Friday, 31 October 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Bringing up the Bodies for Halloween

Yesterday’s entry was a list of scarey stories for Halloween: Today’s appeared on the Guardian Books Blog and looks at gruesome graveyard scenes in all kinds of books. The piece is here at the Guardian, and this is how it begins:

However depressing the thud of earth on the coffin-lid may be, it is music compared to the rattle of gravel and thump of spades which heralds a premature and unreverend resurrection…
That’s from Dorothy L Sayers’s 1921 Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, as she describes the gruesome exhumation of a man who may have been murdered. The corpse is carried from the grave to the cemetery potting-shed in the middle of the night, so that a doctor can explore the entrails. 
Many of the creepiest encounters with corpses in books aren’t even supernatural. You don’t need anything extra to make bodies, coffins, graves and exhumations scary – but the odd ghostly touch doesn’t go amiss.

One of the most macabre is in the children’s classic Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner, when the young John Trenchard gets trapped in a church crypt with damaged coffins. He ends up lying alongside the skeleton of Colonel John “Blackbeard” Mohune, and, amid the bones and the hair – “I buckled to the distasteful work of rummaging the coffin” – finds a valuable locket with clues to a lost treasure.

Several of the books mentioned in the piece have featured on the blog – Andrew Miller’s Pure, Dumas Fils’s La Dame Aux Camelias, Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, and Gregory Widen’s Blood Makes Noise (thanks again, Col!).

exhumation scene in The Third Man

The commentators at the Guardian came up with some great additions to the piece, and I’m sure blog readers can match them – let me know below if you can think of any notable coffin/graveyard scenes.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Thursday List: Scarey Stories for Halloween

Like the Fat Boy in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, the blog would like to make your flesh creep. So - inspired in part by the crime writer Christine Poulson’s blog post on scarey stories – here’s a list of shockers of one kind or another, not in any special order (links are to blogposts on some of the books):

1) The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe – scared me half to death the first-time I read it as a teenager, with that amazing first line:
TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?

2) This is the one I mentioned to Christine: Don’t Look Behind You by Fredric Brown, which I read in a Hitchcock collection many years ago. It is TERRIFYING because it manages to convince you, the reader, that you are going to die. It is incredibly creepy, and leaves you looking over your shoulder. I really wouldn’t have wanted to read it if I’d been alone in the house. Brown was more famous for his sci-fi, but was obviously a talented writer in all directions…

3) Darkness over Pemberley by TH White   featured on the blog this week, and certainly had a pretty good concept involving a villain locked in the house with the good guys, and apparently able to make murderous and very creepy ventures into locked rooms. (I found it completely preposterous, but you have to give it some credit.)

4) Susan Hill, The Woman in Black. I’m not a huge fan of Hill, but this book (and the play based on it) really work.

5) Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood – left unfinished on his death, and not that mysterious, but still the spooky atmosphere of a Cathedral town is very well done, and the two men going out for a walk, from which only one will return, is wonderfully tense.

6) The Aspern Papers by Henry James The climax of this novella has the grasping literature student creeping around a palazzo in Venice in the middle of the night, searching for elusive documents. He gets a surprise, and so does the reader…

7) … and similarly The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin is another tale of an unscrupulous young man trying to make his fortune, and getting himself and the reader a bad fright in the process.

8) Dracula by Bram Stoker – quite the chiller, and dealt with nicely by a Guest Blogger here.

9) MR James short stories, particularly Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad & The Mezzotint. They give you that uneasy feeling. 

10) The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. The book is close to forgotten now – the author known mainly for Watership Down. It’s a strange book, always going off on tangents, and it’s not at all clear what is going on. But the ending is genuinely terrifying, and the sight of a green toy turtle would give any reader palpitations…

11) Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier – story and film both traumatizing, and (like green turtles above) some of us can’t ever see a red raincoat and feel calm. The story of a bereaved couple trying to mend their relationship on a trip to Venice is perfect in its way. And as the blog post was titled: Red Coat. Don't Go There. And Don't Look Now.

My list ran to 11, and I'm sure I'll think of more in the next few years. I'd love to know which books and stories readers would add to the list. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

published 2013

There were many astonishing things about these jaunts, not least how we looked: my mother, the shorter and stouter of the two ladies, dressed in a shapeless pastel salwar kameez, wearing chappals with thermal socks; my aunt, stately, in a Barbour jacket and fashion trainers completely unsuitable for cross-country trekking, almost always on her phone, her hair underneath a silk scarf; me, clutching a travel-sick spaniel wrapped like a sausage roll.

Then there was the unique way we tackled the walks. Mum… objected to the countryside on the grounds that ‘there is nowhere to sit down’. ..If she ever saw a corner shop, she would insist on popping in to have a look at the produce and compare the prices with those at home. Meanwhile, my aunt would combine a need to keep up a brisk pace with an insistence on sticking to clean footpaths, which in practice usually meant walking around the gardens of stately homes in circles, slightly ahead or behind me, taking a call or checking for a mobile phone signal…

observations: There’s nothing like being made to feel clever by a book – it makes the discerning reader much more inclined to like it. I started this one and was rather unsure for a while – it has a double structure which I still think doesn’t work well: a present-day story told in the 1st person, and a 3rd person story set in the past. The two tales – of a Sikh Indian family in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands - are obviously closely-connected, though it’s not clear who exactly is who at first. But it was a bit irritating, because who is telling the historical story? There’s a real POV problem with this book.

But then some way into Marriage Material, the plot of the 1960s/70s section started to seem familiar and I realized, with some incredulity, that it was taken from the Arnold Bennett book The Old Wives’ Tale – a huge favourite round here at Clothes in Books, and one that gave us a shed-load of entries in the early days. But not a book that most people have read: in fact I have never knowingly met anyone else who has read it, apart from the lovely Arnold Bennett Society, who keep the faith, and kindly re-Tweet me whenever I mention him. (I should stress that this is not plagiarism: Sathnam Sanghera writes about the Bennett inspiration at the end.)

So a huge point in favour of the book, and actually it is terrific fun: an engrossing family story, and the passage above is typical of Sanghera’s marvellous observation and character-drawing. And it is laugh out loud funny: one character, Ranjit speaks in an idiom that is horrendous and hilarious at the same time: ‘How’s it going any ways chitterface – when you coming for a glassie at Singhfellows? Innit’. And then the narrator goes to talk to Ranjit’s Dad: ‘His English was excellent, so much so that it made me realize that, as with human civilization at large, one generation of a family does not necessarily build on the achievements of another.’ There is an explanation of low dog ownership in his community – dogs are ‘relentlessly loyal and proffer extremes of emotion… given the neediness and emotional hysteria of the average Asian extended family, that’s the last thing we need.’

Apart from the entertainment value, I realized that I have read various versions of the female Indian or Pakistani view of life in Britain (eg books by Meera Syal) but nothing from the male view except Hanif Kureishi.

I thought the ending gave only an outline of how events panned out, I’d have liked more detail, but that’s a compliment to the author as I liked the characters so much by this time.

One thing I loved was that each chapter had the title of a magazine that might have been sold in the family newsagent business, chosen to reflect the events of the chapter. (One of them was Bunty, mentioned in yesterday’s entry.)

Another version of the marriage plot for young men came with Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of that name.

The top picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is called Shalwar Kameez colours. The second picture, also Wikimedia, shows a group of women in India in their shalwar kameez. The spelling varies as it is a transliteration: the outfit is widely worn in the sub-continent. Chappals are sandals.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

published 2014, set in 1934

[Daisy and Hazel are leaving school to visit the Willow café]

When we leave school grounds we are supposed to wear our uniforms, but of course it is no good trying to go anywhere grown-up wearing your pinafore and school tie, and the Willow is certainly grown-up. In summer you have to put on your mufti, then your school clothes over the top (breathing in so Matron doesn’t notice the difference ), and as soon as you’re out of school, wriggle out of your uniform. In winter, though, you can get away with just wearing your school coat and hat out of House and bundling them into a bush as soon as you’re out of sight down the hill. Of course, once you’ve done that, you have to grit your teeth and freeze…

[After visiting the Willow] I thumped straight into someone coming the other way down the street. I yelped and the other person exclaimed in annoyance. Then I gave a gasp of surprise. I was staring up at the chestnut curls and regal nose of King Henry [another schoolgirl]. As soon as she saw us, she spun on her heel and marched away up the street again – but I was sure that she had been about to go into the Willow.

observations: After yesterday's murder story set in a boys' school, Josephine Bell's Death at Half-Term, here's one set in a girls's school of the same era, but written now. 

This is the first in a projected series about schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, who are at a boarding school in England in the 1930s. It is slightly hard to imagine where the future cases are going to come from:
We solved The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie. The solution to that, of course, was that Clementine stole it in revenge for Lavinia punching her in the stomach during lacrosse, which was Lavinia’s revenge for Clementine telling everyone Lavinia came from a broken home.
The book is for children, but someone with a taste for Golden Age detection fiction can’t resist taking a look. It’s a straight mixture of two genres: traditional school story and traditional murder mystery, and there is no winking or irony or modern ideas in there – you could just about imagine that this was written at the time. I was quite surprised when Matron ‘whacked us both around the head.’

The author says that she loves Agatha Christie, who of course wrote the wonderful Cat Among The Pigeons, set in a girls’ boarding school. There are also echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, the Enid Blyton school stories set at Malory Towers and St Clare’s, and Antonia Forest’s school stories. There is even a group of girls called The Marys, which for some of us means the girls' magazine Bunty, and the  comic strip The Four Marys. (Which went on for years – my daughter, 2nd generation Bunty reader, asked me once how old they were supposed to be. ‘They must be 104 at least’, I replied).

Anyway, Hazel finds the body of Miss Bell the science teacher, in the gym. The body disappears, and Miss Bell supposedly has ‘resigned’ so the two third formers investigate themselves, making lists of suspects and alibis. Maps are provided. They work their way through various suspects, till everyone is either dead or eliminated, then find the solution more or less by chance. But that’s fine. It’s not a stunning mystery, but it’s an enjoyable book, and one that I hope young people might like, so they get a taste for murder mysteries.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Death at Half-Term by Josephine Bell

published 1939

As they went in the excited babble of conversation was checked and the group of players, fantastic and incongruous in their stage clothes, broke up to admit them to their stricken leader.

He lay on his back near the show-case on which his own clothes and possessions were piled. He had not started to undress and the wig and beard were still in place, together with the stage bandage in which he had made his final appearance in the play. It was impossible to determine his colour on account of the grease-paint, but the stertorous breathing and the flaccid condition of his limbs made diagnosis obvious…. Sonia Fenton, who had watched with large frightened eyes, gave a loud sob.

‘This is his wife’, explained George Lemming in a hushed voice

observations: It is half-term this week in most English schools – a much needed break for children, staff and parents - so a good time to look at this strange book.

My friend Sergio, of the Bloody Murder/ Tipping my Fedora blog, covered this book for Rich Westwood’s Past Offences ‘books of 1939’ meme. (My book of 1939 was a detective story by Georgette Heyer, here on the blog.)

He didn’t like it much.

I commented that I liked the sound: a murder story of that era, set during a performance of Twelfth Night in a boys’ preparatory school, combined my favourite features, and had to be worth a try. Sergio generously passed on his copy of the book to me (could it be… that he couldn’t imagine ever needing to read it again?) and I started to read with some optimism.

Alas I was sadly disappointed. I have read and enjoyed other books by Josephine Bell (on the blog here and here), but this one is a dud. After I’d finished the book I went back and counted up: in the first 25 pages she introduces 42 characters by name – parents, staff, schoolboys, actors – and that doesn’t include the character names from Twelfth Night: the reader is expected to keep in her head who is playing at least eight of the cast, as Bell sometimes refers to them by character name, and who appears in the final scenes is relevant to the plot. I don’t normally complain about this, and (like most crime fiction readers) I’m pretty good at keeping characters and family arrangements in my head. (The only comparable book in my view is the dread Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, which has more characters than pages.) But most of these characters are unnecessary and irrelevant, and I still have no idea who Hugh and Margaret were.

The murder isn’t that interesting. There is something to throw off timings, which is similar to an event in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. The schoolboys occasionally have an entertaining moment. There is nothing much to pin the book to 1939, although I did like the very Clothes-in-Books-ish revelation that the headmaster asked the visiting actors to dress properly for church: coats (I think meaning jackets) for the men, no sandals, and frocks not slacks for the girls. There is also an implication that nail varnish on toenails is rather fast.

But really not a lot to recommend this book. But thank you Sergio for passing it on!

The picture is from a 1917 book illustrating popular operas: close examination would tell you this was Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ Tosca, but the photo did seem to resemble very closely the description above.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Book of 1932

the book: Darkness at Pemberley by TH White

published 1932


Meanwhile, darkness had fallen. Kingdom stood alone in the gathering dusk of the old house whilst the great hall sank about him imperceptibly through waves and waves of gloom. The invisibility welled up from the distant corners and sank downwards from the domed ceiling, gradually stealing its last glints from the chandelier. At last only the silent ghost of a white moustache hung suspended in the night…. 

Outside was the silence and tangible darkness of the passage, leading, further off, to the hall’s absorbing void, and to all the great and little deserted clocks of the household, ticking in separate persistence: unwatched, tenacious, uninforming. All the wainscots of all the rooms concerted about him in their stealthy rustle. The heart beat slower and slower… 


Buller found everybody awake when he got back.
Kingdom was in the passage. Elizabeth was sitting with Wilder and Charles in the latter’s room. She was in green pyjamas and a man’s thick blue dressing gown.

Buller said heartily: “Well, how are the refugees?”

“Perishing and terrified,” said Elizabeth. “What was it all about?”

observations: This month, Rich Westwood has chosen the year 1932 for the classic crime meme on his Past Offences blog. (See the fascinating previous roundups of entries: 1963 in June, 1939 in July, 1952 in August, 1958 in September). And he asked for spooky entries if possible, to mark Halloween.

Well, spooky is one word for this book. Another is ‘preposterous’. But I’ve done my best to choose some suitable passages…

TH White is best known for The Once and Future King, his sequence of books on King Arthur, and the basis for the Disney film The Sword in the Stone. This was an earlier work, perhaps when he was looking for the right genre. It’s fair to say crime fiction probably wasn’t his genre…

The book starts well. There are two deaths in and around a Cambridge college. There is some funny business with a gramophone, which seems to show when one of the crimes occurred, and there are fully 3 map/plans: showing the college, a don’s room, and the position of the college in Cambridge (allowing us to work out that the fictional St Bernard’s lives on the site of the real-life Queens’ College). We get this truly faultless line: 

“Why,” pursued the Inspector, “did the Master, who is a drug addict, post a letter to Beedon containing a blank sheet of paper with his signature in invisible ink?”

But then, less than a third of the way through, we find out who did the murder, and how, and why. We are told that it will be impossible to prove the case, and wham, the only partial witness – the porter – is dead too.

Now the book goes completely bonkers. The action moves to Pemberley in Derbyshire, ancestral home of the Darcy family from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The descendants of Darcy & Elizabeth Bennett – a brother and sister called Charles and Elizabeth – are friends of the investigating policeman from Cambridge, and via a plot device I can’t bear to describe, the College murderer turns his attention to the house and family, and puts all of them under threat. There is a lot of creeping around the house in the dark, as above, and ghostly attacks in locked rooms. Eventually they work out how this is being done, and think they can catch the murderer out. But he escapes and everyone careers round the countryside in fast cars, before ending up back at the house for a ridiculous climax.

There were two bits of this farrago that I particularly enjoyed. After one beloved character is murdered, Charles comforts Elizabeth (who is desperately upset) by saying ‘He was 69. He couldn’t have lived very much longer.’ (This IS a young man’s book). And Elizabeth later, lying in bed, has this moment of self-searching: ‘she felt her arms in the darkness. They were empty. She was getting old, she supposed. She was getting fat. She must bant.’

(To bant is to go on a diet.)

The next line is: 'At this moment she became conscious that there was somebody in the room.'

If you feel from this blogpost that you know for sure whether you would want to read this book or not, then I have done my job. 

**** ADDED LATER: To redress the balance: There are more enthusiastic reviews of the book on Sergio's Tipping My Fedora blog, and on Yvette's in so many words. (Thanks Prashant for pointing me in the right direction).

The pictures are all from the film Palm Beach Story, starring the queen of pyjama-wearing, Claudette Colbert – I particularly admire the outfit in the 3rd picture, entirely made from items picked up around her train carriage, so including the towel and pyjamas. It featured in a very early blog entry, here, and you can see her in lounging pyjamas in this entry.

The Possession of Delia Sutherland by Barbara Neil

published 1993

[Delia Sutherland has moved to the north of Scotland, and is hearing from her solicitor what is going on in her family home. Curtis is the butler.]

‘The last time I went down to stay over, like I used to with you, dear old Curtis served the two of us dinner in full evening dress.’ He was silent.

I realised he thought he’d finished and that it was my turn to speak. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’

‘A lady’s evening dress, Delia. A lady’s one. Long, blue jewelled bodice and full skirt…. In and out he sailed with the courses. I didn’t know where to look.’

Making out the view from the window was all of a sudden more interesting than what he was saying. I stood close to it…. ‘What did Leon say?’

‘Nothing until dinner was over.’


‘”He’s better in pink.”’

David at last seemed to guess something about my response because he came over, took my arm. ‘Come and sit down again.’

observations: This is a very strange book indeed – one that kept turning into a different kind of novel every time I thought I’d got a handle on it. Early on it seems to be one of my Books like I Capture the Castle, but it turns into something more dysfunctional and odd, heading through Molly Keane territory into Edward St Aubyn’s world.

Delia is a standard heroine – very upper-class, living in posh poverty, she is awkward and not one of the popular girls. But one day an unusual man turns up, Francis Sutherland, and he can see through to her Amazonian inner beauty – an illumination that crops up a lot in books, less so in real life perhaps, and mentioned in this blog entry. They marry: he is luckily very rich so can save the estate. She loves the land, loves farming and husbandry. He is more glamorous and enjoys the high life. Things go wrong between them in a way that seems avoidable. There is a letter that is left stupidly unread and thus causes more problems. The story is told in a strange flashback style which is quite difficult to follow, and the timeframe is hard to understand, and seems to hold inconsistencies. But it is an enjoyable book, and goes off in directions I think most readers simply will not expect, to the extent that there is a moment when surely those readers will be shouting ‘No!’ at Delia’s decisions. There is an illegitimate child, a death, and a strange inheritance.

Book and author seem to have disappeared, which is a pity. I would be interested to read another by Neil just because I cannot imagine what her other books (she wrote quite a few) would be like.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is of the Victorian female impersonator known as Stella Boulton, aka Ernest Boulton (and from a good century before the book's setting.)

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Book Case by Nelson DeMille

published 2012

I walked to the staircase, which had a sign saying PRIVATE, and began the corkscrew climb. On the way, I tried to recall the two or three times I’d interacted with Mr. Otis Parker here in his store. He was a bearded guy in his early sixties, but could have looked younger if he’d bought a bottle of Grecian Formula. He dressed well, and I remember thinking— the way cops do— that he must have had another source of income. Maybe this store was a front for something. Or maybe I read too many crime novels. I also recalled that Mr. Parker was a bit churlish—though I’d heard him once talking enthusiastically to a customer about collector’s editions, which he sold in the back of the store. I’d sized him up as a man who liked his books more than he liked the people who bought them. In short, a typical bookstore owner.

observations: This short story – a Kindle Single – was recommended to me by my friend Prashant C Trikkanad, of the Chess Comics Crosswords blog. He read my recent entry on the book Miss by LE Usher, set in a London bookshop, and told me of this one, set in a NY bookstore. I’m a fan of Nelson DeMille, and of stories set in bookshops, and a 99p short story doesn’t break my current book-buying embargo, so I was good to go.

It is short and very funny, and tells a fair enough tale of murder in a NY crime bookstore, investigated by one of DeMille’s regular characters, John Corey. DeMille has fun with the whole trope of crime books, shops and publishing – this is typical:
The window on the right featured contemporary bestselling authors like Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille, and others who make more money writing about what I do than I make doing what I do.
I don’t read many of the big best-selling thriller writers, but I make an exception for DeMille - I have enjoyed several of his books, and I really like his humour. I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books too, but DeMille is much funnier and more light-hearted: he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I have seen occasional complaints of misogyny in DeMille and that always surprises me - his heroes are somewhat unreconstructed, but I find the women characters good, and his attitudes (not quite all the time, but mostly) very real and pro-women.

The photograph, from Flickr, is from the Nantucket Historical Association.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr

author aka Carter Dickson

published 1938

Mary Hume looked momentarily at the back of Captain Reginald’s head as she went up to the witness box. With the exception of Inspector Mottram, she was (or so it seemed on the surface) the calmest person who had yet testified. She wore sables: a flamboyant display, Evelyn assured me, but she may have been feeling in that mood with defiance. And she wore no hat. Her yellow hair, parted and drawn back sleekly, emphasized the essential softness and odd sensuality of the face, dominated by those wide-spaced blue eyes. Her method of putting her hands on the edge of the box was to grasp it with both arms extended, as though she were on an aqua-plane. In her manner there was no longer any of that hard docility I had seen before.

observations: The Judas Window is generally agreed to be one of John Dickson Carr’s best books (it first appeared under his pseudonym, more in this entry) - and thus one of the best locked room mysteries ever. It is not my favourite of his works, because the explanation seems so unlikely - I do see that’s not something to worry about with JDC, but there is a range… But it is still a great read: tense, and almost entirely in a court-room setting. The best of his books keep you reading simply because you HAVE to find out the explanation for some extraordinary setup, and The Judas Window is definitely in that category.

There is another very odd aspect to it. I have floated the idea before that JDC wished he could write more about sex, and that his young women were quite sexually adventurous. The young woman above (a highly-respectable heroine) is about to give evidence of being blackmailed, by a former lover who has compromising photographs of her:

Mary Hume [said] clearly, ‘without any clothes on, and in certain postures.’
‘What postures?’ asked Mr Justice Rankin.
[The barrister says:] ‘I’ve got one of those photographs here. Across the back of it is written: “One of the best things she ever did for me”’
The photograph is then shown to judge and jury.

When I first read this book as a young teenager I was shocked witless by this, forming my own conclusions as to what the photo must have shown. I’m still quite surprised that it pops up like that in a traditional Golden Age mystery. It is stressed in the book that this is not a court of morals, and no judgement should be passed on Mary for having an affair outside marriage and (presumably) consenting to the photos being taken. Unexpected all round.

Another pressing matter of great importance: what on earth does gripping an aqua-plane look like? And here we can help you, with a startling photograph from the very year of 1938:

-- if you look closely you can see that she has not had her legs sliced off at the knee (that would be a quite different JDC book…), it’s just a trick of the angle.

Normally an aquaplane is, apparently ‘a board on which a standing rider is towed behind a speeding motorboat’ – so perhaps like a single waterski, a monoski? The one above seems to have its own power supply.

****ADDED LATER: Blog readers have helped out with information on aquaplaning. JS found this newsclip of the sport from Pathe, called Skidding Along. And Bill Selnes from the Mysteries and More blog found this helpful article on the history of aquaplaning.  Looking at both would convince you even more that the picture above is wholly posed.****

The main picture is by Glyn Warren Philpot, the sitter was Mary Borden. Now, those probably aren’t sables in the picture, and I’m hoping that one of my most helpful and knowledgeable blog commentators, Ken Nye, will be able to give me more info on that (see Ken's helpful input on insertion kisses below yesterday's entry)

*****ADDED LATER: Yes, Ken did come to help, see below in the comments *****

But I did like this picture, she seemed to look how Mary should.

My friend Sergio over at the Tipping My Fedora blog is a huge fan of John Dickson Carr, and his blog contains informative pages on him, a review of this book, and links to other relevant websites – anyone with any interest in the author should definitely go over there.

For more of and about JDC on Clothes in Books, click on his name below

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Hubert Jenkins

published 1918

[Patricia] recalled a remark of Miss Wangle's that no really nice-minded woman ever dressed in black and white unless she had some ulterior motive. Upon the subject of sex-attraction Miss Wangle posed as an authority…

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Galvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs. Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it's a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim. "You look bad enough for a vicar's daughter," she said, surveying herself in the glass as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. "White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.”

observations: In a low-key way, I am attempting the Books of the Century challenge this year. The rules, and bloggers’ takes on it, vary, but in my case I am hoping to read during 2014 a book first published in each of the years from 1900-2000.

This won’t get really exciting till the very end of the year, when I am trying to fill in some gaps, but it is obvious already where the difficulties will lie: 1900-1920, and the 1970s and 80s. (So far I have read 70 books for the challenge.) So this book helps in that respect, and it looked like a promising concept for a light romantic read. Patricia Brent lives in a boarding house, and overhears other residents bitching about her loneliness, lack of a husband and so on. Furious, she proclaims that the next night she will be dining with her fiancé at a smart hotel restaurant. Sensation. Above, she is getting ready for her imaginary date – she has decided to go and eat alone that evening. But when she gets there, 3 of the boarding-house residents have turned up to stalk her. So she looks round for a man dining alone, sits herself down at his table and urgently whispers to him to play along. He does.

This is a good start, and takes up the first section of the book. The problem for Mr Jenkins is then to spin out the story for a lot more pages, and unfortunately he does it by making Patricia act in a ridiculous and tiresome way – her chance-met young soldier is obviously the man for her, but that’s not going to fill the book. So Patricia has to have weird qualms, and be incredibly rude and hurtful to many people who are very nice to her. I could have strangled her by the end. So I fear I am too hard-hearted for this book, but it was a cheerful quick read, and had some nice details about life at the end of WW1 in London – a detailed description of an air raid for example. One resident of the boarding-house puts down their escaping from the bomb to the prayers of her uncle the bishop, but another character is:

frankly sceptical. If the august prelate was out to save Galvin House, he suggested, it wasn't quite cricket to let them drop a bomb in the next street.
A very proper response.

The picture above is a 1917 fashion plate from the NY Public Library – I was going to just show the left-hand outfit, but it seemed a shame to lose the others (and particularly the hat on the right). If I hadn’t already used the picture for another entry I might have put Patricia in this excellent outfit:

--though it’s probably too racy. Later on Patricia goes on holiday, and makes this mysterious remark to a woman friend:

‘One thing I won't do, that is wear openwork frocks. The sun shall not print cheap insertion kisses upon Patricia Brent.’
That will make a valuable addition to my list of completely incomprehensible sentences.

Or will it?  In Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, on the blog a while back, there is this: ‘the woman’s dress had an intricately embroidered cutout pattern of flowers all along the neckline. Jane could see tanned freckly skin through the petals.’ Were these cheap insertion kisses?
*****ADDED LATER: Clothes in Books readers are, as often demonstrated, very knowledgeable, and if you scroll down to the comments below you can read their valuable input, as they explain and look at the phenomenon of insertion kisses. Don't miss it. ******

Leaves and Pages also looked at this book, and had a similar reaction to mine (even choosing the same passage to quote…), while Simon at Stuck in a Book was very enthusiastic about it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Golden Pavements by Pamela Brown

published 1947

[The Blue Door group has just saved the day in a college theatre production, and now they are going dancing]

Their friends plied them with lemonade, ices and strawberries, and they soon felt restored enough to go over to the Academy wardrobe and remove their Edwardian finery.

In the square the radiogram was playing dance tunes, and, soft-footed on the grass, the students danced. Most of the celebrities had departed, and the fairy lights were lit as dusk fell. All the windows in the square were alight, and dark figures leaned out, watching the dancers. The Blue Doors were the heroes of the hour, and were danced off their feet, until the square and the plane trees and the tall grey houses reeled round them, and the evening breeze blew through their hair.

At last the radiogram played Goodnight, Sweetheart. The fairy lights were extinguished, and it was time to wander home through the darkening streets, tired, yet unwilling to end a golden day.

observations: This is the sequel to the glorious Swish of the Curtain, and is in some ways better, though it will never win hearts the way the schoolchildren-putting-on-a-play plot does. Here the young people of the Blue Door Theatre Company have gone to a RADA-esque drama school in London, and the book follows them through their training: they live in digs & have no money, the girls borrow each other’s stockings (stocking theme week! See Sunday's Guardian entry), they all eat cheap food. It’s a lovely picture of life for a starving student in the late 1940s, and the description of the outdoor dance above struck me as being beautifully done, amid the rather slapdash prose. Of course Brown couldn’t resist the dramatic setup to this – their play wasn’t selected for the Public Show, but at the last minute the original winners got food poisoning, so the Blue Doors had to go on and do Importance of Being Earnest (scenes from) at a moment’s notice. A classic plot turn for this writer.

There are plenty of enjoyable details – I complained of the lack of these in the comparable Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont. Golden Pavements is much less high-minded and more convincing.

I’m always interested in the rise of trouser-wearing by women, and in this book the two young teenage women ‘bought their first pairs of slacks’ to go on a theatrical tour, and face some teasing. Working as Assistant Stage Managers one summer, they wear trousers all the time, and notice as they go back to college that they are dressing ‘more soberly than they had for weeks. “Don’t skirts seem funny after slacks.”’ [It is while in seaside rep that there is a performance of The Constant Nymph - see the relevant entry from this book here, and from the actual Margaret Kennedy Constant Nymph here.]

When a younger sister starts as a student a year or two later, she gets red slacks as part of her going-away outfit, and ends up living ‘in a pair of shabby corduroys, sandals that were always coming to pieces... and shapeless jumpers that came down almost to her knees.’

The dancing students are from the Library of Congress. The second picture is a social sciences student at LSE from the right era, but I thought she looked just like Lynette studying a script in their poky digs.

Monday, 20 October 2014

1000th entry: A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

published 1951

Section set in the mid-1920s

[A group of children and young people are out buying shoes]

All three of them were united in their praise of Vesey’s choice and as the shoes were only eighteen and elevenpence there would be two shillings left which Vesey said he could quite justifiably spend on ice-cream. Harriet admired the way in which he took his time, discussed his plans, and had shoes lying about all over the floor. The assistant, who had begun with tan Oxfords, now withdrew from the discussion, wearing the look of aloof distaste Vesey had grown so used to seeing on the faces of schoolmasters.

[Later, back at the house]

‘Vesey bought some nice shoes,’ Harriet interposed.

‘Yes, we must look at them after tea.’

‘They are grey,’ Deirdre said.

[Vesey's aunt] Caroline frowned. ‘How do you mean – grey?’

‘They are grey suede,’ Vesey said quietly. He looked down sideways at the tablecloth, leaning back in his chair as if fatigued.

‘Grey suede,’ said Caroline.


A little silence fell; or rather, was drawn down. Caroline picked up her cup and drank tea steadily. Her cheekbones were scarlet.

‘Aren’t grey shoes nice?’ Joseph asked. Caroline smiled as she replaced the cup very quietly in its saucer.

‘Nice?’ she repeated in her amused, indulgent voice. ‘I don’t think “nice” or “nasty” enter into it.’

observations: This is certainly the funniest description of shoe-buying I have ever read – the excruciating snobbery and fear of vulgarity (or gayness?) is wonderful – ‘grey suede shoes! What will his mother think?’ Caroline says later. Poor Vesey, doomed forever to rebel in the wrong way. He can’t seem either to conform, or be dashing when he doesn’t. 

As I find to my surprise that I am up to my 1000th entry on this blog, the extract is perfect for several reasons. It is a great book, one I only heard of through blogging, and shows exactly why I like to record clothes (and, of course, accessories) in books - explaining character & social aspirations, and making us laugh, via how people look and what they wear and choose, and how we can or cannot imagine doing the same.

The book is quite fragmentary – the first section has Harriet and Vesey as teenagers visiting and staying in the same house in the country, making clumsy attempts to form a relationship. Vesey isn’t particularly nice to Harriet, and she seems doomed to hopeless passion. Her mother and his aunt are great friends, both were suffragettes years before – they reminded me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, recently much on the blog, and Valentine Wannop grown up. 

After a hilarious section where she works in a gown shop (nicer than a dress shop), Harriet meets Charles, a kind, older man with a hilariously awful mother, Julia (the explanation for why she wants a male doctor: "‘A man is half the battle,’ she added mysteriously.")

They marry.

The next section is around 20 years later – some time after WW2, when Harriet is the mother of a teenage girl, living a satisfactory suburban life. Vesey turns up again – a not-particularly-successful actor. And now the book seems to combine the best bits of Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen and Madame Bovary, as the pair realize what they should have known long ago: they love each other. Harriet does not want to hurt her husband, or desert her daughter. There seems no way out. 

The #bookadayuk meme on Twitter is a great way to hear about other people’s favourite books, and this recommendation came from Ali Hope Book Addict: she reviewed the book on her blog a while back – one of the nice things about the meme is that it doesn’t have to be this week’s book or blogpost, you get to hear about old favourites and past reviews. I had read a couple of other books by Taylor, but I am going to agree with Ali that this is the best one so far, and I am endlessly grateful to her for pointing it out.

FYI, in case anyone isn't sure, this is  not Elizabeth Taylor the filmstar, who has popped up on the blog a few times as an actress.

A Game of Hide and Seek is an absolute masterpiece, a really stunning piece of writing. There will  be another entry on this book.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Guardian Books Blog & Stockings in Books

Today’s post appears on the Guardian books blog and is about stockings, nylons and tights in literature – and my theory that the coming of nylon took out legwear as a class marker. The lovely Samantha Ellis - who is much admired on this blog for her book How to be a Heroine - described the piece as combining
 'impeccable research & epic frivolity', which is about the nicest compliment I could have. 

The article is here at the Guardian.

This is part of it:

In his final Narnia book, The Last Battle, published in 1956, CS Lewis betrayed every teenage girl with the line: “Oh Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” With those words, Susan was gone, a lost cause, condemned by her legwear.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first limited production by DuPont of nylon stockings, and though Lewis has his fuddy duddy disdain for them, I’m going to claim a bigger and better significance. Nylons (and later tights) meant the democratisation of women’s legs. Until they became widely available in the 1940s, there had always been a sharp division between silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).

In Ulysses (set in 1904, published 1922), either James Joyce or Leopold Bloom has a lot to say: there’s Gertie and her stockings, Zoe and her garters, the display of “rays of flat silk stockings” in the department store and Molly Bloom’s “silkette stockings”. This was a silk-effect material, which AA Milne noted as inferior in his 1922 crime story The Red House Mystery, when a shopping trip to buy silk stockings for his sister throws the jovial narrator into a fret: “Could I be sure I was getting silk and not silkette … ?”

In her memoir The Laughing Torso, Nina Hamnett has brightly coloured stockings in pre-first-world-war Paris, and some with chessboard squares. But she tells us that Gertrude Stein wears grey woollen stockings (she was a bohemian, you see). And Hamnett herself lamented to a market seller that she couldn’t afford silk. He said it would be “an investment”, and she was “flattered that he mistook me for a lady of loose morals”.

“Art silk” stockings are much mentioned in books of the era, and I can’t be the only reader who initially thought they were particularly fancy ones – perhaps with a nice design on them. But actually it was short for “artificial silk”…


Naturally Agatha Christie features in the piece – she’s always my go-to author for sociological distinctions – in particular the stockings in this entry on The Moving Finger. Also there’s blog favourite Noel Streatfeild, and Viv Albertine coming right up to date.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

My Friend the Swallow by Jane Duncan

published 1970

[Percy is a young woman staying with narrator Janet and her husband Twice on the Caribbean island where they live]

On the morning of the regatta, Percy came down in navy slacks, white shirt and navy canvas shoes, her pony tail tied back with a fluttering bow of navy blue ribbon.

‘Pretty, isn’t she?’ Twice said to me on the veranda steps.

‘Very pretty,’ I agreed and added: ‘That hair ribbon is what Monica would call a Suivez-moi-jeune-homme and some young man is going to obey it one of these days.’…

He and Percy watched the sailing from the Peak Cliff in the grounds of the hotel, but the sailing was a secondary consideration for the regatta… was first of all a break in the routine, an opportunity to talk to people… Percy herself resembled a butterfly, swooping and loitering over a flowerbed, as she moved from one group of people to the next.

observations: This marathon series of books is lumbering towards a conclusion: I read them as a teenager and have been re-reading them all over the past 15 months. They drive me mad, but I also enjoy them greatly – though now I can’t imagine what I saw in them as a young person, they seem designed much more to appeal to someone of my current age.

The last one – The Hungry Generation – was a weaker entry and marked time somewhat. This one I remember very well from first time around, because something very dramatic happens in it, and the final pages of the book are startling (even on a second read). Given a storyline where a beautiful young woman has made friends with an older, childless couple, there are many directions in which the plot might predictably go. And as the book bumbles along with the usual picture of life on the island of St Jago, Twice and Janet benignly watching the goings-on of the young people, you do wonder what will happen. There is some love and romance and every so often a fill-in of someone’s backstory. But the final pages I found unexpectedly moving and unsentimental, with a haunting note of unvarnished truth about them.

Percy herself - you only find out late in the book why she has such an odd name, what it’s short for, (though you can guess) and it has been carefully planned - is an excellent character, very far from the stock figures Duncan sometimes creates. She reminds me of the figure of Northey in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred.

It’s a great shame that no-one else seems to read Jane Duncan any more – she was a huge bestseller in her day. I would love to find someone else who had read the series recently, so I could discuss the books, but no-one seems to…. Click on the label below to read about the rest of the series.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, shows the crowd watching a regatta off Hains Point, which is in Washington DC.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Letter From Home by Carolyn Hart

published 2003, set in the 1940s

[A neighbour is describing exciting events in her quiet suburban street]

“…That’s when I ran to the phone and called the police. Before Sergeant Petty came – and I don’t think it’s right to have a woman in pants like that, I don’t care if that’s what war workers wear –“ She lifted her hand, pressed it to her lips, then cried, “Oh, I’m sorry, Gretchen, I know your mother works at the plant in Tulsa and it’s real important to have people working to make the airplanes and I know she has to dress that way, but Sergeant Petty looks almost like a man and she walks like one too.

[Later, Gretchen's mother is visiting from the Douglas Aircraft plant in Tulsa]

Gretchen ran to the front door. The dark blue Buick was dusty… the passenger door swung out. Wiry blond curls poked from beneath a saucer of a hat with a bright pink feather.

“Mother! Mother!” Gretchen jumped down the steps, ran. Her mother ran, too, despite her high heels and short skirt.

observations: When I featured a different Carolyn Hart book on the blog (Brave Hearts, see entry here) my blogging friend TracyK mentioned that she had this book, and had heard good things about it. As Brave Hearts had come via Col and his Criminal Library, there was a certain symmetry in obtaining the second one. (Making online friends can lead to an augmented TBR pile…)

Anyway I started reading it, thinking it was an interesting but routine story about a teenage girl growing up in small-town America during the Second World War – but slowly it pulled me in, and manipulated my emotions. Gretchen’s mother is away at an aircraft plant, as above, she lives with her grandmother, helps out at the family café, and really wants to be a journalist. Her friend Barb lives nearby, and so when there is trouble over there, Gretchen wants to help her friend, and also wants to get the story. This is a crime/murder story, but more than that.

The atmosphere of a small town in Oklahoma is very well done, and so is the feel for wartime, and of course the clothes they all wear. Hart was born in 1936 so must have been younger than Gretchen, but you would guess that the background is her own and truly authentic. One thing I liked about the book was that she clearly had points to make – about tolerance, about gossip, about the effects of war, and about prejudice – and she most certainly makes them in the book: you wouldn’t have any doubt about where she stands on these issues. But still they are a genuine part of the story, and the plot is very well done and holds your interest. I found parts of the book highly affecting, and even had to brush away the odd tear. One thing Gretchen tries to do is to show the truth about someone who has died, and whose Bohemian and unconventional ways have been blamed for her death – ‘bringing it on herself.’ She collects memories from friends, and from those whose lives were touched by the dead woman, to try to put things right. The whole section is beautifully done, and is a legitimate part of the plot.

This is an odd little book, and one I might easily have missed – but it’s a very good one, so thanks to both Col and Tracy for leading me to it.

The women working in the aircraft fuselage in the top picture are at a Douglas Aircraft Factory (although they are in California, and the mother mentioned above works in Tulsa) working on a Flying Fortress in 1942. The picture is from the Library of Congress. The fashion sketch, for spring 1941, is from the New York Public Library digital collection.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Thursday List: Top 5 Book-to-TV adaptations

They don't all have weddings in - just most of them

Last week I looked at my favourite great books that made good films, or vice versa - and that made me think about books that made great TV programmes. So I made a top 5 list for that too:

1) The Godfather by Mario Puzo   This could easily have been on the best books-to-films list, but there is an intriguing TV connection too. Director Francis Ford Coppola authorized a new edit of the first two films, re-arranged so the whole thing is in chronological order, and with some restored footage. Apparently Coppola did it to try to make money for Apocalypse Now. There is a version that’s more than seven hours long, shown on US TV in 1977. A six-hour-plus version was released to video in 1981. When the much-reviled Godfather III came out, yet another (nine-hour) TV version was produced.

There is a view that Godfather 2 is the only sequel ever made that was better than the first film, and I have heard critics add ‘and Godfather is the only franchise where the TV version is better than the films’. I go back and forth on this one: one of the stunning things about Godfather 2 is the parallel stories of young Vito and Michael, in alternating POVs - Coppola says that every single scene about one of them is matched by a scene about the other. Chronological rearrangement loses that. But on the other hand, to watch the whole saga straight through is one that every Godfather fan should do at least once. The one to go for, in my important view, is the 1981 version, which has not been censored for TV, but still contains a lot of extra material.

The book – a masterpiece in the rough - is here on the blog, and Mario Puzo writes about his relations with Frank Sinatra here.

2) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh Like everyone my age, I watched this 11-episode series when it went out in 1981 (most people hadn’t even a VCR then…) and it is regularly listed in any poll of the best TV programmes ever. It is lavish and beautifully-acted (the castlist is amazing) and very very faithful to the book. When I read the book now I hear Jeremy Irons intoning in my head - he seems to have read half Waugh’s words out in voiceover. Contrary to what many Americans believe, it was not a BBC production but was made by the Northern company Granada for ITV, the commercial channel.

It is a pleasure to watch, though it does seem to say a lot about the era it was made rather than when it was written: the Thatcher years had begun in Britain. Re-watching it a few years ago I was thinking ‘they would never do that now – it’s all mini-series now, they wouldn’t do 11 episodes with those production values and location shooting and costumes and period details'. But what with Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, perhaps I was wrong.

But the real reason this makes it onto the list is because of the contrast with the 2008 film of Brideshead Revisited.

This is the official trailer:

My pedantic contention is that there are at least three things just in this 2.5 minute trailer which are completely wrong for anyone who has read the book properly, or understood the first thing about it, or about Waugh. (Young people in Venice at Carnival; endless scenes of Sebastian, Julia and Charles; it’s all about Charles). It’s a pity because Ben Whishaw is magnificent as Sebastian, and Emma Thompson excellent as Lady Marchmain (I did see the film, I'm not basing this on the trailer): but the script is a travesty. As a completely different story maybe it works, but it is NOT Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. So it makes the respectful TV series look very good indeed in comparison.

There are two entries on the book on the blog: here and here.

3) My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell This was a BBC production of 2005: they like to do something for the whole family to watch at Christmas, and it must have made perfect viewing on a cold December day, being the story of a very English family who decamp to Corfu for a couple of years in the 1930s. I came to it later, and think it’s an enchanting video: startlingly beautiful, with lovely wildlife photography, and a hilarious picture of family life. The acting is topnotch – Imelda Staunton, Matthew Goode, Russell Tovey – and Eugene Simon as the little boy Gerald is perfect. 

It is always hard to remember that his annoying and unconventional big brother Larry is actually the august author Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame. This is one of the cases where I am going to say that I like the adaptation better than the original book. The film ends with the outbreak of the Second World War, and so has a hint of melancholy and nostalgia to round it off perfectly. Whatever will happen to these people in the next six years….?

Anne Boleyn - which one is the other?

4) The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is a book I like very much. Although people may be snooty about it, comparing it unfavourably with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (which I also love), I think that it was Gregory who changed the face of historical fiction forever, and all 3 books are part of a continuum. I love the personal tone, the abrasive competitive women, the picture of sisters as rivals, families as political businesses, sex as a means to get on. There is a Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, and it isn’t bad at all, but the 2003 TV version – Natasha McEllhone and Jodhi May – is much better. It’s a BBC production, and the makers decided to be innovative and quite daring, taking the risk of being dismissed as gimmicky and anachronistic. But I thought it worked exceptionally well: though hard to describe without being off-putting. It is in some ways a traditional costume drama, but interspersed with pieces to camera like video diaries by the main characters. This makes it more intimate and real, makes you think of it as the story of young woman caught in a complicated situation not of their own making. Loved it. The book is on the blog a fair bit.

5) Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell One of my top 10 books of all time, and one of the first books ever to feature on the blog. I was very cautious about watching a TV adapation of it, fearing that Andrew Davies (prone to sexing up and adding his own flourishes) would mess it up. But – there is a great interview with him online here which would give you faith that he knew exactly what he was doing, and Mrs G died without finishing the book, so his tidying up the ending is justifiable. The interview is a great introduction to the book, and its themes of broken families, social climbing, the search for love. He says somewhere else that this is a book that teaches us how to live, and I’m never too sure what that means, but it sounds about right. It is a beautifully done production – when I watched it on DVD I was intending to spread the 4 episodes out over a month, but ended up completely box-setting it. Rosamund Pike, now so prominent in Gone Girl, has a nice role in it, and if you don't blink you can just spot the marvellously versatile and charismatic Sheridan Smith playing a housemaid whose one line is dubbed….

So there's my Top 5. Please comment below to add your own favourite TV adaptations.