Sunday, 30 April 2017

Dress Down Sunday: A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

published 1970


Tale of Two Families

Corinna, returning from a late class at her Drama School, expected that Hugh would be outside the flat waiting to be let in. She was relieved to find he wasn’t. With luck she could now get time to change her clothes, which she greatly disliked. She was wearing a sloppy tweed coat, a black sweater, a plaid mini-skirt, thick black tights and heavy shoes. Her own tastes were for the pretty clothes that suited her prettiness but whenever she wore these her fellow-students greeted her with cries of ‘Dainty Doris’ and ‘Corinna’s going a maying’. All the really talented girls at the school dressed hideously and sloppily and seemed to do it without effort. She had to work hard at it.

The flat looked slightly denuded but her bedroom was intact. She hastily put on a short, fluttery nightgown and negligée; never before had she had the chance to wear these for Hugh. It flashed through her mind that he might not think the outfit respectable, but it was a sight more respectable than some of her day clothes. There were layers and layers of nylon net between herself and the outer world. And this was the kind of thing that suited her. Sometimes she wondered if her eternal battle to be with-it was worthwhile.
commentary: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my all-time favourite books – I have re-read it many times, and never love it less. Smith’s other books are very variable, but never less than enjoyable. This one was completely new to me, and it is a charming and very undemanding read. There is not much to it: just the story of a year or so in the life of the eponymous two families, who move to the country to live in neighbouring houses. Two sisters are married to two brothers, and their various children and parents also feature in the story.

Various aspects of the story are familiar from other Smith books, and from her own life: the young woman above who is studying acting, attracting an older man, and wearing unusual clothes is completely Mouse from The Town in Bloom, is completely Dodie Smith – just translated from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the excerpt above the mini-skirt, coat and stockings are completely convincing and right – the negligee, less so. She is sharing the flat with a cousin who is also a semi-boyfriend, and idea of dressing like that to have kitchen supps with him is fairly disturbing.

Smith is much better on the older characters – Granny Fran is also fairly plainly (the older) Dodie herself, and is an excellent person to spend time with. And, she wears that great blog favourite, a bedjacket:
She slept until her small travelling alarm clock went off at 8.45. May had undertaken to bring breakfast at nine o’clock and Fran never liked even her daughters to see her before she had given her appearance some little help. She was back in bed in a decorative bedjacket before May arrived with the tray.
Fran forms an alliance with another aging person, Baggy, who is her daughters’ father-in-law (the relationships sometimes take a bit of working out, and people seem not to know basic facts about each other considering they’ve all been tightly connected by marriage for 25 years). Their conversations are charming, and totally convincing:
‘I did so enjoy our afternoon together.’  

‘So did I – except for my ridiculous fall. By the way, I’m not going to mention that to the others.' 
‘Quite right. They fuss if one so much as trips.’

Another relation, the horrible Mildred, turns up to behave badly and cause trouble. All the clothes in the book are beautifully described, and Smith obviously took malicious pleasure in thinking of Mildred’s awful outfits:
Mildred was in pink, frilled mousseline de soie, the waist up under her arms which dangled from little puffed sleeves. The dress reached to her calves and below it were frilled pantalettes and pink dancing sandals with crossed elastics.
And later on:
George reported one touch of light relief: Mildred had turned up for the funeral, looking like Mary Queen of Scots on her way to execution – ‘Somebody asked if she was the widow. By the way, Fran, she said she was looking forward to having you back in London.’  
Fran sighed. ‘Well, we all have our crosses.
There are two main plotlines – one of the sisters is in love with the other’s husband; and the young woman above has attracted the attention of a very distinguished older actor. Both lines rattle along, but the point is more to describe life, and memories, and the ways families work together.

I liked the book very much, though I would be hard put to explain why. Probably one solely for Dodie Smith fans - but they will love it.

The collection of nightwear above is startling in its general hideousness. I think that Corinna was wearing item B.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh


AKA Night at the Vulcan

published 1951

Opening Night

[Martyn Tarne is an aspiring actress: penniless, she has taken a job as a dresser in a theatre]

But as she turned to go she saw herself, cruelly reflected in the long cheval-glass. It was not, of course, the first time she had seen herself that night; she had passed before the looking-glasses a dozen times and had actually polished them, but her attention had been ruthlessly fixed on the job in hand and she had not once focused her eyes on her own image. Now she did so. She saw a girl in a yellow sweater and dark skirt with black hair that hung in streaks over her forehead. She saw a white, heart-shaped face with smudges under the eyes and a mouth that was normally firm and delicate but now drooped with fatigue. She raised her hand, pushed the hair back from her face and stared for a moment or two longer. Then she switched off the light and blundered across the passage into the greenroom. Here, collapsed in an armchair with her overcoat across her, she slept heavily until morning.

commentary: In general I bow to my friend Lucy Fisher’s views on Ngaio Marsh – she is an expert on the books, and this is one of her favourites. In her very useful list of the Marsh books, she says
Her masterpiece and a Cinderella story set in the theatre. Seen largely through the eyes of an aspiring actress who gives the narrative a witty flavour.
I’m not sure I saw it as a masterpiece, but it is very readable and enjoyable. The murder and the arrival of Inspector Alleyn are very late, which is always a good thing in a Marsh book.

The first long section describes the final rehearsals for a new play, one that is beset with affairs and rivalries and nepotism and general problems. (The play sounds dire in fact.) All the details have the ring of authenticity – Marsh used her own theatrical background to great effect in many of her books, but never more so than in this one. The horrible dressing-rooms, the hissing of the gasfires, the tubs of make-up, the bitching, the flowers for the stars, the backstage staff, everyone smoking and drinking the whole time – it’s all there.

But I wasn’t that taken with our heroine Martyn – first off, what a ridiculous first name, which no-one comments on in the book. (I suppose if your own name is Ngaio you might have a different view.) But I found the schoolgirl fairytale aspects irritating – she is penniless and reduced to sleeping secretly in the theatre, above, but


is going to end up with an important role in the play.

As Alleyn says:
‘Miss Tarne was the sole female dresser and she’d been promoted overnight to what I believe I should call starletdom. Which in itself seems to me to be a rum go. I’ve always imagined female dressers to be cups-of-tea in alpaca aprons and not embryo actresses.’
I thought she was rather feeble. There were also the usual tiresome remarks about gay characters, and a rather unnecessary scene of marital rape.

On the plus side, I liked a harassed young woman coining this description:
‘It’s twenty sides of hopeless hell. Honestly, it is.’
And an early use of the quintessential modern UK phrase, ‘early doors’:
And at two o’clock the queues for the early doors began to form up in Carpet Street.
- apparently that’s its origin, though it is used in all kinds of situations these days.

And a flash of just how funny Marsh could be when she was in the mood – the two policemen are investigating gifting in the theatre:
‘The standard for first night keepsakes seems to be set at a high level,’ Alleyn muttered. ‘This is a French clock, Fox, with a Sevres face encircled with garnets. What do you suppose the gentleman gave the lady?’ 
‘Would a tiara be common?’ asked Fox. 
‘Let’s go next door and see.’

Overall, a mixed verdict from me.

HOWEVER, I do have one major complaint, which is that in the early part of the book there is much mention of a fancy dress event, the Combined Arts Ball, and possible costumes are designed and planned and sewn. But in the event, no-one goes to the Ball, we see not a glimpse of it or its outfits – the murder takes precedence.

This was a sad disappointment to Clothes in Books, always a fan of fancy dress. It’s like Chekhov’s gun – you can’t be going on about a costume party, and raising our hopes, and then dashing them like that. Tut, Ms Marsh. Murder is a small crime in comparison.

In niche blogging, CiB has looked at the role of the theatrical dresser before now, as well as more general theatrical settings in a joint blog with Christine Poulson

Picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumblr, a 1951 ensemble, and a lot more cheery than Martyn ever seems to be.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Mysteries of Algiers by Robert Irwin

published 1988

Mysteries of Algiers 3

[The narrator is fixing up a meeting with a contact]

Mysteries of Algiers 2We met at Laghouat…at his ‘hotel’. It was actually a lodging house, almost a brothel, patronized by the dancing girls of the Ouled Nail when rooms elsewhere were full. The Ouled Nail women came from the south to towns like Bou Saada and Laghouat. They came to earn their dowries by dancing in public and engaging in prostitution. Then they went back to their tribes again, their dowries carried as jewellery and pierced coins about their bodies.

[I went] to a neighbouring house of ill fame where Shirina was performing. She stood and swayed in a long flounced dress. With every movement the coined turban and belt jingled. Then two women seated in the corner struck up on their tambourines and Shirina began the Dance of the Daggers. She sidled round the room, turning all the time to face the audience seated against the walls. There were a couple of Kabyles who dribbled tobacco on to the floor and half a dozen legionnaires, one of whom I recognized as McKellar from my own company.

With every step she took she slapped the ground with her bare feet and thrust her hips out. Her arms snaked this way and that, before returning to her breasts to thrust them out at her audience, but the fiercely spiked bracelets warned the men to attempt nothing. Her eyes, brilliant in the midst of the dark kohl, invited the men to delight, but the haughty set of her barbarous face refused them. In short it was the usual tatty bogus oriental stuff the Ouled Nail offered to sex-starved soldiers and tired commercial travellers.

Mysteries of Algiers

commentary: One of the two best books I have read this year is Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin. (The other is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.) Most people hadn’t heard of the book or author, let alone read it, but one commenter on the blogpost added to my knowledge of the Wonders book, and when I asked him/her which to read next, recommended this one saying ‘The Mysteries of Algiers is a novel set in the last days of French Algeria with another unreliable - and very unpleasant - narrator.’

It’s not a book I would have dreamt of reading if I hadn’t loved Wonders so much, but I am glad I read it. ‘Very unpleasant’ is not really adequate, and the book is enormously, outrageously, violent and gruesome. This is something I usually reject, and am often very rude about authors who write this way, but in this particular case Irwin gets a pass. I couldn’t stop reading, I very much wanted to know what was going to happen (even though I could guess that it was going to be horrible…) and there was an element to it that I thought made it bearable. I thought there was no prurience: so often authors are claiming that they and their characters are horrified by the violence, oh how shocking, so let’s describe it in more detail. (The writer I most disliked for this was Stieg Larsson of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy). Irwin presents the violence so coldly and plainly that it was just about readable.

The book is set in the dying days of French rule in Algeria (ie 1959/60), and the main character is Philippe, a French soldier, who ends up journeying all around the country, falling into and out of trouble. I don’t really want to say more than that: reviews I have read since finishing it give what I would consider serious spoilers, but I very much enjoyed having not the faintest idea what was coming next – the book is full of shocks and surprises. One review said Philippe was ‘an interesting monster on an unheroic quest’, and that’s pretty good.

It is much the best book about the mind of a killer that I have ever read – Camus (with the Algerian connection – this is made overt in the book, in the opening lines) and Dostoyevsky are points of comparison. But it also made me think of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (book and film) about which I felt similarly – I loved both, and understood but didn’t share others’ horror and hatred of them.

Philippe IS horrifying, but enthralling and, in the most unlikely way, very very funny and almost endearing. I highlighted endless quotes from the book:
It is one of the problems of working in intelligence that one’s work gives one little to talk about at dinner parties. 

Al-Hadi proudly showed me how he kept his explosives hidden behind a stretch of tiling that ran round the wall. ‘What do you think, Sidi?’ he asked anxiously. All that was in my head was the question, what had possessed him to put a floral frieze of bathroom tiling in the living room? But I kept that to myself. ‘Very good, al-Hadi,’ I said. 
When I say that the wife is nice, and for that matter Eugene too, this does not mean that I like them. I do not like nice people. 

I have never thought it fascist to collect stamps – even German stamps.

[At a party] The ambience is something between a high school prom and a brothel. Here is a scene from the dream life of capitalism.

The book is full of political arguments, Marxism vs capitalism, which are surprisingly engrossing.
There is nothing personal in my detestation of the old. The mutual hatred of young and old is half of politics. Simply, old people are an obstacle to revolutionary change, a dead weight on the future. I am not a fool. Of course I shall be old myself one day. I hope that I shall have the courage to hate myself then. As long as we have not learned to hate old age, poverty and sickness, the world will never change.
Philippe has Dien Bien Phu in his past – a piece of French/Vietnamese history which is probably little-known in the UK these days: I know it from books and have been fascinated by its place in the French consciousness for a long time, which probably helped me with this book.

I also loved that they went to the opera, although the scene was cut sadly short: they go to see Wagner and Philippe’s companion has never been before:
He knows the plot of Carmen, but, as far as opera goes, that is it. I have a lot of problems explaining the plot of Rheingold to him.
The story of the visit is as good as (and this is high praise) the opera scenes in Terry Pratchett (this one by TP is plainly based on Wagner too).

I was describing these two Robert Irwin books to someone, and she said after a long pause ‘these books are obviously a hard sell’, and I do see that – I just wish I could persuade people to read them, though I would feel guilty if they had nightmares after some of the scenes in this one. (Myself, I haven’t really got over the Talking Head in the first one). I think Wonders Will Never Cease is definitely the best one to start with, and then try this one at your own risk. But the rewards are rare and strange and miraculous.

Ouled Nail have popped up on the blog before, in a book by Elizabeth Daly: the phrase was a metaphor for over-decorated women.

The top pictures are photos of real Ouled Nail from 1896 and 1910, found in books in the British Library.

The woman in the lower picture is faking it: she is the early 20th century modern dance diva Ruth St Denis, a great blog favourite. She is in character as an Ouled Nail in the ballet Vision of Aissoua.

One of the BL books says of the Ouled Nail:
They are very dark in complexion, the eyebrows being connected and several small signs being made on their faces by tattooing; they are much darkened under the eyes, and their colour is heightened by the application of grease-paint. They wear their black hair plaited and brought over the ears and generally bejewelled. Often round their heads they wear a very gay little shawl…Their bright-coloured dresses, of the simplest cut, are bunched out round the waist, and are shortened to display their silver anklets. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

TNB: A is for…. Agatha (Again) and Ackroyd

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to, so there have been some very varied blogposts….

A for April logo

Please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.

Brad at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog did a post on Alfred Hitchcock

Kate at Cross-Examing Crime looked at Aristocratic Sleuths

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel is wondering about favourite  Agatha Christie novels, and looking for audience participation

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

In previous weeks I have done posts on Agatha Christie, Catherine Aird, and Patricia Wentworth’s seminal Anna Where Are You

And this week I am back to Agatha Christie, and one of her most famous works:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

published 1926
Ackroyd'England is very beautiful,' said Poirot, his eyes straying over the prospect. Then he smiled. 'And so are English girls,' he said in a lower voice. 'Hush, my friend, and look at the pretty picture below us.'

It was then that I saw Flora. She was moving along the path we had just left and she was humming a little snatch of song. Her step was more dancing than walking, and, in spite of her black dress, there was nothing but joy in her whole attitude. She gave a sudden pirouette on her toes, and her black draperies swung out. At the same time she flung her head back and laughed outright.

As she did so a man stepped out from the trees. It was Hector Blunt.

The girl started. Her expression changed a little.

'How you startled me - I didn't see you.' Blunt said nothing, but stood looking at her for a minute or two in silence.

Ackroyd kimono

bonus picture…

[Earlier, when the body was discovered, Flora was in bed] Flora descended the staircase. She was wrapped in a pale pink silk kimono. She looked anxious and excited.

commentary: As I am forever saying, a middling murder story is much the best one to re-read: you may well not remember the solution, or important details, and such a book can be full of surprises. But no-one who has read it will have forgotten the solution of Roger Ackroyd (and that’s true for at least a dozen other Christies too) – so is there any interest in re-reading?

Yes, definitely, is my experience. First of all you can admire the writing – there must be 20 different points, tiny unnoticed turns of phrase, that mean something new when you know the secret. And secondly, it is full of fascinating details of the time and the place and the kind of village they all live in. And thirdly it is a very entertaining and very funny book.

It’s more than 90 years old (astonishingly) and that adds interesting points – someone has made a fortune in wagon wheels (no, not the chocolate snack beloved of 1970s youth), dictaphones and lie detectors are new and mysterious, and one character has made his own wireless. The attitudes are old-fashioned too: is the maid too well-educated? – but at least she is still prepared to wear a cap and apron. A proper flapper young lady has ‘boyish shoulders and slight hips’. And a goose quill, intriguingly, brings a suggestion of drug-taking. Poirot has a mysterious housekeeper – an old lady in a Breton cap. Whatever became of her? (Buried under the vegetable marrows perhaps.)

The relationship between Dr Sheppard and his sister Caroline is hilarious. At one point she is longing to tell her brother the latest gossip, but then in mid-story he mentions in passing that he has met their new and unknown neighbor (who is going to turn out to be Poirot):
Caroline visibly wavered for a second or two, much as if a roulette ball might coyly hover between two numbers. Then she declined the tempting red herring.
So she continues with her story of a male character meeting up secretly with an unknown female. Her brother then says:
‘I suppose you hurried on to the Three Boars, felt faint, and went into the bar for a glass of brandy, and so were able to see if both the barmaids were on duty?’
It’s been suggested that Caroline contains the seeds of Miss Marple, and you can totally see Miss M counting the barmaids in the pub in an attempt to identify an unknown girl.

There is a Mah Jong party at which information, gossip, rumour and speculation are exchanged, and it is a tour de force of village life and jokes –
‘The Chinese put down the tiles so quickly it sounds like little birds pattering.’
For some minutes we played like the Chinese.
It is as funny as anything from EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia.

As a detective story – Christie plays fair, but there is information which is not given to the reader. It is so hard now to imagine someone reading it for the first time, and not being ultra-aware, looking out for a surprise twist: but I think a blank reader would be unlikely to guess the solution. Two secret meetings in, and a separate visit from the murderer to, the summer-house: sounds a bit much, but Christie never really minded that. I loved the silver table – such an Agatha Christie item in books and in real life; she was an avid, manic, magpie-like collector of bits and pieces, and you can see shed-loads of them at her house in Devon, Greenway. But I still don’t know why Miss Russell closed the silver table… And I don’t know why neither Sheppard or Parker thought of going round to the window when they were worried that Ackroyd wasn’t responding.

The ending is sad and creepy, as much so as the first time I read the book, which must be 40 years ago.

Truly this is one of the great detective stories of all time, and will be read forever.

Flora in black is a 1929 photo from Kristine’s photostream.

Pink silk kimono is by Frederick Carl Frieseke, from the Athenaeum.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dress Down Sunday: About Last Night…. By Catherine Alliott

published 2017


About Last Night

‘What’s this, by the way?’

I turned, mid-riffle. Lucy was gingerly extracting a purple thong with a fingertip and thumb from a pile she’d found on the table.
‘What d’you think it is? I’m branching out from the gents’ boxers into ladies’s stuff. Is my phone under there?’ I dived beneath the towering pile of lingerie.

‘Why so sparkly?’ She peered at the encrusted sequins on the front.

‘Because it excites the gentleman friend, I imagine – or maybe it excites the lady as she’s trollying round boring old Tesco’s – I don’t know, use your imagination. Ring my phone, would you, Luce?’ I patted my pockets, glancing about the chaotic kitchen.

‘And you’re charging nineteen pounds fifty?’ She blinked at the price tag in astonishment.

I snatched it. ‘OK, make it Waitrose.’

She dropped the thong disdainfully back on the pile. ‘So the Faulkner family are flogging kinky underwear now, are they? Classy.’

About Last Night 2

commentary: About Last Night… is a light romantic yummy mummy book, grownup chicklit, with some entertaining passages. It would be an ideal holiday or aeroplane read.

The narrator, Molly, is a widow and – as shown in the extract – doing whatever is necessary to keep the family afloat. She lives in the country on a smallholding with two of her children, and she also sells underwear and soap by mail order. Life is tough, money a constant worry, and she has concerns about her children. But she has a good relationship with them (there is some shockingly realistic dialogue between parent and child…) and has friends and neighbours all around. Then the possibility of an inheritance pops up, and she considers going back to London – somewhere she only left because her now-dead husband wanted to move to the country. And it turns out there are some secrets in her past, and the truth (about her marriage and that move out of the city) is not simple.

The book is amusing, and an easy read – and Alliott tells a story well, as I think the extract above shows: she is good at convincing dialogue that moves the plot along, and tells you about the characters, and entertains. At times the book resembles (of all unlikely things) Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals - feisty widow, unruly children, no money, unsuitable adventures.

I wasn’t convinced by the sudden changes of tone, and the varying realism of the story – the exchanges with the hideous teenage children were some of the best bits of the book, and the author moved towards talking about betrayal, infidelity and bereavement, guilt and grief. But then she would be off on some ridiculous comedy moment, with the heroine behaving in a way that was not endearing, but just annoying: could she really be that stupid? And, I suppose it’s a convention that you can spot who she is going to end up with from his very first appearance, but it did take some of the tension out of the plot.

Also,  the plot is based on two premises:
1) Our heroine Molly is widowed, and is very poor because she had to pay death duties
2) This situation is going to be alleviated because a relation of her dead husband’s has died intestate, and Molly will inherit.
Now, both these premises are faulty – she wouldn’t have to pay inheritance tax on her spouse’s estate, and she cannot inherit from the dead uncle-by-marriage if not specifically named (her children can, but she cannot).

And so yet again I voice my dreary cri de coeur: did NOBODY reading this book at an early stage spot these very basic problems? This is a best-selling author, presumably a prized author. She is apparently married to a barrister. She is published by a serious major publishing house. She must have agents and editors and friends who read the manuscript. God knows, the plot isn’t trying to be realistic but still these are such basic problems… The geography didn’t seem to make much sense either – real-life experience says that it is not quite so easy and quick to whizz up to London from Herefordshire by train (and back again in a twinkle) as her characters seem to find it.

But I  shouldn’t be so picky – I think Alliott has a lot of fans who will love this book, and I cannot deny its entertainment value.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Touchstone by Edith Wharton

published 1900
Touchstone 1

[A young man is visiting for the first time the grave of someone he knew years before]

The monument rose before him like some pretentious uninhabited dwelling: he could not believe that Margaret Aubyn lay there. It was a Sunday morning, and black figures moved among the paths, placing flowers on the frost-bound hillocks. Glennard noticed that the neighboring graves had been thus newly dressed, and he fancied a blind stir of expectancy through the sod, as though the bare mounds spread a parched surface to that commemorative rain. He rose presently and walked back to the entrance of the cemetery. 

Several greenhouses stood near the gates, and turning in at the first he asked for some flowers.

“Anything in the emblematic line?” asked the anæmic man behind the dripping counter. Glennard shook his head. “Just cut flowers? This way then.”

Touchstone 3

The florist unlocked a glass door and led him down a moist green aisle. The hot air was choked with the scent of white azaleas, white lilies, white lilacs; all the flowers were white: they were like a prolongation, a mystic efflorescence, of the long rows of marble tombstones, and their perfume seemed to cover an odor of decay. The rich atmosphere made Glennard dizzy. As he leaned in the doorway, waiting for the flowers, he had a penetrating sense of Margaret Aubyn’s nearness— not the imponderable presence of his inner vision, but a life that beat warm in his arms… The sharp air caught him as he stepped out into it again. He walked back and scattered the flowers over the grave. The edges of the white petals shrivelled like burnt paper in the cold; and as he watched them the illusion of her nearness faded, shrank back frozen.

Touchstone 2

commentary: Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors, and her characters are usually very well-dressed, so it is surprising and inexplicable that none of her books has featured on the blog before – though she has been mentioned a lot, and I have an important theory that Bridget Jones’ Diary, while following the structure of Pride and Prejudice, is more like House of Mirth.

Touchstone is a novella, and was published before any of the novels on which her reputation rests, although she produced a vast amount of work in many different genres along the way. This one has a most fascinating setup: Glennard is a young man who wants to get married, but has no money. When even younger, he was the love-object of a well-known woman writer, and she sent him many letters. He realizes that there would be enormous public interest in the letters, and he arranges to have them published. He makes pots of money and is able to marry his love, and to invest in a sure thing.

His name is kept out of this (this seems a touch unlikely in fact) – no-one knows that he is the loved one. The letters are a scandalous success, and he knows that many people are shocked that the recipient sold them. Although he now has everything he wants, he feels more and more guilty, imagines that other people are judging him, and fears that his wife would hate him if she knew the truth. Can he put things right?

It's not the best of her works, with nothing like the depth of House or Mirth or Age of Innocence, and is full of those rather dreary notions of shame and honour that try the patience of later readers. But it is very compelling – no reader can not want to know how this pans out – and very short.

I’ve also been reading her short story A Bottle of Perrier from 1926, a very different matter. My friend Curt over at The Passing Tramp wrote about it a few years ago, describing it as Thirsty Evil, I only came across the blogpost recently, and immediately had to read the story. It is a terrifying and atmospheric affair, about a young American, Medford, who goes to visit a friend in a lonely crumbling Crusader castle on the edge of a  desert in the Near East. His friend isn’t there, but is imminently expected. Medford waits, and chats to his friend’s servant, and wonders what is going on. Once you start reading it you cannot put it down, it is a superb story, one that gave me the chills. (It was, interestingly enough, originally called A Bottle of Evian. Was there some product placement going on?) I strongly recommend that you go over to Curt’s review, and defy you not to want to read the story when you’ve finished his post.

One of Wharton’s most famous stories – and deservedly so - is Roman Fever, published in 1934. The entire action takes place in about half an hour of conversation between two American matrons as they sit on a Roman terrace enjoying the sun. Their two daughters have gone off on an expedition, and they chat in a desultory way. But the conversation gets tighter and tighter, and harsher, and they uncover their memories of an incident that happened many years before… The story is famous for its neat last line, carefully closing up the story.

Edith Wharton’s works are available on Project Gutenberg, or you can buy her complete works for a Kindle very cheaply.

The very beautiful pictures from graveyards come from my favourite photographer: PerryPhotography.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Book of 1977: The Fan by Bob Randall

published 1977

The Fan
The Fan 2

commentary: This is my 1977 book for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme at Past Offences.

John over at Pretty Sinister Books reminded me about this one, saying:
I read it when it first came out when I was a teenager. I thought it was great. I may see it in another light now that forty years have passed. THE FAN is rather unusual for a 1970s book as it’s entirely composed of letters, memos, and notes and was cleverly designed using different letterheads and typefaces for each letter. All before the age of personal computers and digital publishing, of course. So I think that made it rather expensive and time consuming to layout and print. It was turned into a movie (a quasi-musical, no less) starring Lauren Bacall and James Garner.
Although there are large areas where our tastes do not overlap at all, every so often there is a book that only John and I seem to have read – and this may be one of them. I too loved this book as a young person, I thought it was very clever, very funny, and rather devastating.

And it stood up well on another reading. It’s the story of Sally Ross, a movie star who is about to do a stage-show on Broadway. She has an ex-husband, (Jake), a terrific assistant, (Belle), good friends, and neighbours who think she’s too noisy. And she has a fan: her biggest fan, an obsessive young man who is about to go over the edge.

The book is very cleverly told through letters – and as John says, it is laid out really well, which is why I have copied the page above rather than typing it out.

The Fan, Douglas, writes to Sally: letters which start out simply being quite keen, and then get more and more deranged. For the first half of the book Sally is unaware, and the reader follows her life as she rehearses, meets a new man, and continues her delightful relationship with her ex-husband, as above. Eventually she realizes something is badly wrong, and that Douglas is threatening her, but by this time it is hard to track him down, and the tension rises: the reader knows far more about Douglas than either Sally or the police. The final pages are terrifying.

The film was not a success, and Lauren Bacall apparently said it was far too gruesome and violent: she wanted it to be a film about an older woman’s life and choices. Bacall was (it becomes ever more apparent) a complete diva, often totally unreasonable, but she may have a point here, though I haven’t seen the film so can’t be too judgemental. The character development via the letters is superbly done – Randall was an excellent writer. He obviously intended there to be a huge and growing contrast between the sunny tone of Sally’s exchanges with her friends, and the sad downward spiral of Douglas’s life. But there were times when you’d just want to ditch the madness plot and hear more about Sally.

As a book of 1977 – it’s very much a time of A Chorus Line and Cabaret on Broadway, of Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. New York is on its way to being down and out, dirty and dangerous and glamorous, not yet polished up. And the world of musicals and showbiz is going to be hit by AIDS in a few years time, but doesn’t know it yet.

I very much hope John will read this book too, look forward to hearing his views.

There is very little in the way of clothes description in the book, so I found this perfume advert from a 1977 fashion magazine – I feel it gives an idea of Sally’s mystery and charm.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Night Club: A is for Aird

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to, so look out for some varied blogposts.

A for April logo

And of course please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.

This week's links: 

Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime looked at A for Alibis

And Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery did An Anatomy of an Adaptation

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

We tend to go for Golden Age books, but after all there are no rules this month – A is for Anything. So I have chosen to write about a book by Catherine Aird, who is Anyway generally Agreed to be very much in the tradition of the Golden Age.



His Burial Too by Catherine Aird

published 1973

HIs Burial Too

She was framed by the classical lines of the Georgian doorway. She stood quite still as she regarded the three policemen. There was something a little unexpected about her appearance—almost foreign. It took Sloan a moment or two to pin down what it was—and then it came to him. It was her clothes. It was high summer in England and this girl was wearing dark brown. Not a floral silk pattern, not a cheerful cotton, nor even a pastel linen such as his own wife, Margaret, was wearing today. But dark brown. It was a simple, utterly plain dress, unadorned save for a solitary string of beads. He was surprised to note that the whole effect was strangely cool-looking on such a hot day. There was the faintest touch of auburn in the colouring of her hair which was replicated in the brown of the dress.

A purist might have said that her mouth was rather too big to be perfect but …

Sloan wasn’t a purist.

He was a policeman.

On duty.
commentary: I picked up this one on the recommendation of my friend Sergio, over at Tipping my Fedora: he reviewed it last year and got my interest going.

It has a crackerjack setup: a body is buried under a massive marble statue, which has fallen on the victim inside a church tower in such a way that no-one can get in or out. It’s absurdly over-the-top, and completely unbelievable, but terrific fun – and the solution is completely unbelievable too so there’s a certain symmetry there.

The thought of this ridiculous plot has been entertaining me ever since I began reading - and the book as a whole is very  entertaining. The giant marble statue
“…was a weeping widow and ten children all mourning the father. You know the sort of thing, sir… This one’s called the Fitton Bequest. A memorial to remember Mr Fitton by …” 

“I should have thought myself,” remarked Leeyes, “that ten children were …" 
“The workmen moved it into the church tower last week,” went on Sloan hastily.

It takes a while to move the lump, so the body can’t be identified for a while, though the doctor does his best to reach some conclusions, and there is a local man gone missing…

As Sergio points out, there are far too many red herrings – something seems frightfully important and full of meaning, and then suddenly we find out that there was a simple, irrelevant explanation. Meanwhile there is much stress on the Italian ways of the young woman above – who has just come back from the country -  her connections, the contrast with English ways: but all that is left hanging at the end.

The choppy style – short sentences as at the end of the extract above – gets wearing. But Aird has a light touch, with some funny running jokes such as the very stupid assistant to our own Inspector Sloane, and the bad driving of the doctor:
The Dean of Calleford, a blameless man whose faith was seemingly as firm as that of anyone in the diocese, had once tried to get out of Dr Dabbe’s moving car, wishing he had led a better life the while.
There’s a character called George Osborne, and a reference to ‘going into the hush’ as a slang term for going into the countryside – a usage I cannot find anywhere else.

Catherine Aird offers a very enjoyable 70s take on a Golden Age mystery: her settings are pleasantly of their time, but the conventions very much of earlier crime stories. And they are guaranteed entertainment, and short. I am getting to like Inspector Sloane a lot.

I do recommend Sergio’s blogpost on the book.

For more Catherine Aird books, click on the label below.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday


Prayer By George Herbert

published 1633

Easter Sunday

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

[George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. His poems in English were published together in 1633.]

Happy Easter to all blog readers

Picture is Easter Service by Mikhail Germashev from the Athenaeum website.

Friday, 14 April 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

published 2017

[three extracts from different parts of the book]
At the Edge of the Orchard 1

[Sadie is describing a visitor, John Chapman] He had long greasy hair and a beard stained yellow round his mouth chewin baccy,, and he wore a coffee sack belted round the middle with a piece of rope, and holes cut out for the neck and arms. He looked like a crazed swamp man, but we was glad to see him, as there weren’t a whole lotta folks around and it was a treat to get a visitor, even a crazy one.

At the Edge of the Orchard 3

[Sadie describes the family's life] End of the day there’d be mud tracked everywhere, a pile of muddy boots by the door, food on the floor where Caleb and Nathan dropped it. But for now it was all prepared and ready for a day of battlin the Black Swamp. We werent livin with the land, but alive despite it. Cause it wanted to kill us every chance it got, either the skeeters or the fever or the mud or the damp or the heat or the cold… Sometimes durin the cold spells when the snow high against the house, all seven of us would be huddlin by the fire wrapped in quilts and not movin the whole day cept to feed the animals and the fire and ourselves.

At the Edge of the Orchard 5

[Robert has moved to California] Robert had witnessed a Fourth of July cotillion where 32 people had danced on the Great Stump, with enough space for the musicians as well. The cotillion had made the newspapers in Stockton and Sacramento and even San Francisco, with a drawing of the dance published alongside the articles. They were more like advertisements than news, orchestrated by Billie Lapham to publicize Calaveras Grove.

At the Edge of the Orchard 6
commentary: At times this book is as dark and bleak as a book can be, and the character of Sadie is extraordinary – I doubt I’ll read about a more memorable fictional woman this year. Tracy Chevalier doesn’t hold back: the reader wants so much to like her, keeps expecting that there will be some softening, that she will start behaving better or showing some love or affection, but she keeps right on going…

The action runs from 1838 to 1856: starting out in the Black Swamp of Ohio, a place that is just as horrible as it sounds. The Goodenough family have staked a claim to a smallholding, and are growing apples. The character mentioned in the first extract is John Chapman, who is an American folkhero known as Johnny Appleseed (I had never heard of him till I went to live in the USA in the 90s, and found out about him via children’s books), who carries apple seeds and seedlings by boat to the farming families. 

The book goes into considerable detail about growing apples, starting out with distinguishing between eaters and spitters – the spitters are cider apples. James and Sadie have a number of children and have to work through every bad circumstance you could think of, and then some, and also fight each other with great bitterness, utterly vicious. There is ‘swamp fever’, which seems to be malaria:
Almost every year one of his children was picked off, to join the row of graves marked with wooden crosses in a slightly higher spot in the woods not far from the cabin. With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots.
Of all the heart-stopping descriptions of children dying…

The story is compelling but very downbeat, but then just in time the action moves and follows one of the sons who leaves home, and we follow him over the next few years. Robert does many different things, but in the end he turns out to be as obsessed by trees as his father was – not just apple trees either. He gets involved in plant collection, but also is tied up with the extraordinary Calaveras Grove – a real-life grove of giant sequoia trees. The descriptions of the trees and the surroundings are amazing, absolutely riveting, sticking in my mind.

At one point Billie Lapham (a real-life character) is bothered by seedlings from the trees going to England:
“England! You plant redwoods there, nobody’ll come from there to see Cally Grove trees.”
(Chevalier is always careful to distinguish between redwoods and sequoias, but some of the characters in the book are less careful.)

I don’t know what happens to the seedlings in the book, but I can tell Billie that he’s wrong – from when I was a child I always longed to see the giant trees of California, and it was one of the great adventures of my life when I achieved my ambition – and particularly when I drove through a redwood tree.

At the Edge of the Orchard 4

The story goes back into the past so we finally find out what happened to the family, why Robert left, and then it’s back to finish off the story of the Goodenoughs.

I’m not sure I’ve made much of a hand at describing the book, with its multiple voices. But I can say it was a wonderful book, I loved it, though that may be because I am as fascinated by big trees as the book is. Maybe other people would be less entranced?

One thing – talking about The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow’s masterpiece, recently I argued with the book’s contention that living in the country was automatically much better than living in the city, that it was a straight black and white distinction. Now this book has no such feeling, and is quite plain about the horrors of dirt farming, and swamps, and the misery of being a long way to town. Evidence for the prosecution? - this book is knock-out evidence.

Picture of Johnny Appleseed is a mural in Mansfield Ohio, from the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress has a fascinating collection of old photos showing the trees at Calaveras Grove, a key setting for the book – anyone who reads the book and is interested should go and take a look, as it’s an amazing opportunity to see what Chevalier is writing about. I was spoilt for choice.

All the tree photos are from Library of Congress.

The drawing is of people dancing on the treestump.