Friday, 30 September 2016

Book of 1930: Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1930
strong Poison
[Miss Climpson, on the instructions of Lord Peter Wimsey, is trying to drum up an acquaintance with a home-care nurse]

Miss Climpson ordered another cup of coffee and a roll and butter. There was no window-table vacant, but she found one close to the orchestra from which she could survey the whole room. A fluttering dark-blue veil at the door made her heart beat, but it proved to belong to a lusty young person with two youngsters and a perambulator, and hope withdrew once more. By twelve o’clock, Miss Climpson decided that she had drawn blank at the “Central [cafe].”…

At half-past three she sallied out again, to indulge in an orgy of teas. This time she included the Lyons and the fourth tea-shop, beginning at the far end of the town and working her way back to the ’bus-stop. It was while she was struggling with her fifth meal, in the window of “Ye Cosye Corner,” that a hurrying figure on the pavement caught her eye. The winter evening had closed in, and the street-lights were not very brilliant, but she distinctly saw a stoutish middle-aged nurse in a black veil and grey cloak pass along on the nearer pavement. By craning her neck, she could see her make a brisk spurt, scramble on the ’bus at the corner and disappear in the direction of the “Fisherman’s Arms.”

“How vexatious!” said Miss Climpson, as the vehicle disappeared. “I must have just missed her somewhere. Or perhaps she was having tea in a private house. Well, I’m afraid this is a blank day. And I do feel so full of tea!”
commentary: This is my entry for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences – this month we are all writing about a 1930 book, and I am just getting in under the wire…

Miss Climpson’s mission is to inveigle her way into the house of an elderly woman, and find her will. To this end she is staying in a small town in the Lake District, and haunting the cafes in her attempts to find the nurse who looks after the old lady. It is an enthralling part of an excellent book, and one of my favourite sections in the whole of Sayers. Miss C will make the acquaintance of the nurse, and realize that spiritualism is the way to her heart. She will then stage a couple of fake séances up at the big house, with the old lady silently sleeping above. It is tremendous stuff, with all the details Sayers does so well.

The purpose of this elaborate operation is to prove the innocence of Harriet D Vane, who makes her first appearance in this book. Wimsey has fallen in love with her, and also believes her to be innocent of murder, and he throws all his resources at the miscarriage of justice. By chance (the least likely event in the book) Miss Climpson, as above, was on the jury at Harriet’s trial, and held out against a guilty verdict. In those days there was no room for a majority verdict, and a retrial is called. Lord Peter has a month to get new evidence.

It is a fascinating book, as we follow all his different searches and investigations. Given that Harriet is innocent, there isn’t a wide range of possibilities for the guilty party, but that doesn’t matter: the story is tense and exciting, with its grave disappointments (the incident of the white powder!) and its clear indication that Harriet is being judged as much for her unmarried relations as for anything else.

Recently some of us were suggesting which Agatha Christie book we could recommend to a new reader: it occurs to me that this would be the ideal book for someone wanting to try out Lord Peter Wimsey. It does not have the slight silliness of some of the earlier books, and has real, believable characters with dilemmas and ideas. Many of us really enjoy any appearances of Miss Climpson, and in this book there is a Miss Murchison too, who does a tense undercover job in a solicitor’s office, again beautifully described. To this end, she learns lock-picking from a retired burglar. There are also scenes of Bunter vamping the help at a suspect’s house: flirting with the cook and maids in a most satisfying way.
The book also contains a full account of how to make a jam omelette, though as I explained in a Guardian piece on food in books:
this happens in court, during a murder trial, with the unusual purpose of explaining that the dish could not have been poisoned. The cook’s technique is praised, and the appalling judge says ‘I advise you all to treat omelettes in the same way’. You could certainly make one from the description, though it doesn’t sound all that delicious.
As a book of 1930, the moral judgements and the old boys’ network are key features. And Sayers always does such (convincing) details about characters’ lives that you feel there is sociological interest there.

More Dorothy L Sayers all over the blog - click on the label below.

Picture from the Library of Congress.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

published 1938
Antidote to Venom 3Antidote to Venom 2
Antidote to Venom 1
[George Surridge is out with a friend, unaware that a neighbour is observing him]

First George Surridge emerged from the driving seat, and hurrying round, opened with solicitude the opposite door. Miss Corrin was pleased to see his attention to his wife: she had sometimes feared there was less love lost in that menage than was meet. But when, instead of Clarissa’s somewhat considerable bulk and dark colouring, there appeared a petite and elegant stranger, whose Antidote to Venom 5dark hair was surmounted by a coquettish little hat of vivid red, Miss Corrin fairly goggled with amazement and a fierce ecstasy.

She sat staring fixedly across the road even after the unconscious objects of her regard had disappeared into the inn.

commentary: I wasn’t going to write about this book, but the  'coquettish little hat tipped the balance: I couldn’t resist the idea of doing a quick short entry. I spent a most enjoyable time looking at many a 1930s hat, and considering the word coquettish. It means flirty and I think in regard to hats (as with so many things) it is impossible to say what exactly gives a hat that tendency, but you know it when you see it. Many a charming hat I dismissed out of hand – pretty or elegant or attractive maybe, but not coquettish.

I think the only definite conclusion I reached was that a hat needs to be worn tilted on the head to be truly coquettish.

Antidote to Venom 4What is it makes me think my friend Bill from Mysteries and More might have an opinion on this?

The book itself is one of the British Library Crime Classics – the recent reprints, with an introduction by our friend Martin Edwards. There were some very standard tropes – the murder seen from the guilty point of view, middle-aged man finding a new love, extravagant and not very nice wife, money worries, tension and fear. But there were also some much more unusual ideas. The zoo setting was rather splendid, and the actual murder method one of the most bizarre I have ever read about – you think it’s venom, stolen snakes, zoo expertise: and you are right. But it’s really not that simple.

I have a take it or leave it attitude to Crofts – he wrote good solid detective stories, but I never feel the need to read them all.

He certainly researches his topics, and I learnt a lot about running a zoo in the 1930s. My favourite bit in the whole book was this:
[George has ordered two elephants from India, and they are arriving in Liverpool. The letter from the shipping line says:] 

‘We shall be obliged if you will kindly arrange to take delivery as soon as possible.’ 

This matter George had already dealt with. Transport of elephants through England was rather a job. They were too big to send by rail, and it would have cost a considerable sum to fit up a road lorry to take them. The elephants would therefore have to walk the hundred odd miles to Birmington. They would take it in easy stages and he had arranged for sheds for them to sleep in each night. Two Indian keepers had travelled with them, and he was sending his own man Ali with a couple of assistants to render help in case of need.

Such an exciting prospect – and I’m sure Crofts couldn’t have made this up.

And above is my collection of hats – in the end I could not confine myself to just red – all from the marvellous fashion archive at the NYPL.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Tuesday Night Club: The Curious Case of the Missing Children


The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are anBEv logo informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays.

Our theme for September is:


Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. Kate at Cross-Examining Crime has kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

We tend to write about traditional crime fiction, often from the Golden Age – in previous weeks I chose
The Bad Seed by William March (1954) and The Third Eye by Ethel Lina White (1937). Last week I moved forward in time and wrote about a recent French thriller, After the Crash by Michel Bussi, which has lost and disputed babies as its topic.

This week I’m writing about an absence.

The Mystery of the Christmas Children

Christmas children 2

I am a fan of Christmas mysteries, and every year on the blog I feature several of them during December – writing and collecting those particular posts gives me enormous pleasure.

Finding pictures for my blogposts is also always a joy, and I like where possible to use a good seasonal picture for each of my Xmas/December posts, and am always on the lookout. (I am very pleased with the Christmas pictures I have found, and there is a Pinterest page here where you can see last year’s collection, without having to go to the bother of reading my self-important words.)

Christmas children

But a year or so into this venture I finally realized that something was bothering me:

Celebratory Christmas pictures tend to feature children

Christmas mysteries don’t

Once you start looking, it becomes obvious that a family gathering is a splendidly suitable setting for a murder, but children just get in the way. Are they going to be victims? Murderers? Witnesses? Apparently not. No child follows Santa to the fireplace while he picks up a poker. No lisping 4-year old says ‘I went to Mother’s bedroom but she wasn’t there’, nor yet ‘I went to Father’s bedroom and Nurse was in there with him’. There is no poison in the mince pies or the white sugar mice or the tangerines. No toy gun or water pistol from a Christmas stocking is used by a criminal.

Children Christmas 3

The Golden Age authors apparently entered into a secret pact to remove children from the scene of the crime. There are multi-generational gatherings, containing every age except 0-15. There are families where it defies belief that there are no children present.

Possibly my favourite Xmas mystery of them all is Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (now re-purposed as A Christmas Party, by the way), and I said about that one: ‘You’d say the children were 'ruthlessly disposed of for plot purposes', but we can keep that phrase for the victims…’

christmas children 4

Now, there is a cunning (almost-criminal) sub-plot in my mind. My fellow crime fiction fans will all be racking their brains for counter-examples, and I am hoping they will be brimming with names of Christmas mysteries. As it is September, that gives me plenty of time to read their suggestions, and produce many nice new seasonal entries for this December. Please pile in in the comments below.
Here are a few Xmas mysteries that have featured on the blog:

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer – so wonderfully sour and funny, I have to mention it again.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmasen route to the houseparty of death.
Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell
Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – 2014’s surprise reprint bestseller.
Tied up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown

- and there are more to be found. Try clicking on the labels below.

Monday, 26 September 2016

In The Woods by Tana French

published 2007
In the Woods 4In the Woods 3
In the Woods 1In the Woods 2

When I made the Murder squad, I had already had my new work clothes – beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest of blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves – hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code. It was one of the things that first fascinated me about the job – that and the private, functional, elliptical shorthand: latents, trace, Forensics. One of the Stephen King small towns where I was posted after Templemore had a murder: a routine domestic-violence incident that had escalated beyond even the perpetrator’s expectations, but, because the man’s previous girlfriend had died in suspicious circumstances, the Murder squad sent down a pair of detectives. All the week they were there, I had one eye on the coffee machine whenever I was at my desk, so I could get my coffee when the detectives got theirs, take my time adding milk and eavesdrop on the streamlined, brutal rhythms of their conversation…

You learn by osmosis, as soon as you set your sights on the job, that you are expected to look professional, educated, discreetly expensive with just a soupcon of originality. We give the taxpayers their money’s worth of comforting cliché. We mostly shop at Brown Thomas, during the sales, and occasionally come into work wearing embarrassingly identical soupcons.

commentary: Oh what a failure. No, not the book – it is I who am a failure. Having loved Tana French's The Secret Place and the newly-published The Trespasser, I am supposed to be rationing out those of her books I haven’t read yet, to make the joy last longer. So I downloaded this one to my Kindle, to have in reserve, for some future moment. I have review books, and promises, and commitments, and many many books to read – Tana can wait for a while.

Only she can’t. I read it, swallowed it down at a great speed, and have already downloaded the next one. Oh dear oh dear: I am going to run out of books by her quite soon…

This was her first, and must have exploded onto the crime scene like a grenade – I remember hearing about it, and can’t imagine why I didn’t read it then.

It’s a police procedural set in the Dublin Murder Squad (as are all her books) and features the murder of a 12-year old girl at a small town outside the city. The narrator and his female partner set out to investigate, but the narrator has a secret: he comes from the same place, and has a parallel story in his childhood – he survived a still-unsolved incident in which his two best friends disappeared.

It is, admittedly, a lot to swallow that he takes up the case without telling anyone this, and it is unthinkable that he could take such a major part in the new investigation, or think that the story won’t come out. But once you get past this, the book is absolutely compelling, long and satisfying (98%) and highly entertaining. The relationship between the two lead officers is very well done. At times I thought ‘hang on…’ but on the whole French is ahead of the reader – certain things will become obvious is all I’m saying. I didn’t have any trouble working out the outline of the murder, but the details were sufficiently unguessable to keep my interest. I would have had a few questions for French and her narrator at the end…

The ending is very controversial if you look online: many people were disappointed, even devastated by a certain lack of resolution. I found it uncomfortable, but can understand that the author was trying to do something specific. I would definitely have liked more information.

As ever, there is a lovely, funny, colloquial feel to it. I liked the senior policeman whose marriage has broken up:
The grapevine had picked up a series of awkward attempts at relationships, including one spectacularly unsuccessful blind date where the woman turned out to be an ex-hooker he had arrested regularly in his Vice days.
.. and the gentle introduction of a supernatural element:
‘She always said it was the pooka took them.’
This one took me by surprise. The pooka is an ancient child-scarer out of legend, a wild mischief-making descendant of Pan and ancestor of Puck. He had not been on Kiernan and McCabe’s list of persons of interest.
An absolutely brilliant thriller, one that kept me reading for hours when I should have been doing other things.

There are more books by Tana French, but don’t expect any more reviews soon. Of course I am going to be able to hold off from reading them soon, I have the willpower…

Last year I had a similar reaction to Ariana Franklin’s Adelia books – the setting of her crime novels (12th century Europe) couldn’t be more different, but I loved them and read them all in a short space of time.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Dress Down Sunday: The Right Kind of Underwear



Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

published 1946

Murder Among Friends 1
‘You remember how she was dressed that evening at Cecily’s?’

‘I’m not likely to forget it,’ said Alice.

‘Well that was just typical of her,’ said Kitty. ‘And her underclothes too – they were always awfully good. You know what I mean, good heavy silk, well cut but no frivolity. She’d simply never have dared to wear a pair of pink satin cami-knickers or a chiffon nightdress. She’d have said in a slightly embarrassed way that she couldn’t see what use they were.’ Kitty laughed. ‘I tried to tell her once what use they were and she just looked cool and interested in my psychological peculiarities and rather amuse – by then, I suppose, she must have been able not to give away even her embarrassment. I thought marriage to Ian would cure her, but she seemed to go on being just as aloof and serious about everything…. I say, I’m sure I’m not telling you the sort of things you want to know. I’m sure Janet’s underclothes can’t have anything to do with the murder.’

‘I’m not so sure,’ said Alice. ‘The way a woman dresses and what she thinks about it always tells one a good deal about her.’

Murder Among Friends 2

commentary: My friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery reviewed this in June, and I immediately ordered a copy – it has a WW2 setting (something we’re both fans of) and clothes play an important part…

I was impressed and intrigued by it – I like Ferrars, but this reads very differently from others by her. It is much less of a conventional detective story, and she was obviously trying to do something different, something very psychological.

A group of people gather for drinks in the blackout. We see the whole story through the eyes of Alice, who knows none of the other guests, only her hostess. One more guest, a writer, is due – he lives in the flat upstairs. Then, a murder takes place – discovered by a stranger – and it seems clear that it must have been someone at the party. The culprit seems obvious, and is arrested, tried and found guilty.

Alice – who was never under suspicion – thinks about the situation and the people involved, and sets out to discover more about the relationships. She wants to know what motivated the murderer. She talks to the other guests in turn, and begins to suspect that there may be more to the story. (It is interesting that she is NOT trying to prove the condemned person’s innocence to begin with, just trying to find out more.)

I’m not usually a fan of the straightforward ‘small, closed circle’ murder story – we all suspected X, but it turns out to be Y. Imagine. But this absolutely transcended the genre, I thought it was unputdownable. In fact it was more like a novel of relationships – we see the different characters through different eyes, and there are passing mentions of unmarried sex, adultery, homosexuality and abortions – these are respectable, if slightly Bohemian, people, but they have desires and make mistakes and live their lives. Alice feels that she is among ‘a group of utterly rootless people, living on their nerves, their gifts and their emotions in two-room flats’.

I found this very unusual in what might be thought of as a GA mystery. It reminded me much more of, for example, Rosamond Lehmann’s Echoing Grove, a serious novel, also full of scenes in the blackout in London. Ferrars’ characters are complex, three-dimensional, not easily divided into the bad and the good. Kitty describes herself as a young girl: ‘ I was lazy and frightfully stupid and always stuffing sweets and smoking on the quiet and telling any lie that’d make life more comfortable for me.’ I think that’s a brilliant characterisation – both the easily-imaginable teenager, and the older woman looking back with clarity.

And clothes are vital. There’s a scarf that matters, there’s a distinction between bobbed and shingled hair, and the colour of the dresses is very important. Many excellent outfits are described in detail – and, as the book says above, tell you about the character of the wearer.

Some of Ferrars’ later books resembled romantic thriller - adventures of a feisty young woman who is going to find love as well as uncover a crime – see for example this one, Alibi for a Witch. Murder Among Friends couldn’t be more different.

Top underwear ad is American and from much earlier, but looks like the right kind of thing.

The other picture, a 1940s advert, is the kind of thing Janet supposedly would avoid…

Friday, 23 September 2016

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

published October 2016

Today Will be Different 2

[Eleanor has come to New Orleans for the engagement party of her sister Ivy]

The mansion door swung open courtesy of a courtly black man in tails with white hair and white gloves. He was Mister, the husband of Taffy. Both uniformed servants to two generations of Fannings, and hopefully a third, now that Bucky had returned from New York with, of all things, a bride.

Today will be different 4

Eleanor and Joe entered. The living room was aswish with ballgowns and tails. Just as an “Oh”” was about to escape Eleanor’s mouth – Today will be different 5she’d worn flats and a knee-length dress she had no time to iron – a mint julep was thrust into her palm. The shock of the frosty silver tumbler slapped Eleanor’s face into a smile.

“Eleanor! Joe!” It was Ivy wearing a pleated Today Will be Different 3chiffon gown, lime with orange flowers and sleeves that hung like calla lilies. She gave it a twirl. “1972 Lilly Pulitzer! It belonged to Bucky’s mother. Did you know that if you admire something, the person has to give it to you? That’s the Southern way.”

commentary: Many of my UK readers may not know what a Lilly Pulitzer dress is, so it is my pleasure to introduce the brand to them. When a fashion magazine described a style as ‘Lilly Pulitzer on acid’, a friend (in America) said ‘how could you tell?’ so I looked up the whole business and saw what she meant. LP is famed for her wild, brightly-coloured prints, striking and startling to the eye – particularly as they are very upmarket in the US, worn by women whom you might more expect to be in beige cashmere. Lilly had married into the Pulitzer family (yes that one), and was making money by selling oranges and juice at a roadside stand in the family orange groves in Florida. This was a messy business, so she designed a dress in a splashy print that wouldn’t show the stains, and her customers wanted to buy the dress too, and you can guess the rest. 

(These people's lives

None of this, no little bit, is a very UK way of carrying on, for a variety of reasons.)

Today Will be Different

So that’s Lilly. Now to Maria Semple, an author I love to bits. Her Where d’you Go Bernadette was one of my favourite books of 2012, and I also enjoyed her This One is Mine. The new book, like Bernadette, is set in Seattle, and part of my enjoyment is recognizing so much about the place, from the simple geography and settings to the kind of people she describes. The schoolkids will go to Wild Waves, the pedestrians will not cross the road without a WALK sign, no matter how empty of cars the road is. And there’s this:
… the epidemic of haggard women in their 40s trapped in playgrounds, slumped on boingy lady bugs, unconsciously pouring Tupperware containers of Cheerios down their own throats, sporting maternity jeans two years after giving birth and pushing swings with skunk stripes down the center of their hair.
Was the sight of us so terrifying that the entire next generation of college-educated woman declared “Anything but that!” and forsook careers altogether to pop out children in their 20s? Looking at the [school] moms, the answer would be: apparently.
I hope it works out for them.
Eleanor is a classic Semple heroine – glorious, deeply sympathetic, but also annoying, quite wicked, and mad as a box of frogs. The book follows her through the one day of the title (with frequent and extended flashbacks) via various farcical events and childcare challenges. She meets a poet and an artist, she goes to her child’s school, she worries about her husband.

Her clever confident comments on life include this:
My friend Merrill told me that on the first date, a guy without realizing it will tell you why the relationship will ultimately fail. He’ll say he doesn’t want kids, or he’s not the type to settle down, or he’s in a fight with his mother.
Every person has it in them to be either the Competent Traveller or the Helpless Traveller.
There are great observations, and glimpses of darkness and sadness. Eleanor at one point explains her husband’s odd behaviour with a brilliant invented story – I so wanted it to be true. I laughed a lot, and read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which fits well with its all taking place on one day.

Tucked away in the book is the astonishing true fact that the tenth President of the USA, John Tyler, was born in 1790, was president in the 1840s, and has grandsons living today. (By means of having children into his 60s).

B/W photo is a 1930s WPA picture of a New Orleans Mardi Gras ball photo from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Trespasser by Tana French

published 2016
Trespasser 3


It takes two rings before Lucy answers the intercom, in a voice coated with sleep. ‘‘Lo?’

Steve says, ‘Lucy Riordan?’

‘Who’s this?’

‘Detective Garda Stephen Moran. Could we have a word?’

A long second. Then Lucy says, and the sleep’s fallen off her voice, ‘I’ll be down in a minute.’

She opens the door fast and wide awake. She’s short and fit, the kind of fit you get from life, not from the gym – she wears it like it’s owned, not rented. Platinum hair with a long sweep of fringe falling in her face – pale face with clean quick features, smudges of last night’s mascara. She’s wearing a black hoodie, paint-splashed black combats, nothing on her feet, a lot of silver ear jewellery and what looks to me like a fair-sized hangover. She has bugger-all in common with Aislinn Murray, or with what I was expecting.

We have our IDs out and read. ‘I’m Detective Garda Stephen Moran,’ Steve says, ‘and this is my partner, Detective Garda Antoinette Conway.’ And he pauses. You always leave a gap there.

Lucy doesn’t even look at the IDs. She says, sharp, ‘Is it Aislinn?’

commentary: The book has many references to clothes: what people wear is important, the styles of Aislinn and her friend are very different, for good reasons.  We can take note of who has an expensive coat, who has nice-boy clothes. But I have an admission to make, which is that from quite early on I more or less stopped making notes, or seeing those clothes as blog fodder, or anything really except clicking my Kindle as fast as possible. It’s a long book, maybe even repetitious, it could probably have been shortened. But I ripped through it, endlessly anxious to know what happened next, and what the truth was about the case. What more can you ask for from a book?

Earlier this year I did a post on Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the best new-to-me writers I’ve encountered. This is her new book about the Dublin Murder Squad, and, yes, it’s another zinger. Conway and Moran are the two detectives from the earlier book, and they’ve been given what looks like a routine domestic killing: a young woman who was preparing to entertain a young man at home has been murdered. Surely it’s obvious that her date did it? There seems to be pressure for the case to be wrapped up quickly and comfortably. Antoinette and Steve aren’t happy with that – but can’t work out exactly where the problems lie.

The interviews with Aislinn’s friends and acquaintances are very absorbing, and (as with Secret Place) the book takes place over a very short time frame – I was puzzled that a particular witness hadn’t been re-interviewed, but then realized that very little time had passed.

She’s great at descriptions and characters – you feel you know this Dublin and these Dubliners by the end – and she is very funny in glancing lines:
If she slapped him down, his inner Hulk could well have burst his good going-out jumper.
Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination.
She could have helped him alphabetize the feng shui section. Jaysus, the romance.
The book’s not for the faint at heart – it has harsh language and attitudes, nobody is pulling any punches. There were a few moments where I had mental arguments with the main characters – but everything was more or less resolved in the plotline. But none of that seems to matter anyway, compared with the joy of a book that pins you to your chair and makes you read it.

Blogging friend Cleo at Cleo Loves Books has done a great review of this one, with more details of the plot (she was better at making notes than I was…)

Pictures from Pinterest and ASOS.