Friday, 18 August 2017

Death Wears Pink Shoes by Robert James

published 1952

Death Wears Pink Shoes 6

The door had been left open in an attempt to Death Wears Pink Shoes 4catch any passing breeze, and… a woman appeared and peeked in. Keith’s eyes popped, and he tried to keep his mouth from sagging. She was very tall with flaming red hair that curled up under an enormous cartwheel hat… the matching blue dress was so tight that it appeared that she must have been poured into it, and the plunging neckline had definitely gone out of bounds. Her sandals were a maze of narrow blue straps with the highest heels Keith had ever seen.

Death Wears Pink shoes 2Death Wears Pink shoes 3

[Later] Greta greeted everybody with her customary “Hello, darlings,” and dropped into a chair.

“Don’t you feel naked?” Gladys asked her.

Greta glanced down at her white sun dress. It started at the shoulders, ended abruptly, and for quite a space there was nothing but Greta, then it came to life again in an enormous circular skirt. “It’s hot,” Greta explained defensively.

“I didn’t mean that, but you have no hat.”

commentary: After recent outings with ballet – see here and here – this book seemed to follow the thread. The shoes are definitely pink ballet shoes, and the corpse is found wearing them on his poor dead feet.

But ballet doesn’t feature at all – the shoes are just there to add weirdness, there’s no real significance. However, it was a good read anyway: the inhabitants of an old brownstone in New York, now divided into apartments, assemble for a memorably awful building party. Everyone is horrible to each other, and the constant calls for more drink make this worse not better. An attempt at a dire party game ends in more bad feeling. The next day one of the guests is found dead. A nice cop comes to investigate, along with the dead man’s nephew. The residents include (of course) two nice young women in the basement.

There’s not a great deal of detecting to do, and by the time there’s been another murder, and we have decided to eliminate certain people from suspicion, there aren’t many suspects left (this book really is a closed circle – there are just about no other characters: no colleagues or friends, no shopkeepers or even passing strangers, no unexpected witnesses).

But the clothes are great, the sparky and ill-natured conversations among the tenants are always enjoyable, and there are some funny moments:
“They married in haste and it fell apart almost right away.” 
The two girls stared at her in astonishment. It seemed incredible that anyone should question a marriage of [X]’s breaking up.

Keith took time out to observe that he disliked pigheaded women, and Greta reminded him that he was lucky to have a choice because the girls were faced with 100% pig-headedness in men.
There’s one feature that I thought was unusual: we find out who the guilty party is, and then we get a full chapter of that person’s thoughts, explaining method and motive in an internal monologue. I’m sure there must be other examples of this in crime fiction, outside of first person narration, but I can’t think of any.

There is all kinds of interest in the book itself, as physical object.

Death Wears Pink shoes

may have been mistaken in expecting some ballet content, but at least I read the book and discovered my mistake, which I don’t think the designer of this cover did. This picture bears no resemblance whatsoever to any aspect of the book, apart from the existence of pink shoes. HOWEVER - it is fabulous isn’t it? (The actual skull is missing, so I’m not sure if it would fit the collection of TracyK: shout out if you want it Tracy, and I will send it on.)

The wrap worn by the skeleton features a pink print: the Death Wears Pink shoes 7repeated logo of the Doubleday Crime Club, who published the book.

The back cover contains a code of symbols by which you can tell what kind of crime book you are holding – in this case, big on character and atmosphere.

And - apparently Robert James was a pseudonym for Iris Little, an Australian writer with sisters (Constance and Gwynneth) who also wrote detective fiction. I recently featured comments by Leonard Holton on the differences between men and women’s crime fiction:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers.
Death Wears Pink Shoes definitely reads like a combination of the two: it is tougher than that title would suggest.

Clothes from Kristine’s photostream and the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Secrets of a Little Black Dress…

The Story of Black by John Harvey

published 201

Black dress

Black dress 2

commentary: Simon Lavery, the proprietor of the Tredynas Days blog, recommended this book to me, and I am very grateful: John Harvey, an academic, has written two books on the colour black, and you can read Simon’s (fascinating) take on them both here.

I enjoyed The Story of Black very much – the author deals with every aspect of the colour: in art, in literature, in consideration of race, in its associations with sadness or death, and of course in clothes. I decided to run his story of the Little Black Dress above as is, with the photo, because of such interest to me and I’m sure to many of my readers… As explained in the text the fabulous photo is NOT from the era it represents, it is a modern reconstruction.

There are all kinds of riveting stories in the book – with my interest in clothes, I was also very intrigued by the history of what witches traditionally wore: the short answer is ‘not necessarily black’, as that is a modern idea.

It’s a lovely book, very well-produced and with many beautiful illustrations: When he describes something, you know you will turn the page and see what he is talking about. John Harvey is plainly a polymath, and his examples come from poetry, from the history of coal-mining, from East and West, from Ancient Greece, from Turner and Milton. A serious, academic and well-researched book, but accessible and endlessly entertaining.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

published 2016

translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

This is another version of a post I did for the Petrona Remembered website in memory of the still-missed Petrona, Maxine Clark. The book has also just won the Petrona prize. You can see the other version of the post on the site, and also look at other recommendations for great books while you are there….

Where Roses Never Die 3

It was New Year’s Eve 1976 and midnight had passed. It had been bitingly cold for Bergen, the thermometer had sunk to well below zero. All the adults were gathered in the function room in the architect’s house for the annual New Year party. The youngsters were asleep and the eldest children had been sent to bed, now the fireworks were over…

Champagne corks were popping in the function room as well. The food was eaten, they had danced, and spirits were high when Terje tapped his glass at around half past twelve. He kept tapping but it was only when Vibeke started clapping her hands beside him that he had the group’s attention.

Clothes maketh the man, the proverb went, but it was usually the opposite, people chose an outfit that reflected their character…

Randi herself and Nils were dressed in black, him in a black suit with a blue tie, her in ‘a little black number’, so short that she showed a maximum of what she knew was her best feature, her attractive legs. When she had danced with Tor earlier in the evening, he had patted her on the bottom and said the same: ‘The best legs in the room, Randi…’

‘We’ve decided it’s time for a party game,’ Terje said from the podium once he finally had everyone’s attention.

‘We?’ said Vibeke, looking at him askance.

‘Listen to him! Listen to him!’ Tor shouted.

‘We’re calling this the New Year games,’ Terje continued. 

Everyone was attentive now. This was something new.

commentary: I picked the right time to read this one. Compared with my crime fiction friends, I’m a novice when it comes to Scandi books, but a review over at Reactions to Reading convinced me to try this one – Bernadette, the proprietor, is always reliable. She doesn’t just write great reviews, she also matches my tastes. (Secretly I enjoy her slamming reviews of books she doesn’t like almost more than the good ones.)

Anyway, she did a good job selling this, and unsurprisingly I loved it – and then I surfaced from reading it to find it had won the Petrona Award. That’s the literary prize founded in honour of our much-missed friend Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and died a few years ago. The award is for a book she would have liked, and I think she’d have loved this one.

Varg Veum is a private investigator in the tradition and spirit of the great US crime books: maybe washed up, has a messy personal life, is an alcoholic, has made enemies. It is 2002, and he is asked to look again at the case of a 3-year-old girl who went missing from outside her house 25 years earlier. One of the remaining witnesses died in a strange and random robbery attempt, and the child’s mother was reminded that she is running out of time, a statute of limitations is about to impose itself.

There was a group of families living in a housing co-op: all friends, most with children. Many of the relationships didn’t survive the era of the disappearance, though Veum turns up other reasons for that. Slowly he works his way through the list of those involved, calling in favours and following instincts and intuition – his own and others. Norwegian life and ways are laid out for us in a most appealing way. The people are varied, some good some bad, all distinctive in their characters. Facts are teased out till eventually Veum reaches the truth. Sometimes, as in the extract above, we see the events of 25 years before through the other characters’ eyes.

There is some great dialogue – like this exchange with a retired colleague
‘But if there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me.’ 
'Yes, if you haven’t gone to the fjord, that is.’ 

‘I never go so far that I can’t find my way back.’ 

‘Wish I could say the same.’

And during an uncomfortable conversation:
Like two experienced synchronised swimmers we raised our cups of coffee at the same time, staring furiously at each other. Neither of us liked what he saw and we didn’t try to conceal it.
And sadly Veum breaks his resolution not to drink:
‘You can allow yourself one glass.’ 

‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’
The little housing co-op is an important part of the book: much is made of the coloured houses, the closeness of the group, the function room where the New Year’s Eve party above is being held, the atmosphere and undercurrents of the group.
The five houses had been built in a kind of horseshoe shape. The tall two-storey facades, painted in strong contrasting colours, and the gently pitched roofs to the back betrayed their 1970s origins. The house forming the base of the horseshoe was the biggest. It had been painted red, as was one of the others; two were yellow and one was white.
And pictures of Bergen houses suggest that these colours were not unusual.

Where Roses Never Die 1Where Roses Never Die 2

I thought it was a marvellous book, I loved it. I’m faintly concerned by the fact that this was the 19th book about Veum: I don’t have time to commit to a new series! But it would be quite wrong to take against Staalesen (or his translator Don Bartlett, who seems very good) on those grounds. The tropes of this book are familiar, we’ve all read many books with similar setups, similar PIs, similar families, similar investigations. But Staalesen takes the ingredients and makes something magical from them, something very different. He surely deserves this prize.

The main picture is a shoe advert from 1977, and suggests a party very similar to the one going on in Bergen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

published 1934


Hell Said the Duchess

At this Mrs. Nautigale’s expression became so distraught that it was as though the powerful edifice of her face was being demolished with a view to structural alterations. As she dived once again on to the helpless reclining Mary, and as Miss Gool left the room, Wingless took the opportunity of doing very quickly and quietly what he thought he had to do.

Signing to Mrs. Nautigale to keep Mary occupied, his fingers searched deftly among the flimsy feminine things in her drawers and cupboards. From beneath a cloud of dainty knickers, the touch of which made him feel like a bull among ospreys, he drew out and slipped into his breast-pocket a slender blade about six inches in length curiously attached to a short handle which had been encased in rubber.

Then, kissing Mary affectionately and telling Mrs. Nautigale not to let her out of her sight until she was safely in Dr. Lapwing’s charge, he left the house for Scotland Yard.

commentary: We haven’t heard the last of these knickers. The following events are part of some riots in London.
Thus the charming but private details of a gentlewoman’s bedchamber became the derided objects of the rioters’ lust, and the coarse hands of the mob delighted to destroy the flimsy fabrics of a duchess’s intimate toilet. While London, on that wretched day, was not spared the degrading spectacle of Englishmen wearing in broad daylight a lady’s knickers as fancy headgear. 

But worse was yet to come…presently when a column of Fascists marched into Grosvenor Square from Carlos Place they were met by the disgusting spectacle of common men and women wearing on their heads the chamber-pots of some of the proudest families in England.
THESE were the images from the book I really wanted to show – but sadly no suitable pictures could be found.

I got hold of this book after recently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links, which begins with a discussion of the 'Hell! Said the duchess' phrase – supposedly invented by a writer as the perfect eye-catching opening to a story, combining snob and shock value. (Christie gives it as a ‘well-known anecdote’.) I was fairly certain Arlen (a blog favourite) had written something with that title – but it turned out to be 11 years after the Christie. And it seemed like a good idea to read it.

It’s a novella, strange and discomfiting but very funny. There’s a spot of alternative history – London in the 30s has been taken over by Mosleyite Fascists, though this doesn’t seem essential to the plot. The Duchess, who has the excellent name of Mary Dove*, is a respectable young widow of the finest morals, a beautiful lady who does good works and goes to bed early. Except… It seems that she (or someone who looks just likes her) is out and about misbehaving in louche parts of London. And then things get worse – murders are committed by a sex-crazed Jane the Ripper:
It was, of course, obvious that this female fiend could not be an Englishwoman.
But soon it can no longer be ignored that there is evidence against the Duchess:
“It might be faked. It must be faked. Here is one of the best-bred and loveliest women in the world——” 

“So was Messalina.” 

“I am not talking about a Frenchwoman, but about the most gracious lady in England…”

The investigation goes forward – there is some funny business about the Duchess’s maid, and there is a very sinister man around:
“…He was proved beyond all doubt to be a man more gross and more depraved than any other man you ever heard of.” 

“What were these offences, Crust?” 

“Sir, I would not sully your ears.” 

“You do an injustice to the Colonel’s clubs,” said Icelin. “His ears have been sullied by experts.” 

“The man,” said Crust indignantly, “was a sapphist and a nymphomaniac.” 

“Must be an acrobat,” said Wingless. 
“He means,” said Icelin, “sadist and erotomaniac.” 

“Sir,” said Crust warmly, “that’s as may be, but this man Axaloe was a downright shocking chap, that’s what he was. You never heard of such goings on, and what those poor ladies must have suffered—or should have suffered if they had been brought up right—doesn’t bear thinking of…” 
 (I suppose there were writers of the era who might have expressed these sentiments entirely seriously, so I should point out that there can be no doubt of Arlen’s satirical intent throughout.)

The climax comes at a cottage in Leatherhead – Arlen always very good at picking the right Home Counties location for an event - owned by a seldom-seen recluse, who only went out at night and was known to be interested in research.

What started as a crime book tips into horror…. It’s a disconcerting mixture of fantasy and satire, in the end I didn’t know what to make of it, though it was a most entertaining read.

Michael Arlen’s most famous book is, always, The Green Hat – one of the original inspirations for this blog. He was of Armenian origin, but settled in Great Britain (and later America) and wrote unusual stories combining melodrama, satire, romance and sexiness in varying proportions. He was a best-selling writer in his day, but almost forgotten now.

*There is a character called Mary Dove in Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, first published in 1953. She is the housekeeper.

Friday, 11 August 2017

House of Secrets by Sarra Manning

published 2017

House of Secrets 2

[A young couple who have just moved into a long-empty house find a hidden suitcase]

House of Secrets 1Scuffed brown leather covered in old-fashioned labels from far away places. Paris. New York. Los Angeles. Zoe had seen similar luggage selling for stupid amounts of money in the chicest vintage shops of West London.

‘Should we open it?’ Win asked, but he had already snapped open the clasps and lifted up the lid before Zoe could tell tell him that they should drop it off at the vendor’s solicitor. Still, she leaned closer, intrigued, as Win took out a parcel wrapped in tissue paper, which disintegrated beneath his fingers. He shook out the folded fabric that was nestled inside.

It was a bottle-green dress cut on the bias. Zoe reached out a hand to gently touch the material. It was made of rayon or crepe, one of those old fabrics slightly rough to the touch…

HOuse of Secrets 3House of Secrets 4

commentary: I was lucky enough to go to a glamorous and sophisticated party to launch this book last night: I am of course open to being bribed with unusual cocktails, fizz, and fabulous canapes – but luckily there was no need. I had already read the book and absolutely loved it, so could consume everything on offer with a clear conscience. (I pretty much knew in advance that I would love it – see my enthusiastic post about Sarra Manning’s last book, After the Last Dance, here on the blog.)

This one has a great setup – two distinct storylines, one contemporary and one in the 1930s, linked by a London house in a way that isn’t revealed to begin with. Zoe and Win, above, have moved into a long-empty house, trying to rebuild their relationship after something went badly wrong. They are doing it up, even if Zoe sometimes feels that they’ll be
working long past retirement age, coach parties swinging past to take pictures of the house that hadn’t been lived in for 80 years, then had the builders in for another 40.
Meanwhile, more or less alternate chapters tell us the story of Libby, the owner of the green dress, knocking round 1930s London (not in the house of the title…) after an unfortunate series of events of her own. We first meet her, quite splendidly, acting as the fake adultery partner in a divorce case – a fascinating feature of 1930s life that also comes up, memorably, in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust, and is mentioned in Dorothy L Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon – see this blogpost for more details. (The arcane 30s divorce rules are laid out and explained in the book – I had never really understood them before.)

We follow the two stories in parallel – Zoe and Win are working out their own problems, while also trying to find out more about Libby, reading her diary which is in the suitcase, and watching the story unfold at the same time as we do. By the end there is a real cliffhanger about Libby’s story – I read a lot of crime novels, but few of them kept me as tense as waiting and hoping and dreading how things are going to pan out for Libby.

And, as in the earlier book, Sarra writes so well about women, and men, and their lives. These are real people, the kind you can imagine as your friends, they have faults and annoying traits, but they also have their charms and quirks. I thought the relationships in the book were very well done. When writing about After the Last Dance, I said about the heroine Rose
She is a great character – not a goody-goody, nor promiscuous, but somewhere in between. She is very sharp and smart and human. She also has an excellent interest in her clothes …
And that could apply to Libby too. 

There were various fine clothes moments in the book, but in the end I felt I had to go with Libby’s cherished green dress, which she wore to be married in. The drawing is from a collection of NYPL fashion illustrations of the 1930s. The photograph, from Kristine’s photostream, is a little too late, but seemed to be the right kind of green dress, and the mysterious head in shadow is in the spirit of the plot.

I took some photos at the booklaunch, but as is traditional with me they were all unusably terrible, so the photo of Sarra above is from her Twitter feed. She is a great friend to this blog – we met online, and are constantly swapping book recommendations. Thus, she has cost me a lot of money over the years – because anything she recommends I immediately buy – but I do forgive her….

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Mysteries of blogging, and amdram

Art of Coarse Acting cover

Several years of books blogging have taught me one thing: I can never, ever predict which entries will provoke the most and best response. Hanging out the Washing is the prime example of a post that I truly thought would be of no interest to anyone but me, and turned out to be one of my most-loved, most shared, and most commented on. As it goes, everyone likes washing lines, and they all had great suggestions for further reading.

Then there's the whole question of bed jackets, and posts and comments that are an endless source of joy to me and many more. 

ARt of Coarse ActingWintle’s Wonders – an obscure Noel Streatfeild children’s book – was another winner. Half of those loving the post were the discerning readers who knew that although her Ballet Shoes is iconic and untouchable, Wonders is an intriguing and more real story, with one of the great slaps in all fiction (Hilary, we love you).

The other half – with perhaps some overlap – were those who recognized the sewing pattern I used to illustrate Rachel’s audition dress: they had made it, or their mother had, they had worn it and loved it in their youth.

What could be more satisfying for a books/clothes blogger than such a reaction?

This: after reading a ballet book for grown ups (by Noel Streatfeild, by coincidence, Pirouette, written under her Susan Scarlett name, blogpost last Friday) I remembered and looked at some other ballet books, and came up with a very casual post on mysterious scenes featuring tights/stockings for dancers in the days before lycra: how did they stay up?

This has now become my most shared and RT-ed post, with comment and social media attention from all over.

As one kind RT-er put it:

The answer turned out to involve pennies and elastic.

And then things got even better. The coins in the waistband trick was used by other performers too, and blog favourite Lissa Evans remembered that this was a feature in The Art of Coarse Acting by Michael Green: a comedy classic about amateur dramatics. I still had a copy on my shelf and I and various other Twitter friends (Sian Notley, looking at you)  spent the evening remembering our favourite bits, with me being called on to find and post some of the better pages, all of us falling about with laughter. I then had to re-read the whole book, and found it even funnier than I remembered. Michael Green was a comic genius, and I would mistrust anyone who didn’t find the book hysterically funny.

He writes for the am-dram characters who can’t remember their lines, blunder into the scenery, and really just want to get to the pub before it shuts: the subtitle of the book is ‘How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society.

There are artful reminsciences of Unpleastantnesses in theatres all over Britain, and anecdotes concerning his friends Askew (and his unfortunate sister Maureen) and Watkins. Anyone who has ever been to the theatre would find this book amusing. But it IS artful too, not just slapstick. Green describes an all-purpose Coarse Costume (note the tights – not enough coins used there…)

Art of Coarse 2

Art of Coarse Acting 4

And then he gives a list of the parts for which it suitable. This is  nothing more than half a page of character names, the small roles of Shakespeare. That’s all it is, but it is just hilarious, I cannot read it without laughing, but I don’t know why. Is it because it sums up the whole of Shakespeare in half a page? Is it the strange existence of King Lear and Corpse of Henry V, in the middle of the servitors, two of Timon’s creditors, another poet and a Pander? Who knows.

Art of Coarse 3

I could keep quoting the whole book, but instead you should each go out and get your own copy. Enjoyment guaranteed.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Petrona Remembered: A Prize-Winning Book

Today’s entry appears on the website Petrona Remembered, here.

I always say the same thing when the question of Maxine comes up, but that doesn’t make it any less true: I didn’t know Maxine Clarke, Petrona, for long, but she made a big impression on me. She was kind and generous and very welcoming to a new blogger – she was part of a group of crime fiction fans who very kindly invited me into their circle. The others are friends to this day, and we all miss Maxine, who should still be here.

So I am always very glad to contribute to the website created in her memory, and feel particularly honoured that this time I am doing a book chosen for Maxine – but also the book that won this year’s Petrona prize in her memory.

Where Roses Never Die

by Gunnar Staalesen

(Published 2016.Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett).

To read my review, head over to the Petrona Remembered website – and do take a look at the other reviews listed while you are there. The site is a treasure trove of recommendations for good books.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Ballet Secrets

Ballet Books:


.Ballet Buttons 4

Noel Streatfeild/Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette, on the blog on Friday, is about the older lives of young women at ballet school. It’s a book aimed at adults, but it took me back to the stories I read as a young adult: Streatfeild’s books were my favourites, but there wasn’t an endless supply, so I read others, such as the one below. I couldn’t remember the title or author, just had some shadowy idea that there was a mystery to be solved (aha! early attraction to crime fiction, the joy of my grown-up years) – and a memory of one very peculiar passage. I could recall it very clearly because it was so odd. 

A modest amount of rootling around on the internet gave me the title, and a second-hand copy was soon heading my way. I enjoyed reading it again, and was really pleased to find the passage – and to find it made no more sense now than it did then. I had no idea what the girls were doing with their silk legwear, the elastic and the pennies, I couldn’t visualize it at all:

The Ballet School Mystery Constance B White

[the pupils at the ballet school are getting ready for a dancing exam]

“Janice, I hope you have the coins for the tights?” 
“Yes, Madame.” Janice opened a bag and disclosed a handful of pennies, which she distributed. 
Off came the panama hats, the blazers and cotton frocks. On went the silk tights, each to be fastened securely with pennies and yards of elastic. Under the thin silk at the top of each leg went a penny, a twist round with elastic, then up to the waist, round and down again to another penny; four in all. Not a wrinkle must be seen on this great occasion. Last of all, on went the brief white fluffy-skirted tutus with their satin bodices moulding the figure. 
“It’s just like trussing up a fowl”” grumbled Sonia. “I shall be surprised if I can plie at all!" 
“What would you, child? Have the legs looking like concertinas?” Madame shrugged her shoulders expressively.

Ballet buttons 1

I couldn’t find any real information about this business, but I did find references to it in two other books. This first one seems to be a how-to book about putting on a show - Marguerite Steen,  Peepshow:

You lay the penny inside your tights a little below your waist level, and give it a firm twist so that the stuff is bunched into a short neck, and the penny looks like a button. Now pull your elastic down and give it a simple twist round the ‘neck’ of your penny which it will hold in position by its own tightness. Repeat this process at each side and in the middle of your back (someone else has to help you there), and when the elastic is looped round the four pennies, your tights ought to be quite steady and show no wrinkles from top to toe. Do not, however, sit down if you can help it until you go on the stage because the material is bound to give a little…

Ballet buttons 2

The next one comes from The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon by Tina Sutton – a biography of the dancer Alicia Markova. This is in the early days:
As Markova’s feet were so tiny, the stockings needed to be hiked up, stitched to a makeshift belt, and somehow affixed to her waist. She remembered an old pantomime costume trick of sewing pennies inside a waistband, as the weight in a tightly-tied sash kept the legs from bagging. Guggy finished stitching her in just before she took to the stage.
‘It seemed a very precarious business to Ballet Buttons 3me,’ Markova laughingly recalled. ‘I went on far more nervous of whether the pennies would drop out, than whether I should remember the difficult routine I had to dance. Sure enough, on the first lift in the pas de deux there was a dreadful clang, and I trembled, not daring to look down. Imagine my relief when I saw that it was my partner Efimov’s belt. I really should not have been so relieved as he used this to keep up his tights and the catastrophe was much worse!’
He had to leave the stage, while she danced on her own till he could return.

So I’m guessing that this is one of those things that every dancer (and many other performers) would have known all about – but they took it for granted, and it was never pictured or described, being what we would now call a hack. Presumably the arrival of lycra and similar developments made all this unnecessary.

The two line drawings were the nearest I could find to showing how it worked, but I don’t know that I’m much the wiser for seeing them. I’m hoping that perhaps the ballerina adjusting her tights in the picture is doing so with some coins…

… and I’m hoping even more that one of my knowledgeable readers may be able to add something to my meagre knowledge of this.

The picture of a ballerina adjusting her tights is by Toulouse Lautrec.

Picture is of Markova, from the NYPL.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Pirouette by Susan Scarlett/Noel Streatfeild

published 1948

Pirouette 1

There is something about a first night from the point of view of the artist that no-one but the artist can eve know. Judith arrived early at the theatre. Le Spectre de la Rose was the second item on the programme….

The stage showed a bedroom. On the left of the stage was a wide open window through which gleamed the night sky. The critics in the bar had been right when they said that a revival of that particular ballet was a doubtful project for, owing to the dancing of the two originals, it was almost a legend…

However a quality in Judith was essentially right. She was still so young and still had the mystery of youth clinging to her. Danoff had not the poetry or the romanticism to give, after his first spectacular entrance, complete satisfaction to the balletomanes. But in his dance with the sleeping girl, because of the right quality in Judith, the two of them achieved great beauty. When Danoff finally leapt out of the window leaving her in her chair and she woke, the expression on her face as she went over the dream in her mind, and the virginal smile as she lifted the rose to her lips, brought sighs of pleasure from the audience. When the curtain fell there was a pause. Then, like a crack, applause swept through the audience.

commentary: The picture above IS the original couple: Nijinsky dancing in Le Spectre de la Rose, with Tamara Karsavina, from the NYPL collection. This may be a legendary dance production, but here on the blog we are even more impressed that this was the role that inspired Cedric’s costume at the grand ball in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate: there is a full entry on this here, with links back to previous posts (we also researched his costume as Doris Keane in Romance…). Wonderful blog commenter Ken had given us the detail that:
His costume was covered with silk rose-petals that were touched up with a curling iron every night
- one of the best clothes-facts I have learned since I started the blog.

Noel Streatfeild is revered for her children’s books: her adult novels like this one, written under the name Susan Scarlett, can be more problematic. Pirouette is no Ballet Shoes, but it has some surprising points of interest. It is about young women who have been training for the ballet their whole lives, and are reaching the point where they will find out if they have what it takes. It is laid out pretty clearly: Judith, our heroine, is starting to get better parts, but has also fallen in love. She has a very pushy stage mother, who is neglecting the rest of the family, so perhaps it isn’t Judith who really wants to be a star.

Meanwhile Judith’s friend Nadia fears the worst – she is talented, beautiful and hard-working, but she is also quite tall. She speaks very eloquently about the waste of giving training to many young women for many years when only a small proportion of them can ever succeed. She says she wishes someone had warned her of that possibility, and that the ending when it came hadn’t been quite so harsh. She is bitter, but also positive. She also


proposes to the man she loves, with great honesty and admirable straightforwardness. She wants to get married, she has a clear idea of her new future, and she makes sure she gets what she wants.

Judith is more conflicted: It is hard to think of Streafeild’s child heroines being so ambivalent about the career/marriage choice. Petrova in Ballet Shoes didn’t want to dance, but she wanted a quite different and very proper career, and marriage didn’t come into it. Hilary in the superb Wintle’s Wonders – full of talent but happy to be in the chorus and looking forward to having children – is the nearest example, but she is much more entertaining and fun than Judith, who is rather tiresome.

It is not anything like Streatfeild’s best book, but the descriptions of the older life in ballet school, and London in the late 1940s, are interesting. Judith’s love interest is much more upmarket than she is, and there is this passage when he takes her to a posh hotel to eat. She says
“I haven’t got gloves or anything, do you think I ought to put my hat on?” 
Paul thought restaurants were there to serve you and what you saw fit to wear should please the restaurant. Of course there were the few who flapped around saying nobody could come in except in evening dress, but he could not believe that any girl needed advice as to whether she should put her hat on or not.
A strange mixture of proper feeling, common sense, and a complete lack of empathy with his companion: one should not pretend that those things didn’t matter in 1948.

Later Paul is unhappy and ‘looks like food poisoning on toast’, an excellent expression.

Judith’s final decision, and the comments on women’s roles, housewives, mothers and the routes to true happiness – well all these things were very much of their time. They can seem quite shocking to modern readers, but there is no denying that they probably did represent many women’s views at the time.

Reading this book did take me back to the ballet school stories of my youth – with results that will appear in a different entry.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh

published 1953

Spinsters in Jeopardy

When she awoke, it was to see a strange lady perched, like some fantastic fowl, on the balustrade near Ricky’s seat. Her legs, clad in scarlet pedal-pushers, were drawn up to her chin which was sunk between her knees. Her hands, jewelled and claw-like, with vermilion talons, clasped her shins, and her toes protruded from her sandals like branched corals. A scarf was wound around her skull Spinsters in Jeopardy 2and her eyes were hidden by sun-glasses in an enormous frame below which a formidable nose jutted over a mouth whose natural shape could only be conjectured. When she saw Troy was awake and on her feet she unfolded herself, dropped to the floor and advanced with a hand extended. She was six feet tall and about forty-five to fifty years old.

commentary: Jane Austen herself (never married, and ever aware of the financial disadvantages of that state) is not more horrified by older women than Ngaio Marsh. They can’t win. Another older lady in the book is described in disgusted detail, including this:
has no relations in the world and wears a string bag on her head

Spinsters in Jeopardy 3

This is, it would seem, a hairnet or snood, which is perfectly normal and was used by many women, as both Marsh and the (always alleged to be wonderfully charming and polite) Troy would know perfectly well.

The description of Miss Truebody’s sweat, grey hair, false teeth and missing eyebrows is pointless and unpleasant. She  is about 50, incidentally, like the one above.

But then the lady above, who might be thought to be making more of an effort, is equally not going to escape the beady Marsh eye – she is going to sunbathe and we are told that her
spinal vertebrae looked like those of a flayed snake.
She is ‘wildly and unpleasingly displayed’, she was ‘an uncomfortable spectacle.’ And then there are the ‘skull’ (why? why not head?) and talons above.

Marsh herself was 58 when his book was published. Her disdain for older women can be found throughout her books, and is not attractive.

As you may be guessing, I did not enjoy Spinsters in Jeopardy much. It is more of a thriller than a murder story – Inspector Alleyn, his wife Troy and their appalling son Ricky are travelling in the south of France, and get caught up with nefarious goings-on in a mysterious chateau. It starts something like Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington: a serious-looking event glimpsed from a train. There are two clear villains, whom we are invited to disapprove of from the first moment. Her general disapproval (of men and ladies) is very wearing: she chooses these people to write about (and they are cartoons) and then tells us how awful they are: nice people like the Alleyns will shudder.

I couldn’t get interested in the plot, but became increasingly infuriated by the Alleyn family. The awful inspector is now revealed as someone who can administer anaesthetics for an operation on the kitchen table, and then suddenly tells us that he is also an amateur poet (Inspector Dalgliesh, you were pre-owned). Troy is our Greatest Living Artist, but frightfully modest, so in this book the wealthy art collector turns out to have one of her pictures in the library (a repeated and excruciating trope in the books). The picture is of the unspeakable Ricky, a baby-talking and horrible child. At one point he is in jeopardy: I felt free to wish him out of the plot for longer, at the very least.

Marsh can be so funny and clever and satirical, but there is very little evidence of it in this book. I liked this: there is talk of wicked rituals, and a description of a cloth:
‘There were other things in the pattern that one does not see in altar cloths.’  
‘The hoof prints of Anathema!’ Raoul ejaculated.
And there is a splendid description of the shop that sells self-illuminating statues, including a Christmas nativity scene:
Old Marie shouted: ‘Look, Mademoiselle, the Holy Child illuminates himself. And the beasts! One would say the she-ass almost burst herself with good milk. And the lamb is infinitely touching. And the ridiculous price! I cannot bring myself to charge more. It is an act of piety on my part.’
I have been working my way through the books, and wonder if it is mostly downhill from here? I’ve already blogged on the next one, Scales of Justice, surely a return to form, but after that? Any Ngaio Marsh fans (looking at you Lucy Fisher) who can tell me if there are good ones left?

Lady in red pedal pushers, and lady in headscarf both from Kristine’s photostream.

The snood is from the Library of Congress, she is a Rosie the Riveter, wearing a net for health and safety reasons.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

published 2017

You Will Know Me

[After an injury, doctors recommend 4-year-old Devon tries gymnastics]

By the end of her first month, Devon had graduated to Tiny Tumblerz, and within a year, Devon was the gym’s VIP, her cubbyhole sprayed silver and festooned with sticker stars.

Watching her on the practice beam, Katie would think This piece of wood is four inches wide, two feet in the air. Four inches. And I’m going to let my daughter plant her dimpled feet on that and do kicks and dips?

“Do the O,” the other girls would say, cheering as Devon arched her back from a handstand until her tiny bottom touched the top of her head. Every now and then Eric would lift her up in the air to see if her backbone was really there.

Prodigy, Katie whispered in her most private thoughts, but never said it aloud.

And so gymnastics became the center, the mighty spine of everything for them.

Devon turning five, six, seven, thousands of hours driving to and from the gym, to and from meets, a half a dozen emergency room visits for the broken toe, knee sprain, elbow popping on the mat, seven stitches after Devon fell from the bars….

commentary: This is first book I have read by this author, so I don’t know if it is typical - I was expecting more of a straight crime novel, which is hardly the author’s fault.

It is set in the world of teenage girls’ gymnastics in the US, and the descriptions were simultaneously far too detailed, strangely gripping, and all-too-convincing: Abbott plainly really knows her stuff. The Knox family has completely given itself over to pushing Devon onwards - she is almost 16, and could be capable of going all the way to the Olympics. There are crushing descriptions of the way these plans eat up money, time, family life. But there is also a whole community of other young girls involved at the gym, girls who are much less talented, and their families too. And yet - everyone will benefit if Devon succeeds, the gym will become more important and exclusive and luxurious, and its owner will make more money.
The rising tide lifts all boats…
And so the bitchy, gossipy parents all work to raise money, they get drunk together and behave indiscreetly. And they all know that it’s important not to rock that ever-rising boat.

When someone dies in a hit and run accident, the main consideration seems to be that practice sessions shouldn’t be affected. But the death is going to have complex implications…

Any experienced crime reader won’t have any trouble passing through two false trails to work out what actually happened (most unusually, I felt irritated by the slowness of people to realize what was going on). And the final resolution was ruthless and quite shocking, but rather believable.

There’s a portentous tone, a lack of humour and charm - it would be interesting to see what Liane Moriarty (writing about similar milieux in Australia) would make of this material. And the details of life of the gymnasts made me rather queasy. (and also confused – when I read ‘When I saw that Yurchenko, my heart almost stopped’ I assumed this was a rival gymnast looking too good. But actually it is an important vault move, though it was originally named after a gymnast.)

I did laugh at the ‘sleek purple jacket… called a Glamorak’, though apparently this is a common term. And the best bit of the book described a visit away for the whole club, and how it ended in a row between two people:
An hour later, all the Belstars and booster chaperones looked on from their balconies at the Ramada as Hailey and Ryan, resplendent as a pair of movie stars, bucked and brawled down by the pool…
I could have done with more of that kind of thing.

But one amazon reviewer of this book made a very helpful comment:
Abbot does creeping unease very well, imbuing a sense of wrongness in her narrative, even though the denouement is easy to see from way off, despite the careful placing of red herrings. But we don't read Abbott for her crime plots: once again she succeeds in plumbing dark female sensibilities, probing issues of love and dependency, erotic possession and freedom.
- and that seemed like a good description.

A very interesting writer. And a memorable writer. I will not be looking at young female gymnasts in the same way…

My friend Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has also reviewed this book. Paula Daly’s highly enjoyable The Trophy Child also looked at over-achieving children and the dynamics of their families.