Tuesday Night Club: 1st from Mary McMullen

As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night Firsts logoBloggers (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

published 1951

originally published as a serial and known as Who Killed Miss X?

Mary 2
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.

Mary 3[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.’

Mary 1

[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:

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.


  1. I can see why you liked this so well, Moira! All those lovely clothes, and the lifestyle, too! I'm very glad you thought this one portrayed the time and culture well, too. And sometimes, there are stories where the mystery doesn't have to be perfectly done in order for you to get drawn in...

    1. Indeed, and the surroundings are so well done in this one. I'll have to read or re-read some of her later ones - I remember reading a couple some years ago, but can't remember any more than that. But this is promising.

  2. Sounds very interesting. I will have to look into this author. I don't need a great mystery in every book as long as the book has something to entertain me.

    I was just reading Farewell My Lovely by Chandler, and it filled (almost overfilled) with descriptions... lots of clothing descriptions both women's and men's, and descriptions of the neighborhoods and houses.

    1. I have only done The Big Sleep on the blog - a fabulous description of Vivian's clothes, I loved doing it and finding the picture http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/the-big-sleep-by-raymond-chandler.html

      -- so I need to get Farewell down off the shelf! Thanks

  3. her powder blue crepe dress and too many pearls

    Grace Gallatin Seton wrote a book about her adventures roughing it with husband Ernest (of "Two Little Savages" fame) and all I can remember of it is a snide remark about women who wear pearl beads with crepe.

    1. Interesting! In the book McMullen makes it sound convincingly bad, you can see just what she means about her poor colleague, but if I separate it from the book, the idea doesn't sound so terrible, does it?

    2. I shouldn't rely on memory -- when I went back to "A Woman Tenderfoot," it turns out that GOLD beads with crepe is an unforgivable taste faux pas, but Seton never gets around to explaining why.

      I am taking a guess (based on nothing more that reading a lot of 1940's fashion and sewing magazines) that crepe was considered too dressy a fabric for office wear. The rigid requirements concerning appropriate clothing/appropriate situations were starting to weaken but women (and men) were still expected to obey certain rules.

      Interestingly enough, Photoplay found crepe dresses with pearls totally acceptable for working girls.


    3. Those Photoplay pictures are priceless.
      In the book it seems to be that suits look business-like, equating to men's suits, whereas a dress and pearls looks too much like a social occasion - but I may be wrong.

    4. I've nearly finished it (hugely enjoyable!) and that was my take on it too.

  4. Moira, I like descriptions of people, the clothes they wear, and the places in period novels and that includes the first-half of the last century. I have read books with some fine descriptions of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that evoke strong images in the mind.

    1. Yes, and I find that when I visit American cities they all seem very familiar, from having read about them as well as seeing films and TV series.

  5. I don't always run off an buy a book based on a blog review (but probably more often than I should.) But I really want to dip right into the world of a 1951 ad agency. So it's now on its way to me. Thanks for the tip.

    1. Great! Hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think.

    2. It arrived. Read it in one day (A long day, while Mom was having surgery, so I was able to sit in the waiting room and transport myself back to 1951)

      I just loved it. All those cigarettes and cocktails and fashion plates and office politics and product pushing. I loved the bit where the client is all about making America fall in love with cold breakfast cereal again, and weaning them away from bacon and eggs.

      And walking about New York, all those places Eve goes to. It's a nice little period piece that wasn't planning to be one when it was written, I'm sure.

      (My only quibble is that unconvincing romance.)

    3. SO glad you had something good to get you through a difficult day (I have memories of books that did that for me). I think it would be ideal, just showing you a whole world.

  6. I've got to read this! Though probably what with books on the TBR pile and books I want to reread, I have got enough to keep me going for years.

  7. And I am in total agreement with you about hats. Also how did you get hold of a copy of this? I can't find one anywhere.

    1. US Abebooks, though there don't seem to be any more of them. I was SO determined to read it! (and the previous book I'd ordered via Abe was Lionel Trilling...) But now - watch your letterbox. In the post to you...
      It's a quick read, won't clutter the shelves, and I think v interesting sociologically. Not Mad Men.. more authentic I'm betting/

    2. So much looking forward to reading it! Thank you!


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