Friday, 20 October 2017

Broken River by J Robert Lennon

published 2017

Broken River 3Broken River 4

[A real estate agent trying to make a sale in upstate New York]

The clipboard woman returns. She is followed by a man. He’s tall, bespectacled, heavy in the middle, thickly bearded. He’s wearing jeans and a leather coat and expensive shoes and is about 35 years old.

[Karl, a sculptor, and his wife Eleanor and daughter Irina come to live in the house]

[Irina] hurries down the path to the studio to give the phone back to Father. He is hard at work bending hot metal again, so she slips the phone onto the workbench and edges toward the door…

He takes off the protective goggles and wipes sweat from underneath his fogged-over specs. He is wearing baggy jeans with suspenders and a tee shirt. He looks cook. He always does. She feels her irritation draining away.

commentary: I don’t know why J Robert Lennon isn’t more famous, why he isn’t winning literary awards all over. It is excellent news that George Saunders won the Booker Prize this week for Lincoln in the Bardo - I said in my blogpost in March that I expected it to be one of the best books I read this year. Lennon is right up there in the same class, but, roughly speaking, no-one has heard of him – particularly in the UK.

The three books I have read by him – Familiar, Happyland and this one – couldn’t be more different from each other, but all are hugely entertaining books that are also literary works of art, with high aims easily attained. HOW is this man not more celebrated and widely-read?

Broken River starts with a distanced third person narrative of a kind that drives me mad normally – various events are described via an amorphous Observer: no-one has a name or anything other than a description. (I have flung books across the room for this crime before now). But Lennon manages to be un-annoying, and eventually the story proper gets under way. Karl, Eleanor and Irina move into a remote house in the woods in upstate New York: a terrible crime occurred here not long ago, and no-one else wants to buy it. The family is trying for a new start after various emotional problems. Are they aware of the crime? – do they care, are they trying to find out about it…? There are some surprising answers.

And the crime really was recent: there are some participants who might be still around. The book is amazingly tense, as well as very funny and clever and full of spot-on observations, and the climax is not for the faint of heart. Usually when ‘literary’ authors turn to crime, their efforts are not actually that good compared with those known as ‘genre writers’, but this book is an exception. Lennon has an incredible lightness of touch as he skims from one style to another, introducing convincing family scenes, peripheral characters sketched perfectly in a few lines, and small scenes of other kinds of lives.

Normally while I’m reading a book I will be highlighting great quotes, good phrases or sentences or words, but in this case there were so many I had to stop, the whole book is quotable.
Irina was sitting at the kitchen table wearing headphones, but, cleverly, the headphones were not plugged into anything. This is a trick Irina would play around her parents as well, if her parents made any effort whatsoever to conceal what they said to each other.
Two nicely-written sentences that tell you a lot about the whole family.

Karl shows his daughter a trick with a large block of ice, a rack and a bathtub: it seems interesting but possibly irrelevant, but when you think about it later it resonates throughout the whole book, and I have kept thinking about it ever since finishing Broken River.
Gravity will push the ice block through the grate; enthalpy will fuse it back together… Her father probably intended this experiment to illustrate some philosophical principle, or maybe some commonplace of human behaviour… She can’t remember. Today, though, it tells her that there is a force that keeps intact things intact… Some rough magic.
The book bears a faint resemblance to Tony & Susan, the cult novel by Austin Wright, recently made into the film Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford, and the subject of a cross-blogging experiment by Chrissie Poulson and me. This book is about a hundred times better.

I hope J Robert Lennon writes more and more books…

The hipsterish photos are of a member of my family, and used with his gracious permission.  Thank you Robin Jack, and you are neither heavy in the middle, nor 35.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Eureka by Anthony Quinn

published 2017


[1966. Nat Fane, writer and man about town, is visiting his agent.]

Nat angled the Silver Cloud through the slender funnel of the mews entrance and parked. He could have come on foot – it was only a 10-minute stroll -but arriving by car felt more appropriate to his status as a client. It tickled him to think how much he loved this car… The one ant at the picnic was the appearance of an identical motor in Antonioni’s latest, Blow-Up. Now people would assume that he was trying to emulate David Hemmings, looking oh-so-cool in his white jeans and shirt unbuttoned down to here as he piloted his Rolls around London. Nat had bought his a year before, but sensed he would still look like a copycat.

In the foyer of Penelope Rolfe Management he flashed a smile at a couple of dolly birds clicking by, their outfits and make-up as vividly coloured as a kingfisher. Their smiles in return inclined Nat to wonder if they had the smallest idea who he was…

Penny cradled the receiver and spread her palms in beatific welcome. She was wearing one of her paisley turbans and a sky-blue star-printed jersey dress (‘Biba, darling’). Her face , tanned and shielded by the huge tinted lenses of her spectacles, have her a faintly mythological aspect: half agent, half owl.

Eureka 2

commentary: Everyone writing about London in the 1960s puts the women in Biba dresses, or features a trip to the iconic shop: but you can’t criticize them for that – it’s not a cliché, just a reflection of real life. It would be interesting to know when Biba was first mentioned in a contemporary novel of the 1960s. I had a quick look and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t from much later – but perhaps a Margaret Drabble novel might feature Biba?

This extract is typical of the book: it is well-written, interesting, carries the plot further – and also gives you plenty of anchors for the time and place, without shoving the research in your face. Quinn is very good on the clothes of his era…

This is the third in a loose trilogy: Curtain Call was set in the 1930s, then Freya took the story of some of the characters from the end of WW2 into the 1960s: now the story is picked up and moved on again. I’ve liked the series more and more as it goes on – I thought Curtain Call didn’t need the murder plot imposed on it (and I wasn’t convinced by the clothes - see the blogpost). But I loved Freya, and then this one even more, and hope there will be more.

The publisher’s blurb says ‘Sexy, funny, nasty, Eureka probes the dark side of creativity, the elusiveness of art and the torment of love’ and that’s a fair description. The characters are very rounded, and the book is entertaining and funny. It also contains a surprising amount of sex:
He briefly wondered if his hostess would provide the necessary, and, deciding not to leave it to chance, packed two Venetian carnival masks and his riding crop.
The framework of the novel is a film Nat is writing (called Eureka), a tale with Henry James (who is quite the blog favourite) and ‘the figure in the carpet’ at its heart. The shooting of the film allows Quinn to bring in a wide range of characters and settings: from respected British actor to young actress/waitress; from German avant-garde director to East End gangster. And there are plenty of parallels between the film and the book, and we can look for our own figure in the carpet.

It’s a solid satisfying read, and particularly enjoyable because it has such a wide range of ages in the major participants, the story is not at all confined to any one age group – or to any particular world or milieu. I have read a lot of books  set in the 1960s in recent years, and this is most definitely one of the very best.

I hope Anthony Quinn isn’t moving through the years too fast, and that there will be more of his history of the world…

Top picture is a Biba dress, second one shows David Hemmings taking his photos of the vivid dolly birds in Blow Up.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

published 2017

Friends and Traitors 3

She stood at the top, just visible beyond the curve, and slinked into view.

He would not have missed this for the world. Her hair piled high on her head, her body sheathed in a scarlet dress that all but swept the floor. On the first half-landing she spun, and he could see that the dress, low-cut in the front, was even lower cut in the back. She glided towards him.

Friends and traitors 4

[Later, Troy meets a semi-colleague for the first time] Jordan had been right in his description – tall, dark and handsome. Indeed Kearney looked remarkably like the depiction of James Bond on the paperback of Casino Royale – the strong profile, the ever-errant lock of hair, the unfeeling brown eyes. The same cover on which Vesper Lynd was shown wearing the red dress Venetia had worn that night…

commentary: I rarely use pictures of dresses without a person inside, but this particular dress was so very much the right one … It is a 1955 Balenciaga evening dress, and is currently on show at the V&A museum in London. It is stunningly beautiful, and a masterpiece of design and construction.

John Lawton says his books can be read in any order. Len Deighton says the same about his Berlin triple trilogy, and I argued politely about that here. And now I would take issue with Lawton too – what are these authors thinking? I have read a lot of books by John Lawton, most of them dealing with the scandals, crimes and spy dramas of British life in the 1950s and 1960s. I always enjoy them, but they jump about all over the place, and presuppose an awful lot of knowledge about real life, and about Lawton’s books, and about quite a lot of other books as well – for example there is a character who would seem to be a resurrection of Margery Allingham’s Magersfontein Lugg, though he is not named as such.

This one was nudging at the end of my patience for the remarkable life of Frederick Troy -  though I did enjoy the work colleagues who made a list of all the people who had died in close proximity to him, including many policemen, and remarked how very suspicious that was. Well, exactly.

The books are meant to take an unsentimental and unblinkered view of the shady world of spies and criminals, but the hero Troy is unfathomably rich, lives in great comfort both in a Central London flat and a country house, and is smoothly well-connected, with his family (including his brother the Home Secretary) knowing anyone of any power and importance in the land. He is also magnetically attractive to all women. All of them. They can’t wait to jump into bed with him. He is marginally less convincing and more fairytale than James Bond in this respect: I read all the James Bond books last year, so feel I am in a position to judge.

And Lawton has plainly been looking at James Bond, as in the extract above. In fact Vesper Lynd does not wear a red dress in Casino Royale, though she does wear a red pleated cotton skirt at one point. The key dress she does wear is black velvet, and it is used to silence and blindfold her in a peculiarly unpleasant image.

Friends and Traitors 1

Still – the story was compelling and twisted and turned satisfyingly. Troy was shown to be a long-time acquaintance of the strange spy Guy Burgess. The early part of this book deals with early meetings between them between 1938 and the 1950s: then we jump to a connection between the two men later. There is the usual mistrust and uncertainty.

I think anyone who really enjoys spy stories will have time for this book… and probably the whole series.

The only Lawton book I have looked at on the blog was a non-fiction account of the Profumo Affair (that Mandy Rice-Davies hat!).

Earlier this year Joseph Kanon produced an excellent book called Defectors, again about the British spies who fled to Moscow in the 1950s – I used the same photo of Guy Burgess and Tom Driberg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I have mentioned before that I am always on a watch for the word ‘credenza’ in books – usually a piece of office furniture in US crime novels of the 80s and 90s. In this book we have a Chippendale credenza! Stay classy, Lawton.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Fashion and Fiction: The Sublime Marian Keyes

Just before the Clothes in Books Italian holiday, I was lucky enough to attend one of the marvellous Fashion and Fiction events at the V&A Museum in London. Organizer Rosie Goldsmith interviewed Irish author Marian Keyes about her books, about fashion, about clothes in books – and about the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. It was a great and joyous evening: Marian is obviously just as funny and nice in real life as she comes over in her books. For more on the Fashion and Fiction series, see their Facebook page or follow Rosie on Twitter.

These are my very bad pics of Marian Keyes signing books after the event:

The Break 1The Break 3

Her books Mystery of Mercy Close and Making it Up as I go Along have featured on the blog in the past.

The new book is excellent… and full of wonderful clothes descriptions. And, as it is Dress Down Sunday on the blog, of underwear.

The Break by Marian Keyes

The Break 8
published 2017

‘Get my Finery dress!’

Kiara pulls out an ivy-dark, high-necked, ruffle-bodiced midi, as sexy as a sack. Hugh has never minded me shunning slinky body-con. He’s actively steered me towards shin-length dresses with statement sleeves.

The Break 6The Break 7

[Later] My suitcase is mostly lingerie sets. In a reversal of most relationships, I’m only bringing out the big guns now. Asos were doing these fasbulous 50s-style knicker, a homage to the Dolce & Gabbana delights, all high-waisted lace-and-silk with built-in suspender belts and matching bras, the type you put on just so they’ll be removed quickly.

commentary: I found a very interesting review (recommended by Rosie Goldsmith) of a much earlier Keyes novel, Angels, here:
Keyes is a writer of romantic comedy who specialises in catastrophe and damaged lives… Indeed, Keyes is a kind of Chekhov of the abandoned woman, eloquent and inventive about women's feelings of rejection, loss and desperation, and their ceremonies of recovery.
And if that makes you think the books are just chicklit, or gloomy and depressing, then that is your loss. Keyes is a very funny writer, and she is a mistress of the recognizable detail – the make of the dress above, the family life described with such joy throughout, the passing comments:
It’s simply human nature – we mistakenly think there are only so many disasters to be allocated, and if it’s happening to someone else, we’ll be spared.
And she has some interesting and serious things to say in her so-very-readable books, and she has flatout great opinions about everything.

In this book, Amy thinks she had a good marriage with Hugh: but it turns out he wants a break, a six-month timeout during which he will travel and find himself – and perhaps sleep with other women. Amy is left at home with her job, her approximately three daughters, and her close, loving and maddening family. During the course of the book she curses her husband, deals with all kinds of problems, thinks hard about what led up to the current situation, and wonders who she might meet during the break. She works hard at her job in PR (and we find out a lot about the secrets of the business). And of course she wears wonderful clothes:

The Break 9
I was hurrying through Soho, dressed in a pair of dark blue clam-diggers, pointy pink stilettos and a button-through, candy-striped blouse…

I loved every minute of this book: it was funny, thought-provoking and informative by turns. I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to end up, whether Hugh would come back, whether their marriage was going to survive. And although I knew a lot about the abortion situation in Ireland, I learned more through a plot strand which I hope will be widely-read and discussed.

The underwear is by ASOS and the green dress is Finery – though sexier than the one Amy actually has I think. It is a very distinctive fashion label, and I have an admission to make: While searching their pages for a picture for this blogpost, I found a dress I rather like for myself, and it is winging its way to me now….

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Short Break

Clothes in Books

is taking a short break.
[I know. Another holiday. Lucky me.]

I'll be back in a week or so: in the meantime there are plenty of old books and posts to look at - please do investigate the tabs above. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Wasted On Children?

from Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

the book:

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri

published  1881 [translator from the German unknown, public domain]

[Heidi, aged 5 and wearing all her clothes at once on a warm day, is being hurried up a mountain by her aunt Dete, to live with her grandfather in the Swiss alps.]


All at once she sat herself down on the ground, and as fast as her little fingers could move, began pulling off her shoes and stockings. This done she rose, unwound the hot red shawl and threw it away, and then proceeded to undo her frock. It was off in a second, but there was still another to unfasten, for Dete had put the Sunday frock on over the everyday one, to save the trouble of carrying it. Quick as lightning the everyday frock followed the other, and now the child stood up, clad only in her light short-sleeved under garment, stretching out her little bare arms with glee. She put all her clothes together in a tidy little heap, and then went jumping and climbing up after Peter and the goats as nimbly as any one of the party…

The child, able now to move at her ease, began to enter into conversation with [the goatherd] Peter, who had many questions to answer, for his companion wanted to know how many goats he had, where he was going to with them, and what he had to do when he arrived there. At last, after some time, they and the goats approached the hut and came within view of Cousin Dete. Hardly had the latter caught sight of the little company climbing up towards her when she shrieked out: "Heidi, what have you been doing! What a sight you have made of yourself! And where are your two frocks and the red wrapper? And the new shoes I bought, and the new stockings I knitted for you—everything gone! not a thing left! What can you have been thinking of, Heidi; where are all your clothes?" The child quietly pointed to a spot below on the mountain side and answered, "Down there."

commentary: If ever a book was too good for children, surely Heidi is it. It is funny and sly, full of vivid characters (solid clichés rather than stereotypes) and bursting with juicy scenes. It’s quite light and inhabits a very safe universe – the nearest anybody really comes to being a baddie is being a bit grumpy; and admittedly you’d grow up pretty naïve if you thought all your problems would be solved as easily as Heidi’s.

But what a joyful read it is. It was published nearly 50 years before Shirley Temple was born (and possibly borrowed its plot from a book 50 years older again) but might as well have been created with her in mind. Heidi is full of energy, optimism and wayward resourcefulness, like many a child protagonist – but she is not one of those who charms on one page and irritates on the next. And when anyone doesn’t take to her we know for sure that they are at fault. (She is also a staunch Christian and so is everyone else – there is a strong Christian message in the book, that might be hammered home a little too often for some tastes.)


The grown ups are mostly stock characters and not exactly full of surprises. But the servants at the grand house in Frankfurt, Sebastian and Tinette, have a little more life in them than most. Heidi goes there to be a companion for a sickly child, Clara, and several lives are transformed as a result. In the second picture, from the 1937 film, Shirley Temple as Heidi stands between Clara and the stern housekeeper Fräulein Rottenmeier, whose outfit is a pale shadow of the one described earlier in the book, at their first meeting.
This lady was sitting very upright at a small work-table, busy with her embroidery. She had on a mysterious-looking loose garment, a large collar or shoulder-cape that gave a certain solemnity to her appearance, which was enhanced by a very lofty dome-shaped head dress. … Heidi was dressed in her plain little woollen frock, and her hat was an old straw one bent out of shape. The child looked innocently out from beneath it, gazing with unconcealed astonishment at the lady's towering head dress.
The main picture was too good to resist but is a cheat: it’s not from Heidi but from the set of the later film Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm. The internet can not agree on whether the photo should be this way around or flipped horizontally, but anyway, in this version: Temple is on the right and her long-time stand-in Mary Lou Isleib is on the left. The chap in between whose socks deserve their own article is presumably the director, Allan Dwan. There are masses of pictures of Shirley with Mary Lou over several years, growing up together, and they are strangely fascinating. Well worth a look.

Heidi is available free on Kindle. There are five other Heidi books, but Johanna Spyri didn’t write them.

Shirley Temple has her own entry on the blog here.

With thanks to the Guest Blogger: you can see his other contributions by clicking on the labels below. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Hit Man by Lawrence Block

collection of linked short stories first published in book form 1998

this story:

Keller on Horseback

Hit Man

Keller ordered a Coors at the bar. On the jukebox, Barbara Mandrell sang a song about cheating. When she was done, a duo he didn’t recognize sang a song about cheating. Then came Hank Williams’s oldie, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” A subtle pattern was beginning to emerge.

“I love this song,” the blonde said. A different blonde, not the perky young thing from the front desk. This woman was taller, older, and fuller-figured. She wore a skirt and a sort of cowgirl blouse with piping and embroidery on it.

“Old Hank,” Keller said, to say something.

“I’m June.”

“Call me Tex.”

“Tex!” Her laughter came in a sort of yelp. “When did anybody ever call you Tex, tell me that?”

“Well, nobody has,” he admitted, “but that’s not to say they never will.”

commentary: This might be the perfect short story. It is certainly the only one I have ever read that seems to be composed of equal parts Country & Western song and Greek tragedy: it embodies both of those genres.
Everything had happened exactly the way it had had to happen. Encountering June in the Meet ’n’ Cheat, running into Hobie at the Burnout Bar. He could no more have avoided those meetings than he could have kept himself from buying the paperback western novel that had set the tone for everything that followed.
Lawrence Block is a giant of crime-writing, he seems incapable of writing a bad book. I’m not usually a fan of short stories but this book could almost convert me. Keller, the protagonist, is a hit man: a paid professional killer who commits murders to order. By the end of the book I was half in love with him, and entirely forgiving of his minor sins, and  I was rooting for him throughout. That is quite an achievement…

The stories are also very funny:
There was a tavern across the street, a perfect vantage point, but one look inside made it clear to Keller that he couldn’t spend time there without calling attention to himself, not unless he first got rid of his tie and jacket and spent twenty minutes rolling around in the gutter.

“Keller, I’ve been keeping your secrets just about as long as you’ve had secrets to keep. And you’re asking me—”  
“I wasn’t exactly asking you. What do they call it when you don’t really expect an answer?"   
“Prayer,” she said.  
“Rhetorical,” he said.

The individual stories, which do definitely have an overall arc, appeared separately in magazines such as Playboy. The whole effect is of something much longer ago than 1998, partly because of the revolution in communications since they were first published: information is hard to come by, phone calls and messages are problematic, but on the other hand Keller can be off-grid, travelling around in the USA leaving no fingerprints (metaphoric or real) and paying cash while giving a false name.

But none of that matters. You can never tell where the stories are going: there might be a long disquisition on stamp-collecting (most informative), a quote from Dr Johnson, or a joke about corsets from Corsica. The stories enthralled me. Lawrence Block completely removed the disapproval I would certainly have for a contract killer in real life…

The Western shirts are from a Sears catalogue.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Murder in the Atlantic by John Dickson Carr

Also published as:

Nine – and Death Makes Ten

& Murder in the Submarine Zone

Originally published as a  Carter Dickson book – on the blog I always combine all this author’s works under the name John Dickson Carr

published 1940

Murder in the Atlantic 3

[First night at sea: a transatlantic voyage in the early days of WW2, from New York to England]

Mr George A Hooper said… “Look at the Queen Murder in the Atlanticof Sheba!”

This marked the entrance of Estelle Zia Bey.

She had committed the blunder of dressing for dinner on the first night out, But no doubt she had done it deliberately. Mr Hooper’s whisper had been one of awe.

Mrs Zia Bey (confound that name, thought Max) wore an evening-gown cut so low in front as to make the modest Mr Hooper mutter under his breath. It reflected back in the innumerable mosaic mirrors in the dining-saloon. It showed off her superb shoulders, of the same soft golden-brown colour as her face. No wrinkles were visible now. She swung a black handbag from a wrist-strap. The ship rolled sharply as she came into the room, and a less steady-pinned woman would have gone skidding and scuttling into a pillar, clutching without dignity at her skirts.

But she only laughed at the steward who hurried to assist her.

Murder in the Atlantic 2

commentary: This ship, The Edwardic, is in extreme danger: it is travelling across the North Atlantic in January 1940, carrying munitions for the beleaguered British forces – ‘half a million pounds’ worth of high explosive, with four Lockheed bombers on the top deck.’ There is a constant threat from German sumbarines. Only a handful of very important passengers has been allowed onto the ship - and as this is a John Dickson Carr book, there will be at least one victim and one murderer among them, and the crime will be impossible. In this particular case, the murderer has left fingerprints behind – yet they do not match with those of anyone on the ship…

The crime plot is immensely gripping, and completely fooled me. With that small number of characters (the hundreds of crew on board can happily be eliminated, as in all the best murder stories) you wouldn’t think it was possible to come up with something quite as astonishing yet satisfying as his solution. The experienced reader is clocking up ideas and possibilities, but the true story came out of nowhere, and yet had been perfectly fairly clued in retrospect. A tour de force.

I had some questions about the later revelations, but I am prepared to accept Carr’s (referenced and footnoted) assertions, though I understood the point of one of them a good chapter or so before others did: that’s the best I can say for myself.

I was interested and surprised to read that everyone had to have a gasmask on board the ship.

The world off the ship is in a parlous state, and the constant threat from the enemy adds a curious and eerie atmosphere to the book, and it is most convincingly done - Carr made a very similar voyage himself (without the murder) so he knew whereof he wrote – but the question of what you wear to dinner is still very important, and everyone on board is far too busy snubbing, offending and criticizing each other to worry too much about the war…

My friend Sergio over at Tipping my Fedora said:
Go out and get this one – it’s an absolute classic.
So I did, and he was not wrong.

I was somewhat wary because one of my least favourite books by JDC is the dreadful Blind Barber, also involving murder on a transatlantic voyage, but this one (under whatever name) truly is top rank.

There are many other John Dickson Carr books all over the blog. 

The white dress is from 1938, Kristine’s photostream.

The black gown is the Ladies’ Home Journal recommendation for an evening dress for your travel wardrobe.

The young woman in more casual shipboard wear is from the National Library of Australia.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Party by Elizabeth Day

published 2017

The Party 1

[Narrator Martin has won a scholarship to a public school]

My mother ignored the approved outfitters and uniform suppliers, seeking out instead the cheaper bargains in charity shops. As a result, my school jumpers were always faded and my PE shorts were never white enough and the Aertex shirts The Party2had immoveable off-yellow stains under each armpit. The smell of other people’s sadness lingered in the threads.

To this day I have a profound aversion to second-hand clothes. I can’t abide the new trend for ‘vintage’ outfits, the nipped-in 50s dresses sported by overweight ladies who live in east London running Scandinavian coffee shops and the rolled-up chinos favoured by bearded hipsters who work in digital marketing. I have a minimal wardrobed but I invest in key, tailored pieces that last. Although I can’t really afford it, I have my suits made to measure by Ben’s tailor, purely for the pleasure of knowing no-one else has ever shrugged their shoulders into my jacket.

commentary: A highly enjoyable book: the perfect holiday read. It has a lot of features that you recognize – an unreliable narrator (I loved the amazon reviewer who called him ‘a psychopathic Adrian Mole’), an unequal friendship between a golden boy and someone much less attractive, the framing device where we know something terrible happened at the Party of the title, a sour look at the class system and the powerful glitterati in modern Britain. The timeframe jumps about, and you have to check each chapter to see when and where it takes place, and who is the narrator.

All this was very familiar, but for me that meant I just settled in to enjoy it. Of course you don’t warm to the main character, and you know that the aristocratic Ben (how did he get to stand for Parliament with his title?) is shallow and worthless, you can even guess what Martin’s hold is on the family. But it was great fun to watch it all unfold with many a wince-and cringe-making moment. Lucy – really the only major female character – was very intriguing, and I thought deserved more of her own story. The scene where she interrupts a discussion of modern American literature was the most biting bit of social satire in the book.

The two main men meet at school, where effortlessly successful Ben helps out the unpopular scholarship boy Martin. Their friendship continues on through the rest of their lives until, in middle age, the party of the title brings its own showdown. There are homoerotic undertones in their relationship, though it is never clear that Martin has any good points. Initially I thought Ben was just good-natured enough to be kind to another boy, but nothing in the rest of his portrayal makes that seem likely. Was Martin in fact terribly sexy? Perhaps.

The scenario has echoes of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Charles & Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, the works of Alan Hollinghurst, even The Great Gatsby, but has its own intricacies and plot turns. And as with Highsmith, how very interesting to get a female take on this storyline.

The picture of the schoolboys is from the New South Wales archives.

The suit poster is from Next, a very fine retailer but probably not where Martin or Ben get their clothes from.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold

published 1951


Loved and Envied 1

According to the habits of the household he was sitting in Ruby’s bedroom while she dressed. Miranda was there too, and the little dog, now nine, was coiled up on the ragged silk of the old Empire chair. The maid, told to come into the room, stared at them astonished. The young master, in a dressing-gown, was in the window seat, and the young lady, looking very well, was fully dressed. But the lady… sat before her looking -glass painting her lashes with a brush. If the peasant’s yellow skin could have responded it would have reddened when Ruby turned to speak to her, for there she was in the room with a young man and wore a lace garment that hardly concealed her breasts.

Loved and Envied 2

commentary: Enid Bagnold has featured on the blog for her children’s classic, National Velvet, which I like but did not adore, and found completely unreadable when I was a child. She has a very strange style, one that keeps tripping the reader up – though this book was actually an easier read than National Velvet. I have also read a biography of Bagnold in which she came over as a truly horrible person.

The Loved and Envied was commissioned on the back of National Velvet (book, 1935, film 1945, both wildly successful) but wasn’t quite what was hoped for. It’s a novel based on the character of the celebrated beauty and socialite Lady Diana Cooper – another one who doesn’t seem half as charming to modern eyes as she was to her contemporaries. Lady DC was a great friend of two blog stalwarts: Evelyn Waugh (she is the original of Julia Stitch) and Nancy Mitford (she is the original of Lady Leone) and features endlessly in their letters. There is much from her life in the book, and also much from Bagnold’s own life.

The novel is about Ruby: a very rich and well-connected woman who lives outside Paris with her husband. She is in her 50s: is perhaps her beauty starting to fade? She has always been loved and adored, as in the book’s title, and men fell in love with her. Her relationship with her long-time husband, Gynt, is uneasy. She has failed in her relationship with her daughter Miranda. She has a circle of friends and admirers.

The book is following the story through in the 1950s - though it is sometimes very hard to remember that, the book seems set at least 20 years earlier. And although the clothes are good and interesting, would a young woman really be wearing ‘striped silk muslin, long and cloudy, a Renoir-thought of a summer girl on a beach’ in 1950? The New Look had been in place for several years by then… (Daniel, care to comment? You'll probably find me a young woman dressed in exactly that...)

As the main plot proceeds, the book repeatedly dives off into a long chapter telling the backstory of some character. This was plainly planned and a feature, but it annoyed me, and I found several of the stories dull, empty and finally irrelevant. Much of it was quite unpleasant, and no-one was very happy.

There is a lot of heavy-handed advice to the daughter from her mother as she tries to mend their relationship: advice on how to get men.
‘The way you look, Miranda, is hungry, is fatal. You must have a secret life! Then they want to share it; then they want to rob you of it. Smile – as though you had a lover already! Pride. It makes them envious to see you proud!’
Miranda also has a makeover session with a charming gay dress designer, who also gives her advice on men:
‘Keep quiet. Look right: keep quiet. Look like a packet of mystery done up for a birthday and don’t spoil it by being silly.’
And then is pushed into a very odd plot turn. Usually I love makeover scenes – poor plain Miranda is having her life changed – but this one rather left me cold. As did the whole book.

I liked the fact that it was about older people and their lives loves and passions – that is still unusual, although I didn’t take to being told that 53 was absolutely ancient. But it was snobbish, and tiresome, and jumped around too much for me.

However, I may be unfair and uncharitable – for a quite different view go to visit Barb over at Leaves and Pages - she really liked this book, and I read it on her recommendation. And the book contains many features that I often enjoy, perhaps it caught me on an off day….

Misia at her dressing table - Felix Valotton from Google Art Project.

A Young Woman Undressing in an Interior by Delphin Enjolras – from the Athenaeum site.

Friday, 22 September 2017

More from NY: The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B Hughes

published 1940

So Blue Marble 7

[Clothes descriptions from throughout the book]

…For his sake she undressed in the bathroom, and put on her white satin pyjamas and her white tweed man-like dressing gown.

So Blue Marble 2

…Ann, lovely, correct, masseused, in Mainbocher because of Her Royal Highness, sherry satin with something white shocking it. Arthur, knife-pleated in tails. The twins, uniform of tails. Missy in pale lemon chiffon, Alix of course, color of her hair. You wouldn't think it becoming but it was; everyone in the room looking at her. Griselda in black sheer, daring cut, startling, her own model.

So Blue Marble 1

…She undressed, showered, put on pyjamas with green tadpoles cavorting in pattern, tied back her hair with an old pink ribbon and daubed an icy cream on her face.

…She found pajamas, dark paisley, blueish, greenish. She undressed in the bathroom, rolled up sleeves and legs, came back to the bed and leaned on it. The men ignored her.

So Blue Marble 5So Blue Marble 6

…Ann was so perfect, in black as was always most of smart New York, her gloves white as April orchards. Ann always wore white gloves. She had height and the right face. [...] She was perfection. There was art in the removing of her gloves, lifting the menu. There was art in everything Ann did with her hands. It was too bad she was irritating.

…[Missy’s] hair was the colour of the lemon ice Ann had spooned at lunch, maybe a shade darker, but not much. It was cut off square as a Dutch doll's banged over dark arrow brows, square against pink cheeks. She wore a dark skullcap, like a Cardinal, on the back of her head. It was so far back, she looked hatless. Her mink coat was the darkest, the finest, Griselda had ever seen, even in movie star land. It was long and shawled, and beneath it you could see the exquisite frock, black with a touch of lemon ice at the throat.

So Blue Marble 3

…He was looking towards the entrance. She raised her eyes. Missy was there, Missy in white satin fringed from the waist in shining crystal leaves, nothing above the waist but a wisp, a strap, crystal leaves wreathing her pale lemon hair.

…She looked like a little boy in the half light, a dark cap on her head, dark knickerbockers and shirt, even long dark stockings, boys' oxfords. She was smoking one of her little cigarettes.

…[Movie heartthrob] Jasper was taste embellished with elegance. White pajamas of such heavy satin they hung like velvet, black rough wool lounging coat lined in rosy fur. His black curly hair was brushed to sheen. There were Russian boots of soft white kidskin on his feet. But this wasn't to allure his guest. He had to maintain his glamour to hotel servitors, more, he had had nothing to do since eight o'clock but make himself beautiful.

So Blue Marble 4

commentary: One more book set (mostly) in New York.

The review phrase that kept forming itself in my head was ‘bonkers but with fabulous clothes and quite an atmosphere’, so I was very glad when I checked back to the email of blogfriend Nathalie Morris, who recommended the book to me ages ago, to find that that is exactly what she thought too.

The So Blue Marble has some of the best clothes descriptions I’ve come across, and also one of the weirdest plots. Our heroine Griselda – filmstar turned designer – is visiting New York, living the high life and meeting up with both her strange sisters. One is a desperate housewife – rich, judgemental and unhappy. The other should be a teenage schoolgirl, but has turned into something much more grownup: she provokes thoughts of the little sister Carmen in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, published the year before.

There are the cold, vicious twins, Danny and David, identical except that one is dark and one is blond. They are plainly up to no good though some find them superficially charming. There is Griselda’s absent ex-husband - she is staying in his apartment, and making friends with the guy next-door. And there is the mythical marble: it has ‘left a trail of bloodshed and violence across continents and through centuries’ and is the key to great riches, in some mysterious and not-really-explained way. It is the most complete McGuffin.

There is New York society life, a trip out to a country cottage, yet more filmstars, and a lot of death and destruction. It is a very noir book in a very upmarket setting, with some very worthless people.

Naturally, I loved every dynamite moment.

And am very grateful to Natalie for pointing me in the right direction - the list above is actually the one she sent me: she had me at ‘sherry satin with something white shocking it’.

The woman in satin pajamas is blog favourite Louise Brooks, and is from 1929, but having found the picture I couldn’t not use it…

Other pics from Kristine’s photostream and the NYPL collection of fashion for the 1940s Worlds Fair

Thursday, 21 September 2017

NY Days: Survival Instincts by Marissa Piesman

published 1997

Survival Instincts 1

[Nina is discussing the murder victim’s widow with an old friend]

“How long have you known her?”

“About 15 years. We both used to live on the Lower East Side. I was working in a shop on St Survival Instincts 2Mark’s Place when we met. She used to keep her hair very black, in a china-doll’s cut, with white face makeup and a lot of kohl around the eyes.”

“Oh yeah. I remember kohl. Everyone was using it after they got back from Morocco. I tried it for a while, but I was never fully convinced that it wasn’t blinding me.”…

“Roz was so dramatic back then, especially when it came to her secrets. She’d always flaunt them… It was a time of great sexual drama. For all of us. But particularly for Roz…. Really, these kids on college campuses think that they invented bisexuality. But back then you couldn’t even have tried to chart of the comings and going that went on between Avenues A and D.”

Survival Instincts 3

[Much later, when Nina and Ida are about to solve the crime

Nina and Ida had dressed in the most threatening manner they could manage. Perhaps Nina was subconsciously aping the juvenile delinquents of her youth, because in addition to dressing in black, she stopped on the corner and bought a pack of Dentyne. Chewing gum made her feel tougher, even though Dentyne was not a particularly tough brand. Ida donned her usual New Balance running shoes, worn for comfort, not for swiftness. She also wore a smocky navy blue top that could possibly trigger memories of [X’s] kindergarten teacher and therefore serve to infantilize and intimidate [them].

commentary: Another New York book, to mark my recent trip there…

Very sad to say this is the last of the Nina Fischman mysteries to date: Marissa Piesman is an Assistant Attorney General at New York State Department of Law, which is quite the dayjob, and is presumably her excuse for not writing more crime books. Shame, though.

I re-read my piece on the penultimate mystery, Alternate Sides, and found that almost everything I would like to say about this series has already featured in that blogpost, so please do go and read it, and find out why I enjoy these books so much.

This individual book: Nina is back in New York (there was a fear she might end up on the West Coast, not her natural habitat at all), has no job and has to live with her mother. But that’s OK. She gets involved in investigating the death of her brother-in-law’s colleague. There are issues of animal rights and lab practices, and a very interesting discussion on the possibility of finding a clinical hormone treatment that would work to combat obesity. And Nina ambles around New York meeting people, commenting internally on their clothes and hair and manners. And making me laugh about three times a page. I love Nina, love her wonderful mother Ida (her feature is that she is a Jewish mother, and has been in therapy longer than anyone else), love her over-perfect sister and the completely real and convincing relationship that the siblings have.

Ida has a big role in this one, and the picture of her and Nina going off investigating together is marvellous: this would make such a great TV series or film with a wise-cracking mother and daughter solving crimes and discussing their lives. It’s not too late.

I wish the books were longer. There, I never say that. And now I think I am going to read all six of them again.

The top black and white photos are by James Jowers, and were taken in and around St Marks Place in the 1960s: they are from the George Eastman Museum. They are an amazing set of photos, which I use as often as I can find an excuse.

The third picture is an arty double portrait of archetypal 90s woman Jodie Foster – I thought Nina could look that smart.

My friend Kathy Durkin would like these books if she’s never read them – she’s a New York lady with an interest in crime and a passion for left-wing politics. And that’s a description of heroine Nina and author Marissa Piesman as well as of Kathy…

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

published 1938

dance of death 2

Things this Mystery is about

A black COAT from Paris…  
Two engraved MENU cards…    
A red chalk DRAWING …
A diamond RING ….
A smelling-salts PHIAL …
An old khaki RAINCOAT …
An ADVERTISEMENT for a reducing treatment …
A sapphire-studded CIGARETTE CASE …
A signed CHECK … 

commentary:  I normally use an excerpt from the book in my blogpost, not the blurb, but this excellent summing-up of the key moments in Dance with Death was too appealing to miss. I have just been in New York and, as with Sunday’s  Live Alone and Like It, a book about the city in the 1930s is sheer joy for me (even more so than it normally would be). It tells certain kinds of reader, not just me I think, that this is exactly the kind of crime story they will like. 

This is the first of McCloy’s books featuring sleuth Dr Basil Willing: he is a psychiatrist and brings his Freudian notions to bear on the crime – he is forever looking out for blunders and comments from the subconscious, and uses them to find out what people are really thinking. And he has helpful remarks such as
Poisoning, like kleptomania, arson and cruelty to animals, is often associated with sexual repression.
The crime involves a rich girl and a poor girl: one of them is found dead in the snow, although the body is unnaturally warm. One of the girls is supposed to be starting her debutante season, coming out to New York society, and there are some good clothes:
Like all women in advertisements, she was Dance of Death 1inhumanly sleek and slim. She had been photographed in evening dress—a deep, cream color that seemed to be satin. Her only ornament was a long rope of pearls—fabulous had they been real. But of course they couldn’t be real—in an advertisement... 
Kitty had an evening dress that was a very startling shade of clear vermilion.
(I have to admit that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer.)

There is an impersonation – something that seems to occur in books much more often than in real life, honestly – and I was interested to see that the French maid (Victorine, what a very crime-novel-French-maid name) uses what is now the huge trend of ‘contouring’ to bring out the similarities between the two women:
The upper part of the face is the only part that matters—eyes and eyebrows, nose and upper lip. Change that and you change everything…. By removing entirely the part of the brows near the nose and extending them to the temple with a pencil, she made my eyes look as wide apart as [the other woman’s]. She used two shades of face powder and this modeling with light and dark tones made my nose seem as long as hers. She made my eyes greenish gray by putting a greenish yellow ‘eye-shado’ on the lids beside them. Finally she used two shades of lipstick, one over the other to make my lips seem the same shade as hers.
(The spelling of ‘eye-shado’ is new to me – it may be a typo.)

The book is full of moments of its time – from the Nansen passport (a way to help displaced and stateless persons) to the claim that ‘moderns don’t write love letters. They telegraph or telephone.’ Kitty’s education consisted of
Looking out for her complexion and her figure and learning just enough French and dancing and music to make her civilized without the taint of intellect.
When a woman faints all-too-conveniently, Basil steps forward:
He knew the modern woman’s vulnerable point. “Ring for some water,” he said to Pasquale, “and throw it over her head. Never mind the finger wave.” Rhoda opened her eyes and moaned.
And look at the snobbery and classism here - it is of the kind associated with English books of the era, and Basil isn’t having it:
“You know as well as I do that people of—er—well, wealth and standing and education don’t get mixed up in murder cases!”  

“Don’t they?” Basil’s slow smile was charged with meaning. “Ever hear of Prince Youssoupoff, Madame Caillaux, Count Bocarmé, Lord Ferrers or the Marquise de Brinvilliers?”  

“All foreigners,” muttered Archer.

I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilering, but it is remarkably modern in a very specific way, and a thread of the plot, and aspects of the motive, are as relevant now as ever: they could easily fit into a 2017 book.

Altogether a most enjoyable read.

Three other Helen McCloy books have featured on the blog: Through a Glass Darkly, Cue for Murder, and Two-Thirds of a Ghost. 

My friend Noah Stewart recommended this book - he described it as a 'brownstone mystery'. I think he invented the term, and it's a good,useful one - read his post to find out exactly what it means. One thing's for sure: brownstone mysteries are meat and drink to Clothes in Books.

And I was also interested to find that yet again John at Pretty Sinister Books was here before me – he looked at the book in 2011, and his post is highly recommended.

Cream dress from Kristine’s photostream, from Vogue of 1938.

The vermilion dress (and friends) is from a McCall’s pattern of the mid-1930s.