The ten year party (1920s-1930s interior design)

Our current nostalgia for the 1920s is ironic, considering that style moderne (later known as Art Deco) was all about abandoning the past. After the Great War, interior designers in Paris began to create a style that was modern and geometric. Europe wanted to forget the bloody occupation, years of rationing, and agonizing loss of life, and Paris did it with a bang. Why not throw a 10 year party?

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Bedroom set from the Great Gatsby, photo from Architectural Digest

Designer Catherine Martin’s vision of the 1920s in the Great Gatsby is nothing short of swoon-worthy. Imagine living in this house with its geometric patterns and lavish materials. Each morning I’d go up that serpentine staircase singing like a Disney cartoon character.

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The Carlyle Hotel in New York, photo from their site

The Carlyle is a New York landmark. Another irony of the decade is that what we associate most with the 1920s was mostly built in the 1930s. The Carlyle was built in the 1930s and has 188 Art Deco-styled rooms and suites. This enormous lobby with glossy black floor, striking orange couches, and glittering gold details must take a small army to keep clean.

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Buckhead House in Atlanta, photo by Emily Followill

This last photo isn’t quite historically accurate. This is a 1920s house in Atlanta that was modernized and redecorated in 2016. But look at those tall, elegant arched doorways with glass-doors that open onto a pale green room – that detail is just perfect to me.

I can find something to love about all eras of interior design, especially mid century modern, but Art Deco will forever hold a special place in my heart.

What’s your dream era?

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Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham

A classic British mystery blending danger, suspense and eerieness. 

After Traitor’s Purse, this is my favourite Campion mystery. It combines just the right amount of mystery, danger and comraderie with a spookiness that remains with you even after the puzzles are solved.

The story opens with a constable handed a shilling to a poverty-stricken young man. Visible means of support was required to avoid arrest, and the constable has known the young man in his better days.

Val is homeless after being estranged from his father – it is just one of Campion’s jobs to return the young man to the ancestral home. More importantly, he must protect the Gyrth Chalice that has been in Val’s family for centuries.

Campion doesn’t share many details, even with his beloved servant and former burglar Lugg. If you’ve not read a Campion mystery, it is the chemistry between these two that makes the series so delightful. Campion’s amiable, vacuous personality conceals a brilliant mind. He’s inclined to make light of danger and act foolish, so the trucculent motherliness of Lugg provides a beautiful counterweight.

But this mystery is a doozy and puts both of them in extreme peril. The evil people seeking the chalice could be any number of vague people. What do the priceless chalice, the death of Val’s foolish aunt, a secret society and a living nightmare have in common?

These are the trials that Campion and Lugg must face, along with Val, his lovely sister Penny and a host of other well-rounded characters. In their quest to save the chalice, they must face the stuff of nightmares in a spooky old wood and survive multiple scores of violence.

This book more so than even Christie or Marsh mysteries thrusts you deep into the English countryside. Somehow it takes you deep into a tiny village in the post-war 1920s while simultaneously layering in the spell of a much older England.

Like our Sam Gamgee said that Lothlorien was like being inside an elven song, so is Look to the Lady like being transported into something quintessentially English.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A classic locked room mystery featuring a bold, devious murder in mid air.

Somehow an old woman is murdered on a flight from Paris to London in plain view of several passengers. What might have passed as a death by wasp sting is foiled by the presence of Hercule Poirot.

Mr. Poirot is not just any detective. To most mystery readers, Agatha Christie is legend. Arguably her most treasured creation is Hercule Poirot, a short Belgian with a beautiful mustache and a penchant for truth and absolute symmetry. In this case, Poirot is one of the suspects (although not very seriously) when a murder is committed behind his back.

The murder by exotic blowpipe is so boldly, imaginatively executed that the Chief Inspector Japp is positively insulted. And yet, despite Japp’s insisting it to be mere luck, our favourite OCD detective Poirot says we must judge the end result. It is a successful murder.

This time Poirot is not accompanied by the sweet Hastings, who is a chivalrous bundle of passion and kindness, a Watson-like figure. Instead we have a French detective who believes in the psychological elements of a crime, unlike Japp, yet even he begins to doubt Poirot at times.

Despite Poirot’s frequent cry of ‘the grey cells’ and his disdain for rushing around, he does just that in this book. He follows and questions suspects, persuades them to do things for him, hunts for evidence, and generally gets so involved that it’s impossible to determine who he’s after. This one kept me guessing until the end.

Sometimes cozy murderers are sympathetic, especially when the victim turns out to be a blackmailer. But this murderer is pretty well heartless and ruthless, without even a shred of conscience…

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

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An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

traitorA brilliant mystery – how does a man with amnesia unmask a national conspiracy?

I fell in love with Albert Campion on the TV series, but years ago I really disliked The Affair at Black Dudley (the first Campion). I don’t know if it was just bad book timing, but after reading Traitor’s Purse I feel I have been missing out!

This is one of her finest books according to many and I can see why. The book plunges straight into the plot – a man wakes up in a hospital, overhears that he’s killed a policeman and will hang for it. He makes a dash for it, physically and emotionally weak, all the while desperate to remember what conspiracy he was about to unmask. His only clue is the number 15.

And if that plot weren’t enough, the writing is beautiful. Campion struggles to fake his way through situations, wondering if each person he meets is the shadowy villain. We see his newly discovered love for a woman he’s already lost and his haunting terror that he will not be in time to prevent a national tragedy.

Swinging wildly between a creature of primitive emotions and an uppercrust man of intelligence and manners, we can’t help but wonder which is the real Campion? Will the two halves of his fractured mind meet in time to save England?

I was fortunate enough to get a version by The Folio Society, a London publisher who republishes old classics in utterly gorgeous bindings and with stunning illustrations. Anyone who loves books should own at least one folio edition.

Death Mask by Ellis Peters

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Amazing classic British mystery, elegant and well-written, engrossing characters. 

I opened this book yesterday afternoon intending to read a chapter but it was well past my bedtime when I put it down. The first sentence was a tad long but by the second paragraph I was hooked – the protagonist Evelyn has just run into Dorothy, a woman he hasn’t seen for sixteen years. Their last meeting was when she refused his marriage proposal.

But this is not a romantic story. It is a deeply intriguing look into the dark corners of a not fully formed human mind. What is driving Dorothy’s estranged son Crispin to get kicked out of every school and refuse every tutor? Is it something to do with the death of his father on a dig in Greece?

How Evelyn tries to win Crispin’s trust and figure that puzzle out both emotionally and logically makes for fascinating reading. But even more fascinating is how Ellis Peters captured the juxtaposition of little kid and remorseless adult in Crispin, who is spiraling ever closer to a very deadly climax…

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

whiteAn old-fashioned and twisty British crime classic.

This is the first mystery novel (and second novel) for a brilliant mystery writer. It is surprisingly well put together for such an early effort. It doesn’t feature her charming Albert Campion, but instead an avuncular older detective W.T. and his Watson-like son Jerry. The story is more old-fashioned than her others, it reminds me rather of Agatha Christie’s shorter stories but it is novella length.

W.T. is called in on a case of murder – a neighbor has wandered into another man’s house and been shot. From the start it becomes clear that everyone absolutely hates the man and has a motive. The man is even crueler than the average unlikable victim, and a kind of blackmailer who enjoys torturing his victims rather than making money from it.

The suspects are all unique. In the house we find the brimstone and fervour of the servant Estah, the nervous and charming Mrs. Christensen with her little daughter, her feisty sister, and the handicapped war hero husband Mr. Christensen. In the dead man’s household we have the grimy, worm-like Lacy and the mysteriously vanished Mr. Cellini. All have excellent motives and in some cases quite good alibis.

Moving between England and France, the novel does a good job setting the scene without a lot of details. W.T. is very kindly and intelligent, he presses for the truth. His son Jerry is much more the muscle-bound Watson or Hastings, an invaluable help to W.T. but a victim of his own emotions. (Ah, always Hastings you fall for the auburn haired girls!)

The plot is a simple one but continues to open up confusing little twists and sends you scurrying from one suspect to another along with W.T.  I did not predict the ending but like any classic Golden Age novel, it provides an ah-ha moment.

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester

cover87931-medium (1)A historically significant classic crime book featuring an early female sleuth. 

Published by the fabulous Poisoned Pen PressThe Female Detective is a great find for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction. Originally published in 1864, I’ve heard it claimed this is the first or one of the first female detective books.

The main protagonist is a sort of female Sherlock Holmes who is vastly independent and courageous for the era.

She holds to truth and justice at whatever the cost – even to an evil old man regaining his fortune from the kindest of people.

I had a hard time connecting to her emotionally but as a beginning for the long line of female detectives this is a classic work.

30-day e-book loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick

L_ISBN_9780712357029A sparkling tale of the first lady detective in England, brought back to print by the British Library.

This amusing story was first published in 1888. Ms. Miriam Lea is an engaging and delightful narrator. She is surprisingly sassy given that she is a woman in the late 1800s. Despite being down on her luck, she manages to secure a position as a detective for an agency.

She is soon travelling through the continent and headed to the diamond mines of South Africa to pursue an embezzler. There are many twists and turns in the case but I found myself both amused and a little disappointed by the ending. I suppose it was 1888 after all.

The book is written in diary form, which I usually detest but in this case it worked out quite well and made for a very fast read.

Strangely, Leonard Merrick never wrote another detective novel and went on to buy and destroy all the copies he could find. “It’s a terrible book. It’s the worst thing I ever wrote. I bought them all up and destroyed them. You can’t find any.”

Thankfully he didn’t get quite all of them.