Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dress Down Sunday: A Book with 2 Names…


Aupres de Ma Blonde by Nicholas Freeling

aka A Long Silence

published 1972

Aupres de ma blonde 2

[Arlette Van der Valk goes to talk with her neighbour]

Arlette found herself pouring out her whole tale, and most of her heart.

‘Well,’ said Bates at the end, with great common sense, ‘that has done you a great deal of good my dear, and that’s a fact, just like taking off one’s stays; girls don’t wear stays any more and don’t know what they miss.’

Arlette felt inclined to argue that it was a good thing to be no longer obliged to wear stays.

‘Of course, dear, don’t think I don’t agree with you, healthy girls with good stomach muscles playing tennis, and no more of that fainting and vapouring. But I maintain that it was a good thing for a girl to know constraint. Sex education and women’s lib, all dreadful cant. Girls who married without knowing the meaning of the word ‘sex’ were sometimes happy and sometimes very unhappy, and I don’t believe they are any happier now. I married a sailor, dear, and learned how to go without.’

commentary: There was something very strange and unexpected about Aupres de ma Blonde.

I read, and very much liked, a lot of Nicolas Freeling back in the 70s and 80s (another of his books is on the blog here). Came across this one, unfamiliar title, decided to give it a go. It is one of his Van der Valk series, so must be one I missed along the way, I thought. [Diversion: remember how easy it was to miss one in the olden days, pre-internet? No quick way to look up a series, or put them in order - all we had was an unreliable list of ‘other books by’ at the beginning - often incomplete and not in order. We live in happier times now…]

And so I laid myself open for something of a shock. Getting on for halfway through I had a sudden inkling of familiarity, and so had about two pages’ mental warning of a major plot turn. Aupres DMB, as it turns out, is the American title of a book called A Long Silence in  the UK. When I read Long Silence years ago I knew what was coming because the book had been much discussed at the time. I am trying not to spoiler this, so will say no more about that aspect, except that it was a big surprise.

It’s a winding, intriguing, atmospheric book, with a clever setup: a young man gets a casual job in a jewellers’ shop, and something odd happens. Is it worrying or not? It is very hard to predict where the story is going.  VdV’s wife Arlette is well to the fore in this one - that’s her above, and there is this splendid description of her from a new neighbour:
I know all about you: you are French, you smell delicious, you used to keep the whole neighbourhood in gales of laughter, and you had dreadful fights with the butcher, whom you detested…
We find out a lot more about the neighbours and Aupres de ma blonde 4neighbourhood, and Arlette herself. I always expected to be irritated by her in this series, because she was so much a certain kind of male author’s fantasy figure - as in this passage later in the book when she visits a contact, who says this to her:
‘My dear girl – a real Chanel. Don’t talk nonsense, I can tell by the cutting. I hope and trust that your knickers are black crepe de Chine.’ 
‘White cotton with Swiss embroidery.’ 

- that kind of thing could go either way, but she and the author always managed to confound me and I really like her, she is a terrific character.

There are some meta-moments: Van der Valk gets a promotion ‘for literary reasons’, which I’m guessing is a reference to the books, and the author himself appears in a short sequence, a glancing first person character.

I liked the complaints in the extract above, because I think older women of all ages and all times have always said those things about younger women. (The character is called Bates, incidentally, as a nickname, after the character in Jane Austen’s Emma.)

It’s a strange book – tough and sentimental, affecting and ridiculous, completely unbelievable and yet very gripping, a police procedural with a touch of Scooby Doo - at one point the investigation is actually compared to Swallows and Amazons. I’m so glad I read it again.

And, at first I couldn’t understand why the changed title, it seemed a strange choice: but now I think it a better title for this particular book. At the beginning, the author gives the lyrics of the French 17th century marching song called Aupres de Ma Blonde, with a short paragraph about its provenance. And later it all makes sense…

Quite separately, all good fans of Dorothy L Sayers know that Lord Peter sings the song Aupres de ma Blonde in Busman’s Honeymoon as a mark of his great pleasure at getting married to Harriet D Vane. (It is difficult, for me anyway, to contemplate the fact that the Freeling book is nearer in time to the Sayers than to the present day.)

Top picture from NYPL collection of corset pictures. I have looked at (and featured on the blog – click on the tag below) many and many a corset picture, but this is one of the strangest.

Chanel suit from Kristine’s photostream.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Saint Maker by Leonard Holton

published 1959

“Mrs. Winters,” said Father Bredder as soon as he had reached his small study, “Mrs. Winters.” She came to the door wearing a small hat of black straw and a white but somehow disreputable-looking apron over her plain gray dress. Mrs. Winters always gave the impression that she had just come in and had only had time to put on an apron but not time to remove her hat.


[Tino, a young man of the neighbourhood]

But he couldn’t drive the Merc because his license had been taken away for six months. And he was also on probation because of a beef involving the holdup of a liquor store. So Tino had to ride the bus to the convent, which hurt his pride. He salved it in other ways; however. He wore a $140 suit of Italian silk, pearl gray in color, and had a deep burgundy pocket handkerchief in the breast pocket. He had a deep burgundy tie, two-tone shoes (black and white), and a dark-blue fedora, and he was sure that any convent girls who caught sight of him would swoon right away.

Saint Maker 5

commentary: I can highly recommend the Clerical Detectives website: it is terrifyingly comprehensive. The only downside is that you visit it to make a quick check on a fact, a check that will take a maximum of two minutes, and then you end up staying at least half an hour and coming away with a list of books you need to read.

I’m going to quote from the site on the otherwise inexplicable Fr Bredder, the priest sleuth in this series. Holton was a prolific writer in many genres, and apparently said:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers. It occurred to me then that I had to devise a nonfussy and nonviolent sort of detective - a detective with an entirely different personality and motivation from the usual private eye; although on reflection few of them are usual. This decided me that if I made my detective a priest I could give my stories a background and quality others lacked - a spiritual quality.
Quite an interesting take on the different kinds of crime story I thought.

And this is a very strange crime story.

It starts with Fr Bredder, a priest in LA, hoping to soften up the Reverend Mother of the next-door convent by giving her a present of a giant melon. Only it turns out that what is in the bag he hands over is the head of a murdered woman. An excellent set-up, I think we can all agree.

The book then follows the attempts to find out who the victim is, and there are fascinating conclusions to be drawn from the head. A forensic expert says:
That, woman, unless I miss my guess, is one of a submerged American type. By that I mean there are thousands like her all through this country, especially in the big cities. They drift from place to place, and if you will forgive my saying so, from bedroom to bedroom. They mix up with a lot of men and they have a host of acquaintances but no friends.


He has concluded that she doesn’t often wear a hat, doesn’t wash her hair enough, wears heavy silver earrings, and (based on her teeth) probably has had some children. All this has built up his picture of her – and in one sense it sounds terribly sexist and quite bleak and shocking. But on the other hand it is proper detection, and it surely represents the way life was in 1959.

[The ‘tour de force forensic examination based on a body part’ moment turned up in a couldn’t-be-more different Catherine Aird book on the blog recently, by chance: that time it was a hand.]

There is then some sleuthing, including the priest heading off to Yuma Arizona (there was dust from the area in the dead woman’s hair) and also some suspicion falling on him - Tino above is trying to warn Fr Bredder, and help him to escape if necessary.

Fr Bredder links up with Lieutenant Minardi (who has a daughter, Barbara, at the convent school) and between them they solve the crime. It is a very short book, and sometimes feels as though two different books - clerical crime, police grit - have been combined, and the a middle section missed out, though I am not complaining: short is good. The crime is suddenly solved:  it is rather noir-ish and involves one of those crime schemes which seem vanishingly, unnecessarily complex and very unlikely – see also such disparate books as Dorothy L Sayers Murder Must Advertise and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped.

But the book stuck in my mind, it had a great atmosphere, some very varied scenes, and some very nice touches. One character says to Fr Bredder:
“It will be quite a comfort to be dead; then the whole struggle will be over. You can’t be guilty of sin after death, can you, Father?” 

“No,” said the priest. “After death sin is impossible.” 
“Do you know,” said Mrs. Cleaton, “that is the most comforting thing I know of about religion.”

And Lt Minardi makes an excellent point about the clue of the candle…
“What I’m getting at,” said Minardi, “is that every man views the world and the world’s events in terms of his own interests and you, seeing a candle lighted to John the Baptist, automatically conclude that this is related to finding the head in your church.”
Apparently there are 11 books in the series, and I will certainly read more.


I have my friend John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books to blame for this one – he looked at a later book in the series for the Tuesday Night Club’s travel and murder meme, and I was intrigued enough to follow up and start from the beginning.

I loved the description of the housekeeper – later he says ‘Mrs. Winters always gave the impression of having just arrived for her duties or being just prepared to depart from them’: it was so very familiar to me from my youth. I have seen many women – from priests’ housekeepers to my own grandmothers – in a hat and an apron simultaneously. I think it was that they spent some time arranging their hat, fixing it in place, so it might as well stay there.

It was very hard to find the picture I had in my mind – I think because any such lady would whisk her apron off if she were about to be photographed. But these photos  gives the right impression – top one from the National Library of Australia, while second hat lady is part of a WW2 sewing party, picture from the Imperial War Museum.

The picture of a young man is of the blameless and totally un-criminal bandleader Cab Calloway, part of the Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.

Picture of a lady from Ladies Home Journal – I gave her a bit more glamour than really described, because I felt sorry for the character.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F John

published 2017

Haunting of Henry Twist 2

[London 1926: a foggy morning. Ruby is out walking early. ]

The mist, trapped between closer buildings, spins in darker circles, and Ruby waves a gloved hand at it, as though she can persuade it to clear for her. She feels this powerful. Her heels clip-clip against the pavement. Her bright red coat flashes with each forward step. The lipstick she swept on to match it clings heavy to her lips, but it is a weight she enjoys: it reminds her of how pretty she felt this morning when Henry stood behind her in the mirror, his hands around her stomach, and winked at her as she twisted the thick ends of her hair one way then the other.

Haunting of Henry Twist 1 [later in the book, at Paddington station, Henry meets Ida for the first time]

‘Mr Twist?’ she asks, dipping a little to catch his eye.

Her voice is so familiar that, briefly, Henry is unwilling to lift his chin. He considers the round, shining-black toes of her shoes, the hem of her wool dress; then, slowly, the book she clasps one-handed in front her; and then, finally, her face.

commentary: This is a book it’s best to come to cold: to have no idea what genre of book is, no real idea what is going to happen - so I will try not to give too much away. It is not a spoiler to say that Ruby, the first woman above, is about to be knocked over by a bus and killed. She is pregnant, and the baby will survive. Henry, her husband, is completely devastated, but determined to keep the baby and raise her alone. Ida is Ruby’s sister, and comes from Wales to help.

The story looks back to the happy days of Henry and Ruby’s married life: they were very much in love. Henry has his memories of the First Wold War, but is also grateful to have survived. The two of them have another couple, Matilda and Grayson, as friends, and all four have been taken under the wing of a wealth, almost Gatsby-esque figure, Monty, who gives parties for the Bright Young Things of the era.

All of their stories are important, but the key thread comes with a mysterious figure who seems to be hanging round Henry. His name might be Jack Turner, and he becomes part of all their lives. But who is he exactly? And does Henry seriously think Jack might have some connection with his dead wife? The séance scene, and the medium Sybil, were very well done.

It is a mysterious and atmospheric book: Ruby in particular is very real, despite her early demise: she was the nicest character so (however foolish this may sound) it was a shame to lose her – she’s the person I wanted more of. (As she says: ‘I am not for the having, Henry Twist. I am for the wanting.’)

There is a lot about a very upmarket social life of the time:
She wants nothing more than to be one of those careless girls who swap lipsticks and husbands with smiles; who dance like nobody is watching them; who run the streets, lengths of beaded silk or chiffon or satin shining under streetlamps, teasing men and each other.

Haunting of Henry Twist 3

I am very interested in the class system in the UK in the 1920s, and the one lack in the book, I thought, was any clear establishing of where the characters stood there. It seemed quite unlikely that Henry and Ruby would be invited to the parties they attended – or at least I would have liked more explanation as to how they came to be part of that particular set. The patronage of Monty didn’t quite seem enough, his role was strange.

Many other aspects of 20s life come into the book, but I really don’t want to say too much about the different strands that are going to emerge. The ending (some years later) is – not as harsh as it might have been, and, again, maybe slightly unlikely.

But that is not to take away from a really excellent book, a true novel, with unexpected moments and great sentences on every page.

Ruby’s red coat is from Kristine’s photostream – it is too posh, and too small, and the model isn’t pregnant, but I was so glad to find a colour picture of a 1920s red coat that I had to use it.

Ida in her dress is also from Kristine’s photostream, as is the party scene.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder

published 2017

People we Hate 4

[Alice is looking at the invitation to her half-sister’s wedding]

Her phone buzzes … “So, how much?” It’s Paul, her brother.

“Hold on.” Alice scrolls down the website for a stationery company called Bella Lettera that she heard a coworker gushing about yesterday. Buried below a hundred pictures of dainty thank-you cards and save-the-dates, she finds what she’s looking for: a pink-and-white pricing table for wedding invitations…

She skims down the table’s columns: foil, no foil; card-stock type; multiple colors. “Let’s see. We think it’s two-ply paper, right?” Alice picks Eloise’s invitation up off her desk. The paper is full and cottony, halfway between papyrus and a quilt, she thinks. And if she looks closely enough, she can see details she missed last night: wisps in its pulp, places where it’s been hand pressed—all sorts of little irregularities that add up to a hefty price tag. “How many colors are we dealing with?”

“I was just going to ask that,” Paul says. “I count three: gold, silver, and that terrible, shitty English-seaside blue.”

Alice liked the blue when she first opened the envelope; it had reminded her of the peonies her mother used to grow in their garden in St. Charles. “Right,” she says. “Three colors. Do we think it’s letterpress or foil stamping or what?”

“So, Mark and I were talking about this last night. He originally thought it was letterpress. But, I mean, if you look closely, you can pretty obviously see the foil.”

Alice closes her left eye and squints at the name of the groom: Oliver. The elegant O glints under the office’s fluorescent lights. “Definitely foil,” she says. “And we estimated how many?”

“I’d say two hundred fifty. That bitch knows a lot of people.”

People We Hate 3

“I think that’s probably reasonable.” Alice reaches for a pen and a Post-it, jots down a few numbers, and performs a series of mental calculations. “So, we’re looking at about eighteen hundred, but that just covers the invitation, program cover, and program panel.” She scrolls down to the site’s next table. “For response cards, and the save-the-dates we got a few months ago, and menus, and all of that shit, we’ve got to consider another … looks like about fifteen hundred.”

“So we’re up to about thirty-three hundred.”

“… and then envelopes are going to run another seven hundred, at least.”

“Okay, so four thousand. Anything else?”

Alice does a quick inventory. “No, I think that’s it.”

“We’ll throw in an additional five hundo, because it’s Eloise, which brings us up to forty-five hundred dollars,” Paul says.

commentary: First of all: Best Title Ever. Apparently Ginder was on the way home from a wedding celebration, on a train with a group of friends, and one of them opened a bottle of wine and said ‘People we hated at the wedding: Go’. I hope he has since given the friend a bottle of champagne.

I  bought the book on the strength of the title, and the opening chapter - the extract above is part of it, long because I found it so hilarious - seemed to justify it. I loved the siblings stalking their sister’s shopping choices: ‘We knew it would cost [that much]. We just wanted to be justified in our disgust.’

Once we get on the wedding trip, heading off for the ceremony in England, the book picks up to become mightily entertaining again, but - how can I put this? - there is 40% of the book in between these two points, and it is dull and all-too-familiar: three characters vary the chapters, they have work problems, difficult relationships, they drink or take drugs too much, they think about past grudges. None of it is new or unfamiliar, it is all carved out from the usual world of modern American novels. The book to me reads as though Ginder had written a modern life novel, then got hold of the wedding idea, and interleaved the two. I think he should have written a much (much) shorter book dealing only with the wedding. I also had a problem with the character whose flaw is that he tells long boring stories. Note to author: don’t tell us the stories, they ARE boring.

People We Hate 1

The later section is much more enjoyable, partly because everyone is very human, full of failings and not terribly likeable. Often that annoys me in a book, but this time it is so wholesale as to be refreshing, and there are some very funny scenes and moments.

I like the casual comments on the characters’ lives and acheivements -
his thesis—an exploration of the use of eating utensils in Jane Austen’s earlier work—remained a constant source of anxiety and wonder for Paul; he could scarcely pick up a fork anymore without thinking of the Bennet sisters.

She had a memoir being released that week (after reading Around the World in Eighty Days in the wake of a messy breakup, she spent a year traveling the world, trying to find eligible men in foreign cities with untapped dating pools, like Accra and Vilnius. She’s still single)
And there is a date for an older couple which I think is an object lesson in what not to do: do not take your potential love interest kayaking in a wetsuit. It is a hilariously horrible worst first date.

There are a few problems with the English setting - I’d love to know at which point on the M4 from Heathrow you can see
A council flat, a dusty cathedral, an old television antenna
No-one in the UK, ever, has ever said ‘There’s a pub about two kilometers down the road’ or ‘You’re going to take a left in about four kilometers’. And young Brits did not read the Hardy Boys as schoolkids.

Also - and this is just a difference, not a problem - in the UK someone with ‘ropy’ arms and legs is someone with pretty bad arms or legs, which is plainly not what Ginder means, he means gym-toned.

I would say to anyone reading this book – if you’re finding it dull or hard-going, then persevere: It will get better. And the funny bits are worth it. 

Disappointingly, there wasn't much about wedding clothes - surely such great possibilities for jokes - so I made do with general pictures. And, if  I hadn’t already known that  modern day weddings were ready for a takedown, wandering round Pinterest looking for the pictures above would have convinced me. However I mean no offence to the happy couples whose photos I have borrowed – all these pictures look tasteful and charming to me.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Slight Mourning by Catherine Aird

published 1975


Slight Mourning 1

“Helen! Helen, what on earth are you doing down here? And at this time of night …”

Helen Fent started. “Oh, it’s only you, Annabel. You gave me quite a fright.”

“And you gave me quite a fright,” countered the young nurse briskly. “I thought you were nicely tucked up in bed …”

“I was …”

“And then I find you pattering about downstairs in your night-dress. It’s a white one, too.”

Helen gave a shaky little laugh. “I expect I do look a bit like a ghost.”

“In the dark as well.” Annabel was reproachful. “You might have put a light on.”

“Sorry,” she said penitently. “I didn’t think.”

“I was just coming up to bed anyway,” said Annabel. “I would have come in to see if you needed anything for the night. Did you want another hot drink?”

“Yes … no. No”— Helen took a deep breath—“ thank you.”

“Or a sleeping tablet? I’ve got some with me.”

“No, thank you.” Helen shook her head. “It’s not that. I was just making quite sure we were all locked up for the night.”

commentary: A couple of people did this one for the year 1975 over at Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme (last November’s edition), and intrigued me enough to download it.

Over at Past Offences there are two excellent reviews mentioned, and JJ said in the comments ‘for sheer structure Slight Mourning is easily one of the most interestingly written books I’ve read in a long time. Plot-wise it’s very good, too, but the way Aird introduces all the elements in the opening third or so is really quite fabulous.’

And that pretty much nails it.

It has a really clever, satisfying format: from an opening that features bell-ringing (to remind us of Sayers The Nine Tailors), via a man who dies in a car crash but was poisoned first, to a mental reconstruction of a dinner party via social norms and female intuition – this is a story that pleases the reader.

There are the usual touches of Aird humour;
“We’d heard that [the dead man] ate his dinner all right.” 

“Heard?” chortled Dabb, the pathologist, robustly. “I know for sure, Sloan. I had a look.”
And the story (unnecessary but hilarious) of the alibi that revolves round a soldiers’ reunion where the participants got very drunk and recreated their most successful attack at the host hotel…

I loved the clever details of the dinner party – Inspector Sloan’s wife gives him information he needs, and imagines the table setting, and the brilliant clue of the imperfect pudding.

There are some great clothes: Helen, above, the grieving Slight Mourning 2widow, at the funeral
had chosen to wear a linen dress in a shade of charcoal grey which went well with her raven hair but which also served to heighten her pallor.
And there is discussion of a
longhaired art dealer chap with the fancy tie thing …”
“Cravat,” said Sloan distastefully, “or jabot. I don’t know which.” Sloan himself only went out without a collar and tie on Sunday mornings when he went into the garden to tend his roses, and since his marriage he’d affected a decent sports shirt for gardening.
While Constable Crosby’s
conception of “plain-clothes” was a piece of natty gent’s suiting, and Sloan could only call his choice of a tie for a funeral conspicuously unsuccessful.
This is inspector Sloan’s annoyingly incompetent sidekick, with remarks like this:
“We’re like a couple of mosquitoes in a nudist colony, aren’t we, sir?” he hissed cheerfully. “Our trouble is that we don’t know where to begin.”
It was handy that I knew so certainly that it was 1975, because actually I would otherwise have placed it earlier – this is an old-fashioned village with a lot of class consciousness, and Inspector Sloan wouldn’t dream of having a dinner party himself. Times are changing though.

I don’t think anyone could have guessed the full story of the crime, but that didn’t stop me enjoying this: a classic village mystery with a lot of very funny moments.

Neither of the pictures is of the right date, but Angelina Jolie in the grey dress had the right look, and I wanted to avoid the nightdress pics that suggest too much jeopardy…

There’s more Catherine Aird on the blog – click on the tag below – this has been my favourite so far.

Friday, 21 July 2017

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

published 1997

To say Nothing of the Dog 2

We came through Day’s Lock in record time. And ran bang into a traffic jam.

The reason the river had been so empty before was because the entire armada had gathered here. Punts, canoes, outriggers, double-sculling skiffs, covered rowing boats, eights, barges, rafts, and houseboats jammed the river, all of them heading upstream and none of them in a hurry. Girls with parasols chattered to girls with parasols in other boats and called to their companions to pull alongside.

A girl in a sailor dress and a beribboned straw hat poled a flat skiff slowly among them and stood there laughing when the pole stuck in the mud. An artist in a yellow smock stood motionless on a raft in the middle of the melee, painting a landscape on an easel, though how he could see said landscape over the flower-decked hats and parasols and fluttering Union Jacks, I had no idea.

To Say Nothing of the Dog 4

A rower from one of the colleges, in a striped cap and jersey, cracked oars with a pleasure party’s paddles and stopped to apologize, and a sailboat nearly crashed into them from behind. I yanked on the lines and nearly crashed into all three. ‘I’d best steer,’ Terence said.

commentary: This is a classic sci-fi time travel book, winner of many awards and in print for 20 years, and I first heard of it from my good blogfriend TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery. It tells the story of a group of time travellers from the year 2057, who need to sort out a number of problems in the past. It is a very complex thread of time, where a minor incident in 1888 may affect the outcome of the Second World War, and where a vase lost from Coventry Cathedral (bombed IRL in 1940) has the utmost significance. It takes a while to get this scenario set up, jumping around all over the place, but then the majority of the book takes place in Victorian England in 1888, where the hero/narrator Ned has to try to complete certain tasks, while pretending to be a young University man, and paralleling some parts of the Jerome K Jerome classic comic novel published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat: its subtitle, To Say Nothing of the Dog, gives this book its title of course. These characters, too, spend a lot of time going up and down the river Thames on a boat. Ned looks very much as if he is one of the characters in that book:
I looked the very image of a Victorian gentleman off for an outing on the river. My stiff collar, my natty blazer and white flannels. Above all, my boater. There are some things one is born to wear, and I had obviously been fated to wear this hat. It was of light straw with a band of blue ribbon, and it gave me a jaunty, dashing look, which, combined with the moustache, was fairly devastating. No wonder Auntie had been so anxious to hustle Maud off.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Many many other books, literary figures and real people feature, to an almost exhausting extent, although it is fun to spot the references. The book can be tremendously funny, and very very clever – the twists and turns of the time slippage are well worked out. Some of the clues are very easily resolved (was it supposed to be a mystery who Mr C was? – it seemed very obvious from early on), but on the other hand there were some very imaginative ideas about, say, how someone who had never encountered a cat or a tin-opener might react to them. There was high entertainment value, some of the time.

But my goodness it was long-winded – it was far far too long, and there were pages and pages of repetitious, uninteresting descriptions. For example, Ned kept looking for the cat (which has a vital role to play), finding the cat, then deciding not to secure it but to set it down to sleep. So then it gets lost again and then there are pages of him looking for it. This was just dull – there was no tension in it, and this reader just felt infuriated by Ned’s stupidity. (And very unsympathetic about various actions taken to save cats, which apparently put the future of the free world at risk – but, you know, cats are important.) The funny and entertaining bits - and they really were – had to be mined out of all this. I think if I’d been in charge of editing this book it would be about two-thirds of the length, at most, with no great loss.

To Say Nothing of the Dog 3

The other problem with it was that the author is American, and she didn’t get anyone to check her English, and there are a lot of unlikely Americanisms there (for example, the young men calling their university ‘school’). I don’t, of course, object to Americanisms as such, but when they are this unlikely, and coming out of Victorian English mouths, it is plain annoying. And there is a huge irony when a major point of the book is that the time travellers must fit in, must not say the wrong thing. They do, all the time. And – in case you think I am just being pedantic – the mistakes seem like clues, that someone who gets something wrong is not who he or she is supposed to be, so it is not fairplay.

The worst example of all is not an Americanism – it is this from an Irish housemaid:
My sister Sharon, she’s in service in London…
I am willing to go out on a limb here and say there was no Irish housemaid in the whole of London in 1888 called Sharon. So naturally I assumed Sharon was a time traveler. [Spoiler: she isn’t. It is just a mistake.]

If ever there was a book where skim-reading was needed it is this one. I would like to read more by Willis – she is knowledgeable, witty and literary – but I’m not sure I can face blockbusters that do not justify their length.

Three Men in a Boat has several entries on the blog.

The picture is Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon, by Edward John Gregory, and is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery near Liverpool. The photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, and was first pointed out to me by one of this blog’s longest-standing and most cherished supporters, Deborah Machin Pearson, who suggested it for the Jerome K Jerome book. Boulter’s lock is mentioned in the book: ‘an old woman in a mobcap was trying to sell Terence a mug with a picture of Boulter’s Lock on the side.’

The 2nd picture is of some members of a Queensland cricket team, comes from the Queensland State Library, and is featured on Wikimedia Commons.

Then there are a couple of cartoon pictures from Punch from a few years before this setting – the idea of messing about on the river doesn’t change.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson

published 2017, set in 1934

Earlier this week Clothes in Books was happy host to the blogtour for this latest Dandy Gilver book. If you look at the entry you can read the first chapter of this marvellous book… But obviously I couldn’t leave it at that, I had to do my own entry on the book, and try to give an idea of both the wonders of the book, and the lovely clothes therein.

Dandy dressDandy fox fur

[Dandy Gilver is discussing her latest case with her maid, Grant]

I stood to let her help me into my frock. Her successes as assistant detective are admittedly several, but Grant is a wonderful ladies’ maid. Despite its being June, she had correctly anticipated the temperature and humidity of a lowland castle and had packed a velvet evening dress with a high neck and long sleeves. My white fox fur lent a faint air of the music hall against the dark velvet and clashed a little with the cream lace in my headdress but my mother was dead and could not be shocked and I was almost cosy as I followed Grant, to be shown Mrs Bewer’s bedroom door…

Mrs Bewer… had been transformed from the bundle of shawls I had met downstairs into a grand old lady in satins and pearls. Her white hair would not have disgraced the court of of the Sun King, for Grant had teased it into an enormous ball and studded it with jewelled pins like an orange stuck with cloves.

commentary: There are two current crime series that I love beyond reason; Dandy Gilver is the historical one. (The contemporary choice is Elly Griffiths and her Ruth Galloway books). Dandy is a posh lady sleuth living on an estate in Scotland with her husband and sons. She has a detective partnership with a young man called Alec. They wander round Scotland solving cases, usually in another posh house or estate; but they are far from being as twee or as cozy as that makes them sound. McPherson’s characters dance off the page, they are real and funny and very much of their time: the big difference between this series and so many others is that she does NOT give her characters modern-day attitudes to make them more likeable. So few authors of historicals can resist the temptation: all those sleuths who are feminist, pro-gay, and very understanding about mental health issues. Pure fantasyland. Dandy is very individual, and very likeable indeed, but she doesn’t go about telling us how understanding she is about 21st centuy issues, and that alone would make her very unusual.

But also – the books are beautifully plotted, with proper clues spread around, there are always wonderful social setpieces, and of course wonderful clothes. They are also very very funny, and the characters grow and get more appealing through the series. The maid Grant is a scene-stealer of a high order (reflecting her theatrical background perhaps) and if this were a TV series she would have her own spin-off show by now. Which brings me to the complete mystery of why these books haven’t yet been made into films or TV shows – they would be wonderful, surely someone is considering them?

This one is particularly visual: Dandy, Alec and Grant are helping old friends who live in a ramshackle Scottish castle. There is an old mystery to be solved, a valuable necklace to be found and – oh bliss – a performance of Macbeth to bring in the paying tourists. NOTHING could be better suited to showing off the talents of Dandy, of Grant, and of author Catriona. The residents, the actors and the paying guests divide into two camps: those who are longing for ever-bigger roles in the play, and those who are running a mile. Alec and Grant cannot be prised away from the actors, and Grant is making costumes as fast as she can – this generosity somewhat diluted by the fact that she is getting the best clothes and ever bigger and more parts.

On top of all this, there is jewellery detection: the indispensable Grant can date a piece of jewellery because the design is copied from a more famous piece, and the necklace pre-dated the double safety clasp. Other items cannot have belonged to the bride who died young: ‘these rings were worn for years. Look at them.’

And just two more clothes items:

Dandy green
Her gown was of bottle-greenvelvet with a deep froth of creamy lace at the shoulders.Blue suit
Lady Annandale was coolly dressed in angora the same shade as her corridor walls.
Plenty more Dandy entries on the blog. And McPherson also writes standalones, several of which have featured here.

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes – on the blog earlier this year – featured another Shakespeare performance in a stately home.

Variety of 1930s fashions from NYPL, Kristine’s photostream, and the athenaeum website.

The second picture is The Right Honourable Mabell Ogilvy, Dowager Countess of Airlie, by Philip Alexius de Laszlo – she was a key figure of the 30s, the kind of person mentioned by the Mitfords.

The third one down is a rather splendid 19th century Lady Macbeth by Thomas Francis Dicksee.

The green dress is by Boris Grigoriev.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hostage to Fortune by Elizabeth Chaplin

aka Jill McGown

published 1992

Hostage to Fortune 1

[A group of people are having an outdoor meal]

Sunlight glinted on the wine bottle as the younger of the men reached across the other to pour the last of its contents into the woman’s glass, and she thanked him with mock prettiness. She wore a sleeveless top loose over matching white shorts that accentuated the length and elegance of the brown legs at which the older man glanced appreciatively as he rose and wandered away from the table towards the road…

Beside the house, the door of a newly built double garage sat open; inside could be seen the sleek lines of a Rolls, and outside on the garage forecourt, a sporty Mercedes and another, less upmarket car. Inside the house, a third man, unseen by his guests, pressed a gloved fingertip down on the controls of the hi-fi; obediently, silently, the cassette began to run, taking up the leader tape. He turned the speakers towards the open patio window at the other end of the long room, and left, walking through the hallway and into the kitchen. A sudden, deafening crack shattered the still air, disturbing the birds, but the people at the table didn’t seem to notice.

commentary: This passage comes in the opening pages of the book: it’s obvious something major is about to happen. The author then rewinds – this is August, and she takes us back to the preceding January to tell us the story of the group of people.
The key element is that a 40-something childless couple has won the pools, and right there I may have to stop and explain this to American readers – scroll down to the second half of the post for my sociological thoughts on this phenomenon. Or carry on – all you need to know is that they are suddenly rich.

This is Susan getting her cheque:

Everything became a little hazy, as her heart started to beat faster and faster. Someone was speaking; the man from the pools was smiling at them. Two girls were off to the side, manhandling an outsized bit of cardboard. Then Richard Price appeared, and Susan’s legs began to tremble. Jeff put his arm around her, and Richard Price started speaking.

Hostage to Fortune 2
Susan and Jeff have a reasonable marriage on the surface. But actually – they have very little time for each other, and the new money in their life gets each of them thinking about new possibilities. We follow their thoughts in alternate sections, see how they misunderstand each other, and try to work out which of them is going to succeed in doing down the other, and quite how serious, and how much of a crime, that doing-down is going to be.

Elizabeth Chaplin was a pseudonym of a great favourite crime writer of mine, Jill McGown: I am reading her Lloyd/Hill series with great pleasure, and when I found out she had written a standalone under this different name I thought I would extend the joy and try this one. McGown died sadly young, but you can still read her words on her website, and she says Hostage to Fortune is one of her best books, and that it is a suspense novel rather than crime. I thought it was very clever, and tense, and suspenseful. You really do want to know what will happen, but you can’t guess. It is short, with a lot packed in.

But still for me it lacked the warmth and charm and humour of the series books – though it had its moments:
You would think if you came to live in the back of beyond that you could plan a murder in peace. He was tempted to ask John if he had had to suffer such an intrusion into his affairs when he laid his woman to rest under the cabbages.
The thing that most struck me was that it was a very early version of the toxic marriage crime books that have been so successful in recent years – see this blogpost for my thoughts on the theme. I think a) McGown would have cleaned up if she’d written it now and b) it must have been a bit of a shocker for 1992. There is no hero or heroine, neither of them is the put-upon goody. Both of them have their complaints, and both of them are selfishly following their own ends. It is quite startling for those days, I believe, when domestic thrillers needed likeable characters. Gone Girl changed a lot of expectations.

There’s an air of 1980s misery about it, and even a touch of the 1970s – for a social event:
Susan began to fill the vol-au-vents and the other things that she would never do ahead of time, on the grounds that they would end up looking like the church hall buffet.
And everything – the houses and décor, the clothes, the food has the same uninspiring feel. There is no charm in the history, and I did ponder how it could be updated to turn it into the 2017 winner I feel it could be…

The book also reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, on the blog recently, with its woman breaking out from the expected constraints of the era – ‘winning the pools’ is mentioned in that book occasionally.

The Football Pools were a form of organized gambling by which a vast swathe of the British population placed a complex series of bets on forthcoming Saturday soccer matches. Theoretically complex: there had to be an element of skill to legally justify the gamble, although famously many people used the same numbers each week, or chose them at random. There would be workplace syndicates, there would be troubles and unfairnesses when people won and didn’t share, or it turned out the form hadn’t gone through. In the 60s and 70s the Pools Collector went round to people’s houses to pick up the forms and stakes.

The high days of the pools faded when the simpler and more straightforward National Lottery was introduced. But up till then there was a kind of collective madness: everyone watched the football results on a Saturday late afternoon, checking them against the home copy of the form, and at the end of the results the announcer would say ‘the pools companies say they are not expecting big payouts this week, telegram claims for 14 score draws.’ So long as a winner hadn’t opted for no publicity, there would be media coverage of big wins, with the presentation of a giant cheque by some celebrity. Later there would be stories about how the winners coped with their new riches.

Different days.

Winning the pools of course pops up in fiction – JIM Stewart/Michael Innes wrote a book called The Man Who Won the Pools, and Ruth Rendell looked at it too. John Fowles’ The Collector finances his strangeness via a win on the pools. Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney ‘kept on plugging at the four aways’. Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris won some money on the pools and that helped with buying her Dior designer dress. In Jane Duncan’s My Friend Madame Zora and Margery Sharp’s The Foolish Gentlewoman there is mileage in the comic servants doing the pools. This was the general theme – it was a tax on the poor – although there was also room for posh people doing it ironically.

More Jill McGown here, more toxic marriages here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Dandy Gilver Blog Tour

Regular readers will know I am a staunch fan of Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series – I have been reading them since the beginning, and have loved every one of them beyond reason. So I was deeply honoured to be invited to take part in a blog tour for the latest one. Here are the details:

Toil and Trouble blog tour 2 small

The new book has our sleuths, Dandy and Alec, going to a rather ramshackle Scottish castle for their latest case. There are missing husbands, missing jewels, a treasure hunt, and a performance of Macbeth. It is absolutely glorious.

Catriona smallDToil and Trouble cover small
Catriona McPherson, and the cover of the new book
Author photo by Rod Wheelans

So here is the first chapter of the new book:

‘I’ve heard stupider ideas,’ was Hugh’s pronouncement as I read him a snippet of the letter heralding the case we came to call The Cut Throat Affair. He did not look at Donald as he spoke. If he had tried much harder not to look, he might have sprained an eyeball.

Donald sank a little lower in his chair and inspected the dry inside page of the Scotsman as though it were the key to all mythologies. Or rather, since this was Donald, as though it showed a new picture of Claudette Colbert in her nightie.

My poor boy. He had come unstuck over the matter of some cattle during the winter. An unscrupulous breeder had beguiled him, against Hugh’s advising, into the purchase of two truly enormous bulls, which were to strengthen and transform his herd.

I daresay had they been bought by a farmer in the gentle south or the temperate midlands, even by a north countryman with a breath of sea air across his acres, their pedigree would have counted and their promise been fulfilled. As it was, one Perthshire winter did for them both. They barely saw out autumn in the fields with their harem, but instead retired into strawed quarters, like Miss Havisham on her wedding day. After that, no amount of plugging draughts with bales or buying in expensive cake stopped their vertiginous descent from lusty health in late summer to puny trembling by Christmas.

Donald and his factor tied sacks over the two sets of shiv­ering ribs and packed them on to a train headed for Devon and a rosier future. Even that found disfavour with Hugh. A few pounds for their dead weight from the Pitlochry knack­erman was sound business sense, he barked at Donald when the scheme came to light. Paying carriage for a trip to the seaside was . . . Words failed him and I was glad, since I had a strong suspicion that the particular words failing him were not often spoken in my drawing room.

It did not help that Teddy was home for the Christmas vac at the time and that, despite seeing the inside of more nightclubs than lecture halls during the Michaelmas term, he had reeled away from college with a respectable set of marks in his long essays and an indulgent set of comments from his fond tutors. It would be so much easier all round if my elder son sparkled and my younger was the . . . I did not finish the thought, for I love them both dearly.

Anyway, this morning’s idea of middling stupidity was related by an old friend I had scarcely seen since we returned well-finished, from Paris. I had pounced on her letter to me, eager to hear her news, for she had always been the most tremendous fun. She had been, in fact, the great ‘hit’ of 1904, landing in the middle of the season with a splash and carrying off her beau before the ink was dry on the first round of invitations.

Minerva Roll. A lesser girl would have buckled under such a name, but Minnie made it seem part of her own cleverness to have been dubbed with something so extraordinary. All around, Annes and Marys began to hint that they were really Titianas and Mirabelles.

And it seemed she was as clever now as ever. She mentioned the wolf at the door, holes in the roof and the spectre of death duties; a familiar litany. She also mentioned, however, a novel plan to outwit the wolf, the rain and His Majesty’s exchequer too.

. . . we are turning Castle Bewer into a theatre – open air, summers only – and putting on plays! As you can imagine, dear Dandy, we are a little trepidatious (is that a word?), about the hordes descending. Not just the paying public, although certainly them too, but the actors themselves and, of course, actresses. Can you imagine what our mothers would say? And stagehands, I daresay. At any rate, I would be much happier with a pal on the spot who could loom threateningly if someone starts looking with covetous eyes at any of our treasures. 

Are you laughing at the thought of our possessing treasures, Dandy dear? We do, you know. Or at least we did. And we still might. It’s all rather complicated and we have not quite decided what to do about it, my mother-in-law, my husband, and me. I promise to have the whole plan hammered out once and for all before you arrive. For now, think ‘Treasure Hunt’ and you will be in the right general area. Possibly. Or not. 

More soon,
Much love,

‘Quite a good spot for it,’ said Hugh. ‘I’ll give them that much. But they’ll never turn a profit if they’re going to employ battalions of ancillary staff. Where do you come in, Dandy?’

‘I’m to loom, I think,’ I said. ‘And perhaps hunt treasure too?  Minnie’s style was always more flowery than fluent. Anyway, I shan’t charge her much. She’s a pal.’

‘Typical,’ said Hugh, executing a swift volte-face. ‘Roping in chums and doing it on the cheap.’

‘I shall only be going at all if Alec fancies it,’ I said, hoping to placate him. ‘It’s not really a case of detection, after all. And we are usually billed as detectives, aren’t we?’

‘You can’t keep turning down paying jobs,’ said Hugh.

How he managed to keep revolving like that without getting dizzy was beyond me.

I stood, dropped my napkin and clicked my tongue. Bunty, my puppy, still just about a puppy anyway, crawled out from under the table, shook herself thoroughly and sat at my heels gazing up at me, awaiting instruction. Hugh gave me a look with a long history and a longer list of ingredient emotions.

He had enjoyed despising me for the atrocious conduct of Bunty the First, throughout her happy life. Now here I was with Bunty the Second, brought up on the same indulgent principles and yet, miraculously, better behaved not only than the original Bunty but also than any hound or terrier Hugh had ever trained under his regime of shouts and thwacks. He ought to love her. He did not. We both pretended none of it was happening.

Donald spoiled the atmosphere of dignified face-saving a little with a tremendous snort as he watched Bunty and me leave the room, but Hugh had returned to the European news by then and even his wife had no power to annoy him.

‘I’m coming over,’ I said to Alec from the telephone in my sitting room. ‘There’s a sniff of a case. Well, a job anyway.’

‘What’s the difference?’ Alec said.

‘Anything your end?’

‘Nothing you’d countenance.’


‘But it’s a lovely time of year for a trip to the coast.’

I groaned. We had decided at the outset of Gilver and Osborne twelve years before that we would not sully ourselves with divorce work. Not for us the quiet hours in a corner of a seaside hotel lounge watching for some Mr and Miss, masquerading as Mr and Mrs, to mount the stairs.

It was becoming untenable. Even I conceded it. For one thing, there seemed to be a perfect epidemic of divorce taking hold. The lower classes were just about managing to make a vow before God and stick to it, whether too tired from their labours to be getting up to mischief in the evenings or perhaps unable to foot the bill for all the resulting upheaval, but amongst our own set every Tatler brought news of another cabinet reshuffle and it was creeping down among the doctors, lawyers and even the odd schoolmaster. It was unseemly and extraordinary and lesser detective firms were making a nice living out of it, or so Alec never tired of saying.

‘The difference between a case and a job,’ I told him, answering his question, ‘is that nothing has actually happened and we’re to make sure nothing does. There’s guaranteed entertainment too. I’ll see you in half an hour.’

Alec lived just across the valley, his pretty little estate the next neighbour but one to mine. He inherited it from the grateful but grieving father of his late fiancée, after the solving of her murder, which was our first case. There he had lived for twelve years, looked after by an austere valet-cum-butler by the name of Barrow and a cook as devoted as my own Mrs Tilling. Every so often he murmured about a wife, the way Hugh murmured about coppicing the top plantation, or I murmured about turning out the attics one day.

This morning, I found him strolling down the drive to meet me, hands in pockets, pipe in teeth, with Millie his spaniel waddling along at his side. Bunty gave a single polite yip when she saw them and then wagged her whole body from just behind her ears to the tip of her tail. I slowed and leaned over to let her out of the motorcar. Millie was as blind as a beggar these days and the drive, where she could feel the hard ash under her paws, was about the only walk she could rise to on her own. With Bunty at her side, though, she was free to rush about as joyously as ever, trusting her friend to wheel back and collect her. As Alec climbed in, we watched them dash off in between two bedraggled rhodo­dendron bushes to go adventuring in the woods. 

‘You should get a puppy of your own,’ I said. ‘As her companion.’

‘If I thought I could use it during the day and let it sleep in the kitchen, I would,’ said Alec, turning to me as the undergrowth closed and stilled behind the dogs. ‘But I know myself too well. It would be nipping in front of her at supper­time and climbing into her bed at night to chew her ears.’ He sat back and grinned at me. ‘What’s this entertaining job then, Dandy? Where are we off to?’

‘We’re to guard the treasures of Castle Bewer,’ I said, giving it a bit of swagger.

‘Against whom?’ said Alec. ‘The taxman’s the only one laying siege to castles these days, isn’t he? And what can we do about him?’

‘The taxman has a minor role, it’s true,’ I said. ‘But we needn’t concern ourselves with anything so dull. It’s faeries, dukes and queens for us!’


‘Awake the nimble spirit of mirth!’ I added.


‘Shakespeare, darling. Actors. Actresses too.’

‘And you scoff at lurking in a boarding-house lounge watching for adulterers!’ Alec said.

We could not imagine then what we were shortly to know. A man and his mistress, off for a seaside liaison, would have been wholesome refreshment compared with what the castle had in store.

Now read on! The book is out now, and I can highly recommend it – I’ll be doing my own blogpost on it soon. Thanks to Catriona and the publishers for letting me be part of the blog tour.