Friday, 22 September 2017
[Clothes descriptions from throughout the book]
…For his sake she undressed in the bathroom, and put on her white satin pyjamas and her white tweed man-like dressing gown.
…Ann, lovely, correct, masseused, in Mainbocher because of Her Royal Highness, sherry satin with something white shocking it. Arthur, knife-pleated in tails. The twins, uniform of tails. Missy in pale lemon chiffon, Alix of course, color of her hair. You wouldn't think it becoming but it was; everyone in the room looking at her. Griselda in black sheer, daring cut, startling, her own model.
…She undressed, showered, put on pyjamas with green tadpoles cavorting in pattern, tied back her hair with an old pink ribbon and daubed an icy cream on her face.
…She found pajamas, dark paisley, blueish, greenish. She undressed in the bathroom, rolled up sleeves and legs, came back to the bed and leaned on it. The men ignored her.
…Ann was so perfect, in black as was always most of smart New York, her gloves white as April orchards. Ann always wore white gloves. She had height and the right face. [...] She was perfection. There was art in the removing of her gloves, lifting the menu. There was art in everything Ann did with her hands. It was too bad she was irritating.
…[Missy’s] hair was the colour of the lemon ice Ann had spooned at lunch, maybe a shade darker, but not much. It was cut off square as a Dutch doll's banged over dark arrow brows, square against pink cheeks. She wore a dark skullcap, like a Cardinal, on the back of her head. It was so far back, she looked hatless. Her mink coat was the darkest, the finest, Griselda had ever seen, even in movie star land. It was long and shawled, and beneath it you could see the exquisite frock, black with a touch of lemon ice at the throat.
…He was looking towards the entrance. She raised her eyes. Missy was there, Missy in white satin fringed from the waist in shining crystal leaves, nothing above the waist but a wisp, a strap, crystal leaves wreathing her pale lemon hair.
…She looked like a little boy in the half light, a dark cap on her head, dark knickerbockers and shirt, even long dark stockings, boys' oxfords. She was smoking one of her little cigarettes.
…[Movie heartthrob] Jasper was taste embellished with elegance. White pajamas of such heavy satin they hung like velvet, black rough wool lounging coat lined in rosy fur. His black curly hair was brushed to sheen. There were Russian boots of soft white kidskin on his feet. But this wasn't to allure his guest. He had to maintain his glamour to hotel servitors, more, he had had nothing to do since eight o'clock but make himself beautiful.
commentary: One more book set (mostly) in New York.
The review phrase that kept forming itself in my head was ‘bonkers but with fabulous clothes and quite an atmosphere’, so I was very glad when I checked back to the email of blogfriend Nathalie Morris, who recommended the book to me ages ago, to find that that is exactly what she thought too.
The So Blue Marble has some of the best clothes descriptions I’ve come across, and also one of the weirdest plots. Our heroine Griselda – filmstar turned designer – is visiting New York, living the high life and meeting up with both her strange sisters. One is a desperate housewife – rich, judgemental and unhappy. The other should be a teenage schoolgirl, but has turned into something much more grownup: she provokes thoughts of the little sister Carmen in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, published the year before.
There are the cold, vicious twins, Danny and David, identical except that one is dark and one is blond. They are plainly up to no good though some find them superficially charming. There is Griselda’s absent ex-husband - she is staying in his apartment, and making friends with the guy next-door. And there is the mythical marble: it has ‘left a trail of bloodshed and violence across continents and through centuries’ and is the key to great riches, in some mysterious and not-really-explained way. It is the most complete McGuffin.
There is New York society life, a trip out to a country cottage, yet more filmstars, and a lot of death and destruction. It is a very noir book in a very upmarket setting, with some very worthless people.
Naturally, I loved every dynamite moment.
And am very grateful to Natalie for pointing me in the right direction - the list above is actually the one she sent me: she had me at ‘sherry satin with something white shocking it’.
The woman in satin pajamas is blog favourite Louise Brooks, and is from 1929, but having found the picture I couldn’t not use it…
Other pics from Kristine’s photostream and the NYPL collection of fashion for the 1940s Worlds Fair
Thursday, 21 September 2017
[Nina is discussing the murder victim’s widow with an old friend]
“How long have you known her?”
“About 15 years. We both used to live on the Lower East Side. I was working in a shop on St Mark’s Place when we met. She used to keep her hair very black, in a china-doll’s cut, with white face makeup and a lot of kohl around the eyes.”
“Oh yeah. I remember kohl. Everyone was using it after they got back from Morocco. I tried it for a while, but I was never fully convinced that it wasn’t blinding me.”…
“Roz was so dramatic back then, especially when it came to her secrets. She’d always flaunt them… It was a time of great sexual drama. For all of us. But particularly for Roz…. Really, these kids on college campuses think that they invented bisexuality. But back then you couldn’t even have tried to chart of the comings and going that went on between Avenues A and D.”
[Much later, when Nina and Ida are about to solve the crime]
Nina and Ida had dressed in the most threatening manner they could manage. Perhaps Nina was subconsciously aping the juvenile delinquents of her youth, because in addition to dressing in black, she stopped on the corner and bought a pack of Dentyine. Chewing gum made her feel tougher, even though Dentyne was not a particularly tough brand. Ida donned her usual New Balance running shoes, worn for comfort, not for swiftness. She also wore a smocky navy blue top that could possibly trigger memories of [X’s] kindergarten teacher and therefore serve to infantilize and intimidate [them].
commentary: Another New York book, to mark my recent trip there…
Very sad to say this is the last of the Nina Fischman mysteries to date: Marissa Piesman is an Assistant Attorney General at New York State Department of Law, which is quite the dayjob, and is presumably her excuse for not writing more crime books. Shame, though.
I re-read my piece on the penultimate mystery, Alternate Sides, and found that almost everything I would like to say about this series has already featured in that blogpost, so please do go and read it, and find out why I enjoy these books so much.
This individual book: Nina is back in New York (there was a fear she might end up on the West Coast, not her natural habitat at all), has no job and has to live with her mother. But that’s OK. She gets involved in investigating the death of her brother-in-law’s colleague. There are issues of animal rights and lab practices, and a very interesting discussion on the possibility of finding a clinical hormone treatment that would work to combat obesity. And Nina ambles around New York meeting people, commenting internally on their clothes and hair and manners. And making me laugh about three times a page. I love Nina, love her wonderful mother Ida (her feature is that she is a Jewish mother, and has been in therapy longer than anyone else), love her over-perfect sister and the completely real and convincing relationship that the siblings have.
Ida has a big role in this one, and the picture of her and Nina going off investigating together is marvellous: this would make such a great TV series or film with a wise-cracking mother and daughter solving crimes and discussing their lives. It’s not too late.
I wish the books were longer. There, I never say that. And now I think I am going to read all six of them again.
The top black and white photos are by James Jowers, and were taken in and around St Marks Place in the 1960s: they are from the George Eastman Museum. They are an amazing set of photos, which I use as often as I can find an excuse.
The third picture is an arty double portrait of archetypal 90s woman Jodie Foster – I thought Nina could look that smart.
My friend Kathy Durkin would like these books if she’s never read them – she’s a New York lady with an interest in crime and a passion for left-wing politics. And that’s a description of heroine Nina and author Marissa Piesman as well as of Kathy…
Tuesday, 19 September 2017
Things this Mystery is about—
A black COAT from Paris…
Two engraved MENU cards…
A red chalk DRAWING …
A diamond RING ….
A smelling-salts PHIAL …
An old khaki RAINCOAT …
An ADVERTISEMENT for a reducing treatment …
A sapphire-studded CIGARETTE CASE …
A signed CHECK …
A Bronx COCKTAIL …
commentary: I normally use an excerpt from the book in my blogpost, not the blurb, but this excellent summing-up of the key moments in Dance with Death was too appealing to miss. I have just been in New York and, as with Sunday’s Live Alone and Like It, a book about the city in the 1930s is sheer joy for me (even more so than it normally would be). It tells certain kinds of reader, not just me I think, that this is exactly the kind of crime story they will like.
This is the first of McCloy’s books featuring sleuth Dr Basil Willing: he is a psychiatrist and brings his Freudian notions to bear on the crime – he is forever looking out for blunders and comments from the subconscious, and uses them to find out what people are really thinking. And he has helpful remarks such as
Poisoning, like kleptomania, arson and cruelty to animals, is often associated with sexual repression.The crime involves a rich girl and a poor girl: one of them is found dead in the snow, although the body is unnaturally warm. One of the girls is supposed to be starting her debutante season, coming out to New York society, and there are some good clothes:
Like all women in advertisements, she was inhumanly sleek and slim. She had been photographed in evening dress—a deep, cream color that seemed to be satin. Her only ornament was a long rope of pearls—fabulous had they been real. But of course they couldn’t be real—in an advertisement...
Kitty had an evening dress that was a very startling shade of clear vermilion.(I have to admit that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer.)
There is an impersonation – something that seems to occur in books much more often than in real life, honestly – and I was interested to see that the French maid (Victorine, what a very crime-novel-French-maid name) uses what is now the huge trend of ‘contouring’ to bring out the similarities between the two women:
The upper part of the face is the only part that matters—eyes and eyebrows, nose and upper lip. Change that and you change everything…. By removing entirely the part of the brows near the nose and extending them to the temple with a pencil, she made my eyes look as wide apart as [the other woman’s]. She used two shades of face powder and this modeling with light and dark tones made my nose seem as long as hers. She made my eyes greenish gray by putting a greenish yellow ‘eye-shado’ on the lids beside them. Finally she used two shades of lipstick, one over the other to make my lips seem the same shade as hers.(The spelling of ‘eye-shado’ is new to me – it may be a typo.)
The book is full of moments of its time – from the Nansen passport (a way to help displaced and stateless persons) to the claim that ‘moderns don’t write love letters. They telegraph or telephone.’ Kitty’s education consisted of
Looking out for her complexion and her figure and learning just enough French and dancing and music to make her civilized without the taint of intellect.When a woman faints all-too-conveniently, Basil steps forward:
He knew the modern woman’s vulnerable point. “Ring for some water,” he said to Pasquale, “and throw it over her head. Never mind the finger wave.” Rhoda opened her eyes and moaned.And look at the snobbery and classism here - it is of the kind associated with English books of the era, and Basil isn’t having it:
“You know as well as I do that people of—er—well, wealth and standing and education don’t get mixed up in murder cases!”
“Don’t they?” Basil’s slow smile was charged with meaning. “Ever hear of Prince Youssoupoff, Madame Caillaux, Count Bocarmé, Lord Ferrers or the Marquise de Brinvilliers?”
I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilering, but it is remarkably modern in a very specific way, and a thread of the plot, and aspects of the motive, are as relevant now as ever: they could easily fit into a 2017 book.
“All foreigners,” muttered Archer.
Altogether a most enjoyable read.
Three other Helen McCloy books have featured on the blog: Through a Glass Darkly, Cue for Murder, and Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
My friend Noah Stewart recommended this book - he described it as a 'brownstone mystery'. I think he invented the term, and it's a good,useful one - read his post to find out exactly what it means. One thing's for sure: brownstone mysteries are meat and drink to Clothes in Books.
And I was also interested to find that yet again John at Pretty Sinister Books was here before me – he looked at the book in 2011, and his post is highly recommended.
Cream dress from Kristine’s photostream, from Vogue of 1938.
The vermilion dress (and friends) is from a McCall’s pattern of the mid-1930s.
Sunday, 17 September 2017
After a very enjoyable holiday/vacation, Clothes in Books is back on the beat. One of the places I visited was New York, so another post on this book seemed appropriate - although the advice applies to all women everywhere, the picture painted is very much one of New York life...
Live Alone and Like It Marjorie Hillis
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Question: Is it permissible for a youngish unchaperoned woman living alone to wear pajamas when a gentleman calls?
Answer: Assuming that she knows one pajama from another, it is entirely permissible. There are, however, sleeping pajamas, beach pajamas, lounging pajamas, and hostess pajamas. The first two are not designed to wear when receiving anybody, masculine or feminine. The last type is correct for wear when your most conservative beau calls, even though he belongs to the old school and winces when a lady smokes. The third variety comes in all sorts of shadings, from an almost-sleeping type to a practically hostess pajama. Those with a leaning towards the bed are suitable only for feminine guests, while the others would not shock Bishop Manning.
commentary: I’ve already done a post on this book, but there was just too much material in it for one visit. Blogfriend Birgitta put me on to this book (some time ago), and again I owe her my grateful thanks.
Hillis is talking about the single life for women in the USA in the 1930s, and the attitudes to men, sex and affairs are particularly interesting and worth reading. She asks and answers questions about how much of a sexlife her theoretical single woman might have. She says firmly
Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are 30. Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t. The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.I found that interesting and surprising, though I suspect that her Bishop Manning - Episcopal bishop of New York City, 1921–1946, and strong supporter of marriage and of his morals - would not have agreed with her. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such ideas laid out in a straightforward way in the 1930s: whatever people were doing in private, it is unusual to read something so generous-minded and with a real aim to be helpful. Especially given that she is extremely judgemental about all kinds of other things, things that you might think less important: eating at the kitchen table and not having enough bedjackets, for example. (See earlier post. The correct minimum number is 4, by the way.)
I mentioned before the ‘case studies’ at the end of each chapter. Via poor Miss D she warns against not having a nice enough apartment:
Since she cannot ask her men friends to her house, she is getting to be a little too ready to go to their apartments. We fear that Miss D will come to no good end.Her views on drinking are also interesting – this is a couple of years after Prohibition ended. She is busy telling the single ladies what a great idea it is to have a cocktail party, and then stressing that there is no need to offer a huge range of drinks, a well-thought-out offering is quite good enough. I was nodding away at this, as it reflects my own ideas of drinks for parties, when she revealed that this modest drink list requires only seven different kinds of alcohol. I didn’t think anyone but cocktail bars had quite so much on offer… sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, bitters. And not a drop of wine mentioned…
Marjorie is keen on ladies filling their time with self-improvement and hobbies, and has one quite splendid idea: she says if you learn some form of fortune-telling, you will always be popular and invited to parties to show off your astrology, numerology, or reading the cards. In addition you will have to be one-to-one with men as you fascinatingly discover wonderful things to happen to them. Any fortune-teller is a real asset, she points out.
By the end of the book you can imagine just what Marjorie (as I said before, I feel on first-name terms with her) is like: bossy, opinionated, forever saying ‘My dear!’, but good-hearted and warm. I like her stressing that women should make themselves happy, treat themselves well. Still applies, even though 80 years have passed.
Sunday, 3 September 2017
Clothes in Books is taking a short holiday
So there will be no blogposts, blog visiting, email or replying to comments.
Normal service will resume in around 2 weeks' time. In the meantime, please take a look at some old posts if you would care to - there's more than 1700 books featured here, and the tabs above should make them easy to find.
While I am away, the blog will have its 1,000,000th visitor. A particularly warm welcome to you, mystery guest.
When I get back, the library and the wardrobe will have been replenished.
Thursday, 31 August 2017
published 1952 (British publication date 1954)
[John is explaining to his friend that his wife has organized a sorority reunion at their New England summer house on Penberthy Island]
“How’s the house party going?”
John gave an irascible snort. “It was a crazy idea of Helena’s to bring her sorority sisters back here for a visit. They have nothing in common – absolutely nothing – after all this time.”
“How many came?”
“Five – and of course Harriet Cameron is at her summer place in Medbury. A fair proportion out of a chapter of twenty, back in 1911… You and Frances Furlong should find plenty to talk about.”
“What’s she like?”
“A bit long in the tooth – too thin – bitchy: successful business-woman type. She never married you know.”
“Who else have you got?”
“Ruth Gale… weather-beaten old war horse. Lucy Kenyon, Jerry’s wife; the Fielding girl – wasn’t her name Claire? And Elinor Carrington.”
commentary: This is an excellent clever setup for a crime story: the 40 year reunion of the college women, who have had very different lives. The gracious Myricks, John and Helena – successful, rich, loving grandparents – are hosting in their lovely home. Much thanks they will get for that.
The structure is that we see the thoughts of one of the women as she commits a murder. We can see that there is an awful history with an illegitimate child and adoption. (It is somewhat like the Shirley Conran bonkbuster ** Lace: “Which of you bitches is my mother?”) We spend the rest of the book trying to work out which of the ladies it is. I often find that kind of tiny closed circle somewhat dissatisfying, but this was great: Knight knew how to lay clues, and she is aiming this at the serious crime reader, and really keeps the tension up. I kept thinking I knew – but I didn’t. And, refreshingly, there weren’t women that you removed from suspicion because they were ‘nice’. They all had their good points and their faults.
The crime is investigated by Elisha Macomber ‘the local representative of law and order’, not to be mistaken for a slow-thinking yokel, though he gives that impression. This aspect reminded me of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo, as in, for example, The Cape Cod Mystery. Meanwhile, the odd take on a closed circle was the kind of clever trick that Anita Boutell used in a couple of her books. All these comparisons may sound as though I thought the book derivative, but that was far from the case. It also had a wonderful cover – it reminded me of the recent Death Wears Pink Shoes cover, though so far as I can tell they are not by the same artist.
The black suit on the skeleton looks a little too formal for the action of the book, but I have reflected it in at least one of my own choice of pics, where the black is trying to look summery. (I don’t know why the poor girl in peasant blouse and stripey skirt has her head chopped off, perhaps another murder.)
In fact my only criticism of the book is that there is a missed opportunity, as almost no clothes are described. There is a blue dress, and a green dress. There is actually a bedjacket scene, but I have done one of those too recently….
I also was puzzled by something called the moving picture screen – people were hiding behind it, eavesdropping etc. So I thought it was a screen (ie a room divider covered in family phtographs) that could be moved around. But it wasn’t, careful re-reading in the early part of the book revealed that it was a screen to show movies on. It started as the motion picture screen in the rumpus room, and morphed into the moving picture screen in the playroom. A spot of lazy editing is apparently NOT a new thing after all!
After I’d written this, I found to my delight that my friend John over at Sinister Books also read and liked this book a while back – go to his blogpost here for great perceptions on the book, details of more by the same writer, and a different cover. (I think mine’s better, and I think TracyK will agree with me…)
** I used the word ‘bonkbuster’ in a post this week on a book inspired by Peyton Place. This, it seems, is a purely Brit English word, and there was a most enjoyable discussion in the comments. This was my explanation there:
The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'Women in their summer clothes, of varying kinds, from Ladies Home Journal of the era.
And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...
Tuesday, 29 August 2017
When she had finished dressing, Gloria stood before the full-length mirror in her navy blue suit with the saffron scarf tied at her neck. In her hand she carried the beige suede gloves and the navy bucket bag. She was no beauty, she realized that, but for once she felt that she had at last acquired good taste. Thanks to [her literary agent] Pitts.
“Never be obvious,” he had instructed her. “If you’re wearing a navy blue suit, avoid white at the neck and white gloves to match. It’s too much like a Polish maid’s Easter Sunday in Ida Grove, Iowa. Whatever color you wear at your neck, never let it match exactly your glove color.”
After she had bought the full-length mink, Pitts had said, “Very well, I suppose you had to buy mink. But remember, a lady never wears mink before five in the afternoon, or wool after five.”
She had returned the mink the following day.
commentary: Last week I did a post on Jacqueline Susann, her biography, and Valley of the Dolls (1966), and the subject of Grace Metallious’s Peyton Place came up.
They were very different: Peyton Place (1956) was about the horrors going on in YOUR town. These people could be your neighbours, and your community contains just as much sin and immorality as the book. Everyone has shameful secret lives.
Susann’s books were about the rich, the famous – they were NOT like you, and you could console yourself that all that money hadn’t brought them happiness or love. And everyone has shameful secret lives.
Published 10 years apart, they were both bonkbusters before the term was invented, they were both stories of scandalous goings-on, they were both banned, and loved, and passed around among teenagers, and they were both massive bestsellers.
My good friend Chrissie Poulson suggested I should be re-reading Peyton Place for the blog: an excellent idea that I intend to act on. But in the meantime, here is an unexpected place-holder.
I first came across the book over at Tipping My Fedora, where Sergio has done an excellent review, and explained more about the author, her place in fiction, and the pulp background of the book: his post is highly recommended.
It’s obvious as soon as you start reading the book that it is about a Peyton Place-type novel. Gloria Whealdon has written a startling take-down of her small town – a place where she seemed to be disliked and felt she had been humbled. She comes back from her glory days in New York, and it turns out everyone hates her – she hadn’t even bothered to disguise much in her descriptions, or even change the names that much (Milo for Miles). But does somebody hate her enough to kill her? TBH the chapters from many different POVs don’t leave you in much doubt – it’s a question of who gets there first.
The book is a roaring delight: it’s very short, it never lets up, and it is funny, wince-making and shocking at the same time, and has surprises throughout.
One husband, Freddy, asks his wife’s analyst if the two of them were really having an affair. Of course not, is the reply.
Freddy says “[if there was an affair] I’d feel as though Fern’s analysis was a better investment. At least she’d be getting something for my money, besides a lot of psychological jargon she’s not mentally equipped to grasp.”Meanwhile the analyst is unconcerned about any of the sex scandals: his problem is that Gloria has revealed that as he is a psychologist, not a medical doctor, his treatment cannot be expensed on taxes, and this may have major financial implications.
It’s not just that the book-within-a-book (it’s called Population 12,360, and we get short extracts at the beginning of each chapter) so resembles Peyton Place – it’s also that if you know anything about Grace Metallious, Gloria is a picture of her. The real author died at the age of 39, drink-related causes, leaving little but debts. She was described by her publisher as Pandora in Blue Jeans, and Gloria in the book dresses sloppily and casually (the scene above is a rare exception): she has her husband’s old socks in her hair (I am guessing this is a form of rag-curling, see this post); wears his shirts with blue jeans; and wears 'hideous space shoes’. These seem to resemble modern-day trainers or sneakers – I found a picture of the ‘space shoes’ that Danny Kaye wore for the benefit of the advertizers in the 1950s:
See the manufacturers’ site for more fascinating info. Of course all these (apart from sock hair) would look fairly normal today.
In the short sharp forward thrust of the book, there isn’t room for much of the style lessons above – I longed to know more about what her agent said to her to improve her appearance and manner, but it was not to be. Someone should write that book. (Sarra Manning, looking at you…)
I also think Pitt is being somewhat over-strict with his rules on mink and wool.
There is much discussion these days of ‘Girl’ books - Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While we would not now think that Gloria was a ‘girl’, this book couldn’t be more different from any of those current trends… It is enormous fun to read.
The 1950s suit outfit is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.
Sunday, 27 August 2017
new book by Catriona Mcpherson, with different names in the UK and the USA
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Ali, a beauty therapist, has applied for a new job at a residential facility, and is meeting various people…]
There was someone in that gazebo. I didn’t stare, but I could tell even from the corner of my eye that they were dressed in night clothes. No one wore pale pink trousers and a pink fluffy mackintosh. Those were pyjamas and a dressing gown, so that was a patient, one of the special needs clients of my so-called wide experience. As I slid the car into a free space between two BMWs, I saw the figure start to move…”Help me!” she yelled. “Get me out of here. You’ve got to help me!”…
The door was already opening when I approached and [a] woman came to greet me..
“Ms McGovern?” she said. “Alison? I’m Dr Ferris.”
She was definitely a doctor. She wasn’t wearing a white coat or anything, but there was no doubt. She had a soft green jumper on, cashmere probably, and dark green trousers. Not jeans or cords: proper slacks with pressed creases. They hung a perfect quarter inch off the ground, just skimming the toes of brown high-heeled court shoes. She probably wore them all day and claimed they were comfy.
commentary: Catriona McPherson is incredibly productive. Once a year for the past ten years or so she has produced a Dandy Gilver book – each of them beautifully-written and (as they are the best historical crime novels around) I’m guessing requiring a lot of research, especially as McPherson now lives in California. In between times, she polishes off standalone crime thrillers of a very high standard. We don’t know how she does it. But we can still enjoy the results.
I am second to none in my love for Dandy (most recently here), but I very much like the standalones too – The Child Garden was on the blog earlier this year. They are usually set in modern-day Scotland, and in milieux quite different from that of the upmarket Dandy. In this case, Alison and her husband have had serious financial troubles, lost two businesses, and ended up moving to a much smaller house. They are in dire straits, so when Ali is offered the job at a Howell Hall she has to take it - even though her CV has been massaged, and she is not really qualified. She quickly realizes that all is not as it should be at the hall, staff and patients all seem rather strange. Meanwhile, at home she is worried about her son and her husband. And then a body is discovered very close to her house…
The thing is, all those tropes are very familiar from many many books. Who ever goes to work at a medical facility in a big old house and DOESN’T start worrying? But somehow McPherson always has the ability to turn a fresh eye on these plotlines, she uses her magic and translates them into something different and unusual, while still keeping an iron grip on tension and atmosphere. I was busy guessing what was going on, and she kept turning it round and springing new surprises. It is superbly done.
House Tree Person is the US title of the book – in the UK it is published as Weight of Angels. I prefer the US title: it refers to a basic psychological test which is used to great effect in the book, a test which gives Ali all kinds of clues as to what is happening. (Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley would be proud of her.) And while she is asking questions and trying to get to the truth, Ali goes on with her beauty treatments: makeovers for the patients, and a clear case for looking after anyone, and that it isn’t either superficial or unimportant to make people feel good about themselves.
A nice selection of cosy pyjamas and dressing-gowns, with very varying levels of happiness, above. The best one was actually an American Girl doll (featured on the blog in various guises in the past):
But I didn’t want to challenge Julia’s humanity, as the book is all about humanity.
The two working-doctor outfits come from Pringle of Scotland, and that is very much somewhere Dr Ferris would shop, I feel.
Friday, 25 August 2017
Helen Farrell had taken up show jumping again as an outlet for her restless energy, while she considered her position and decided on her next move. As a young girl she’d been quite well known and had had two really good horses, but now the price of a Grade A jumper was so exorbitant, she had decided that a promising young horse, which she could ride in Foxhunters and Grade C classes, was all she could possibly afford. Devon Lad had gone well, he’d been seventh today – just in the money. He hadn’t touched a fence, it was just that she hadn’t liked to hurry him in the jump-off against the clock. If you hurried a youngster too soon he lost his head; you had to wait until they had a bit of experience before you rode all out to win.
commentary: I loved the same author’s Gin and Murder so much, I had to immediately read another of her murder stories (there is one more, which I hope the wonderful Greyladies press will also republish along with these two).
Stage school, ballet class, sailing and camping – none of these were part of my life growing up, and yet I loved to read books about them. Horses were equally not something that featured in my childhood, but I never had a pull towards pony stories - did I miss out? This author wrote more than 30 pony books for children, think of the joy if I’d liked them. And I do love these adult books… even though the passage above is full of mystifying terms, Grade A – Foxhunters – Grade C. And elsewhere in the book there is endless talk of standing martingales and studs (not meaning what I thought it meant), going slap through the triple, dragon’s teeth, linseed mash, and the key difference between lameness in the off fore and the near fore…
But I happily immersed myself in this world of horse-shows, weekends spent driving a horsebox to a muddy field then competing with your frenemies while also indulging in vicious gossip and some hard drinking. These are show-jumpers, and there is a distinction between amateurs and professionals, and everyone is short of money. Horses are an expensive pastime. (I have read enough horse-y books to know that at every point in the 20th century horse owners were looking back to a theoretical golden age, not many years earlier, when it was quite possible to be lavish with the horses, and they could easily afford good mounts, and feed was much cheaper. Which might be true for all I know.)
We are introduced to a group of horsey people, all of them with problems and difficulties of their own. One of them dies from drinking a poisoned milkshake. The splendid Inspector Flecker and his assistant Browning (who appeared in the earlier book) charge around the countryside asking questions and looking in the dustbins, and – of course – finding that just about everyone had a motive for getting rid of the rather unpopular victim. There is a promising-sounding strand about a sacked butler and a walkout by staff, but this is really just a way of reducing the pool of suspects: there were Words, but disappointingly we don’t find out what they consisted of. But there are plenty of people left to badmouth each other. Family secrets are revealed, and eventually the culprit is identified.
It’s a splendid short book, highly enjoyable. The horse shows reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books – Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey – which was published in 1949, but set in some mysterious anytime, a time which resembles the setting of this book (and inspired the wonderful Jo Walton to write her Small Change trilogy: see blog entry here for more). This book had the feel of the mid-1950s, then suddenly there would be a reminder of modern life. And one modern feature was that so many of the women wore trousers, and not just jodhpurs for riding. Blue jeans and red and white shirt – yellow pants and green blouse – bikini top and shorts – blouses with grubby jeans – pink blouse and apple green jeans.
JP-T does a jolly good job of telling you what everyone is wearing, although there is an odd violent reaction from a different policeman (about to have his nose put out of joint by Scotland Yard) who
detested women in shorts, slacks, coloured stockings, huge hairy sweaters or any other form of mildly unconventional dress.We are also firmly told that
the shameful memories of a brief marriage when he had found himself to be impotent… still coloured his outlook, and except for very elegant, well-dressed and made-up women whose company could sometimes send a tiny surge of virility through him, he found them all repellent.This is Too Much Information about someone who is a very minor character who is about to disappear from the book. It sounds very much like an analysis of a serial killer - in a modern book he would no doubt turn out to be the villain, but it is not a spoiler to say it is not that kind of book.
Young woman clearing a jump is from Florida memories, 1947.
Thursday, 24 August 2017
I knocked and entered. A young woman was seated behind a desk too small for the oversized typewriter, telephone and stacks of papers that sat upon it. She seemed preoccupied with her typing. ‘Miss Grant?’ She looked up, flustered, her eyes red-rimmed. ‘I’m Captain Wyndham.’
‘Captain,’ she said, pushing a strand of brown hair from her face, ‘please do come in.’ She rose from her chair and in the process knocked over a stack of papers, which scattered on the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, quickly bending down to gather them up. I tried not to stare at her legs, which was difficult because they were fine legs and I appreciate these things. She caught me nevertheless, and to hide my embarrassment, I knelt down, picked up a few stray sheets that had landed at my feet and handed them to her.
I thanked her for her time and stood up to leave. She rose and led me to the door. ‘And Captain,’ she said, ‘if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.’ I thanked her, took one last surreptitious glance at those smooth, tanned legs, then heard myself saying, ‘And, if it’s still open, I might take you up on your offer to show me Chowringhee.’
She smiled. ‘Of course, Captain. I look forward to it.’
commentary: I feel a bit mean picking on one particular aspect of this very enjoyable book, but Abir Mukherjee has come up against the raison d'etre of Clothes in Books.
Later on our hero has this:
Annie Grant…wore a simple blue dress that came down to her knees and afforded me a view of those calves that I so admired.To which we say: no she didn’t, and no you didn’t get to look at her legs.
It IS simple, and quite straightforward: This is 1919, and Annie Grant works as a respectable secretary in the Indian civil service. She was not showing her legs to anyone.
The top pictures show what Selfridges department store was selling in London as the height of daring fashion in that year. It is likely that a respectable young woman in Calcutta might be wearing even longer skirts, but even with the benefit of the doubt the policeman could, at best, have seen her ankles. These descriptions of her clothes are unthinkable. The author is mistaking her for a flapper of the 1920s – though even then it would be more correct to say that her blue dress ‘came up to her knees’ rather than down – down implies it is longer than the norm. And even when skirts got shorter, I imagine a working woman in Annie’s situation would err on the modest side.
However. There is a lot more to enjoy about the book - the opener in a new crime series featuring Sam Wyndham, a policeman from Scotland Yard making a new start in Calcutta. The author wants to feature India between the wars, an unusual and intriguing setting.
Our hero investigates the murder of a local sahib, the body found in evening dress with a threatening note in his mouth, and gets caught up in all kinds of politics, the independence movement, and the internal politics of the ruling classes. He has his own issues and problems, and memories of life in London, and the First World War. He establishes a relationship with Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a local policeman with endless experience and useful knowledge. He is the best character in the book, and is given the best lines. When Sam wants to question some women in a house overlooking the crime scene, his Anglo assistant objects:
‘I’m not sure that would be such a good idea, old boy,’ said Digby. ‘There are some things you should know about the natives and their customs. They can be very funny about us questioning their lady-folk. You go barging over there to interrogate some woman and before you know it you’ll have a riot on your hands. It might be better if I handled it.’
Banerjee squirmed. Digby’s face darkened. ‘Is there something you wish to say, Sergeant?’
‘No, sir,’ said Banerjee apologetically. ‘It’s just that I don’t think anyone will start a riot if we go in there.’
Digby’s voice quivered. ‘And what makes you so certain of that?’
And then later
‘Well, sir,’ said Banerjee, ‘I’m fairly sure that house is a brothel.’
[There was a] wooden sign, its perfect white letters bearing the message: NO DOGS OR INDIANS BEYOND THIS POINT
Surrender-not noticed my distaste. ‘Don’t worry, sir,’ he said. ‘We Indians know our place. Besides, the British have achieved certain things in a hundred and fifty years that our civilisation didn’t in over four thousand.’
‘Such as?’ I asked.
The book is quite long, and some of the chapters gave us only local colour and maybe one piece of information, but I assume Mukherjee is showing us his research. Some of the casual relations seemed unlikely in such a formal and divided society, and would a respectable preacher really say ‘I thought he was an arse’ about the murder victim? And as for the repeated use of the construction ‘Digby was sat opposite’ or ‘was sat on a chair’ – one might grudgingly have to accept that now, but it is completely wrong for 1919, unthinkably ungrammatical. It’s odd, because Mukherjee is very careful about language in general.
Banerjee’s lips contorted in a thin smile. ‘Well, we never managed to teach the dogs to read.’
But it was a most promising start to this new series, and I look forward to more, much more, of Surrender-Not.
Thanks to Jackie for the recommendation.
Tuesday, 22 August 2017
Lovely Me by Barbara Seaman
[Also featured: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann published 1966
& How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, published 2014]
[From the biography of author Jacqueline Susann]
By the summer of 1966 Jackie was one of the most recognizable women in the United States. She was everywhere – in magazines and newspapers, on posters in bookstore windows and in buses, and, always, on television. Along with the talk shows there were panel and game shows and even variety shows. Omnipresent as Orwell’s Big Brother was that tough, striking showgirl’s face: the false eyelashes fluttering beneath white eyeshadow, the bright-orange lips and nails, the wardrobe of dark, lacquered, shoulder-length falls, the vivid Emilio Pucci print dresses, which she finally gave up because, although they “packed well”, they made her “boobs look too big”.
commentary: Jacqueline Susann was a force of nature, an icon, and her most famous work, Valley of the Dolls, one of the best-selling novels of all time, is also iconic: it’s a striking achievement. Valley is sometimes treated as a comfort read, a chick-litty romance: we expect the three girls whose careers we follow to have the usual division of spoils in the way of pluses and minuses. But in fact it’s a bleak and not very comforting book, with a very downbeat ending. It is also incredibly entertaining, and compulsive – at every point you want to know what is going to happen. Goodness knows what it was like to read it in 1966, when nothing like it had ever been published before. Like many people, I would say that I don’t love the book, or the film based on it, with a great passion, but I respect both of them, and am glad they are there as monuments of popular culture, and to the telling of women’s stories. (The feminist angle on them is always difficult to work out…)
Lovely Me, by Barbara Seaman, is an absolutely wonderful biography of Susann, one I have just lost a weekend to. It was recommended to me by Samantha Ellis, author of the terrific How to be A Heroine, a book that looks at the way the novels young women read inspire them and shape them. (It was one of my top books of 2014, and is one of my all-time favourite book-about-books.)
Samantha said it was a great favourite of hers, and my goodness I can see why. It is a textbook biography, carefully researched and referenced, yet intensely readable and gossip-y, full of extraordinary anecdotes. And Susann’s life is intrinsically full of interest – she was ambitious, she worked hard, she grafted: and she really, really wanted to be famous. She thought it might be her acting, but she never broke through. She tried writing a play. She never stopped working and trying to promote herself. And finally she did it: wrote an astonishing bestseller. The story of how she did that is beautifully laid out in Seaman’s book: the process, the amount of editing Valley needed, the snooty reaction of publishers and editors. She enjoyed her eventual fame enormously, wrote more best-sellers, then died of the cancer that had been threatening her for some time.
It is truly a story that belongs in one of her own books – her strange but loving marriage, her deals with God, her affairs with men and women, her dependence on pills, the sad sad story of her child. And Seaman does an unimprovable job describing it all, creating a whole world, decisive but not judgemental in her descriptions. It’s a terrific book.
And you can read more on Susann’s Valley of the Dolls – blogposts here and here.
Samantha Ellis’s How to be a Heroine is here on the blog.
And if you are up for a whole weekend of this (as I was) I would highly recommend the 1967 film of Valley of the Dolls and (even better) the Bette Midler film about Susann’s life, Isn’t She Great.
The Midler film was greatly derided on its release in 2000, was the subject of enormous criticism, and was a huge failure - and I’ve never understood why: it is an oddity, it doesn’t resemble any other film in format or structure, but it is tremendous fun, very funny, very entertaining. I personally would say that in my life I have seen at least 100 films that are much, much worse. Isn't She Great is splendid: warm and good-hearted and with some excellent character actors in it.
And truly, no film or book about Susann could be less than enjoyable…