LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[The female narrator is looking round the murdered woman’s room, in the company of the police chief]
I stooped and picked up a filmy stocking. ‘Did you notice whether she was wearing stockings?’
‘No she wasn’t.’ He was belligerent. ‘She wasn’t wearing a thing but her dress and slippers and a pair of – well, some pink satin thingumbabobs. But that doesn’t mean a thing. My wife says a lot of women don’t wear any more than that – ‘
‘That’s quite true. But I’d stake my reputation that she didn’t wear that gown without a girdle. And these garter marks on the top of her stocking’ – I pointed – ‘prove it.’
I whisked open the middle dresser drawer and took out a girdle of lace and French elastic. ‘there it is. She’d already taken it off. It would be practically impossible for the murdered to put it back on after she was deqad,’ I instructed him. ‘But he could put on the dress easily enough.’
commentary: Last week’s ‘woman at a dressing-table’ entry was nicely popular, so here’s another such lady, also getting ready to be murdered. That was John Dickson Carr’s 1937 Four False Weapons, and the trope has turned up in the past on the blog in books by some very varied authors, including Pushkin, Virginia Woolf, and Enid Bagnold.
But there is a definite similarity with the JDC book – not at all suggesting plagiarism, but the excellent idea that by looking at what a woman does as she gets ready for bed you can detect exactly at what point she was interrupted. In this case the issue is also where she was murdered, and what she was wearing when she met her unfortunate end. (I do wonder if the girdle was actually French lace and elastic, whether the adjective became misapplied. Reminded me of Zola's shopping list and ruffles in another recent entry.)
I read another book by this author, Death Goes to a Reunion, last year, and enjoyed it very much: then Kate at Cross-Examining-Crime featured this one, so I tracked it down, and it was equally good, and with more clothes in it.
The narrator/heroine Margot Blair is a publicity agent in NY, who has taken on a new client. Susan is a young socialite who wants to boost her career as an actress by becoming The Best-Dressed Woman in America. Could this setup BE more Clothes in Books?
Susan has a small role in an upcoming play, and after a fancy party in NY, the action shifts to tryouts in a small town on Long Island, everyone staying at the same guesthouse. There is an older leading lady who is apparently very wary of the rising star… so of course there is going to be trouble, the wrong sort of publicity, and murder.
The early troubles consist of a great favourite of mine: the duplicate dress. The two actresses turn up at a fancy party in the same exclusive designer gown. Before the party, Margot says: I was slightly apprehensive about Susan’s gown. And frankly I felt rather the same – because:
From Susan’s description I had a hazy impression that [the dress] played upon the cactus motif, in silvery green with accents of watermelon pink. I should have known the gown would be right. When Susan came across the dance floor a stir of admiration ran around the ringside tables. The material was diaphanous, with the luscious spongy depth and silver sheen of the cactus, and by some magic of design Denise had given its outline a hint of grotesquerie without losing any of its grace. It sounds outlandish but it wasn’t.It doesn’t sound at all nice, and two of them would be even worse. This is the best I can do:
Once could be just unlucky – but then the same thing starts happening with their costumes for the play. What is going on here?
Susan’s dress was a floating cloud of rosy lace; her eyes had the unclouded blue of the sea, and a diamond clip sparkled in her hair. She had a gay, vibrant quality about her that night, and her feet in their fragile silver slippers fairly skimmed over the ground.
- this may sound unique, but, yes, there is going to be another dress. Unusually, this is not going to lead to any mistaken identity, or Wrong Victim trope – it is just a sign of the problems going on at the theatre company. (and, btw, I do recommend my friend Noah Stewart's recent post on certain gambits in crime books... he calls this one - as it usually plays out - The Distinctive Garment Gambit.)
I enjoyed the book very much, though finding it sagged just a little around the half-way mark, and I felt it could have been trimmed somewhat. (This is rather ironic, because when Kate read it she found herself with an abridged version, which meant that some aspects didn’t make sense – I had been careful to get the full edition after her warning.)
Kathleen Moore Knight may be almost forgotten now, but she wrote a lot of books, and I would certainly try more of them.
The theme of the social event ruined by duplicate dresses has turned up in a few books – here on the blog there’s PD James’s Cover Her Face, & Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds - I was particularly proud of this picture for that one:
And Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars.
This woman at her dressing table is by Frederick Frieseke, from the Athenaeum website.
Woman in lace evening dress is from Kristine’s photostream.
Cactus dress (mmmm….) also from Kristine.