LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Clue of the Red Wigby John Dickson Carr
short story, from collection (The Third Bullet) published 1954
[a big story is being conveyed to a news editor]
‘…About 11 o’clock a policeman on his rounds found Hazel Loring dead in the garden with practically no clothes on - ’
‘What?’ shouted MacGrath, and the sleep was struck from his eyes.
‘Well only a brassiere and a pair of step-ins. She was sitting on a bench, dead as Cleopatra, with the rest of her clothes folded up on the bench beside her.’
‘In this weather?’
‘Yes. The policeman saw her go into the garden an hour before.’
[Later in the investigation: a reporter, Jacqueline, is relaying some facts:]
‘It is certain she undressed herself, and was not undressed by anybody. Her maid [says] that Miss Loring has a special way of folding stockings, like… ah, zut!... would you like me to take off mine and show you?’
‘Orright, I only ask. But it is special. Also the way of folding the dress.’
commentary: In a recent entry on Kathleen Moore Knight’s Exit a Star I mentioned that my friend Noah Stewart had recently done a tremendous post on specific gambits in Golden Age detective stories – The Distinctive Garment Gambit as it might be – and Lucy Fisher pointed out that one he could add to the list is the ‘woman’s touch’ clue. Christine Poulson, and Lucy, and I were agreeing how much we liked an observation that only another woman was likely to make, something a man wouldn’t notice. Lucy mentioned Legally Blonde – the Reese Witherspoon movie where the trainee lawyer makes important deductions from shoes and hairstyles. And we think Noah should add it to his list.
In the form of clothes deduction, it is the lifeblood of this blog – nothing I like better than an anomaly in what the victim is wearing, or in this case not wearing. One of the very first entries, way back in 2012, was Miss Marple commenting knowledgeably on a dead woman’s dress.
It is often a female writer who uses these clues, but John Dickson Carr, whom I always say is much more in tune with women than most of his male contemporaries, has an honourable presence. In the recently-featured Four False Weapons, a bedtime routine is cleverly interpreted.
Here he produces a reporter, Jacqueline Dubois, who is impossibly stage-French, and terrifies the men with her ruthlessness and sexuality. It is overdone, and her Franglais is very silly, but actually she is still a hoot and a half. I don’t know of Carr using her in any other story, but I would love to have read more of her. And the story itself is intriguing – the dead woman is a celebrity in a way that resonates with modern life. Nowadays she would have YouTube and Instagram accounts, and her concerns would be exactly the same.
This collection, The Third Bullet, contains seven stories, of very varying quality. I thought the title story was the weakest, as well as being the longest: a true locked room mystery but very dull, and a complete lack of interest when the murderer was revealed. This one I really enjoyed, and a couple of others: the star of the show is The House in Goblin Wood, famed as being probably Carr’s best story. It is indeed a masterpiece: memorable, brilliantly clever, and chilling.
The picture is from Kristine’s photostream.
Step-ins a perpetual subject of interest on the blog. See this post for example, which has links to others.