Mari HowardOctober 29, 2020
art & culture, historical, social comment

The Art Fiasco

by Fiona Veitch Smith

“Poppy didn't like being on the receiving end of a journalist’s questions…” No, she certainly wouldn’t! Our protagonist in The Art Fiasco is a journalist herself…  a lady journalist, and the year is 1924.

The Art Fiasco is the fifth in the Poppy Denby series of mysteries, and having read all four preceding books I was already looking forward to re-meeting the characters. Even more so since although not a native North Easterner, I studied at Newcastle University, took some Art History as a second subject, and had friends in their excellent Fine Art department, which features in the book. From living in various parts the City (including Jesmond, though not in an elegant  house like Aunt Dot’s) I knew, or knew of, many of the locations - Heaton, Gosforth, the Laing and Hatton galleries - mentioned. I also looked forward to learning about Newcastle in the Victorian and Edwardian era, and of course it all made sense: well before my time there (when shipbuilding on the Tyne was the big employer) Newcastle was the centre of a thriving coal producing area. Coal, also used in British manufacturing, was shipped all over the world. The city was home to a well-off middle class who enjoyed the theatre, cinema, and elegant Armstrong Park (with tea room), and surrounded by mining villages.  Including the showcase Ashington, where this tale begins delightfully with authentic dialect dialogue, and then shockingly by revealing a sinister exploration.

At that time, evening and weekend classes run from a local University had become the way for workers to ‘get educated’: teachers would travel out to villages with boxes of books or necessary equipment, to set up and teach in the village hall or equivalent. Somehow the location of children’s Saturday art classes “held in the Church of England Hall” rang very true: it would be the C of E, somehow! 

But what secrets might be running beneath this particular apparently innocent outreach to the mining families of Ashington?  Do the beneficent employers of the tutor know enough about who they’ve entrusted to teach the miner’s children? Typical of Fiona Veitch Smith’s work, much of this historical plot will point up problems familiar to our own society today.  Here they lead first to Poppy’s 1924 investigation of a ‘cold case’ and then on to a murder. And it all takes place as she is enjoying a few days’ holiday visiting her parents in their home town of Morpeth, nearby, and planning to attend her fashionable friend Delilah’s performance in The Importance of being Ernest at the Theatre Royal (an impressive building on Grey Street, opened in 1837, still in use and Grade 1 listed).

Alongside, Veitch Smith as always includes, when setting Newcastle in its golden days, lovely descriptions of contemporary fashion, and much awareness of the nuances of social class. And as we wait with the crowd in the foyer of an art deco cinema, into Poppy’s mind we go, as she admires the decor and the fashion through the filter of her Methodist upbringing. Her friend Delilah's evening clothes are wonderful, but when buying her own Poppy considers whether these are “clothes which last” as well as fashionable. I liked the writer’s apposite use of “sporting” in describing an outfit worn by one of the characters as they meet at the Park: he appears “wearing tennis whites and sporting a straw boater.” (To sport a bowler, or a rose in the buttonhole, is overkill, to sport on your way to play tennis is certainly allowed!)

And so we proceed, peacefully, through the first few chapters, enjoying the time Poppy is away from her Fleet Street lifestyle as a London journalist - then (on p.98) lulled by enjoying a bit of culture, we’re confronted by the unexpected: Poppy witnesses a murder!  Suddenly, in a formal setting, crowded with the well-heeled and well-educated, a crime has been committed.  As the appalling news spreads (p.102) “…the air was charged with ghoulish curiosity and abject sorrow, depending on how close in life the onlooker had been to the deceased.” Of course, we readers anticipate that Poppy will become involved with the case.  It must connect to that previous mystery, back in 1897-8.  And here, (p.153), examining the last place of residence of the deceased, she finds a touching detail (the mark of a skilful writer): “Poppy came across the catalogue for the … exhibition… under a discarded silk stocking. She matched the stocking with its mate… then paged through the catalogue.” Another nice use of language I enjoyed (p.172) was a character wearing “a vivacious silk scarf”.

At this stage of the story, mystery begins to build, and we might (but don’t) lose these nice touches of thoughtful description. Though there are also odd behaviours and other clues to think about. Already plenty of suspects exist to speculate around, but interleaved are some almost cosy domestic scenes. We meet Poppy’s Methodist minister father, and her mother, and learn more about the years leading up to the present in a well painted picture of their earlier family life. In typical style for this writer, there is plenty of social comment woven carefully into the plot, much of it concerning disturbing facts about women's lives in a hierarchical, patriarchal society. Some still present… The solution to the mystery, when it comes, is satisfying and believable, and although this could be seen as a “closed ending” there is also an opening for more adventures to anticipate, as Poppy moves further along the path of an independent young women In the early 20th century.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which I loved. The writer tells a good story, keeping the reader involved by her attention to historical detail and her almost conversational, friendly style. We feel positive towards Poppy, who behaves as our best selves might in various situations and is committed to seeking the truth in her career as a journalist. As a central character, she is appealing and attractive with her openness towards the people she meets, and her awareness and thoughtful attitude towards this period of rapid social change.

You can read some of the author's research in Who’s left holding the baby? - class & contraception in the 1920s by going to the Mari Howard blog where we're hosting her guest post:: https://marihowardauthor.wordpress.com/

I was offered an e-book of this novel, in exchange for an honest review, and was happy to accept. I'm glad to say this is indeed an honest review of a book I've enjoyed very much.