As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night Bloggers (a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week) have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.
As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.
And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.
Last week I looked at the first Dr Fell mystery by John Dickson Carr, Hag’s Nook.
This week’s book is quite different. Mary McMullen was part of a very busy American family of crime writers – her mother was Helen Reilly, her sister Ursula Curtiss, and all three were very talented. Curt over at Passing Tramp explains more about the family here - and it was his review of Stranglehold that made me get hold of a copy and read it. Turned out it was McMullen’s first book – and she waited another 23 years before writing the next one. And then she produced 18 books in 12 years. Anyway, first book and noted for its portrayal for office life in NY for women in the 1950s – how could I resist?
Stranglehold by Mary McMullen
originally published as a serial and known as Who Killed Miss X?
The hat, a cap of felt arched with shimmering blue-bronze feathers, shadowed Frieda Lee’s small pointed face. She looked like a haggard elf.
[Eve is on the second morning of her new job in a big NY advertising agency, talking to her boss, Frieda]
‘Morning,’ Frieda said. ‘I’m glad you’re in early – we’ve a meeting [with a client] at nine… This meeting isn’t too important… but it’s a big account and they like to see a good turnout.’
As she talked she was studying with approval Eve’s hair, her face, the copper menswear worsted of her suit, the flare of immaculate pique under her chin. What she was really saying was ‘Darling you look decorative. We might as well bring you along to impress the advertising manager.’
[Going to a very smart dinner party] She dressed in a rush at the last. Sliding silk taffeta over her head, tying satin straps round her ankles, brushing her hair to a polished cap, being lavish with her best perfume.
commentary: So much for me to love in this book: the murder/detection content is in fact low down the list. McMullen describes what the women are wearing every day, and their outfits are fabulous. Everyone wears lipstick, and smokes and drinks endlessly. We have that favourite CiB trope, the woman who wears her hat all the time:
‘there’s Frieda Lee. That hat must have cost her fifty dollars. She has them made. Gets her good out of them too - always wears a hat. You might be tempted to wonder if she really has any hair.’Given that this picture of couture milliner Lilly Dache:
is the Clothes in Books avatar you might guess how much in sympathy I am with this. As shown above, there are fur coats, taffeta dresses and satin shoes for evening, and then ‘good’ tweeds for daytime – heroine Eva can see what a female colleague is doing wrong with her powder blue crepe dress and too many pearls.
Eve’s friend Willie has a black hat with a pink tassel that reaches to her waist, and pins ‘a huge watch-fob to her belt’ with her black watch plaid suit. When Frieda later on ‘wore her haggard-elf look in excelsis’ it was a reference back to the line in the 1st extract above, but for a bonkers moment I thought it meant her outfit: I still don’t really understand what it means, but by this time I didn’t care, lost as I was in the descriptions.
These working women take their jobs very seriously – but have some problems with the men in the office. Eve, as above, knows why she is asked to come to a meeting with a client. Everyone who works there is temperamental (they are creatives) but only the women will be described as hysterical…
The murder victim is an unknown young woman found naked in the conference room. The investigation is in alternating chapters: we get Eve’s thoughts on the atmosphere at work, and then the policeman, the rather charming (and well-named) Lieutenant Grace. This is unusual for the era, I would say, but works surprisingly well. I think you can see the roots of the book in a serial, and there are quite a few loose ends left untied – but I still enjoyed every magic moment.
So a B+ for detection, but A+ for a wholly convincing picture of a working environment of the time.
Bensons, the agency in Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is really very different - not least in that DLS took her clothes very seriously, but was not a fashion plate. They are dangerous places: CS Forester’s Plain Murder is set in one, and the heroine of this thriller starts out there.
Evening wear from Kristin’s photostream.
Day wear and hat from the same source. All from the right era.