Sunday, 1 June 2014

Penguin no. 397: The Bamboo Blonde
by Dorothy B. Hughes

He was right; this was beauty, like being a little girl again, sailing to a mythically serene England, a summer-gay France. "Never no more." He must have sensed her refrain for he said with a scowl, "It isn't fair that the delusions of grandeur of one small Austrian should have spoiled the whole world for us."

The first thing that I had difficulty understanding about this story was just why someone would choose to remarry Con Satterlee, and yet this is what Griselda, a costume designer in Hollywood, has done, four years after the divorce. The remarriage doesn't appear to have made her particularly happy.

She has suddenly found herself whisked away from Malibu for a second honeymoon on Long Beach without an explanation, and it is a honeymoon which neither of them seems to be enjoying. Griselda spends the first day  fuming, and when they head out in the evening, she watches as her husband picks up a blonde-headed woman in the Bamboo Bar, leaves without a goodbye, and takes their car, so that she must walk the five blocks back to their holiday cottage, in the dark, on her own.

The second thing I struggled to understand was the author's obsession with Griselda's wardrobe. Irrespective of the danger in which Griselda and her husband find themselves, particularly after the woman he picked up is found dead a few hours later, the thing uppermost in Griselda's mind at any particular moment seems to be what she should wear. One style of outfit must be selected if she is going shopping; a different one if she intends to catch a plane; something different again if she is to spend any time in the presence of another woman, for it seems that in any meeting of women a hierarchy is immediately established according to the degree to which each one is recognised as better-dressed than the others.

Women are portrayed as competitors in the circles within which Con and Griselda move. And there is no relaxing once you are married, for it seems that other women don't recognise marriage as a constraint, and the husbands feel disinclined to waste their charms upon their wives. These relationships may well be founded upon love, but an ancillary consideration in selecting a spouse seems to be the extent to which other women will be impressed. And all this means is that the men can treat the women anyway they like, and given that these are all capable women - interior decorators and designers for celebrities - you have to wonder why they feel their status is so dependent upon their husband.

Despite the unpleasant way in which he speaks to her, despite the fact that he goes out at all hours without forewarning or explanation, and despite his spending hours and nights in the company of other women, Griselda feels bereft when Con is taken for questioning by the police. And so she sets out to find out all she can about the things in which he has involved himself, in order to prove that he cannot be guilty of the blonde woman's murder.

But it is not an easy story to follow, and not only because the prose is littered with sentences which seem to be missing words or which feature verbs in unexpected tenses. It seems that the confusion is intended, because the story unfolds from the perspective of Griselda whose husband is intent on keeping her in the dark. Even though she is living in the midst of danger, and even though three people in this secluded location have already been murdered, Con decides that Griselda will be safest if she is left on her own and knowing nothing.

Mannie Martin has disappeared, and this seems to have triggered an influx of supposedly disinterested tourists to Long Beach, including Con and Griselda, the journalist Kew Brent and the émigré Russian film director Sergei. Martin was in the middle of negotiations to develop a Pan-Pacific wireless network, and he was one of only two people with the requisite knowledge to establish such a venture, and when he disappeared so did the paperwork. The only other contender is Walker Travis, who is employed by the Navy, and whose wife is living at a local hotel pursuing any man wealthier than her spouse. The murdered woman turns out to be the girlfriend of both the missing Martin and the doomed Sergei, and before long three people are believed to have been murdered. No one in this small group of friends seems to have any idea of who it is that is killing their acquaintances.

I suspect this must be a mystery story written with a female readership in mind, for nothing else would explain the repeated references to the protagonist's moment by moment clothing choices and her ongoing concern with the threat posed by other less successful, but more beautiful, women. It seems to be describing a world in which, no matter how successful or talented the woman, her own sense of her self-worth is based entirely on how she dresses and with whom she is seen.

Published in Penguin Books 1942. This edition 1946.


  1. I enjoyed this review very much, very funny, and at first I was thinking 'well this is a book for me' because of my blog, but I think you have managed to put me off....

    1. Actually, the book is quite readable, Moira, but I just found it somewhat disconcerting, because the attitudes being taken for granted were so at odds with my own. I think, with its obsession with clothing, it may well be a perfect subject for your blog.

  2. I liked In A Lonely Place so much that I'm willing to try more Dorothy B. Hughes.



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