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Book review: Happy Little Bluebirds

Anne Gravey recommends some dazzling dialogue

    A book to set you up for summer? This hyper-witty, sharp- eyed escapist comic thriller will hit the holiday spot with style.

    Read it slowly. Levene’s elaborate epithets and contrived gags are not to be gobbled down. In fact, her dazzling whip-smart dialogue and acid asides make Dorothy Parker sound like a dullard.

    This is a novel of exquisite creative vignettes, colourful, charming and outrageous in turns. It is 1940 and British Intelligence is keen to coral the Americans into a war they are losing. Evelyn Murdoch, 27, widow of her recently dead, dismal dentist husband, excels in six languages including Esperanto and conversational Hungarian. She unexpectedly finds herself en route from home in Woking to the exotic West Coast of the United States.

    She’s on a vague mission to assist our man there, HP (code name “Sauce”) in his struggle to win the propaganda war and deliver the Yanks into the ranks fighting Hitler’s divisions.

    From the outset, the plan is flawed. HP holes up in Bermuda and Evelyn, in her Home Counties tweeds and shabby hat, is cut adrift and flying solo in Hollywood with a thin cover story as a voice coach.

    Underrated and overlooked by her self-absorbed aristocratic handler, Lady Glenista, Evelyn is nevertheless armed for the job. She has a fast, logical mind, anticipates trouble (she spots the German agents on the train out of New York when Lady G is busy showing off her would-be starlet profile) and her language ability tunes into accents and snippets of conversation

    Evelyn is soon pretty popular with the movie moguls for her cool head and fine wit — while still tracking the sleek Nazi hangers-on.

    “‘Conrad, you must meet my new friend,’” says one of the film directors by way of introduction. “‘Mrs Murdoch is over here working with Miracle Studios. Evelyn Murdoch, Conrad Dengler.’

    “One sensed rather than heard the click of heels,” writes Levene.

    “‘Guten tag

    ‘Very well thank you” (not caught out that easily).”

    Later, Dengler attempts to trap her. “‘Madagascar’ she had mused aloud.” Conrad Dengler says. “‘Madagascar? That’s most interesting. Why do you say that?’ His voice was low and urgent and his eyes darted to each side of the room like a silent screen villain about to whisk a Gish sister into white slavery.

    “‘It looked like a perfect solution at one time didn’t it?’ he smiled.”

    At this point, Evelyn is rescued by her studio boss

    “‘Evie darling.’ Zandor Kiss’s voice was a strange mix of Balliol and Budapest. ‘You look marvellous’ and he whisks her off for a rumba lesson.”

    A satire on the hedonists of Hollywood — and their starchitects — packs the text: “‘Interesting house?’ ‘Surely this is Mies van de Rohe? Or Le Corbusier himself?’

    “‘It’s very German School; early Günter Fink – a little something from his supremacist period. He likes everything to have a flat roof whatever the climate; he built a pair of houses up in the Rockies, they aren’t there now; you’d think a guy from the Alps would know better.’”

    The key players, at home in this bold evocation of a golden world, are mostly Jews, masters of a lifestyle our heroine is loath to leave. If happy little bluebirds fly, why or why can’t she?

    Woking is worlds away.

     

    Anne Garvey is a freelance journalist

    Happy Little Bluebirds

    By Loise Levene

    Bloomsbury, £14.99