Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Tuesday Nighters: First Use of Some GA tropes

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each, we have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

In previous weeks I have looked at the first Dr Fell book by John Dickson Carr, and the first mystery from American crime writer Mary McMullen.

This week I am doing something quite different, and will have to ask readers to bear with me till the connection becomes apparent. I was reading a piece of serious classical literature from a great German writer, and then started comparing it with a masterpiece of crime fiction…

Marquise of O by Kleist

translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

published 1808

Marquise of O

[The home of the Marquise of O is under attack by Russian soldiers]

The Marquise found herself, with her two children, in the outer precincts of the castle where fierce fighting was already in progress… Just as she was trying to escape through the back door, she had the misfortune to encounter a troop of enemy riflemen, who as soon as they saw her suddenly fell silent, slung their guns over their shoulders and, with obscene gestures, seized her and carried her off… Dragging her into the innermost courtyard they began to assault her in the most shameful way, and she was just about to sink to the ground when a Russian officer, hearing her piercing screams, appeared on the scene and with furious blows of his sword drove the dogs back from the prey for which they lusted. 

To the Marquise he seemed an angel sent from heaven. He addressed the lady politely in French, offered her his arm and led her into the other wing of the palace where, having already been stricken speechless by her ordeal, she now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured them that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.

Marquise of O Kleist
commentary: He was Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, but seems to be everywhere referred to just as Kleist. He came from the German nobility, was born in 1777 and committed suicide in 1811.
This novella is probably his most famous work, and it is endlessly fascinating because it is quite clear and comprehensible, but leaves you with more questions than you might guess. It tells a funny but thought-provoking story, is completely of its time, but still has some very modern features.

The first point is that most of the characters are going to be astounded during most of its length that the Marquise, a virtuous & highly respectable widow, has ended up pregnant with no idea who the father is or how it happened. Her family have little faith in her, and her father actually throws her out of his house, and tries to take her children away from her. She constantly maintains her innocence, but nobody believes her. A doctor and midwife are both consulted, and like an excellent lower-class chorus make their down-to-earth comments:
[The midwife] spoke of warm-blooded youth and the wiles of the world: young widows always believed themselves to have been living on desert islands- her ladyship could rest assured that the gay corsair who had come ashore in the dark would come to light in due course. On hearing these words the Marquise fainted.
The reader, however – purely because of the selection of facts by the writer – knows that the guilty party can only be the gallant Russian officer above, Count F. He is desperate to put right his offence against her – he is in love with her and wants to marry her. 

When the whole situation comes out into the open (after the Marquise, of all things, has advertised for the father in a newspaper…) the family is greatly relieved: now the couple can marry and respectability will be restored. (To be fair – it does seem as though the young people do love each other, there is no element of a forced marriage.) But now the Marquise says No, she rejects the Count. In the end they marry in name only, in order to protect the unborn child. And then he starts courting her, and eventually wins her round, and they live happily ever after.

But the more you think about it, the more questions come up, and the story has been the subject of endless speculation, with many different interpretations put on the situations. There are Freudian readings, feminist readings, incest-based readings; critics put every possible motive and element of innocence and guilt on various characters.

The story flashes along, very readable and told in a mocking but good-natured way. There are almost no details of anyone’s lives, only the most sketchy picture of anyone (I notice these things, because of the blog purpose). Virtually the only identifiable item mentioned is the hat above.

And this brings me to the connection with Golden Age fiction. As I say, any reader will very quickly realize who must be responsible for the impregnation. And then they will page back to find the exact description of what happened.
She now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.
The secret is in that dash - , covering everything. And then one more clue: why did he have to replace his hat, when did it come off?

And what this reminds ME of is some of Agatha Christie’s most famous lines
I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone... 

I did what little had to be done.
I won’t give the title of the book, but any Christie fan will know exactly what I mean.

So as well as the many many other ideas people have about this 50-page story, I’m going to add another: that it was a first attempt at a proper mystery with clues and an attempt to mislead – and then turns into the first reverse mystery, where the readers know more than the innocent dupes in the story. And, there is also a ‘false’ solution (featuring Leopardo the groom), put forward by the Marquise’s mother to try to get to the truth.

So an early form of ‘crime’ story. But also a very interesting female character – we barely see the thoughts of any of the people in the story. And many people speculate as to whether the Marquise really knew what was going on, had pretended to be unconscious. Kleist himself commented on this in a way that makes it clear that is NOT what he intended – but he did it in an ironic manner, satirizing the commenters:
What a shameless farce! All she did was shut her eyes’
Which some of the anti-Marquise party insist on seeing as an admission, but was plainly meant as the opposite.

The mystery is what exactly she thinks about it all, and why she refuses him. What she says is that it was his changing from an angel to a devil that she hated.

But think of the Marquise’s situation: once she realizes the Count F is a possibility she is caught in a horrible vicious circle: EITHER he is a very bad man, but then he can save her through marriage, OR he is the angel she always thought him, but then what? Does she give him another’s child? It is a dilemma and a half, and a shame we never get to know her thoughts…

The story is set in Italy, but Kleist says it is ‘based on a true incident. The setting of which has been transposed from the north to the south.’ There are a number of similar folk tales and anecdotes in world literature – but none with such memorable characters, who live on in your mind long after you finish the stories. Quite an achievement when by usual literary standards they are just ciphers, or pieces on a chessboard…

I looked at plenty of pictures of Marquises of the era – as no details are given of her appearance, and the historical setting of the tale is unclear, I felt free to make my own decisions and chose this one, she looked right to me. It’s the Marquise de Becdelievre by Alexander Roslin from the athenaeum site.

The photograph is a still from an Eric Rohmer film of the story. (I think the story would make a wonderful opera.)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon

published 2017

Sweet Revenge

I decide it’s time to step things up a gear and so, on Saturday morning (still on my ‘course of massages’. You’d really think I’d be relaxed enough by now), Myra meets me in Oxford Street and we do something I haven’t done in at least seven years. We buy nice clothes. Actually, strictly speaking, that’s not true. I’ve bought the occasional pretty outfit but I’ve always gone for the big and shapeless variety. I have pitched a small but decorative marquee over myself and called it dressing up. Today my new thirteen-stone-something self is looking for clothes that fit. That flatter….

I buy a cute gingham summer dress with a fitted top and no sleeves (no sleeves!) and an A-line skirt, some cut-off cargo pants and a couple of tops that actually fit me…

On Tuesday morning I blow-dry my hair and put on the gingham dress. I have to wear it with trainers because I’m still determined to walk everywhere but, actually the combination looks quite cute, even if I say so myself.

commentary: I read Jane Fallon’s Strictly Between Us a year ago, and really enjoyed it, so was happy to get a review copy of her new book. This one too was very readable and entertaining, and went down like ice-cream.

These are the opening lines:
I want to make my husband fall back in love with me. 

Let me explain. This isn't an exercise in 1950s wifeydom. I haven't been reading articles in old women's magazines. 'Twenty ways to keep your man'. 
That couldn't be further from the truth. 
I want him to fall back in love with me so that when I tell him to get the hell out of my life he'll care. He won't just think, 'Oh good'. 

I want it to hurt.

Narrator Paula has found out that Robert – a successful actor – is having an affair with his co-star. And she is angry, and looking for revenge. She has an elaborate plan, which includes a makeover for herself – and also making a friend of the femme fatale actress, Saskia. She will soon involve the cheated other husband Josh in her plots. From reading the previous Fallon book, I guessed there would be some twists and surprises, and perhaps changes of viewpoint, along the way, and that maybe everything wouldn’t be exactly as it seemed. That was certainly the case, and although there are only so many variations on the theme, Fallon uses them cleverly.

Along the way there is a very funny and convincing picture of modern life – of London teenagers, of the drama of A Levels, and of the give-and-take of a longstanding marriage, with many witty remarks and recognizable moments.

Sweet Revenge 2
David Essex in his heyday
Fallon is also very funny about the long-running TV drama Robert is in (not supposed to call it a soap…), Farmer Giles, sounding something like The Archers transferred to television. He plays an antique dealer, whose favourite outfit is
a cross between Lovejoy and the Davids Dickenson and Essex. I could just imagine the first costume meeting. What do antiques dealers wear on TV? Dapper but eccentric with a hint of whimsy. That’ll do. No point in trying to be original.

And there is also the question of his big scene in
a set that looks like a back alley where someone might be murdered and not discovered for days (where this is meant to be in our sleepy fictional village is unclear. Everyone stopped caring about the geography years ago).
I very much like the way she can switch your sympathies among the characters – there aren’t outright baddies and goodies, and nobody is too pure of heart. Her characters resemble real people with their faults and kindnesses.

Sweet Revenge didn’t make me gasp and laugh out loud quite as much as the previous one, but I’m certainly up for reading more Fallon, and intend to investigate her back catalogue.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

published 2017



Miss Treadway

[Iolanthe, an actress, and Anna, her dresser, are in her West End theatre dressing room between performances.]

‘Look out into the darkness,’ Iolanthe had told her. ‘Look out into the darkness and you’ll see them.’…

‘What are they thinking about?’ Anna asked.

‘All the stuff that’s going wrong. The stuff they can’t fix. What they’re always thinking about.’

Anna paused in the action of pinning Iolanthe’s hair and caught her eye in the mirror. The older woman was sitting in her underwear, quite still and unselfconscious as if Anna were a lover or a sister.

Anna moved Lanny’s hand to hold a roll of curls while she picked through a bowl of oddments for more hairpins. ‘It must be very strange,’ she said. ‘Everyone looking and seeing something different. As if you were a funhouse mirror.’

commentary: The first thing to say about this book is that it has a very misleading title. Miss T and the F of S sounds like one of those novels. You know, the ones with titles like that. And then the description of the plot makes it sound as though it will be a crime novel – but it isn’t that either. To be perfectly honest, it seems like an act of complete madness on the part of writer/publisher to give it this so very twee title. But that’s their business.

The book is set in 1965 in London.

The actress, Iolanthe Green, goes missing soon after the conversation above. Her dresser, Anna, decides that the police aren’t doing enough about it, and sets off on her own investigation. She meets a young black man, Aloysius, and gets involved with the Cypriot family who live downstairs from her. She also has several encounters with the policeman investigating the case, Barnaby Hayes. The reader is given the thoughts and backstories of her entourage, and also of Barnaby’s wife Orla. I found this to be a problem: too much information, too many characters, too many unfinished stories. And I found the policeman particularly unlikeable, and rather dim.

The thing is, I really wanted to like the book: I had high hopes, and the first third was good – intriguing and nicely put together, and Emmerson is a very good writer. But then it started going wrong: it didn’t hold my interest, and I was restless with all the details and stories leading to nothing.

The 1960s research felt very carefully inserted (and occasionally wrong – you didn’t cross the road with a green man in 1965, and the Beatles song hadn’t been released) but not real enough.

This is the policeman talking:
‘The thing about truth, Miss Treadway, is that it’s not always the friend of narrative. My job is to figure out your friend, Miss Green, and to construct a likely narrative that will help us to determine if she left of her own free will or was taken. And there are two ways I can go about this. I can invent plausible narratives and try and hold them up against the fact until I find one that fits. Or I can listen to all the facts – with no particular narrative in mind – and then assemble the known knowns in such a way that they reveal the basic truth of the matter.’
Now, this is nicely written and has a certain rhythm and conviction about it (there’s quite a lot more of this speech). But - nobody talked like that in the 1960s, certainly not an Irish policeman in Soho, because the word (or concept of) ‘narrative’ simply was not used like that. It is also not remotely in line with the way Hayes talks in the rest of the book, nor with the plot of the book, nor with what actually happens in the investigation, nor with the outcomes.

I think Emmerson needs a really good editor. The ending of this book is abrupt and annoying, and is ‘about’ two different characters who have been absent from 99.9% of the action. I am guessing this means there is going to be a series, or at least a sequel. Maybe they will be better.

And I should say – many early reviewers absolutely loved this book, and I can understand that others would not at all share my impatience with it.

The picture is Laura Knight’s The Dressing Room.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Book of 1959: The Man Who Grew Tomatoes by Gladys Mitchell

published 1959

Tomatoes 1959

[Dame Beatrice] went up to her room, presumably to dress for dinner, but, having put on her dark fur coat and matching toque so she did not, in Laura Gavin’s partly-idiomatic expression, ‘stand out against the sky-line’, she slipped downstairs by way of the servants’ staircase at the far end of the long gallery and left the house with a secrecy which went unmarked except by Ethel, who had conceived a strange, protective affection for her elderly inquisitor.

‘And I’ll not give you away,’ muttered Ethel, ‘seeing you be about your lawful occasions.’

‘And what are you muttering about? Saying your prayers?’  demanded a housemaid, who, more intelligent than Ethel, grudged that lover of tomatoes her superior position in the household.

‘P’raps,’ said Ethel, ‘and p’raps not.’

commentary: This is my 1959 book for the Crimes of the Century meme over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.

The crime queens Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie produced books in that year, and particular favourites of mine too, but I have already featured Singing in the Shrouds and Cat Among the Pigeons on the blog. So I looked to see what Gladys Mitchell had done, and came across this title, which I had never heard of. (I feel you would remember it if you had read it.) It is quite hard to get hold of, but I stuck with it, found one and read it, and was very glad I had. Gladys Mitchell and Dame Beatrice Bradley had both dialled down the eccentricities this time, and it was an enjoyable and entertaining read. (The eccentricities, surrealism and endless pointless tangents are occasionally beguiling, but other times I find them too much). In fact for the first quarter or so if you read it blind you wouldn’t guess it was a Mitchell story – and you can’t say that about many of her books.

Hugh Camber has inherited the family estate, after the unexpected deaths of his cousins, a father and son. When he moves to the big house he finds the servants are all in the process of fleeing, and the village is semi-hostile. Anonymous letters appear, and he also has to fight off the encroaching moves of another family member – the widowed Mrs Hal and her delicate son. When it all gets too much for him he sensibly calls in Mrs Bradley.

The action mostly takes place in Norfolk, with some dashing off to Scotland, and Mitchell manages to make the rurals’ dialect forms endearing – unlike Ngaio Marsh who somehow never brings off her West Country yokels. ‘That’ seems to be an all-purpose word in the local talk:
‘Oh sir! That happen.’
‘I know. Where is Mrs Hal?’
‘That put the drawing-room to rights. I only do it this morning, Mr Camber, but it seems that isn’t satisfied.’

The business of the tomatoes is all-pervading, as you would guess from the title. It seems possible that Mitchell found out an interesting fact or possibility about tomatoes and built the whole book round it – normally at this point I’d be grumping that she should have made it a short story, not a full-length entry, but I reckon she just about gets away with it.

My favourite part of the book has nothing to do with tomatoes or (really) the murder. Mrs B is investigating a former boyfriend of the heroine, who explains that he had proposed to Catherine Tolley at a Ball in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich during the Festival of Britain in 1951. He explains his role in the many different local Festival celebrations -‘hoped I’d be Parson Woodforde in the pageant but a better man got it’ - and discusses the choirs: ‘Interesting Magnificat and a really beautiful Nunc Dimittis.’

And then we get this:
‘I cannot imagine,’ said Dame Beatrice, gazing with mild benevolence at Maitland, ‘why Miss Tolley did not wish to marry you.’
--which I choose to understand as a straight comment, no irony. The Man Who Grew Tomatoes is very funny in a quiet, witty way.

As a book of 1959: it is full of class-consciousness, some very odd views on heredity, and a hero who drinks an awful lot of whiskey before driving to the station.

The passage above could scarcely be more 1959 – the maids, the servants’ staircase, dressing for dinner, and wearing a fur coat so you won’t be noticeable.

Mitchell sometimes is very good on clothes, but in this particular book they scarcely feature – a missed opportunity, I felt, with the awful Mrs Hal. We get her Dresden-china make-up and 5-inch high heels, and I’d love to know what she wore inbetween.

Anyway, happy to find this splendid fur coat picture, which I felt had a look of Mrs Bradley. It’s of Florence Julia Bach, an American painter and sculptor, and comes from the Smithsonian.

There are plenty more Mitchell books on the blog – click on the label below.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Michael Lewis and the Birth of Online Commenting


The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

published 2016

Undoing Project 1

The story this book tells is quite extraordinary – a look at huge changes and developments at the point where psychology and economics intersect, and also a story of academic life and of a unique friendship. Many people first came across Daniel Kahneman when his book Thinking Fast and Slow hit the bestseller lists a few years ago: his theories of how we make decisions and judge probabilities, and how and why we nearly always get it wrong, made for fascinating reading.

The Undoing Project tells  how Kahneman worked with Amos Tversky on these theories.

Undoing Project 3Tversky and Kahneman in 1974

Michael Lewis has an unequalled ability to tell a true story - it doesn’t seem to matter what the subject matter is, he can make sense of it and spell it out so anyone can understand with a little effort. He writes non-fiction, and three of his books have been turned into films. All were Oscar-nominated, and two won Oscars (including Sandra Bullock's for The Blind Side). He is a very clever man and a very good writer.

His past topics have included Wall St, Silicon Valley, American football, baseball statistics, and the economic crash. The statistics book was Moneyball – a phrase that has now entered the language for a form of gaming the system by NOT trusting experts and intuition.

And it was via that book – and a gently critical review - that Lewis came upon the work of Tversky and Kahneman and decided to write about them. The Undoing Project explains all that, but also starts with a very long section about college basketball – I had to trust him that he was going somewhere, but he did manage to make even this subject interesting(ish). After that the book becomes close to unputdownable, and I cannot think of any other author who could have written so well both about the academic content, and about the unusual friendship between the two men. So The Undoing Project is highly recommended – it is educational, exciting, and touching, and you will feel a better and cleverer person for having read it.

And now I am going to write about a completely different aspect of the author.

I have mentioned before how I am not very good at knowing famous people (Carla Lane, here) and Michael Lewis, the celebrated and highly successful best-selling author, is another example.

More than 15 years ago (when he was already a bestseller for Liars’ Poker) he wrote regularly for Slate magazine in the USA, where I also worked. He wrote a hilarious series of reports on the Microsoft trial, and then I think lost interest. The readers of Slate (which was at that time owned by Microsoft) were all convinced that he had been stopped from writing the pieces, because Bill Gates/Microsoft didn’t like them. This wasn’t true at all (and would have been fairly unimaginable to anyone who knew Slate and MS and their general climates at the time) but it was simply stated and accepted as fact: the readers weren’t having it. It was a minor point, but I found it quite interesting. If you couldn’t tell the truth on a statement of fact, and be believed, well, what did the future hold?

Undoing Project 2Michael Lewis

Lewis then wrote a series of dispatches from Paris, where he had gone to live with his family. They were amusing entertaining pieces (since collected in a book called Home Game) – he wrote about his family in a way that would be very familiar now, but was much less common then.

And this is where I came in. Part of my job at Slate was to look at the way the readers responded to the writers. This wasn’t a big deal, no-one thought this was very important, but I found it endlessly interesting. Online commenting was, relatively, a very new thing, and I wrote about it for Slate every week. I also chose particularly good comments to feature in the magazine, and I wrote about responses to individual articles at the end of those articles. Most people at Slate didn’t take reader comments seriously at all – they didn’t see it as a force for good or bad, or a source of information, or useful audience research.

And Michael Lewis’s articles posed a problem. I don’t believe he ever looked at the online comments himself, though perhaps looked at my filtered version.

His (fairly) regular column attracted a group of regular readers and commentators, who formed a circle and held pretty much a week-long conversation: it would become much more active just after Lewis’ piece was posted, but carried on all the time. And the discussion was fascinating and hilarious – they would use his words as a starting point and then move on to all kinds of related areas.

But the commentators would make quite personal remarks about Lewis, his wife and his family. It is hard to remember now, but actually this was a new and very strange thing. When his wife gave birth to a baby his piece talked about them all. And some of his regular commenters started being rude about his children’s names. They said they were awful names, and these children would grow up as idiots, that they would be teased, and that Lewis and his wife (whose own name was criticized: ‘what do you expect with a name like that?’) were seriously to blame for giving them such ridiculous names.

Now, as I said, I don’t think Lewis knew or cared – he probably had other things on his mind with a new baby in the house – but I was bothered, and I thought for a long time as to whether these were acceptable comments to make. Criticism of the writer was fair game on the whole – but little children who had done nothing but have a writer for a father?

Given the way the world, and particularly the online world, has developed since then, this probably sounds like ridiculous overthinking. But it was a serious matter. In the end free speech won out, but I didn’t highlight or draw any attention to the posts. But it was a sign of things to come.

On another occasion Michael Lewis and his family made a trip to Rome, and he wrote a funny piece about his problems with a rented apartment then. Next thing I know, the landlord of the vacation rental is coming into the online comments to take issue with the Lewis version, and to defend himself and offer a different point of view. He was quite cross and temperamental, and made multiple posts. I had some email contact with the landlord to try to calm him down.

These two incidents were my epiphany: when I realized just how strange and new and different online commenting was, and that it wasn’t going to go away, or ever be controlled. I spent some time trying to make this point to others, but I wasn’t very persuasive and no-one could quite see it.

Some time over the next few years, everyone realized it, each person had their own epiphany,and would quite often then explain it to me…

Picture of Kahneman and Tversky in 1974, taken by Tversky’s wife Barbara. Picture of Michael Lewis from his website, taken by his wife, Tabitha (perfectly-good-name) Soren.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Tuesday Night Club: 1st from Mary McMullen

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night Firsts logoBloggers (a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week) have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.

Last week I looked at the first Dr Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr, Hag’s Nook.

This week’s book is quite different. Mary McMullen was part of a very busy American family of crime writers – her mother was Helen Reilly, her sister Ursula Curtiss, and all three were very talented. Curt over at Passing Tramp explains more about the family here - and it was his review of Stranglehold that made me get hold of a copy and read it. Turned out it was McMullen’s first book – and she waited another 23 years before writing the next one. And then she produced 18 books in 12 years. Anyway, first book and noted for its portrayal for office life in NY for women in the 1950s – how could I resist?


Stranglehold by Mary McMullen

published 1951

originally published as a serial and known as Who Killed Miss X?

Mary 2
The hat, a cap of felt arched with shimmering blue-bronze feathers, shadowed Frieda Lee’s small pointed face. She looked like a haggard elf.

Mary 3[Eve is on the second morning of her new job in a big NY advertising agency, talking to her boss, Frieda]

‘Morning,’ Frieda said. ‘I’m glad you’re in early – we’ve a meeting [with a client] at nine… This meeting isn’t too important… but it’s a big account and they like to see a good turnout.’

As she talked she was studying with approval Eve’s hair, her face, the copper menswear worsted of her suit, the flare of immaculate pique under her chin. What she was really saying was ‘Darling you look decorative. We might as well bring you along to impress the advertising manager.’

Mary 1

[Going to a very smart dinner party] She dressed in a rush at the last. Sliding silk taffeta over her head, tying satin straps round her ankles, brushing her hair to a polished cap, being lavish with her best perfume.
commentary: So much for me to love in this book: the murder/detection content is in fact low down the list. McMullen describes what the women are wearing every day, and their outfits are fabulous. Everyone wears lipstick, and smokes and drinks endlessly. We have that favourite CiB trope, the woman who wears her hat all the time:
‘there’s Frieda Lee. That hat must have cost her fifty dollars. She has them made. Gets her good out of them too - always wears a hat. You might be tempted to wonder if she really has any hair.’
Given that this picture of couture milliner Lilly Dache:

Lilly dache

is the Clothes in Books avatar you might guess how much in sympathy I am with this. As shown above, there are fur coats, taffeta dresses and satin shoes for evening, and then ‘good’ tweeds for daytime – heroine Eva can see what a female colleague is doing wrong with her powder blue crepe dress and too many pearls.

Eve’s friend Willie has a black hat with a pink tassel that reaches to her waist, and pins ‘a huge watch-fob to her belt’ with her black watch plaid suit. When Frieda later on ‘wore her haggard-elf look in excelsis’ it was a reference back to the line in the 1st extract above, but for a bonkers moment I thought it meant her outfit: I still don’t really understand what it means, but by this time I didn’t care, lost as I was in the descriptions.

These working women take their jobs very seriously – but have some problems with the men in the office. Eve, as above, knows why she is asked to come to a meeting with a client. Everyone who works there is temperamental (they are creatives) but only the women will be described as hysterical…

The murder victim is an unknown young woman found naked in the conference room. The investigation is in alternating chapters: we get Eve’s thoughts on the atmosphere at work, and then the policeman, the rather charming (and well-named) Lieutenant Grace. This is unusual for the era, I would say, but works surprisingly well. I think you can see the roots of the book in a serial, and there are quite a few loose ends left untied – but I still enjoyed every magic moment.

So a B+ for detection, but A+ for a wholly convincing picture of a working environment of the time.

Bensons, the agency in Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is really very different - not least in that DLS took her clothes very seriously, but was not a fashion plate. They are dangerous places: CS Forester’s Plain Murder is set in one, and the heroine of this thriller starts out there.

Evening wear from Kristin’s photostream.
Day wear and hat from the same source. All from the right era.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Post-Xmas Snow: We Didn’t Go Back to School


Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome

published 1933

Winter Holiday 2

At that moment the first snowflakes reached them.

Winter Holiday 1

Grey, ghostly tiny figures of skaters making for the shore 
disappeared. The hills on the other side of the lake vanished. The Beckfoot promontory was gone. Far up the lake a patch of sunshine showed on the tops of the snow mountains. A second later even the mountains had disappeared. Dick and Dorothea on their sledge, with the sail bellying out in front of them, and the little yellow quarantine flag flying straight out before the masthead, were alone in a thick cloud of driving, hurrying snow. They could see nothing at all but snowflakes and a few yards of ice sliding away beneath them as the big wind that had come with the snow drove them up the lake like a dead leaf.

‘Where are we now?’ said Dorothea.

‘Hang on,’ said Dick. ‘Lie as flat as you can. I don’t believe John’s sledge ever went faster. Just listen to it.’

And the little sledge, roaring as it rushed over the ice, flew northwards into the storm.

Winter Holiday 3

commentary: I loved the Swallows and Amazons books for their sailing and their idealized summer holidays, but still this one – with no sailing at all – was and still is my favourite. The feel of winter on the lake is wonderfully well done, and the final section, starting above, where Dick and Dorothea take their sledgeboat along the lake is a most exciting adventure. Because of a misunderstanding, they have started on an expedition to the ‘North Pole’- the furthermost point along the ice – on a day with catastrophically bad weather, a day for staying in. They are determined to keep up with the Swallows and Amazons (assuming they have gone on ahead) – they are brave, but not sensible, and even though death-by-ice seemed unlikely, I was as nervous as Uncle Jim about the outcome.

Sadly Nancy – best of all the children – has mumps during this book, so doesn’t feature as much as I would like, although it is her illness that stops the children from going back to school, to their great delight. As ever, Ransome’s own illustrations are hard to beat, and there is this quite wonderful note on one of them:

Winter Holiday 4

Winter Holiday has codes, the Fram, the igloo and the usual obsession with getting hold of milk ready for endless tea-drinking (not very piratical in my view…). I was surprised to read somewhere recently a claim that there are no jokes in the books: this is nonsense. They are quietly funny and witty throughout, and Ransome achieves the feat of making us understand a little more than the children about the adults’ feelings. That ability is also used for purposes other than to make you laugh: in Swallowdale, there are two tremendously touching and understated moments. One is a memory of a long-ago adventure with the Amazons’ (presumably dead) father, and the other concerns the ability of the Great Aunt to make the Amazons’ mother cry.

There is every reason why these books have lasted so long, despite so many dismissive remarks about them.

I had terrific fun finding suitable sledge pictures on Flickr – photo from an Australian Antarctic Expedition, illo from a book called Children of the Arctic, and that very elegant lady with her baby in St Moritz, from the Dutch National Archives. (The Swallows do have a baby sister, who changes names between books from Vicky to Bridget, so that could be her.) The Dutch for ‘pram on sledge’ is, apparently, ‘Kinderwagen als slee.’

The first book, Swallows and Amazons, is here on the blog.