Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Embroidery complete! A pillowcase


Behold, a craft that is not knitting! I finished embroidering this pillowcase over the weekend, and while it's not perfect, I'm pretty proud of it.

Let's go back to the beginning: my pillowcase. For years I had my own special pillowcase, a vintage one with a crocheted edging. I think my mum gave it to me when I was a student. We'd moved house a few times in my teenaged years, plus I was going back and forth to university, and as a wise person once said, when you move around a lot, home isn't a place, it's things. My pillowcase was part of 'home'. It was made of thick-yet-soft cotton, and I loved wondering who had made the edging, whether she'd crocheted just this piece or a whole set of bedlinen, and how it ended up on my bed. I loved my pillowcase to bits. Literally. Over the years it got more and more worn in the centre, and Smello Kitty pulled a few tiny holes in it. Then one day I was popping it back on the pillow after washing and rrrrrip! Massive, irreperable, right-angled tear across the middle. I carefully unpicked the crochet edging, ready to put it on a replacement pillowcase.

Wilkos were selling pure cotton pillowcases so I bought a pack. To be honest, they were nowhere near as thick and soft as my original pillowcase. If I hadn't known they were pure cotton, I would have assumed they were polycotton. Then I discovered they were wider than the crochet was long! What to do? I didn't want my poor strip of crochet looking lost in the middle of the edge, so I decided to put it aside until I could make a case that fitted it, from a better-quality cotton at that. That left me with two plain, white Wilkos pillowcases. I decided to embroider one using one of the haul of vintage transfers I bought from Claire at Eternal Magpie. It might not be my pillowcase, but I could still make myself something special – something for the cat to scrag whenever she wants to wake me up!

Transfer... transferred!
I wasn't sure the transfer would still work, but ironed clearly onto the cotton. I used regular embroidery thread to work the design. For someone who doesn't do much embroidery, I sure had a lot of colours to choose from! Most of my threads are discontinued colours that I picked up when the craft department at work had a clear-out; they couldn't commission designs using them but they were fine for people like me who like experimenting. As my bedroom is blue, I wanted to work plenty of flowers in blue, then picked the other colours to work alongside that. The finished work doesn't feel particularly blue or cool toned, but it is pretty so I can live with that.
Choosing colours
I worked all the petals and flower centres in satin stitch, and the stems in stem stitch. Those are both fairly simple stitches and ideal for these small areas. I'm not great at embroidery and my satin stitch is a bit wobbly at the edges in places, but overall I'm pleased with the result. Because the cotton fabric of the pillowcases isn't as substantial as I'd like, I stitched every single petal separately, without carrying the thread from one petal to another. I didn't want threads at the back showing through.
I'm still plugging away at my Fair Isle cardigan, but this little project has made a nice break from knitting. I had a few larger embroidery projects in mind, but I think I'll do a couple more small things first as I really need to practice my stitching techniques. So much vintage embroidery gets vandalised nowadays that it feels good to be creating something new.
A whole bundle of goodies from Kate-Em
On which note, look at what I won in Kate-Em's giveaway! Had I been short of crafting inspiration, this little lot would've perked me up. Some great knitting patterns (I do like those hats), and a copy of Needlewoman and Needlecraft. I have a couple of older issues of that. I love my Stitchcrafts, but Needlewoman and Needlecraft always seems the slightly more serious publication. Stitchcraft had practicality in mind; you were making things you could use when you followed Stitchcraft, but Needlewoman and Needlecraft was all about the ART. Serious stitching for people who knew what they were doing. (Not me, then.) As further inspiration, there's a vintage traycloth in the bundle, and Kate-Em included a gorgeous little sleep mask. I genuinely needed one of those, as my flimsy bedroom curtains let in the sunlight. Not a problem in winter, but in summer I wake up at 4am and usually resort to either wrapping my hair over my eyes or putting my head under the pillow. Now I can blot out the sun in a much more elegant way. Thank you very much, Kate-Em!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The look of Crimes of Passion, episodes three and four

It's time for another look at the clothes in Swedish midcentury-set drama series Crimes of Passion. (Here's my post on episodes one and two.) While there were some gorgeous garments for the ladies in episodes three and four, we'll come to those later, because there was much more to look at on the gents than either of the first two.

BAD BOYS

Tommy, Bjorn, Jan-Axel. Rebellion rarely ages well...
It's the 1950s, and the angry young man is coming into his own. Both episodes featured an angry young man of sorts; Tommy Holt in 'No More Murders' and Bjorn in 'Roses, Kisses and Death'. Tommy looked more the James Dean type, with high hair and a natty jacket, while there was a touch of Brando in On The Waterfront about Bjorn's touseled hair, checked shirt and white vest. We also got to see an ageing dandy, in the shape of Jan-Axel – perhaps when he was younger he too cut a rebelliously romantic dash, but now he just seems irresponsible and useless, a pre-war type who hasn't moved with the times. His elaborate jackets contrasted well with both Bjorn's poor-boy work clothes and his brother Otto's stiffly smart suits.

Christer should stay smart, but Einar definitely looks better casual!
Now for our heroes.

Einar... oh, Einar. The professorial look is not your friend. He seems to have got progressively more clothed as the episodes have gone on, moving from shirtless to vested to casual to scholarly and, much as I love me some nerd, glasses and ties are not a good look for him. (His hair's got darker too.) That said, he and Puck seem much more playful in the fourth episode, so perhaps she digs the dadwear. I don't, I'm hoping he reverts to sportwear for episode five. Christer, by contrast, is pretty much the same as always, dark and formal (and smouldering).

GLAMOURPUSSES
It seems to be the rule in Crimes of Passion that wherever there is a murder, there has to be a glamourpuss. I confess, I haven't always found them convincing. Lil, in 'Death of a Loved One' (episode one), seemed a bit too brassy, as though the viewer HAD to find her sexy. In 'No More Murders', Lou performs a similar function; when Puck questions what someone beautiful like Lou would see in her older husband, I was quite startled that Lou could be thought beautiful, but I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder. Certainly Lou puts in a good effort, from the Postman-Always-Rings-Twice white crop top and shorts to her slinky poolside robe and fancy cocktail party getup.

Helene in 'Roses, Kisses and Death' is glamorous and wealthy, which means cocktail gowns a-go-go, usually in stiff, opulent fabrics in rich colours. Whereas Lou seems to live for pleasing people, and dressing to look perky and fun is part of that, Helene is trying to find happiness, and the over-the-top glamour of her daytime outfits points to her slightly different desperation.

A selection of Helene's opulent dresses. And Otto, being stuffy.


AGEING DISGRACEFULLY 
The Petren sisters and Aunt Fanny. Beware the pearls!
Another rule of Crimes of Passion is that much older ladies look a bit batty. In episode three, as soon as the Petren sisters came on the scene it was clear that the 1920s had been their heyday. The turbans, straight silhouettes, long necklaces... it is the mark of the eccentric aged flapper. Then, in 'Roses, Kisses and Death', seance-hosting Aunt Fanny too had long strings of beads, though being loaded hers probably were real pearls.
Puck. I think the outfit at the bottom-rightis the same as in the first episode.
Crazy pearl ladies aside, there were some lovely outfits throughout both episodes, in particular for Lou's cocktail party. (The Petren sisters were dazzlingly eccentric for that one.) Puck, you will be unsurprised to hear, wore a pair of shiny capris to that (bottom-left in the picture above), just as she did to the wedding reception in episode two. In fact, I'm pretty sure the yellow outfit she wore late in episode four is the same one she had on at the reception. It's nice to see a character having a consistent wardrobe; real people wouldn't have changed their wardrobes every season unless they were very rich. Puck did put on some pretty, co-ordinated jewellery too, though.

It's interesting that Einar has changed so much from the shirtless, sporty man of the first episode to the he-frump of the fourth, while Puck is little different. She generally favours her practical, cheerily-coloured capri pants and matching tops. Even when she wears something a little more conventional, such as the beautiful print skirt at the start of 'No More Murders', it's paired with a sensible shirt. While Puck often seems whimsical, you could never accuse her of being frivolous.

Probably the most elegant outfits were on Bella. She was rich, but not desperate to be noticed like Helene, so her outfits are a succession of expressions of quiet, confident wealth. My favourite was her coral twin set, which she paired with a beige pencil skirt and pearl necklace and earrings. (She's wearing just the cardigan part in the first photo above.) The cardigan has pearl buttons, and the whole thing just looks perfectly poised. Bella also trots out several lovely tailored dresses; with their full skirts they are emphatically feminine, but the restrained colours and strong collars suggest that Bella means business.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Get thee a spreadsheet!

The single most useful thing in my wardrobe is a spreadsheet. 'A spreadsheet?' I hear you say. 'That's not very vintage.' Well, you could get a proper old-school ledger book and keep a hard copy one. Whether you opt for digital or paper, though, and whether you're a gent or a lady, I promise you it will be fanstastically useful.

Round about this time last year, perhaps a little later, I was really, really fed up of my clothes. I didn't feel as though I liked the ones I had, and I felt as though I was wearing the same things all the time. I knew the first part of that was daft, because I'd loved the garments at first, so was boredom the true problem? As Jack Sparrow so rightly put it, the problem is not the problem, your attitude to the problem is the problem. And so I drew up a spreadsheet to see what I was actually wearing on a regular basis. All I did was boff in every morning what I was wearing. Top (or dress), bottom, legs, shoes, cardi/jumper, jewellery, shoes, bag, coat, perfume. You'll probably want different categories - I doubt as many people think as often about perfume as I do, and gents might want to look at their ties

It can be really easy to pick up the same things day-in, day-out, always to wear that cardigan with that dress, or that jacket with that shirt. The first thing the spreadsheet taught me was that I was actually wearing more things than I realised, but always in the same combinations. Tartan skirt, blue jumper. Long pink and grey skirt, grey longsleeved top, cranberry cardi. Once you know where your 'repeat offences' are, you can switch things round. Even if it's just the jewellery or tie, it can make a big difference.

When you've been keeping your spreadsheet a while, you can identify patterns, and that's really helpful for future purchases. I was surprised to realise the vintage items I use most often are practical, unflashy ones like my black day bag and tweed jacket. Cocktail frocks are all very well, but on a cost-per-use basis, that tweed jacket is my biggest bargain ever! As a result, instead of being lured by yet another lace dressy dress, I've bought another suit (because skirt AND jacket gives you lots of options), and been able to target my knitting so I'm making things that work in terms of colour and style with items I'm already wearing. I'm making far fewer impulse-driven bad vintage purchases, saving myself money and heartache. You might look at your spreadsheet and see you wear the same trouser and shirt combo all the time. Clearly you like it, but could you expand on it? Could a similar shirt give you more options with the trousers? Is there a jacket that would look great with both? This is why the spreadsheet is brilliant.

I don't have a massive amount of clothes, which is why you'll see me posting about wearing things I wore four years ago. In fact, today I'm wearing the same dress as I'm wearing in the photo at the top of the page. That photo was taken in 2012, and the dress was nowhere new then. Today, though, it's paired with a round, autumnal-coloured brooch, boxy 1960s bag and black wool bustle jacket. All hail the wardrobe-rejuvenating power of the spreadsheet!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The need for tweed

My favourite tweed suit. The hair's
changed, but the suit is the same!
Autumn is upon us! There are some things I really don't like about the season – mainly the rain and having to get up in the dark; I'm solar-powered and find it very difficult to get up before the sun does – but there are lots of things I love about it. There's Halloween, cold-weather foods like stew and dumplings, and the first squashes arriving in my vegbox. There's also the sheer delight of going to my wardrobe and rediscovering all my tweedy old skirts and woolly jumpers. Isn't that a delight? I certainly don't know any knitters who don't love digging out their favourite knitteds each winter; rediscovering something you spent weeks on and enjoying it all over again is a real treat. And there's nothing like tweedy trousers or a wool skirt ot jacket to pair with a favourite knit.

The OED defines tweed as 'a rough surfaced woollen cloth, typically of mixed flecked colours, originally produced in Scotland'. Scotland still produces the most famous tweed, Harris tweed, hand-spun and woven on the Hebridean island of Harris and a few of its neighbours. Everything about it is local, right down to the sheep, and so it's a strictly regulated product. County Donegal in Ireland also makes a famous tweed. The fabric is made in many other places as well, though. Because it's so warm and hardwearing, it's traditionally been used to make 'country' clothes, though nowadays it's also worn 'in town'. Indeed, the famous cycling Tweed Run features dozens of wool-clad riders charging around London.

For me, there's something very between-the-wars about tweed – very 1930s, in particular. It's a fabric for being active in, perfectly suited to jazz age pursuits like golf and walking. And it's a democratic fabric, as suited to the gamekeeper as the Laird. While it's practical, one look at the official Harris Tweed website will show you how beautiful it can be, in all sorts of natural colours and woven patterns.

Cheap as tweedy chips
Country-style tweeds. How smart for gardening!
If you're a chap, charity shops will prove a goldmine for inexpensive tweed. You're unlikely to find Harris tweed for a bargain price (though it's always worth a look), but other tweeds are plentiful. Mr Robot's bought some splendid jackets over the years, and one of his favourites is a herringbone tweed one which cost about £5. Trousers are harder to come by, I think because men's trouser styles don't change radically year-on-year and so men tend to wear favourite pairs until they're completely worn out. How many of those jackets are really half-a-suit, I wonder... I think a tweed jacket looks great with trousers in other 'country' fabrics such as corduroy and moleskin, though I disapprove of it with denim. Unless it's on Indiana Jones. Or off Indiana Jones. Ahem.

For women, charity shops are stuffed with nice woollen skirts, including in plus sizes. You can find tartans, dogtooth check, Prince-of-Wales check... it's all there in whatever colours you prefer. I realised a few years ago that there was no point me paying new prices for winter skirts ever again. Several of my favourites cost £1.50 each! Because below-knee, heavy skirts were popular with older women in years gone by, they're now seen as old-fashioned, making them far cheaper than newer, less hardwearing styles. I avoid skirts with elasticated waists, but even so I'm spoilt for choice. I also don't worry about buying pleated ones with dry-clean-only labels as I have a cunning technique for cleaning them (How to wash a dry-clean-only pleated skirt). My greatest tweed bargain to date is my 1970s Edinburgh Woollen Mill suit, which I got for £8. I keep looking for something similar, but haven't found anything yet. Good suits are hard to find.

If you've got a tip for finding a tweed bargain, I'd love to know about it. I get all my best ones in Age UK.
£1.50 PoW check skirt. BARGAIN.

Look after them
How do you keep your tweeds nice? Most importantly, protect them against moths. All that thick wool is moth heaven. I now have a 'quarantine' system where any secondhand garment entering the house gets to spend a fortnight in a plastic bag with some Zensect balls, before moving into a wardrobe. (That too contains anti-moth hangers, but I'd rather isolate a garment and treat it on its own before mixing it in with others.) Keep them dry-cleaned. If jackets need refreshing or reshaping between dry cleanings, hang them in a steamy bathroom, then WAIT UNTIL THEY ARE COMPLETELY DRY and iron them with a DRY iron. Why dry? Because wool plus heat plus moisture plus motion equals felt, and you don't want to shrink your clothes. With a bit of care, your tweeds will last you for years.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Random acts of shopping

New shoes and dressing gown
For someone who claims to hate shopping, I certainly seem to have been buying a lot lately, though without spending very much actual money. I've just got another dress from Boden – it was knocked down from £115 to £22 in Clearance – and is very Grace Kelly. It's a cappuchino brown broderie anglais shirt dress, and for now is providing the background to the bags in the second photo. I plan to wear it with my vintage beige Cooltimer jacket, ivory lace flats and the boxy cream midcentury-style bag, which I got for £2 in the Red Cross shop.

The black lace bag is another charity shop special. My everyday bag is a 1960s black leather-look vinyl one by MacLaren of Norwich. Unfortunately it's starting to show signs of wear: the pocket zip has broken, I need to restitch the lining, and the underside of the handle is badly cracked. I plan to recover it and make a new handle when it finally 'goes', but I'm not sure how easy that will be or how good a job I'll make of it, so when I saw this little boxy bag in Oxfam for £7 I snapped it up. It's not quite as plain as I like for a day bag, but it will do. The snap clasp and boxy shape are very 'me'.

I also won £100 of Debenhams vouchers in Gemma (Retro Chick)'s giveaway. Spending them was a weird experience: I've mostly weaned myself off going into actual High Street shops, preferring to buy from charity shops, Etsy or online repro firms. I do get my bras from Debenhams as they do a nice selection in my size, but I wanted to get something different. I didn't know where to start looking. In the end, I spoiled myself with the softest dressing gown on earth, which I didn't choose because of how it looked but because I felt it on my way past the underwear department and decided I simply had to have. It cost rather more than I'd think of spending on a dressing gown but my old one, which I got when I went to uni in 1992, is falling apart, and the vouchers seemed like a good excuse to treat myself. It is more of a dusty lavender than fawn, and Muppets made from clouds could not be as soft as this! I think Mr Robot is already fed up of seeing me loafing around in it; he keeps telling me off for having the hood up.

The vouchers stretched to a pair of penny loafers too. (They're black, not the reddish shade they appear in the final picture.) These are quite 'budget' in quality – the little strip is just laid over the surface, not stitched down, so I wasn't able to pop a penny in – but they have a nice thick sole and will hopefully work well on days when I need something more practical than heels but smarter than hiking boots. And, of course, they suit the midcentury style I tend to adopt for work as penny loafers were popular with young people in the 1950s and 1960s. So, thanks, Gemma and Debenhams, for those!

I do need to cut back on my spending at the moment. I feel as though I've got a real awareness of my personal style now, and having found that direction I want to run in it as fast as I can. However, Christmas and parents' birthdays are coming, so from now on all my shopping really needs to be for gifts... Have you bought anything in the sales recently or started shopping for Christmas yet?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The look of Crimes of Passion, episodes 1 and 2

Christer, Dina, Puck and Einar (episode 2, 'King Lily of the Valley') in their wedding reception outfits
Crimes of Passion is a midcentury-set Swedish crime drama currently being broadcast on BBC4. I've seen it described as 'Midcentury Midsomer Murders', which is a bit harsh – Midsomer Murders really is the low point for me as far as crime dramas go; I love the cheesiness of things like Quincy and Diagnosis Murder but Midsomer Murders is just dire. For me, Crimes of Passion is more akin to Agatha Christie stories, which is appropriate as the books were originally published in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, though there's a bit of spice in the form of the Einar-Puck-Christer triangle. (Einar and Puck are in love, but you just know Puck and Einar's pal Christer fancy the pants off each other.)
Christer's mum's house - classic Scandinavian midcentury
The first thing that struck me is how very unaccustomed to Scandinavian midcentury stuff I am. Watching Agatha Christie adaptations, I have another time to get to grips with. Watching Wallander, it's another place. Watching Crimes of Passion there's both another time and another place delivering little mental jabs, and I often found myself wondering if stylish things that struck me were normal for Sweden then and now, normal then, or brought in by the programme makers. The very icy colour palette in episode 2, 'King Lily of the Valley' makes me think the designers paid a lot of attention to using a palette to create a dreamy, remote feel.
Christer's mother shows Puck and Einar to their rooms. The clothes are what they wore to a wedding.
Before we get started on the clothes, I would like to say the interiors in this programme are absolutely gorgeous. Scandinavia was, of course, a design powerhouse in the mid-20th century, and all through the show you see gorgeous furniture. It's not in every location. Christer's police station, for example, looks very old-fashioned, and characters with less money have less up-to-the-minute homes. The beach house in the first episode, 'Death of a Loved One' is a blend of old and new and bohemian. Christer's arty mother, however, has a gorgeous home, from the sleek wooden-framed furniture in the living room to the open, geometric ironwork banister on the stairs.
Floral crowns for a midsummer beach party, and flamboyant Lil kicks off the dancing
The first episode was set at a somewhat bohemian party in a beach house. There were a lot of really charming cotton dresses to be seen, full-skirted things with colourful prints. They were often topped off with cardigans. It's a look that's stereotypically 1950s, but also very popular as a silhouette nowadays. I think the prints on the dresses really helps with the authentic feel; if you go to any large event you'll find that what really sets the authentic vintage or very good repro apart are the prints. Many of them simply aren't made any more. The costume designer did a really good job of not making things too fancy.
Marianne and Viveka, flirty and sporty
Also, the characters wore things you could imagine them picking: a flamboyant striped halterneck for the glamorous Lil, something deceptively sweet with plenty of racy scarlet for Marianne, and a more practical option for Marianne's friend Viveka.
Dina and Anneli
There was a similar pattern in the second episode. Dina, who was 'all grown up' - much to Christer's initial surprise - and had been to finishing school, was every inch the glamourpuss, while her tragic friend Anneli was all in angelic white.
Dina's outfit for the wedding. By far my favourite dress in both programmes
The wedding and the funeral in episode two do provide more opportunities for flamboyant clothing. The wedding was a white tie affair, and all the female guests were in floor-length frocks. I mentioned the icy colour palette in that episode, and you can see it in the long dresses on Christer's mother (seafoam) and Puck (turquoise) in my third image, and in Dina's incredible duck-egg-blue bombshell gown. It's really noticeable in the scenes in the church. I don't know if long dresses are still the done thing at regular Swedish weddings, but the Royal Family still goes all out. Order of Splendor did a fantastic breakdown of guests at Crown Princess Victoria's wedding back in 2010, and it was a proper, all-out gowns-and-tiaras affair.

Because the colours are limited at a funeral, that scene really gives you a chance to concentrate on cut. Everyone is in black, and every lady has her skirt bang on the knee, mostly with smart jackets, though Puck has a black embellished cardigan. Low shoes and square midcentury bags are definitely the order of the day.

Funeral wear. Very black, very smart.
Puck, Christer and Einar are the only three characters in both episodes. Puck is aptly named. She has an impish quality. She often wears trousers, a mark of her unconventional, practical nature, I suppose. Christer looks like he strolled out of a film noir, but then men's fashion changes less radically than women's, policemen aren't generally supposed to be high-fashion anyway, and I am not adept at following the shifts in the cut of lapel or tie. Whether his garb is period-appropriate or not, whatever Christer is wearing, he wears it well. Einar, on the other hand, seems to not wear things well. Usually spotted in casualwear unless the occasion demands it, there's also a good chance of seeing him shirtless. In a way you can read Puck's dilemma in their clothes: there's the boyish, playful innocence of Einar, who it is appropriate to see half-clad, and then the smouldering manliness of Christer, who has to be kept safely buttoned up.

Crimes of Passion is a stylish programme. After the first episode I wasn't sure if I liked it, but it's definitely growing on me, and I look forward to the third one!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A trio of 1930s Oxford murder mysteries

If you love old crime novels, you'll know it's getting harder and harder to find them nowadays – it's been ages since I've found a decent stock of greenback Penguins, which used to be ten-a-penny. Imagine my delight, then, when Mr Robot and I nipped into Waterstones in Trowbridge yesterday and I saw that the British Library had started re-releasing classic crime novels from the past. There are currently eleven novels in the British Library Crime Classics series, and I hope there will be many more.

(Note for non-Brits: the British Library isn't a company, it's the central national library, and a copy of every book and newspaper published in the UK is held there, as well as many major historic papers, and academics can research there. I've used it myself, for looking up family history information as the Library holds many of the official papers from the East India Company and colonial-era India Office.)

The first one I read was Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay. She only wrote three crime novels and this is the second; the first has also been reprinted but it wasn't on sale in my local bookshop. However, I probably would've chosen this one anyway because I recently read Death at the President's Lodging by Michael Innes and reread Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, and it's interesting to contrast and compare the three.

All three of the novels I've mentioned were written in the 1930s by former Oxford students, and are mysteries set in Oxford colleges. Death on the Cherwell and Gaudy Night are the most plausible; there's one murder in the former, and one you can imagine happening very easily, while in Gaudy Night there's a nasty outbreak of poison-pen letters, a near-suicide and a near-murder. The murder in Death at the President's Lodging, with old bones scattered around the victim, is by far the least plausible.

Cherwell is a fairly simple tale, and possibly because the murder is so realistic I worked out the killer and the reason for the killing fairly early on, which was a bit disappointing, and might explain why Doriel Hay's novels have gone out of print. Agatha Christie's tales are simple on the surface, but they're remained popular because when you're new to one, it's very hard to identify the culprit. Lodging is the most convoluted, and you get the feeling that Innes was more interested in the 'howdunnit' than the 'whodunnit' – the intellectual challenge takes precedence over characterisation. Gaudy Night balances between the two; Sayers creates very realistic characters and they act in the ways you would expect those people to. It's not obvious who's behind the nasty letters, but it makes perfectly logical sense once you know what's provoked the writer.

Gaudy Night will always be my favourite of the three as far as detectives go. While it's often called a Peter Wimsey novel, for me the real star is Harriet Vane, who brings in her fiance later on. Harriet is spiky and intellectual, not afraid to speak her mind or butt heads. I don't always like Harriet, but I do always appreciate her. In this novel, too, she's wrestling with her own problems: she's one of the first generation of women to graduate from Oxford, and she has her own career, but in the 1930s getting married will mean giving up much of her independence. It gives her depth. It's unfair of me to judge Lodging's Inspector Appleby in the same way as this book was his debut, whereas Vane and Wimsey were established characters. He's thoughtful, decent and not afraid to take risks, but owning a yellow Bentley doesn't come close to giving him Harriet Vane's depth of character. Cherwell's DI Braydon is much of the same type, though less clever than the intelligent Appleby. Both policemen are outsiders and do get treated as such by the academics.

Now the students. Ah, the students. In both Cherwell and Lodging I found them very immature, which I suppose they ought to be. Very few of us are very grown up when we're 18. However, very few of us bounce around murder scenes with the overprivileged oafishness of a Bertie Wooster, or deliberately hide things from the police so we could investigate for ourselves, and I did find myself wishing someone would smack a few student bottoms. I warmed to both groups by the end of their respective novels, and thought the quartet of female undergrads (leader, saucepot, sarky minx, fashionista) in Cherwell gave it great cinematic potential, but they were annoying at the start. Sayers' characterisation is so much better that her students don't irritate in the same way. They may be young but they feel like real young people rather than giddy asses.

And in all the books, Oxford, and the University in particular, is the star. Even in the one with the least description, Death on the Cherwell, you get a sense of the beauty of the old college buildings, and of the gorgeous gilded mode of life enjoyed by students there between the wars. If I didn't have friends who work there (and therefore a more realistic view of what Tourist Hell the place is) I might be tempted to visit Oxford for myself! Perhaps, though, it's a place best visited through books. Just don't fall over any corpses in your journey through the pages.