Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Death Wears a White Gardenia by Zelda Popkin

published 1938




LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES






Singularly, Mr. Swayzey's promenade came to an end in the silk underwear department, in, to be specific, that section of the department devoted to handmade lingerie designed in France, and executed by the sight-destroying labor of underpaid Chinese and Porto Ricans. The tables in the center of the section drew his discerning eye. One was heaped with nightgowns, pink, peach, orchid and white, looking like old fashioned valentines with blobs of lace and fine spun cobwebs of embroidery; another with panties; a third slips. He looked at a price tag, speculatively, saw "$19.75" in red ink, below the crossed-out typed figure of "$24.50."…


A dim night light burned in that corner of the main floor. Blue denim had been stretched over the tables. Mr. Swayzey lifted the shrouds. With lightning rapidity he picked out nightgowns, slips, chemises, and crammed them into his bag. Selection was easy. During his brief pause less than a half hour earlier, he had decided what he would take. A careless amateur might have grabbed at random and scattered, but not Joe Swayzey. He left the tables as neat as he had found them, piles of merchandise smaller, but otherwise not visibly disturbed. Swayzey had technique.









observations: Zelda Popkin – isn’t that a great name? I’m surprised she picked the mundane ‘Mary Carner’ for her detective. My attention was drawn to this book by Les Blatt, who reviewed it at his Classic Mysteries blog here. He didn’t like it all that much – and I tend to agree with his criticisms – but nothing was going to stop me reading a murder story set in the lingerie department of a large NY department store.

Popkin wrote several books featuring her store detective – if I’d got there sooner I could have added her to this week's list of young female detectives: Mary’s a great heroine, smart and appealing. A body is found in the store: management fear bad publicity; the police allow themselves to be pushed around (this is, Les and I agree, unconvincing); and Mary keeps her ears and eyes open and solves the crime. I read the book on Kindle, and regret very much I didn’t have the Mapback edition with a plan of the store – it looks exceptionally pleasing in a photograph, as well as helping with the mystery. (I must say that I didn’t quite get the layout of the area where the body was found.) 





There’s an excellent description of a big sale at the store:

A mob of women fought for sheer silk stockings at fifty-two cents a pair; they pounded one another's ribs, lacerated each other's skin, knocked off hats to get to house dresses at sixty-seven cents, to gloves at two pairs for a dollar.
- that could have gone into my recent stockings piece for the Guardian, and matches up with the guest blogger’s piece on Elizabeth Smart earlier this year: “I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…. Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.”

There’s a nice contemporary reference to a character – a kept woman or professional mistress – having ‘more negligees right now than Wallis Simpson.’

Irene, another single woman working at the store, is shown to be having a male friend stay over, even though she has no intention of marrying him. The police inspector says: “You’re a pretty unmoral person, aren’t you?” but isn’t allowed to get away with that – Irene defends her position very thoroughly. And Popkin adds in a tiny scene in which a penniless unemployed man shoplifts clothes for his new baby: he is treated with sympathy and understanding. And, isn’t that interesting above about the underpaid sweatshop workers making all those lovely clothes? – not just a modern phenomenon.

This is not a cozy mystery, despite the setting, and Popkin tries quite hard to be hard-boiled about it. It’s a bit of a strange mixture, but I enjoyed it, and am grateful to Les for the tipoff. As I say, I agree totally with his criticisms of the mystery, but I liked the setting and period details so much that I didn't mind.

The pictures are of the lingerie department at Burdine’s store in Miami, and are from the Library of Congress.

14 comments:

  1. Moira - Les has a great blog and a very deep knowledge of classic/GA crime fiction. He knows of what he speaks... This one though does sound like it has a wonderful atmosphere. It reminds me just a hair of Ellery Queen's The French Powder Mystery, which takes place mostly in a department store. And it's sobering to think that farming out those sewing jobs has been going on for a very long time...

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    1. You are so right about Les and his blog - a resource for all of us fans. I haven't read the EQ mystery you mention, but maybe I should...

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  2. Seems like the only thing we have in common at the minute is our Irish ancestry and the country we live in! Not for me....roll on next week

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    1. At least it's a crime story with tough policemen! I just don't seem to be reading the hard-boiled stuff these days...

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  3. Sorry to hear it#s not a better mystery but at at least sounds like fun - thanks Moira.

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    1. It definitely has a lot of curiosity value Sergio - it would have been good for one of Rich's year memes, because it is so very much of its time, 1938.

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  4. Thanks for all the kind words, Moira (AND Margot!). I agree with you about the atmosphere and the setting, which is fascinating and well done, and Mary is an excellent character. As I say, I had a real sticking point over the police, which is why I didn't enjoy it as much as I might otherwise have done. Maybe I should give Zelda and Mary another chance.

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    1. Thanks again for the tipoff, Les, I'm really glad to have read it. And I would definitely read another one - when I have time...

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  5. A shame about the quality of the story, because I must have that Dell Mapback edition. I collect mapbacks and you know how I love skeletons. Who knows I might even like the story. But no rush, there are lots of books out there I want and too many here at home.

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    1. I thought of you when I saw the picture Tracy! But I did enjoy it for the picture of life then, even though the plot wasn't of the best.

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  6. I think I'd enjoy this. I'm trying to think of crimes in department stores now - there was a short story by Australian Jennifer Rowe (in Death in Store - part of her Verity Birdwood series). And one of the Miss Silver books (Wicked Uncle/Spotlight) begins with Miss S saving a young innocent from a shoplifting incident in a store. Hmmm.

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    1. Not read either of those. There's one of Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver books that's set in a very old-fashioned dept store in Scotland. I'm feeling a list coming on....

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    2. There's an accidental shoplifting in a department store one of the Family at One End Street books - I think it's at the end of "Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn" where a nasty attendant picks on one of the Ruggles children and accuses her of stealing a doll, but the day is saved in the nick of time by another shop assistant who saw what really happened.

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    3. You're doing my work for me! Making notes....

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