LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Singularly, Mr. Swayzey's promenade came to an end in the silk underwear department, in, to be specific, that section of the department devoted to handmade lingerie designed in France, and executed by the sight-destroying labor of underpaid Chinese and Porto Ricans. The tables in the center of the section drew his discerning eye. One was heaped with nightgowns, pink, peach, orchid and white, looking like old fashioned valentines with blobs of lace and fine spun cobwebs of embroidery; another with panties; a third slips. He looked at a price tag, speculatively, saw "$19.75" in red ink, below the crossed-out typed figure of "$24.50."…
A dim night light burned in that corner of the main floor. Blue denim had been stretched over the tables. Mr. Swayzey lifted the shrouds. With lightning rapidity he picked out nightgowns, slips, chemises, and crammed them into his bag. Selection was easy. During his brief pause less than a half hour earlier, he had decided what he would take. A careless amateur might have grabbed at random and scattered, but not Joe Swayzey. He left the tables as neat as he had found them, piles of merchandise smaller, but otherwise not visibly disturbed. Swayzey had technique.
Popkin wrote several books featuring her store detective – if I’d got there sooner I could have added her to this week's list of young female detectives: Mary’s a great heroine, smart and appealing. A body is found in the store: management fear bad publicity; the police allow themselves to be pushed around (this is, Les and I agree, unconvincing); and Mary keeps her ears and eyes open and solves the crime. I read the book on Kindle, and regret very much I didn’t have the Mapback edition with a plan of the store – it looks exceptionally pleasing in a photograph, as well as helping with the mystery. (I must say that I didn’t quite get the layout of the area where the body was found.)
There’s an excellent description of a big sale at the store:
A mob of women fought for sheer silk stockings at fifty-two cents a pair; they pounded one another's ribs, lacerated each other's skin, knocked off hats to get to house dresses at sixty-seven cents, to gloves at two pairs for a dollar.- that could have gone into my recent stockings piece for the Guardian, and matches up with the guest blogger’s piece on Elizabeth Smart earlier this year: “I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…. Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.”
There’s a nice contemporary reference to a character – a kept woman or professional mistress – having ‘more negligees right now than Wallis Simpson.’
Irene, another single woman working at the store, is shown to be having a male friend stay over, even though she has no intention of marrying him. The police inspector says: “You’re a pretty unmoral person, aren’t you?” but isn’t allowed to get away with that – Irene defends her position very thoroughly. And Popkin adds in a tiny scene in which a penniless unemployed man shoplifts clothes for his new baby: he is treated with sympathy and understanding. And, isn’t that interesting above about the underpaid sweatshop workers making all those lovely clothes? – not just a modern phenomenon.
This is not a cozy mystery, despite the setting, and Popkin tries quite hard to be hard-boiled about it. It’s a bit of a strange mixture, but I enjoyed it, and am grateful to Les for the tipoff. As I say, I agree totally with his criticisms of the mystery, but I liked the setting and period details so much that I didn't mind.
The pictures are of the lingerie department at Burdine’s store in Miami, and are from the Library of Congress.