world.
And it’s just strange. Undergraduate Ursula wants to be a student journalist, and is also the person who discovered the body of a murdered woman. She is told by the editor of the top student paper, Cherwell, that she can only publish an article if she solves the murder. I personally am in a position (research) to tell you that the editor of Cherwell would not say this. Any editor would be grabbing Ursula with both hands because she has an eye-witness report. There were pound coins, not notes, at the time. The book has weird footnotes in an attempt root it in reality: but anyone who says Zuleika Dobson is the Edwardian Gone Girl, for example, gives the impression that she hasn’t read either of them.
I worry about the American reviews coming in that imply that you can actually learn what Oxford and the UK were like from this book…
But I did enjoy the fashion. And Plum Sykes is well-connected and will sell a shed-load of product and not care what I say about her book. (There is a blogpost on her earlier book, Bergdorf Blondes, here.)
I can recommend some other books about Oxford and Cambridge. (Cambridge was always less glittery, but it is the matching uni to Oxford. I was living in Cambridge in the mid-1980s, with wide-ranging university connections, which is one reason I feel able to criticize the picture this book presents.)
Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood (two blog entries!) is a terrific book: a murder story set exactly in 1985 Oxford, and a far more authentic picture of the time. ***
The above-mentioned Christine Poulson wrote a tremendous series of academic books set in Cambridge and featuring sleuth Cassandra James.
… And Chrissie and I also made lists of our favourite books with an academic setting.
This is a blogpost on Oxbridge-set books.
Murder at Cambridge by Q Patrick. Proving that I am not always that fussy, this is what I wrote about it:
It is a chirpy high-spirited book, with not much concern for the victims, a lot of old-fashioned detecting, and some excruciating dialogue. Most of the actions, discussions and motivations are totally unconvincing. The attitudes to women can easily be guessed.All Souls by the marvellous Javer Marias.
NB: Those last three sentences are a test. Normal people read them as the anti-recommendation, while fans of Golden Age detective stories find them, inexplicably, a come-on, and are off looking the book up on Amazon.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.
--- and many more: click on the labels below if you are interested.
*** Talking of 80s fashion moments – when posting on clothes in Fraser’s Oxford Blood, I did say this:
Jemima’s assistant, Cherry, wears for work:Of course there was a huge difference – mine was jade green. I think Chrissie was pretty impressed (maybe jealous) when I told her about stomping through the 80s in this item with a shocking pink fun fur jacket slung over the top.
a pink cotton boiler-suit, many top buttons left untouched and a tight belt to clinch [should this be cinch?] her figure at the waist.Nothing can be proved about how I know that this is not as unlikely as it sounds in a sensible, career-minded and professional person working in the media at that time.
Pictures (need you ask?) from fashion magazines of the era…