LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Murder Among the Nudists by Peter Hunt
[investigating officer Alan Miller, an undercover nudist, goes to consult with one of his subordinates]
He went off by himself to see O’Donnell… who was smoking a cigarette in the shade of the gate house. He blushed and sniggered covertly at the naked Miller.
“Stop it you oaf. Get up on your feet. Let’s go over behind those trees for a talk. Give me a cigarette.”
O’Donnell obeyed pompously. “How do you like having no clothes on, Chief?”
“Very much. I always was a nudist, you know.”
“You was, sir?”
“At heart. Now I’m taking it seriously. I’m not turning in a budget for new uniforms for next year.”…
[They discuss progress in the case]
“That’s all for now. Enjoy yourself.” Miller flipped his cigarette away, got to his feet, strode off towards the street of cottages. He whistled an air. O’Donnell looked surreptitiously and amusedly after him, watching his sunburned buttocks diminish past the willows.Nudism, to O’Donnnell, was the foundation for a dirty joke, and a rare kind of lechery. He was surprised at Miller.
[Shortly afterwards] Miss Botto trotted past [Miller], laughing. She waved to him.
This suggested to Miller a certain effulgence, the effect of moving flesh; golden leaves, fat bunches of grapes, a slender faun; Autumn, a picture he had once seen somewhere, perhaps in the Luxembourg. Miss Botto ran through the rove, and brief stripes of light slid along her shoulders and her thighs.
commentary: Never was ‘looking at what goes on under the clothes’ a more accurate description.
A quick reminder: A couple of weeks ago I read an almost-forgotten murder story by ER Punshon. Browsing in a list of titles at the end of the book, I came across this one, with the description ‘featuring a naked Detective-Inspector going undercover in a nudist colony’ and was truly intrigued, as were several of my readers (the usual suspects – you know who you are).
I immediately tried to get a copy of it, and after a few false starts I succeeded. I’ve now read it, and what a strange and wonderful book this is. I can’t decide quite what I would make of it if it hadn’t had the unusual and striking setting of a nudist camp in Connecticut. For a start, if the intro hadn’t made it plain, I would have thought it was a British book until a good way in: it resembles an old-fashioned village mystery, until two of the characters go for a louche jaunt to New York City. And it does become obvious that the timing must be just before the end of Prohibition.
Alan Miller is Chief of Police in the small town of Totten Ferry. When a woman is found dead at the local nudist camp he goes to investigate. After an initial look he takes the very bizarre decision to go undercover in the camp, from where he investigates the crime (to the great amusement of his fellow police operatives), pretending to be just another nudist.
The nudists are eccentrics and oddities, and there is an assumption they must be vegetarians and teetotal. One of them tries to psychoanalyse everyone. Unfortunately, the assembled characters aren’t very much distinguishable, I never really got them straight.
It becomes apparent to the astonished reader that actually one of the points of the weird setup is to establish a unique version of the impossible murder, a symbolic ‘locked room’. The nudists bring nothing into the camp, and they have no objects unaccounted for: therefore they have no means of committing murder, no weapons, and no way to conceal a weapon. They don’t use electric light. Some pins and needles and later other tools become an important part of the plots, and Miller has to find out what was going on. The murder is committed via, of all things, a washing machine, which does genuinely merit this splendid passage:
A great flash of lightning came, and a great peal of thunder like the sound of universal destruction. Miller and Fullilove remained alone over the fluttering candle flame, beside the sinister washing machine.At various points the police confiscate the nudists’ clothes to make quite sure none of them can leave or wander round the town.
There is some murky discussion of different kinds of sexuality, and the trip to New York is very compelling, with a sinister old liftman and some mindgames – it does read somewhat as if it had been spliced in from a different kind of book, something more noir-ish and would-be literary.
Just when you start to think the nudism is merely a playing piece in a murder game, some passage makes you see how much Hunt is enjoying this, that there is a faint note of eroticism running through the book, and that he most definitely is hoping to tease and captivate the reader. The book is also amusing, with some very funny lines.
It is not the best murder story ever, but is well worth reading for its sheer exoticism. In fact I kept thinking of Gladys Mitchell – the story stops and starts and disconcerts the reader as hers do, and wanders around all over the place, and while I don’t think Mitchell ever did use such a setting, she would have been the woman for it… Mrs Bradley would surely have gone undercover as a nudist without turning a hair.
This webpage advertises the book: I didn’t have any luck with the links and buttons on the page, but emailing the address there did produce results…
The pictures. Well, I did my best for you. The top one is a postcard showing a nudist camp near Berlin in the era of the book (via Wikimedia Commons). I think they are doing their exercises.
The lower one is from the NYPL, and is apparently a satirical illustration poking fun at women who will wear their furs even when they are wearing little else.
You can never say Clothes in Books doesn’t put in the effort when it comes to picture research.
***** ADDED LATER: When my copy of the book arrived I was rather disappointed that the publisher hadn't seized the opportunity to place a fancy illo on the cover. Paula Carr - see the comments below - had a similar experience. And then she looked more closely at the abstract design...
--I am the world's worst photographer, I'm not sure if you can see anything in the pattern. But Paula and I can assure you that there is something there - in two different parts of the cover!