Monday, 6 February 2023

Fear and Clothing by Jane Custance Baker

As anyone who has read The Life of Crime will appreciate, I'm not an academic but I do have a long-standing interest in academic writing about the genre and I'm very keen to support those who seek to bridge the gap between academic studies of crime fiction and the general reader. Too often over the years, career academics have produced books which are hopelessly unreadable as well as absurdly priced. However, there are now plenty of examples of academics writing interestingly and entertainingly about the genre, even if price often remains a major stumbling block. I've highlighted David Bordwell's Perplexing Plots recently as a truly outstanding example of how to do it. Lately, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Lawrence Friedman, an emeritus professor of law at Stanford University in California, who is a lawyer, crime novelist, and writer about crime fiction and I've just started reading his articles about the genre, again written in a pleasingly readable style.

A new scholastic study published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts is a good example of how to write an appealing book about a less than obvious field of study. This is Fear and Clothing (great title!) by Jane Custance Baker. The sub-title is explanatory if less enticing: Dress in English Detective Fiction between the First and Second World Wars. You might not think that this topic justifies a full-length book - but it does so, and without padding. (And of course many readers of this blog will already be aware of Moira Redmond's excellent blog Clothes in Books, which addresses a wide-range of fashion statements in mystery fiction. If you don't know it, do take a look.)

I must admit that I'm not deeply interested in clothes or in fashion. But when writing the Rachel Savernake novels I've had to do quite a lot of research into what people wore in the early 1930s, because I do try to get small details right (an example is a version of the 'skeleton dress' worn by Rachel in the soon-to-be-published Sepulchre Street). I've consulted Moira on occasion and some of the points made in Fear and Clothing will, I feel sure, be very useful reference points for me in the future. 

The author has read quite widely in the genre, so in addition to the usual suspects, I was pleased to find mention of books by the likes of R.A.J. Walling, Joanna Cannan, Belton Cobb, Alice Campbell, and Valentine Williams. Excellent - some books of this kind suggest that the authors have only read the famous writers of the past, and then with only limited excitement, but that is definitely not the case here. On the whole, the writing is accessible and lively, with relatively few digressions into academic-speak (though, to take one example, 'hegemonic' is a word that I felt crops up an excessive number of times in a short space). 

All writers make mistakes, but there are quite a few unforced errors in this book that could easily have been avoided with stronger editing, including a revival of the idea that the Detection Club was founded in 1928 rather than 1930. The number of errors in the spelling of names of authors and characters (e.g. Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Francis Iles, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy Bowers, Honoria Waynflete) was disconcerting. Then again, I've made enough mistakes of my own over the years to believe that what really matters is whether a book like this works as a whole. And I think it does, making it a useful and quite unusual contribution to our understanding of Golden Age fiction. So it is definitely of interest. Alas, it's an expensive book, presumably because it's aimed at the academic library market, but of course the author has no say in pricing - it's an issue determined by the publishers.


Anonymous said...

If this is your kind of thing, it may also be worth looking out for Marketa Uhlirova’s “If Looks Could Kill” (subtitled “Cinema’s Images of Fashion, Crime and Violence”). Although it concentrates on the relationship between fashion and crime in films, it does contain some material to interest the crime fiction reader, for example a look at how Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, amongst others, use clothing as a shorthand method of indicating character. Martyn.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm not familiar with this one, Martyn, but thanks very much for drawing it to my attention. This is an interesting subject and despite my personal lack of interest in clothes and fashion, I do think about it quite a lot when writing, especially when creating historical scenes.