Friday, 18 August 2017

Death Wears Pink Shoes by Robert James


published 1952



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The door had been left open in an attempt to Death Wears Pink Shoes 4catch any passing breeze, and… a woman appeared and peeked in. Keith’s eyes popped, and he tried to keep his mouth from sagging. She was very tall with flaming red hair that curled up under an enormous cartwheel hat… the matching blue dress was so tight that it appeared that she must have been poured into it, and the plunging neckline had definitely gone out of bounds. Her sandals were a maze of narrow blue straps with the highest heels Keith had ever seen.



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[Later] Greta greeted everybody with her customary “Hello, darlings,” and dropped into a chair.

“Don’t you feel naked?” Gladys asked her.

Greta glanced down at her white sun dress. It started at the shoulders, ended abruptly, and for quite a space there was nothing but Greta, then it came to life again in an enormous circular skirt. “It’s hot,” Greta explained defensively.

“I didn’t mean that, but you have no hat.”

commentary: After recent outings with ballet – see here and here – this book seemed to follow the thread. The shoes are definitely pink ballet shoes, and the corpse is found wearing them on his poor dead feet.

But ballet doesn’t feature at all – the shoes are just there to add weirdness, there’s no real significance. However, it was a good read anyway: the inhabitants of an old brownstone in New York, now divided into apartments, assemble for a memorably awful building party. Everyone is horrible to each other, and the constant calls for more drink make this worse not better. An attempt at a dire party game ends in more bad feeling. The next day one of the guests is found dead. A nice cop comes to investigate, along with the dead man’s nephew. The residents include (of course) two nice young women in the basement.

There’s not a great deal of detecting to do, and by the time there’s been another murder, and we have decided to eliminate certain people from suspicion, there aren’t many suspects left (this book really is a closed circle – there are just about no other characters: no colleagues or friends, no shopkeepers or even passing strangers, no unexpected witnesses).

But the clothes are great, the sparky and ill-natured conversations among the tenants are always enjoyable, and there are some funny moments:
“They married in haste and it fell apart almost right away.” 
“Why?” 
The two girls stared at her in astonishment. It seemed incredible that anyone should question a marriage of [X]’s breaking up.

And
Keith took time out to observe that he disliked pigheaded women, and Greta reminded him that he was lucky to have a choice because the girls were faced with 100% pig-headedness in men.
There’s one feature that I thought was unusual: we find out who the guilty party is, and then we get a full chapter of that person’s thoughts, explaining method and motive in an internal monologue. I’m sure there must be other examples of this in crime fiction, outside of first person narration, but I can’t think of any.

There is all kinds of interest in the book itself, as physical object.


Death Wears Pink shoes


may have been mistaken in expecting some ballet content, but at least I read the book and discovered my mistake, which I don’t think the designer of this cover did. This picture bears no resemblance whatsoever to any aspect of the book, apart from the existence of pink shoes. HOWEVER - it is fabulous isn’t it? (The actual skull is missing, so I’m not sure if it would fit the collection of TracyK: shout out if you want it Tracy, and I will send it on.)

The wrap worn by the skeleton features a pink print: the Death Wears Pink shoes 7repeated logo of the Doubleday Crime Club, who published the book.

The back cover contains a code of symbols by which you can tell what kind of crime book you are holding – in this case, big on character and atmosphere.

And - apparently Robert James was a pseudonym for Iris Little, an Australian writer with sisters (Constance and Gwynneth) who also wrote detective fiction. I recently featured comments by Leonard Holton on the differences between men and women’s crime fiction:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers.
Death Wears Pink Shoes definitely reads like a combination of the two: it is tougher than that title would suggest.

Clothes from Kristine’s photostream and the Clover Vintage Tumbler.
























16 comments:

  1. Never heard of it but sounds like a lot of fun - pink may not quite be my colour, but thanks Moira :)

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    1. The pink is definitely misleading - it is a much tougher book than that suggests: I'm not sure the title was the best idea. But definitely a fun read, either way.

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  2. Hmm...those ballet shoes are intriguing, even if they don't have a significance for the plot, Moira. It does sound as though there are some great clothes descriptions, and I do like that touch of wit.

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    1. Yes, Margot, great book for me: good clothes and a strong crime plot.

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  3. I do love it when publishers put some real effort in their product. Some of the American editions of Carrs and Christies from the 30s and 40s are really gorgeous, with lovely dustwrappers and even embossed images on the covers. So many books nowadays feel like they've been designed by some bored office junior ten minutes before being sent off to the printers. The Pink Shoes cover is playful in a way that seems very Golden Age. They're not trying to pretend that this is award winning stuff, but equally it's not some thrown together thing. It's worth your time and effort to read it.

    I'm fascinated about the possible differences between male and female writers. Just recently I started reading Mary Kingsley's books about her travels in Africa in the 1890s, and I was startled to find them so breezy and funny and self-deprecating;very modern in style. They feel very different from some of the more ponderous books of a similar vintage written by men. Are they like this because she is approaching this from a female perspective, or is it simply because she is a much better writer?

    ggary

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    1. I'll have to find some of Kingsley's works. I wonder if she thought that the usual audience for Brave African Explorer books would turn up their noses at her because of her gender, so she decided to write something that would appeal to a wider readership.

      Then again, she may just have been a better writer than the average Brave African Explorer.

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    2. ggary: it is such a good cover, and I liked it so much I have ordered another book with a similar one. It's like blurbs on books - how come so many are so bad, when just a little more thought can produce something helpful/aesthetically pleasing/ informative?
      gg and Shay: I love Mary Kingsley, and yes her writing is much better than male explorers, I never stopped to think. I read a biography, and found out she had lived (in England!) just around the corner from where I was living at that time. I had to put the book down and race round to gaze at her house. (It is meaningless looking at writers' houses, yet somehow it isn't). As I recall, she lived the first half of her life as a dutiful daughter, then when freed from constraints said 'I'm off to Africa now.' Dazzling.

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  4. Oh, that pig-headed comment hits so close to home.

    The hat quote is very funny. My brother's wife grew up in New Jersey, and her HUGE rebellion as a teen was wearing jeans when she went into Manhattan. Not too many details like are very shocking any more.

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    1. When Jean Shrimpton went to the races in Melbourne - "There she was, the world's highest-paid model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions at fashionable Flemington in a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves, and NO stockings!"
      — The Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne, 1 November 1965)

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    2. Yes, social norms are in their nature temporary, and meaningless to different generations, but very important in their time. And Jean Shrimpton would have had far more press photos than if she'd dressed conventionally...

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  5. You know I love the cover. And the wrap with the Crime Club logo is perfect too.

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    1. Right, it will be making its way to you Tracy...

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    2. You are too good to me, Moira. And I missed the part about Robert James = Iris Little, sister to Constance and Gwyneth. I haven't read anything by those two, either.

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    3. No, there's such a world of unknown authors out there, isn't there...

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  6. I'm thinking it's about time you spoiled yourself and read something decent. I feel terrible for you lately.

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    1. I appreciate the sympathy. That's the way they've fallen lately...

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