short stories – collection published 1949
this story: The Yellow Jumper
Herbert was not the kind of man who understands women’s dress. Nevertheless, he happened to visualize Rita in what women call a pinafore dress, though he did not know the term. He visualized a pale green, sleeveless dress with a short-sleeved underbodice of yellow – the dress that was eventually produced at the trial…
[But there is some confusion over what Rita was wearing: yellow underbodice or yellow jumper? The policeman asks the local dressmaker]
‘Yes I made that dress for the poor girl,’ said Miss Amstey ‘… and the yellow underbodice to wear with it, and I must say it looked very well.’
‘And you made this jumper too, to go with it?’
‘No, I didn’t! That’s a knitted line – came out of a factory. Besides, it wasn’t Rita’s – it was the other woman’s. I saw her wearing it the very day of the murder. And I must say I thought it frightful. Apart from its being made of wool. The underbodice I made was silk.’
‘Then this jumper and this dress don’t go together – they belonged to different women? But you could wear one with the other if you wanted to, couldn’t you?’
‘Well, you could,’ admitted Miss Amstey, ‘but you’d look rather funny. For one thing, being a polo jumper, it has a high collar. For another, there’s the length – particularly the length of the sleeves. With one thing and another, people would laugh to themselves, even if they didn’t turn round and stare.’
commentary: So first of all, some terminology.
When I first went to live the in USA from the UK, I was talking to a friendly mother at the classroom door, and told her that it was my husband’s birthday soon, and I was about to take the children shopping to buy him a present: ‘a nice jumper – maybe something stripey.’ She gave me a very puzzled look indeed. After some discussion we established that a UK jumper could be called ‘a sweater’ in both countries. In the USA, a jumper means a pinafore dress, exactly as described above, and as in the picture: a sleeveless dress designed to be worn over a blouse, a thin sweater or (apparently) an underbodice. So I didn’t make that mistake again.
In the (British) story, the jumper is very much a woollen sweater. And the extract above is by no means a spoiler, because a) all the stories are inverted, you know from the start what happened and b) the whole business of the jumper and the underbodice (and it makes me so sad to say this) is fairly incomprehensible, and verging on the ridiculous. Everything said about the two designs is true and convincing - but as a way of proving murder it is not at all convincing. So: sad because I do love a spot of clothes detection.
The Department of Dead Ends is supposedly a part of Scotland Yard where the evidence is sent from cold cases. In each of the stories, a weird object is eventually used to solve a crime a long time afterwards: a rubber trumpet, a gold snuffbox, a tortoiseshell dressing table set. It is a very clever idea, and Vickers worked hard at it, but reading a collection of them one after another is not the best way – it would be much better to read them irregularly (as they appeared originally, in magazines such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine). And sometimes, the links with crime and object are nicely done – but the idea that this link proves guilt seems somewhat haphazard.
I found them repetitious, even though no sets of details are the same: Vickers certainly was good at producing variations on the theme. Some of them were completely uninvolving, while (as with many inverted stories) in others the reader can end up rooting for the murderer. One of them, The Case of the Social Climber, is about excruciating, appalling snobbery, and (implied though never directly stated) anti-semitism. In the end, the author’s complete lack of judgement on this is a judgement on himself. It is an extreme example of my feeling that the stories are rather cold and heartless.
In a strange connection between Enid Blyton and Vita Sackville-West, I once pointed out that both put characters in yellow sweaters if they are going riding.
And in Agatha Christie’s wonderful Five Little Pigs, the artist who dies is painting a young woman who is dressed in a yellow shirt.
Yellow Sweater by Modigliani from the Athenaeum