The Velvet Hand by Hulbert Footner

More Madame Storey Mysteries

Collection of stories, published 1928

This story:

The Viper

[Paris, mid-1920s: a new arrival from New York is a social sensation]

‘They say that Craqui does her hair himself, and makes up her face in harmony with the costumes he designs for her. I assure you the ensembles are marvellous — marvellous! Egyptian, Chinese, or Central African effects. A lay figure on which Craqui spends all his art. Once it would have been thought outlandish, but nowadays you can't go too far. Everybody thought Craqui was spoiled by rich American tourists, but, after all, there is nobody like him... The woman creates a sensation wherever she appears, and that's all she does do, just appears."

"What's her colouring?" asked Mme Storey.

"Originally her hair was a lifeless light brown, I believe, but now, my dear! various new shades of red and gold woven together! It must be dyed strand by strand. The effect is astonishing. It never occurred to anybody before to dye their hair several shades at once. It's bound to become the rage.... Her eyes are a cold gray. Extraordinarily steady, cold, contemptuous eyes. Basilisk eyes; gives you the shivers to look into them. Smudged in and elongated with make-up, the effect is snaky in the extreme. Somebody does wonderful things to her with make-up. Curious shadows about the lips that give the effect of petulance. A dead pallor with just a tinge of bistre. One eyebrow a little higher than the other. Oh, chic! chic! my dear! The sort of thing you can't copy!"

commentary: Madame Storey, and her assistant Bella, are in pursuit of an American woman who committed a crime back in New York. Could this new sensation be she? I leave you to guess.

Our heroine is a splendid American private detective: she is beautiful, striking, well-dressed, carries herself well and is immensely clever. Her stories are narrated by her adoring assistant Bella, who occasionally has a role to play, and in this story gets a new dress:
I too, was endowed with a luscious evening gown in the "stove-pipe silhouette." M. Craqui insisted that it must be made up in magenta velvet. Fancy red-haired me in magenta! But he was right, as it proved. The only trouble with the gown when I got it was that it made me look too fine for my humble station.
The clothes details in this story were just sublime – if I had read it blind I would’ve been convinced it was written by a woman. (I love the hair, which is obviously an early appearance of what we would now think of as highlights. Bistre is a brown sooty powder.)  There is some resemblance to the social gawping of great blog favourite Michael Arlen, but the clothes are even better than his... Arlen was definitely a traditional man when it came to the outfits.  

The two women chase their target around Paris, at various sumptuous social events, and back to the USA, and I could have run a dozen different clothes descriptions.

This and the other stories are tremendously enjoyable. You are not usually in doubt as to who committed the crime – the question will be how he or she did it, and how Mme Storey will catch them out.

One story, The Steerers, has a different feel: it is about women being targeted on transatlantic liners, and delivered into a very particular kind of con game. It is weird and memorable and actually terribly sad, though nobody lingers on that aspect. Here is a woman talking to the innocent Bella:
"I wish you were married," she said. "Then we could talk about things." 

"Why can't we anyway?" I asked. "I'm grown-up." 

She shook her head. "If you were married you would understand things — without explanations. To explain would be — horrible, you know."

And, yes, she wants to talk about sex, and attraction, and the complex relations between men and women. Then later:
"I am utterly reckless!" she cried. "The spirit of a bacchante has entered into me. I mean to drain the cup of life to the dregs!" You would have had to see the aging, sallow woman to appreciate how tragi-comic this sounded.
More tragic than comic.

Hulbert Footner is virtually forgotten now, but was a prolific writer in many genres back in the day – first half of the 20th century. Wikipedia has this imaginative sentence: ‘His Madame Storey mysteries fit the flapping 1920s like the long lizard gloves that graced her arms’. (I did some research into the idea of lizard gloves, by the way, and it seems they were most definitely a lizardskin pattern on fine kid or suede gloves.)

I loved the stories and would definitely read more – they are full of unusual ideas and great details and clothes, and a picture of a life long gone.

I was spoilt for choice with pictures for amazing fashion creations of the era, even when I decided to stick to actresses.

Top picture is of Fanny Brice (ie Funny Girl) in 1925, from Kristine’s photostream. Next one, same source, is the actress Lynn Fontane.

Then Norma Shearer, ‘in a queer chequered pattern of green and black on a white ground’. 

Then Portuguese film actress Helen d’Algy. ‘M. Craqui seized a pair of shears and with scarcely a glance cut recklessly into the priceless stuff. All the women exclaimed in dismay. In a jiffy two lengths of it were hanging from Gabrielle's lovely shoulders. M. Craqui like lightning snatched pins from the trembling hands of Thérèse and jabbed them cunningly here and there.’


  1. Oh, my, Moira! With all of those luscious clothes, how could you not love this! And it's fascinating to read about those hair dyes - a real look at how they did things then. So...interesting on a historical level as well. I like the writing style, too, just from the bit you've shared.

    1. It was the perfect book for me, Margot - history, crime and great clothes. Very interesting detection.

  2. Isn't the "dress cut on the model" a familiar trope?

    1. Yes indeed. In this case the dress sounds rather unfinished, pieces of material hanging down. It wasn't you who recommended this book to me was it? I was trying to think why I got hold of it...

    2. I have a (repro) copy of an early 20's dressmaking book where all of the dresses shown are cut, pinned and fitted on the model. As someone who has done some dressmaking, the entire process looked a bit slap-dash to me and I wondered how many wearings any of those pretty gown would be able to stand.

      FYI - all of the Footner stories about Bella and her incomparable boss are available as ebooks, some at Gutenberg, some at

    3. Oh I hope you read and enjoy them, Shay. There was definitely the trope of 'cut on the model', but it always sounded a bit - well your word slapdash is a good one. Sounded like a good claim to have about a wonderful designer, the kind of thing to be described in a book...

  3. Moira; Those dresses are amazing. Are any of them available in colour? I would love to know what colours were used. They are as striking today as they were a century ago.

    1. I know, stunning aren't they? But no easy way to know what colours they used. After I had been looking out pictures for a good while for the blog, like a year or two, I had a 'duh!' moment of seeing that there were never going to be colour photos of anything pre-WW2. So it has to be a fashion illustration or sketch if you want to know the colours....

  4. I was interested in how you came on this set of short stories, but I see that you don't remember. The stories sound good and he did write a lot of books. I will definitely look into this author.

    1. I am annoyed with myself for not remembering, I tried searching around without success. Someone definitely mentioned them to me, I do hope they will claim the credit. I think you would like the stories - they were tremendous fun, very lively and interesting. A few themes came up more than once - for example important scientific discoveries that could be used for peace or war - and it would be interesting to see if they played out in other stories.

  5. Great name for an author, but probably not a book or stories for me.

    1. Indeed, and the main character is excellent - but not really your kind of thing.


Post a Comment