Sunday, 11 June 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer


published 1934


Unfinished Clue 1



[Lola de Silva is a Mexican dancer, on a country house visit with her fiancé]


The door of Miss de Silva’s room opened, and Concetta appeared. ‘It is permitted that you see the Signora now,’ she said kindly.

There did not seem to be very much reason why Geoffrey should not have seen the Signora at any time during the past half-hour, for she could not have been in the throes of her toilet since she was still in bed when he at last entered the room. She was wearing a very low-cut elaborate nightgown, and her black curls, though brushed till they shone, had not been crimped into any of the styles of coiffure that she affected.

Geoffrey stopped short just inside the room, gazing at her hungrily. ‘God, how lovely you are!’ he said, a trifle thickly, and plunged forward to the bedside, grasping at her.

commentary: Georgette Heyer didn’t challenge the conventions in her detective stories – bad-tempered families gather in country houses and have rows, and someone dies. She is very good at snappy dialogue amongst the participants, and although very snobbish (Heyer is Queen of the snobs in all respects) she does, refreshingly, avoid too much stiff talk of honour and shame and everyone holding back: in her books people are only too anxious to put the blame on each other. They don’t bother with pretending it must have been a random burglar - they’re too busy assigning motives to each other.

Lola the Mexican dancer goes a step further by pointing out repeatedly how very likely it is that she might have committed the murder:
‘Certainly the police must ask themselves if it is not I who have stabbed him.’
Lola is, as the heroine Dinah keeps saying, tremendously good value. The news that Geoffrey was unsuitably engaged had prompted the question ‘Barmaid or tobacconist’s assistant?’ - but cabaret dancer was a much better choice. Very soon after the murder Lola is able to appear like this:
She wore a long, trailing robe of some dead-black material, without any ornament at all, and carried a handkerchief with a deep black hem. Where she could have found such a thing at a moment’s notice Dinah could not imagine.
Another character manages this:
She was wearing a lavender frock that subtly conveyed the impression of half-mourning.
It reads oddly to modern eyes: we have lost the idea that lavender and lilac are mourning colours – this also came up in a recent GB Stern entry on the blog, with the Semi-Bereavement Department and more Unfinished Clue 4lavender and lilac. 

There’s also a discussion on whether billiards or snooker is the more suitable game in a house of bereavement (answer: billiards).

So yes, there’s a lot about clothes in the book: ‘severely tailored grey flannel’ for Dinah, and also ‘a severeUnfinished Clue 2 linen coat and skirt, and a shirt-blouse with a tie.’ Lola wears an ‘orange and black and jade suit that (though labelled ‘Sports Wear’ by the genius who designed it) might have been considered by some people to be unsuitable for a drive into the country’

Another character has a pink sequinned evening frock:

All the other women would know that it was the wrong frock to wear at a country dinner party, but she didn’t care what the women thought.Unfinished Clue 3
And there is a woman who
When she first took up her abode in the neighbourhood she was eyed a little suspiciously. She was so perfectly dressed that naturally people felt that she might not be quite the type of person one wanted to know.
Very much like Joanna moving to the country in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, as described in this blogpost.

The vicar’s wife is very badly-dressed:
she looked rather hot and more than a little crumpled in a tussore coat and skirt, and a burnt-straw hat of no particular shape; and she wore in addition to these garments a blue shirt blouse, dark brown shoes and stockings, and a pair of white wash-leather gloves.
I enjoyed all these descriptions tremendously, and the murder plot wasn’t bad either. I guessed what one of the clues – the unfinished one - meant, but was slow to realize to whom it referred. Heyer does us the favour of making the victim so unpleasant that it’s hard to feel too bad about it all.

So - a very entertaining GA mystery, very much of its time, and with lots of good jokes: it slid down a treat.

Georgette Heyer turns up on the blog much more for her detective stories than for her better-known Regency romances - from my point of view, the clothes are much better in the 30s. Click on the Heyer label below to see examples of both. 

Pictures from Kristine’s photostream and the NYPL. The top pictures shows Maria Montez, always described as ‘an exotic beauty’, though from the Dominican Republic rather than Mexico.
























24 comments:

  1. Only read a couple of her mysteries, which were enjoyable enough but, to me, unmemorable. I'd much rather you read them for me Moira as you find so much more to enjoy!!! (I'm trying to convince myself that this is not mere laziness on my part) :)

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    1. No, we should co-operate and share the load! the deal is: you carry on reading Ed McBain, and then you can safely ignore the likes of Heyer. It's not particularly the crime plots I like, it's the clothes, the jokes and the details of posh daily life... not everyone's top subjects.

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    2. Only three more McBain books left Moira!

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    3. Enjoy them, and that comes from the bottom of my heart.
      I'm sure there'll be another author for you to take on on my behalf....

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  2. You're right, Moira, that Heyer did use a lot of tropes and conventions of her time. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, at least in my opinion. And she did a solid job of weaving wit in, too. You know, I'd forgotten how often Heyer refers to clothes, but it's interesting she seemed to have that interest.

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    1. I know - I read most of these books years ago, but it wasn't till I started re-reading them with the blog in mind that I realized how perfect they were for me.

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  3. Enjoyed this, Moira. I've liked almost all of Heyer's mystery books - very particularly 'Envious Casca'. I remember reading one comment about Heyer's writing that said she was 'incapable of penning a graceless phrase'.

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    1. When I read about her real-life personality - she sounds awful! I don't think I'd have liked her at all if I'd met her, and I'm equally sure she wouldn't have had a moment for the likes of me (kitchenmaid material, if I was lucky). But, you cannot fault her for writing funny, charming, entertaining books: comfort reads for the ages. And she doesn't put a foot wrong as your quote says.

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  4. This sounds good. I do want to get back to Heyer's books but I never seem to manage it.

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    1. One of these days. When your TBR pile has reduced...

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    2. And I meant to say also what nice images there are for this post.

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    3. Thanks Tracy, I was very pleased with them!

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  5. O.k. what exactly is "washed leather?" Several of the British Crime Library classics I've been reading have used this phrase and googling hasn't been much help.

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    1. OK I'm going to answer first then try researching it! I think it is 'wash leather' and it is very thin flexible leather, and it is what window-cleaners use, because it is easily squashed, it reacts like a duster. It is usually a very nice light yellow-y beige, and is also known as chamois leather, or shammy-leather if spelled as pronounced! And similar used for washing or shining up a car.
      Pause for research. Yes, specially treated to be very absorbent, and then also used for certain items such as gloves or pocket linings...

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  6. This sounds good. I do want to get back to Heyer's books but I never seem to manage it. .. .
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  7. Heyer doesn't seem to have a very glowing reputation among golden age detection fans but the one books of hers that I've read (DEATH IN THE STOCKS) was kind of fun. I should give her another go.

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    1. I wonder if people pre-judge them (woman, romance, historical romance)? Because I agree with you - they are very good. Very funny with sharp character-drawing and a sense of irony.

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  8. Love the top picture of the dancer.

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    1. I know! Isn't it perfect, showing off a certain kind of exotic actress.

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