published 1944 chapter 1 (set in 1940)
She was a pretty girl, to begin with, and therefore probably a bad lot. But even this was not the first thing about her he noticed. The girl seemed to be in a kind of trance, with no idea of where she was going. She walked along, among chattering crowds, her eyes rapt and turned inwards. Her lips seemed to be moving without sound. Once she paused, drawing herself up and making a gesture of such terrific queenliness that it attracted the interest of a small boy.
But the girl paid no attention.
Mike couldn’t place her. Her fresh-coloured complexion, her grey-green eyes and heavy eyelids, the rich brown hair falling to her shoulders in a long bob, roused Mike’s worst suspicions. And yet…
Her costume, which consisted of a blue wool shirt and corduroy slacks, with white cotton work-gloves stuffed into one pocket, vaguely suggested work without indicating what kind of work. Mike considered that it showed too much of her figure. She was utterly unconscious of this. But then she was unconscious of everything else. She walked straight towards Mike, almost bumping into him before she woke up.
observations: This week I wrote a piece for the Guardian Books Blog about women in trousers in fiction: this was one of the examples included, so here's a closer look and a picture.
The ‘bad lot’ accusation is by a misogynist character and not meant to be taken seriously: the author admires his creation, but says later that her figure ‘had been only travestied by slacks and work-shirt’ – he prefers her in a grey dinner dress with a silvery skirt. She is, of all things, a lady magician, and she is visiting the zoo, where she will meet the Montague to her Capulet, and a lot of reptiles, and get involved in a murder staged to look like a suicide.
There was some falling-off in later books by this author (this one featured last year), but this is still worth a few hours of your time if you like locked-room mysteries, despite the annoying title – you suspect the publishers wanted to call it the much more sensible Murder at the Zoo. It has a real historical sense to it: a household item (rather drawing attention to itself, I clocked its first appearance instantly) and a wartime feature combine in an unusual way. (Can’t say more without spoilering, but it would make a splendid fake-Cluedo accusation).
One tiny joy is that there is an annoying character whose passive-aggressive conversational style is reproduced very entertainingly: it’s a recognizable trait, nicely pinned down.
John Dickson Carr published his books under that name and also as Carter Dickson.
Links on the blog: Previous wartime book by JDC. The Marquis of Right attractively compares his ladylove to an animal in the zoo here.
The picture is from the Helen Richey Collection at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, a wonderful resource – used before on the blog here and here, and (especially recommended) home of this magnificent photo.