More Madame Storey MysteriesCollection of stories, published 1928
‘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."
And, yes, she wants to talk about sex, and attraction, and the complex relations between men and women. Then later:
She shook her head. "If you were married you would understand things — without explanations. To explain would be — horrible, you know."
"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.’