- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Brand's first mystery, a charming and brilliant mystery, baffling, sly, and amusing.
Irene was always the first to arrive. At ten to nine precisely she clicked-to the door of her neat little, dull little bedsitt, and caught the tram for the corner. There was sure to be a crowd waiting for the bus, but if she got there a few minutes before nine it wasn't so bad and she could at least wedge herself in and be permitted to stand, one of five privileged sardines, clinging to a strap and fumbling with one over-occupied hand for the ever-elusive threepence. Usually a good many people got out at Warren Street, and she could nip into a seat before the bus filled up again. It was a struggle alighting at Oxford Circus, squeezing past the succeeding batch of sardines, but at last she was out and if all had gone to schedule (Irene was very fond of schedules), with five clear minutes in which to walk along Regent Street and down the area steps into the basement of Christophe et Cie.
Mrs. 'Arris, the charwoman, would be there already, flicking a casual duster over the office furniture. Upstairs in the great gleaming showroom, with its golden carpet and shimmering curtains, its crystal lights and flattering mirrors, the silver glittered and the parquet shone and the glass was clear and bright; but in the basement, where the gilded staircase gave way abruptly to an unwholesome chocolate brown, a flick and a promise would do; and a flick and a promise was all Mrs. 'Arris vouchsafed. She was usually dusting the cloakroom when Irene arrived, having planned her work so as to 'ave a bit of a chat with the girls while they changed into their overalls of elegant turquoise blue; Irene dreaded these chats but never failed to ask politely after Mrs. 'Arris's stomach, which was known to be an unruly member, and to listen with an air of sufficient interest to the history of its vagaries since the preceding day. "You really do have a bad time, Mrs. Harris, don't you?" she would say, patting into place her soft, dark hair, polishing up her neat little shoes; and, "Musern't grumble," Mrs. 'Arris would reply, who seldom did anything else.
Victoria, meanwhile, would be taking leave of her husband on a scale that suggested a parting of at least a week. Victoria's husband was a painter and, though his Christian name was James, was invariably referred to as Bobby Dazzler; they were accustomed to explain to anyone who would listen that Victoria had awakened one morning on their honeymoon and been quite dazed by his beauty; a tribute rather to devotion than to judgment, for the Dazzler, though a personable, was by no means a handsome young man. He looked less handsome than ever on this particular morning, clad in a pair of outsize green pyjamas, looking vaguely round the studio in search of her handbag. "You had it last night, because I remember you taking it out to pay the beer."
"Here it is," cried Victoria, snatching it up from behind a pile of canvases, and bestowing upon him a second impassioned embrace. She tightened a suspender, perched her hat at a perilous angle upon her shining head, and started off down the stairs. Half a minute later she was back: "Do remember to ring up your mother, darling, because if you don't she'll be certain to say it's my fault." The Dazzler promised that he would ring up his mother at once, decided to take one look at yesterday's picture before so doing, and five minutes later was hard at work on it.
Irene and Victoria and Rachel were the sales staff at Christophe et Cie. Rachel was big and dark and handsome in contrast to Victoria's golden frailty; she said as they met on the corner of Regent Street: "We're as late as hell, darling. Irene'll be in a flap."
Doon did not care whether she were late or not. Doon was in charge of the stockroom; she assisted with designs and chose materials and doled out needles and pins. Irene, watching through the great glass windows her unhurried progress toward the shop, supposed that it was her artistic temperament that caused her to indulge in the romantic garments, the strange silks and barbaric jewelry that became her so well. One had to admit that she "could wear" them; but Irene had been born and bred in a cathedral city and she had a deep distrust for artistic temperament. Victoria, now, she could draw quite as well as Doon and she had ever such a good eye for colour; but she was as natural and ordinary as could be. Rather irresponsible, of course, but then she was married to an artist and everybody knew what artists were. Irene's own husband' had been a bird fancier; a steady enough occupation you would have thought, but one of his less attractive fancies had pecked him on the hand and, blood-poisoning setting in, he had incontinently died, leaving Irene at twenty-five a widow and penniless. That was five years ago, and now she was in charge of the showroom at Christophe et Cie and with ever such a good chance of being sent to the new branch which Bevan was opening at Deauville ... she fell into a reverie in which highly coloured umbrellas grew out of flat, bright-yellow sand, and the air was drenched with Chanel Five.
Judy, the mannequin, disturbed her, pounding up the stairs: "Irene! has Aileen arrived yet? Have you seen her?"
Irene came back with a start to grimy London. "No, dear; unless she was here before me. She may have gone up to the workroom."
"Not she! And that grey model has got to be finished to take to Lady Whatsit at the Ritz this afternoon, so that means that I shall have to go up and have the damn thing fitted on me, just because.... oh, there she is! Aileen ... Oi, Aileen ... can't she hear me, the silly cow?"
"Not through the glass, dear, of course she can't," said Irene mildly.
Judy made wild signals; Aileen turned a face of exquisite beauty, lifted a streamlined eyebrow, and looked blank. Judy jerked a finger upwards, indicating an urgent summons to the showroom; Aileen looked first heavenwards, and then, interrogatively, at her umbrella. Judy made a gesture in response which sent her tripping round the corner with a look of refined disgust on her lovely features; Victoria and Rachel came tearing upstairs, zipping their blue overalls as they ran, and somewhere a clock struck ten. Irene solemnly unlocked the silver door: at Christophe et Cie the day had officially begun.
"Do you like this red frock in the window?" said Irene, when apologies and explanations for their lateness had sufficiently abated. "I thought it looked rather tasteful with just the grey hat and the parasol. What do you think of the grey?"
"I don't think it matters at all, darling."
"No, but Rachel, do say."
"What does it matter, Rene, my pet? It looks all right' Yes, there, I think it's marvellous: does that please you?".
"No, it doesn't a bit," said Irene, fussily. "If it doesn't look right Gregory'll—"
"Oh, damn and blast Gregory," said Rachel, crossly. "This whole damn place is in everlasting fear of Gregory. It's nothing to do with her, Rene, what you put in the window. Whatever you do, she'll tell her darling Bevan that it should have been something else, so why worry?"
"Stinking cat," said Victoria, calmly, plastering lipstick on her lovely mouth. "I wish to goodness Bevan would send her to the new branch at Deauville, and then we'd be free of her."
"You don't think Gregory will go, Toria?"
"I think it's practically certain, darling. Cecil rang me up during the week-end. It's all set."
Doon wandered up from her basement office and Victoria, who had an eye for beauty, thought she had never seen her look more attractive. She was a tall, well-modelled creature, and every line of her body was outlined and emphasized by the clothes she wore. Her thick auburn hair was caught, with an illusion of simplicity, into a twist at the nape of her neck; beneath wide, wing-shaped brows her eyes glowed, dangerously green. She propped herself against a pillar, and, lighting a cigarette, asked without curiosity what they were gassing about.
"We were wondering about the job at Deauville," said Rachel, evasively. "Have you heard anything?"
"Oh, it's me that's going. I'm having lunch with the boy friend to-day to talk things over."
"We thought there was some idea of Bitchy Gregory getting it after all."
"I don't think so," said Doon, comfortably. "Bevan promised me I should go. That's the best of being girl friends with the boss," she added, laughing. "I'm afraid Gregory's chance was all washed up the day she first brought him to one of my parties."
"Is that when Bevan began to get keen on you?" asked Irene, inquisitively.
"Yes; she was an ass, wasn't she? I'd been in the shop all that time, and Bevan never bothered about me at all, though I was always a bit sweet on him; he was all taken up with Gregory, and then the fool wraps him up in a parcel and hands him over to me!"
"What on earth did he ever see in her, Doon?"
"My dear, he thought she was unattainable; after all, if ever there was a craggy virgin it was Gregory. The moment I set eyes on her I knew what her trouble was, and I actually had her round to a few parties and tried to get her off, as you know ... but nothing doing. It never occurred to Bevan that she would succumb if he tried it on, and he couldn't resist the temptation: he told me he was shaken to the core when she fell without a struggle! Then, of course, she got really keen on him, and when I appeared on his horizon it was a bit awkward to get rid of her. I don't believe she realizes yet that he wants to."
"Doon, you are awful, telling everyone," said Irene, enjoying it thoroughly.
"Well, my dear, it's perfectly obvious; everybody knows it already. Why be silly about it?"
"Don't you mind knowing that he used to be keen on her?"
"Not in the least— he'd been keen on dozens of women before her, and I've been keen on dozens of men; as long as he doesn't love anyone else now, that's all I mind about."
Irene looked sideways at Rachel. "Won't you miss him if you go to Deauville?"
"Oh, he'll be coming over a lot; it's only a couple of hours if you fly ... my God, I believe I've left a cigarette burning on the edge of my desk!" She unpropped herself from her pillar and ran downstairs.
"Evidently it's definitely between those two," said Irene, frowning after her. "I seem to be quite out of the running for the job."
"Should you be very disappointed, Rene?" asked Rachel, kindly.
"Oh, Ray, you know I would. After all, you two have something to keep you in England: Toria's practically a bride still, and Rachel couldn't leave her little Jessica without her mumsey; but what have I got? Nothing; and my rotten hanger-on of a brother's turned up again."
"Yes, he has. I had a letter from him last night. The truth is that I shall never be rid of him till I can get away from here and he doesn't know where to find me. I wish I'd made a clean break with him years ago."
"Like me," said Rachel, thoughtfully.
"Yes, Ray; this is why I've always been so keen for you to get your divorce and be done with it. It never pays to go on with these half-and-half arrangements; you don't love your husband and he doesn't love you and he was unkind to you— well then, finish the whole thing and be free to start your life all over again."
"Yes, you were quite right, darling; it was far the best thing to do; but I'd never have had the courage to go through with it, if it hadn't been for you making me, and I shall always be grateful to you for helping me so much; only three months now and I'll get my decree nisi and it'll be all over."
"I hope you're behaving yourself, my girl?"
"I've got no one to misbehave with," said Rachel, smiling. "My life at the moment is a model of monotonous virtue. The only thing I worry about is that time I went out with Bevan ... you see the way he talks, he tells Doon everything. Still, it's ages ago, before even Gregory's time, and I don't see how the King's Proctor could nose it out. Please heaven!" she added, piously.
"How's the kid?"
"Oh, she's all right, Toria. It's a bit rotten for her in London, but I'll get her away on Wednesday to her Granny's and she goes back to school after that, poor brat."
"Doon seems very certain of going to the new branch," said Irene, reverting to the only topic which, at the moment, really interested her.
"She's going to be disappointed; but still, she can't lose either way. If Gregory goes, Doon gets a rise in salary and can at least stay in London with her precious Bevan—not like poor old Rene; it really does matter to you, doesn't it, darling?"
"I'd give anything to go," said Irene again. "This place gets on my nerves these days with Gregory always carping and criticizing ... if it was only to Manchester, I'd be crazy to go. But think of Deauville! Blue skies and sunshine and gaiety, and everybody rich and idle and beautifully dressed ... and I've only to give a week's notice at my digs, and pack a suitcase to be as free as the air." Her injuries clamoured for utterance and she added, in a whining voice: "And talking about digs, my dear, I must tell you—again this morning a filthy black rim round the bath! It's those women in number six, I told you about...."
"If Rene tells us just once more about those women in number six, I shall scream," said Victoria ten minutes later, as she sat down with Rachel in their little cubbyhole. "Bless her heart, she is the sweetest thing, but it does rather get on one's nerves."
"And I do wish she wouldn't call me Jessica's mumsey. Jessica would be sick if she knew— she's a very tough child for six. Look, Toria, darling, what am I going to do about this blasted hat? I've hardly worn it, and it's filthy already. What cleans panama? Rene— Oi, Rene," she called across the empty showroom. "Do you know what cleans panama?"
"Rachel, dear, don't shout across the salon like that; supposing there was a customer!"
"There isn't a customer, so what does it matter? Honestly, Toria, Irene's getting as nervy as hell these days."
"She's worried about Deauville, and of course Gregory's getting her down, always saying sweetly catty things to Bevan— still, she does that about us all. Rene, darling, stop worrying about the window and come and advise about Rachel's hat. Look what a muck she's made of it."
"Oxalic acid's the best thing for that," said Irene, judicially, taking up the hat and holding it to the light. "You just rub it in and then brush it off again. It's supposed to be marvellous."
"Oh, that's fine. You always know these things. What did you say it was called?"
"Oxalic acid. You get it from a chemist, I should think. There's nobody in at the moment, and Bevan and Gregory won't be here till late— go across and see if the man in Mitchell's will let you have some," suggested Irene generously, anxious to make amends for her recent irritability.
"I'll go now— thank you, sweetie. Come on, Toria, you come with me."
They rushed bareheaded across Regent Street, dodging the traffic with accustomed ease, and the chemist bobbed up from behind the counter of his little shop to greet them.
"Good morning, young ladies, and what can I do for you to-day?"
"I want some oxalic acid," said Rachel.
"Oxalic acid crystals? What did you want them for?"
"She wants to murder Miss Gregory," said Victoria, laughing. "You know Miss Gregory— she's the one that made all the flap about your giving us tick for the showroom soap; don't you remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember Miss Gregory," said the chemist, a trifle grimly. "I think everyone knows her in the small shops around here. But I can't be a party to her murder, you know."
"Don't listen to Mrs. David," said Rachel, "she reads too many detective stories. I want to clean a straw hat, that's all it is."
"Ah, yes, I believe I've heard of oxalic acid being used for that. How much would you want?"
"How much would kill a person?" asked Victoria, sticking to her point.
"Well, let's see— about a drachm, I should say. Not quite a teaspoonful."
"Then we'd better have nine teaspoonfuls for Gregory," said Toria, laughing. "How does one buy it? By the ounce, or what?"
"I think an ounce would be enough for the hat, certainly. That would be about— er— about four big teaspoons."
"Righto, we'll have an ounce. Can we weigh ourselves for nothing on your scales?"
"You always do, so why bother to ask?" said Rachel. "She only does it to annoy, Mr. Mitchell, because she's so much lighter than me. Don't we have to sign the poisons book or anything?" she went on, as he handed the little packet across the counter. "I'm quite willing to, in fact I'd love to."
"No, no, nothing like that. I know you ladies, you see; it isn't as if you were strangers to me— I believe I've even seen Mrs. Gay's panama hat!" They were out of the door by the time he added: "Anyway, you don't have to sign for oxalic acid."
Excerpted from Death in High Heels by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1969 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted January 3, 2012
This book was first published in 1941 - a fact not revealed until the last page of the book and certainly this fact did not make this book a classic. The only positive comment I can make is that the characters and their roles were listed on one of the first pages. Ms. Brand did not have depth to her characters. The mystery and the romance were also very shallow. I certainly would not read another book in the Charlesworth Series.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 4, 2012
No text was provided for this review.