Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Black Orchid Bookshop

I am a fickle person. Easily swayed. I fall in and out of love with astonishing rapidity.

And I have a new favorite.

The Black Orchid bookshop is the baby of Bonnie and Joe, two Rex Stout fans with the encyclopedic brains of mystery fans and hearts of purest gold. Bonnie used to sell books; Joe was her customer and the two minds met. They started Black Orchid as a labour of love, and financial ruin and great personal fulfillment swiftly followed. Now they order BLTs and fries on Saturday afternoons and chat happily with fans all day long.
Aesthetically, their bookstore is wonderful shabby chaos and (sometimes they can't find the phone when it rings). The top floor has all the new hardcovers and mass-market and trade paperbacks. If you go down a windey deathtrap of a staircase, a basement cluttered with musty secondhand paperbacks awaits. It's so fun; it's like being in the basement of your favorite grandma (or a beloved Spinster Aunt). They have a creepy rocker with a fake crow a la Poe stuck on it; just push that out of the way, get down on your knees and dig for five dollar paperbacks.

I walked out of there with two Joan Hess paperbacks and a new best friend. I can't wait to get their newsletter in the mail -- also I love the fact that they snail mail that out instead of emailing it. Their website has been down since 1997. For which I applaud them.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Miss Pym Disposes

I have to admit to feeling slightly disappointed with this novel initially, even though upon reflection I realize it has certain undeniable strengths. When I finished it, I was left with the same empty feeling I get after reading P.D. James. That is, the killer is just incredibly obvious that the conclusion is an anti-climax. But then I have to wonder what point I’m missing. Is it that the characters aer more important than plot? Atmosphere? Or is it really not a big deal that nothing much happens (aside from one little murder)?
I also have a problem with the pacing of this novel. The murder doesn’t happen until the final third of the book. Most of it is spent describing the girls and the college itself, and there are several anecdotes and interludes that feel downright pointless. I’m not looking for formula here, but where exactly is the mystery?
Perhaps I should take a looser approach to this as a genre novel, and just enjoy it as a character study with a slight twist at the end. I have to admit that the there were a few moments of suspense, which were quite well-done, but the finale couldn’t match the build-up. The end felt quite rushed, just as the beginning felt too languorous. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Miss Pym was written in one shot, from beginning to end, with no planning beforehand.
There is something to be said for good pacing and strucutre – and no, I repeat, I am not looking for formula here, but there is a proper way to tell a story, and it’s not to drag everything out at the beginning and pile it all on in a hurry at the end – and Miss Pym feels poorly planned. Also, her psychological "theories" were incredibly shallow and unenlightening, and her little comments on face-reading drove me mad. (I’m surprised phrenology didn’t enter into it at some point. And her little self-aware comments about how face-reading is not much in fashion among the intelligentsia, didn’t really do much to lessen my annoyance). I was saddened because this is supposed to be some kinda masterpiece, and because The Franchise Affair was so unbelievably amazing.
But I keep scolding myself for feeling this way. I guess the point of the book is not so much to have a puzzle and solve it, obviously, but to let it soak into to you – all that atmosphere, rather – and partake in Miss Pym’s speculating about the nature of each girl. And then again there’s the idea that reading people’s characters (and faces!) might be dead wrong. Pym often said, "As a psychologist, I’m a very good teacher of French." Alright, she was an endearing character, I will admit. And her sometimes-wistful mid-life spinsterhood was most charming. She said at one point that she wished she’d met someone dashing in her youth instead of old Alan with his Adam’s apple and his holey socks. And I will admit that the girls and teachers in the story was very much alive. Alright, Tey definitely has it going on.
I just had some trouble with the pacing and then of course the "mystery" was no mystery at all, and in fact might qualify as one of the most obvious motive/suspect pairings I’ve yet seen. And Miss Pym’s interior monologues got awfully repetitive I hate to say. But the idea of her disposing is really at the center of the book, and that’s the core idea – can a person witness and cover up a crime in good conscience if it is for a greater good? Pym covers up a little cheating by a student when she is invigilating an exam and then falls into temptation again when she obtains some information about the murder that could be very helpful in the right (or wrong?) hands. Another character in the book is also faced with a similar dilemma. When is it best to let things fall where they lie? And where lies the moral core in justice – and is it always infallible? These are questions that go beyond the plot, and are intriguing to any lover of the genre, which often simplifies right and wrong, good and evil, criminal and cop, and imagines there are no gray areas in justice. So while it may not be a top notch puzzle, it’s absolutely a worthwhile read, and certainly raises important questions for anyone who forays into the murky world of the mystery genre.
One final note: "disposes" here means both 1) to arrange or decide matters (which is why they often repeat, "Let God dispose" in the book) and 2) to get rid of, as in, dispose of evidence. Which is why I love the title, too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman

Fellow Spinsters,
I have just read an AP release reporting the death of film director Robert Altman. He died last night; he was 81. He was a superb director (he made my beloved Gosford Park, as well as M.A.S.H., Shortcuts, and The Player, and the recent Prairie Home Companion, among many others) and his passing marks the end of one of America's great filmmakers. He seemed like someone who was deeply touched by the people and events around him. "My love for filmmaking," he once said, "Has given me an entrée to the world and to the human condition." I was personally inspired by his work, and I know we all were. He will be missed, and his life and his films will always be remembered.
Spinster Aunt

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I've gotten a few emails from "readers" (e.g. my friends) who have tried to post comments & been unable to (see below). So I thought I'd post them here:

From a friend in London:
I loved your reviews. I guess my favorite one is about Alice in
Wonderland. I am reading it now for the first time. Can you
imagine? I loved the statute in Central Park; I've seen a soviet
cartoon, an interpretation of the book; I've heard so many quotes
from it, but never read it.

And from Toronto:
Love the review of Gosford Park. Love the bluestocking reference. Love the fact that I'm not the only hypochondriac around …
Tried to leave a comment saying that Toronto has a great mystery bookstore called "Sleuth of Baker Street" which you should definitely check out next time you're in town (if you haven't already). But it asked me to set up my own blogger account, and I got scared and ran.
p.s. What about a section on your blog called: 'old lady travel tips'? e.g. best places to visit in Country X if you're into old-ladyish tendencies?

And via the telephone:
Re: The Alice Review. "I feel that Alice wasn’t really trying to go home – that’s more from the Disney movie than the book – she didn’t really seem to care where she went after she found the rabbit. She was even kind of nonplussed when she found him and she found him pretty early on … but anyway, I don’t think she ever seemed to care if she got home at all."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And to these I say: Hurray that so many people read and love "Alice." Yes, I agree that the idea that she was really trying to get home was inserted by the Disney people in order to add some solid American sentiment to the story, while the original book is cheerfully amoral about her lack of desire ever to return to the bosom of her equally indifferent family. As for the Soviet cartoon, I desperately want to see it!
Now, old lady travel destinations were part of my original concept for this blog, and I'm so glad someone else thinks it's a good idea. Anyone who wants to write a review of old lady travel sites is welcome to. In the future, look for old-lady tourist destinations right here in New York City to soon grace the pages of this blog (I'm thinking the Frick Collection, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and Governor's Island, among others ... old lady restaurant reviews, too).

Thanks, Bluestockings!
Spinster Aunt

Thursday, November 16, 2006


This is a very special time of year for someone like me, namely someone obsessed with silent films stars. Three extraordinary women who worked in Hollywood during the silent era have their birthdays within days of one another, so I want to celebrate them here. Mabel Normand, variously cited as being born Nov. 9, 10 or 16th, Marie Dressler, born November 9, and Frances Marion, born November 18th. (I know this is not actually on any of their actual confirmed birthdays, but you get the general idea.)

Here’s why I love these women: they were smart, funny, and worked hard to make motion pictures that would go down in history. They worked in Hollywood at a time when women’s contributions as writers and comediennes were valued (hurray! We need that back … I’m looking at you Reese Witherspoon and Tina Fey. Bring back Katharine Hepburns and Carole Lombards while you’re at it too).

Frances Marion has a special place in my heart because she’s a trailblazing writer, the first woman to win an Academy Award, and her friendship with actress Mary Pickford (who we’ll celebrate in April) was one of the most fruitful professional unions of the day.

I love Mabel Normand because she was just nuts. She acted in some hilarious movies with Fatty Arbuckle, then later got hooked on booze, coke and morphine-laced cough syrup and then reputedly ate nothing but ice cream (after she contracted TB). Not only did she live it up and get involved in one scandal after another, she was even involved in not one but two murder scandals, including the William Desmond Taylor murder in 1922. Plus, she’s from Staten Island, a borough I once called home.

Finally, Marie Dressler is another incredible comedienne, who actually worked with Normand. She was a great big girl with what they used to call a "raw-boned" face, who was a breakout Vaudeville star before she got into pictures. I love her for being big and funny, and for being born in Ontario, Canada, the very province where I was born and raised (you can see I get around, for an old spinster).

To learn more about these great women, read American Silent Film by William K. Everson, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, and Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp. Without Lying Down is also available on DVD as a documentary, but first watch the stars in action – The Love Light and Stella Maris, both written by Frances Marion, are available on DVD via Amazon, as is Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which features Mabel and Marie in action (with Charlie Chaplin).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Lipstick Chronicles

Reviews of two mysteries I've read recently, both of which prominently feature lipstick as damning evidence of guilt

The Franchise Affair

This Josephine Tey novel is beautifully written and the protag, gentleman-sleuth/country lawyer Robert Blair is marvelous, as are the two ladies who live in the old country house of the title: The Franchise. Marion Sharpe is a captivating spinster, and one of my favorite characters in fiction. (Her old mother is wonderful too.) When they are framed by a little number named Betty Kane, they turn to Robert Blair to help clear their good name, whose case turns on a number of subtle clues, not the least of which is an errant tube of lipstick. With an eleventh hour miracle and a compelling – and amusing – courtroom scene at its finale, this book overflows with wit and suspense, drama and sparkling spinsters. I only wish I could read it again for the first time. If Miss Pym Disposes is half as good as the Franchise Affair, I expect a masterpiece.

From Doon With Death

This Ruth Rendell novel teaches us a number of lessons, not the least of which is never to underestimate a housewife. Sedate hausfrau Margaret Parsons goes missing one day, and her killer turns out to be an obsessive lover from her past – but that’s not a spoiler, because you can pretty much surmise that from the opening prologue. It's the identity of the lover that's the problem. And it’s especially when a circle of upper-crust snobs far beyond Margaret's social station enter on the suspect scene that you truly begin to wonder what’s going on. What kind of secret was this seemingly mousy woman hiding? Deviously subtle and encoded with references to the overriding theme (I dare not speak their names, since *that* might be a spoiler), with clues that nag at your subconscious but don’t add up till the end, this is a most artfully crafted mystery novel. And what a marvelously literary mystery lies beneath the cheap looking cover of my edition, a paperback, which features a hideous purple lipstick, though in the book it s a pinky-brown shade that gets one of our suspects in trouble. There you go ladies, stick with a classic red.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Symbolic Logic

For some reason I had the urge to re-read Alice In Wonderland (And Through the Looking Glass), one of my all-time favourite books, and was struck by couple of things: 1) How well I remembered every detail of it (I felt like I read it yesterday, or tomorrow I guess, in Looking-Glass time); and 2) That it's really kind of a mystery novel, too, in its own way. I mean, here's this girl and she's hell-bent on finding out who this rabbit is and where he's going, and she follows him until she finds him again. Following clues, interviewing "witnesses" (of a sort) and trailing a "suspect" ... or am I reaching?

Or are all narratives mysteries? And not in that lame Joseph Campbell way (like all narratives are quests and everyone's a hero, blah, blah, blah) but in a very general and abstract way every story has a "corpse," the inciting incident, the thing that makes a protagonist get up, ask questions, and do something. And the reason why that corpse is there must be discovered. I don't know, it's just a thought.

In any case, Alice's witnesses are spectacularly uncooperative, and in the end she doesn't really do much when she finds the rabbit (also her goal shifts from finding the rabbit to finding her way home as she moves through Wonderland). Which is what makes it absurd, and what makes it oddly satisfying as a mystery -- it's satisfying because it's frustrating.

And it's scary, too. The Jabberwocky scared the crap out of me when I saw the live action version, the one with Carol Channing as the White Queen and Sammy Davis Jr. as the caterpillar and Lloyd Bridges as the White Knight. I loved that movie version, which was actually made for television, and if anyone wants to surprise a Spinster Aunt at Christmas with a snazzy new DVD version of it (my old VHS one is MIA), she wouldn't say no.

One final musing: I'm not sure why this is, but I find people quoting from Alice to be incredibly irritating, I don't know why. The only person in the world who can get away with that is Linda Goodman, author of "Sun Signs."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I'm addicted to the brilliant medical mystery show House M.D., and I'm in love with Hugh Laurie (I even think he's cute in old Blackadder episodes), so I love this website, devoted to medical nit-picking of each episode. As a board-certified hypochondriac, I love learning new medical terms for diseases I might possibly have. Here it is:

Partners and Crime

I need to talk about my new favorite bookstore.

Partners and Crime is a specialty bookshop in Greenwich Village that I used to walk by all the time and recently (finally) I stopped in and was super impressed. This place is such a wonderful time-trap for anyone interested in the mystery/thriller genre (and happens to be shopping in New York City). They have an amazing array of used, new, paperback, hardcover, staff picks, and the “Top 100” novels. Proprietress Maggie is a font of knowledge who discourses easily with genre veterans, newbies and out of towners alike. Endearingly, she knows the regulars by name, and she indulged all my recent-convert zealousness by making me a short list of books to read. If you want to join the ranks of the exacting, obsessive mystery fan, this store is the place to start.

"No Night Is Too Long"

I have to review this great novel by Ruth Rendell, writing here as Barbara Vine, because it was the one that converted me to a mystery/suspense novel fan. I read it ages ago but I have to give it credit for starting my slow descent into genre-novel fandom.

In the book, anti-hero Tim Cornish decides to leave his older lover, Ivo, once and for all. Tim leaves Ivo stranded on an island off the coast of Alaska, moored and helpless amid the freezing waters – or so he hopes. Haunted by guilt and unanswered questions, he begins receiving anonymous letters in the mail. Each letter describes the story of a different shipwreck survivor, and soon Tim begins to fear he didn’t quite finish Ivo off.

It’s an excellent mystery, the kind to keep you up all night reading it, and the writing is incredibly atmospheric. I loved the images of Alaska, which were hauntingly, beautifully written. I read it in the middle of a New York City heatwave and I shivered. I also read it alone at night in a house that improbably backed onto a graveyard and jumped at ever little sound the whole night (I was forewarned but ignored sensible precautions).

I’m so glad it was my introduction to the genre.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Clearly, I've been using the wrong bait

I had a surreal experience at the Laura Mercier makeup counter in Bloomingdale's last night . I was getting my face done for a party, and I felt slightly uncomfortable in that kind of environment, with its overwhelming emphasis on the pretty. I had to marvel at the sly remarks that go along with an experience like that, which are subtly designed to make you feel simultaneously pretty and inadequate. I got a lot of this last night: "Do you use an eye cream? You should." And "Your skin is sooo dry!" (well of course it looks dry, that's the layers and layers of powder you just put on, you makeup hag). I also love how they glop so much powder, shadow, lipstick and whatnot on your face that it starts to look like Homer Simpson's make-up gun, set to "whore." (Speaking of things that remind me of the Simpsons, there's a funny blog called "Improvident Lackwit," http://improvidentlackwit.com, which just features posts about things that remind the author of various Simpsons episodes. It's quite genius actually, I just wish it was updated more often.)
But the coup de grace came when the walking layer of foundation who was doing my eyes said, "Do you use mascara? NO?!" and then promptly examined my left hand, asking warily, "You married? No .... mmm-hm." As if my failure to use mascar on a regular basis was somehow responsible for my lack of husband (because it's been sciencetifically proven that there's a positive correlation between the use of high-end cosmetics and a happy marriage). Incredibly, sexism is alive and well in the beauty industry. How utterly unsurprising.
And yet, I bought the mascara.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"Circle of the Dead"

I was initially attracted to this David Lawrence thriller because of its location on a shelf labeled "Tough Girls" in my local mystery bookstore (which is good enough to merit its own entry; more on that later). The plot centers around an execution style-killing, and slowly pushes our heroine deeper into the underworld as she unravels the mystery.

Mainly, though, I was interested in the protagonist.

The description on the back introduces us to Detective Stella Mooney, who is haunted by nightmares and who has a fondness for too much vodka. Sounds like my kind of gal.

Then I found out what the nightmares were about (dead babies) and had one of those strange moments of dissonance in which I stop believing in the protagonist as a female, and become hyper-aware that she was written by a man. Mooney’s nightmares – and this won’t spoil the plot -- are caused by a traumatic incident in which she witnessed the death of two children and was so freaked out that she miscarried her own baby (it was a girl). She dreams about it every night at 3 a.m. and wakes up in a cold sweat. I found this underestimated women’s resilience somewhat. Undoubtedly such an experience *is* traumatic, but I thought this was a bit exaggerated, and somewhat undermined the strength of this character. I mean, she's seen everything in her time, and this is what does it to her? How does this naturalize the notion of woman's ultimate function as mother above all else?

Despite that minor quibble, I liked Stella in well enough general. I liked her secretiveness, her inability to commit, and her devotion to her job. All very spinsterly attributes.

I also like the other female characters in the book, particularly Zuhra, a Bosnian refugee, who defines resilience. She is as much a hero as Stella, in every sense, and it was her story that kept me reading to the end. In the end, her subplot becomes the plot, and it is ultimately a gripping one.

Although initially tempted to dismiss the book – it’s first few chapters are meandering and muddy and contrived – by the time Zuhra makes her appearance, it feels relevant and interesting, and though I never really entirely warmed to Stella Mooney, in a sense that’s precisely where her appeal lies: in the great detective tradition, she is prickly, and tough, and hard to get to know. I liked that she is emotionally isolated and deeply flawed – especially in her refusal to face facts in her personal life – and I would like to see if she continues to refute feminine stereotypes in this manner, or just continues whining about her dead baby (how like a girl). At this point, she could go either way. The end of the book seems to be laying the ground for a second book in what seems a promising series; I'd like to see which path she takes.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

“Difficult Colour, Green”

A Review of Gosford Park

I spent a spinsterish evening with a bottle of wine and my Netflix last night. I watched Gosford Park, which I missed in theatres when it came out (has it been five years already?) and was immensely pleased. Be advised: there are spoilers in the following review.

A murder mystery set in an English coutnry manor, Gosford Park draws self-consciously on tropes off the Birtish golden Age mysteries, and pulls it off splendidly.

The film features a number of wonderful spinsters, each initially dismissed and underestimated, but all, in the end, proving the true strength and slyness that lies beneath the brittle façade. (Being underestimated is a primary characteristic of the spinster.) Characterization is also one of the best points of the subtle, complex and layered script, in which characters are never what they seem. Maggie Smith initially comes off as little more than a cantankerous old crank, but reveals herself to be witty and full of sly humour. She also has some of the best lines in the film, particularly when she’s cutting other people down, but she does well with all manner of well-phrased complaints and orders.

Helen Mirren is the other spinster of significance. She is cold, excessively proper, orderly, and utterly unyielding. Thin and tight-lipped in a form-flattening dress, she evokes all the frigid spinster stereotypes on sight. But of course beneath that rigid front lies a smoldering cauldron of repressed emotion, in this case heartbreaking regret over the baby boy she gave away when she was a young factory girl. She is completely self-sacrificing (“I am the perfect servant” she says) and goes to great lengths to safeguard her son.

Mirren is a secretly maternal spinster; Smith is an old woman who revels in her selfishness and solitude, and thus sets an example for us all. I also like Eileen Atkins’ character, who reminds us that a spinster’s best friend is often her sister.

I also like the relationship between Maggie Smith and her maid in the film. The young Mary (Kelly Macdonald) eventually garners the old countesses approval after showing herself to be just as stoically, almost cheerfully, amoral as the old woman.

The film has it all -- class, sexual mores, an homage to Jean Renoir -- and the writing sparkles, all Cole Porter and champagne. And I love these characters. I think I may also have taken a fancy to Clive Owen. His obvious bent toward melancholy is terribly attractive.

Remember Remember the Fifth of November

“Spinster Aunt”

I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels lately. This is thanks to my friend Miss Renee Crawford, who started a landslide when she unsuspectingly mailed me Barbara Vine’s “No Night Is Too Long” way back in July. I’ve been obsessively reading mystery novels ever since, and at the rate of one every two weeks, have spent a lot of time and even a little money doing it. One of these books featured some particularly spry and plucky old ladies, and one featured the most dignified middle-aged spinster I’ve encountered in literature (Ruth Rendell’s “Thirteen Steps Down” and Josephine Tey’s “The Franchise Affair,” respectively). Reading them confirmed my love for old ladies, and made me realize I have certain traits in common with them (spinsterism, crankiness, the love of a good cup of tea). One night, as my roommate/boyfriend came home, he made one of his rare insightful observations – “You’re reading in bed like an old lady” – and that merely confirmed it.

That started me thinking about other old-ladyish tastes and tendencies that I embrace, and before I knew it I had a great blog idea (because old ladies love the internet). It would be a weblog devoted to all things old-ladyish, from mystery novels to classic and silent movies, to rants about things that annoy me, such as poor grammar, to tributes to old men who I think are adorable and/or dashing (such as Charles Coburn and Christopher Plummer). I could link to other websites that please me and even point out other inner-old-ladies that I deem worthy of mention.

The perfect name hit when I was attempting to describe my old-lady attitude: not grandmotherly or loving in any way, but decidedly spinsterish. I threw out the phrase “spinster aunt,” and there it was.

The beauty of the spinster aunt, or “maiden aunt” as she was once called (but who are we kidding with that “maiden” stuff?) is that she perfectly expresses my decidedly modern feminist attitude – favoring bluestocking activities like reading and writing over domesticity and baby-making – while simultaneously embracing the retro sensibility that is so much fun to play with. Not just any old lady, she’s an old lady who’s made smart life choices!

Here’s a list of what I think the site can feature:

- Reviews of books, movies, television shows, music, etc. Genre fiction, old British crime shows, Noir, thriller, and mystery films encouraged.
- Reviews of specialty shops, e.g. bookstores
- Old Crank complaints column
- A Tribute to Old Men We Like
- Roundups (author favorites, recent books, favorite recipes, etc. Any kind of list-making, in other words)
- Recipes
- Links to other sites, recommendations
- Political Issues of Interest (e.g. birth control, don't act like they're not trying to turn back the clock on that one)
- Seasonal Specials (e.g., a Halloween special featuring a list of our favorite movies with which to frighten children)

So that’s my terribly brilliant idea. I hope that it will be accepted for the diamond it is. It is the Internet Age – let us thrust our poorly-informed opinions on the world!

Your Spinster Aunt