29 May 2008

Soft-Boiled Crime

Murderer's Maze by John Marsh 1957

This is a lightweight hardback in a dustjacket that is as tatty as the bombed-out plot of post-war Soho that it depicts. I like the cover art, and the guy in the trench coat with the grim expression promises a cracking good yarn.

First thing on a random opening is the line "Who will you say I am? A pick-up from Harridges?" From this I detect that the moral boundaries of the day are going to be tested a little. (A pick-up indeed!) Also, perhaps to avoid giving offence by placing real institutions into the hopefully salacious world of irredeemable sleaze that I am about to encounter, a flimsy disguise has been put onto any place names - in this instance by creating a hybrid of Harrods and Selfridges.

Leaf through: no pictures, about 190 pages and clear enough type that it will probably take only three or four sessions for the average reader to get through. Perfect for airport or bus station.

The front bits tell me that this is a first edition (I doubt there were any more) dating from 1957. The publisher John Gifford produced quite a lot of pulp detective stuff through the 50s and early 60s, including the great Vernon Warren.

Looking into it. Having spent the requisite three or four sessions whizzing through this, I have come to the conclusion that John Marsh is probably a psuedonym used by Enid Blyton when she felt like knocking out a crime novel.

Basically there's a villain who has built a vast underground headquarters beneath a bomb site in Soho where, with the help of some hastily sketched ne'er-do-wells, he plots the robbery of a vising foreign dignitary's jewels. Our hero is a sensible drinker and private eye named Felton who is brought out of a long sulk about the back-story death of his wife when he stumbles upon this case in the process of helping a charming Australian girl clear her dead brother's name after a war-time spying scandal.

There's a romance between the girl and her brother's one-time RAF pal Martin (a simpering foil to the rugged Felton), plenty of hiding in cupboards and overhearing dastardly plans and a bruised hero who strolls off at the end of the book with gratitude ringing in his ears

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is what it says about publishers' gauging of the 1950s crime-reading public. It could be that the audience for the real thing as delivered by Chandler, Hammet or Simenon with his extraordinary psychological insights was considered to be a sophisticated niche. The general readership wanted something that was easier to get a handle on, that was not morally ambiguous and, above all, something that wasn't really 'dirty'.

For a book with the trappings of a hard-boiled detective story, it is incredibly coy - the sort of book that spells 'damn!' 'd--n!'. In fact I'd quite like to know what hideously offensive word has been bleeped in the following quote that occurs during a scrap between a couple of the ne'er-do-wells:

"Put that blade away," someone else shouted, throwing down knife and fork and jumping up.

"It's time someone carved the s____'s heart out!" another man yelled.

17 May 2008

Hats off to Madame Eva

THE A B C OF MILLINERY by Madame Eva Ritcher 1951

This is a smallish hardback in green boards that must once have had a dustjacket and, by the look of the smudged-out number at the base of the spine, was probably in a library of some sort. Madame Eva Ritcher. That's a name to conjure with and I hope the hats in here do her justice.

First thing on a random opening is in the list of illustrations. "Plate 21 Pulling the first piece of sparterie round the block." This is a streetfighting milliner.

Leaf through: There's lots of photos. Some portraits of ladies in hats. They do do Madame Ritcher justice. It's a bit like a Royal Ascot flicker book. There are some how-to photos as well, and a lot of line drawings. There is also a faint purple library stamp on a couple of pages - L.C.C. South East London Technical College.

The front bits
tell me that this was published in 1950, reprinted in 1951 (Festival of Britain year). The portrait photos are by Lenare who was photographer to the toffs of the time. There is an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen.

Looking into it. For novelist Elizabeth Bowen (whose work has been described in her own words as being about those 'who live life with the lid on') there was an 'intense importance' attached to millinery, the art of which was no less than an 'enchanted mystery'.

The book is for the 'laywoman' and the reader whose 'fingers have itched to attempt millinery'. Apparently, Madame Ritcher is adept at making a woman 'hat-conscious'. But Elizabeth Bowen has a warning: 'Hat-consciousness in a vacuum - that is to say, without a good hat to wear - could be a frustrated, unhappy state.' With Madame Ritcher's guidance, that is an agony her readers will be able to avoid.

Apart from some homely advice to work with the best materials you can afford and not to attempt advanced techniques before you have mastered the basics, Madame Ritcher's own voice is strangely absent from this book. I had hoped to find some plummy tones or some withering comments about bad taste, but this is actually a well-organised and thorough how-to book. And it's probably still pretty useful to any hat-makers out there today.