Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick

Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“There’s something all wrong about this. God alone knows what it means.”

Lady’s Bower is the loveliest cottage in Somersetshire—more beautiful, even, than the nearby manor house Crosby Hall. Visitors are often surprised to find this choice property occupied by a servant, but Mrs. Lubbock deserves it after her years of service to the Crosby family. Mrs. Lubbock is enjoying a happy retirement, with her three daughters settled in life. Amy and Isabel are ladies’ maids in London. Lucy, a trained nurse, lives at home with her mother while working in the village hospital. It’s even rumored that Lucy has caught the eye of Dr. Christopher Crosby, the heir to Crosby Hall.

It seems impossible that anything bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. But the Lubbock family’s peaceful life is about to be shattered by violent death…not just once, but again and again.

Cottage Sinister is a deceptively gentle, amusing tale of rural mayhem that builds to an impressive body count. There’s not much hope of solving this one unless you’re a scientist (like coauthor Richard Webb, who worked with various writing partners under the names of Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge, and, most famously, Patrick Quentin). The solution is very clever but highly specialized. Still, Cottage Sinister offers all the charm of a traditional village mystery with a tart core that keeps things from getting too sentimental.

Cottage Sinister by Q PatrickIt all begins innocently enough, as a group of friends gather at Lady’s Bower to celebrate Amy and Isabel’s visit home. Amy is well-liked, and the crowd includes at least one hopeful suitor. Isabel’s sharp tongue makes her less popular than her sister. Mrs. Lubbock and Lucy are present, of course, along with Dr. Hoskins and several of Lucy’s colleagues from the hospital. Lady Crosby, her son Christopher, and their friend Vivien Darcy even drop by from Crosby Hall. Everyone eats and drinks the same refreshments, yet by morning, Amy will be dead of poison. More deaths will follow in the days to come, as suspects become murder victims themselves.

With the county constable laid up by gout, Scotland Yard sends one of their best men down to the village of Crosby-Stourton: Inspector Inge, known as the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon is presented to the reader as a Great Detective, and he certainly sees himself that way. He prides himself on his logical crime-solving methods. “He was an expert in psychological crimes because he never used his imagination—an adept at motiveless murder because he firmly believed that there was no such thing…he did not believe that anything could be really mysterious!” The Archdeacon revels in his catchy nickname, even affecting all-black garb and an ascetic demeanor in the hope that someone will mistake him for a clergyman so that he can dramatically reveal his true identity.

There is a hint of absurdity to this character, just enough that the reader is never quite sure how seriously to take his sleuthing. The Archdeacon is always painfully aware of himself as a detective. He daydreams of earning new nicknames like “the Society Detective” and sizes up his fellow train passengers in the manner of Sherlock Holmes (though with less success). Still, the village casts a spell over the Archdeacon. He finds himself constantly torn between his duties and the beauty of the countryside.

He was enjoying the case very much indeed. He had never been quite so comfortable in his life. He liked the village. The old cottages, with their crumbling stones, their mossy roofs and bright, cheerful gardens, gave him a sense of peace and repose. He took a quiet pleasure in the gentle, unobtrusive wisdom of the rustics. He liked the village and—above all—he liked his propinquity to the aristocracy. A twinge of conscience reminded him that he had no right to be enjoying himself in the midst of tragedy and death. And yet, in some innermost recess of his mind, he secretly wished that the case might not prove too easy—or, at least, that the solution might not present itself too quickly.

The Archdeacon is equally delighted and baffled by his contacts with the local gentry. Lady Crosby is no ordinary country gentlewoman. She has known for many years that her husband, Sir Howard, loves his land and his horses more than the wife whose money pays for it all. Instead, she turns her attention to other things, in particular her son Christopher and the education of her protégé Lucy Lubbock. Lady Crosby encourages Christopher to attend medical school against his father’s wishes. Their mutual interest in medicine is also bringing Christopher and Lucy closer, causing a local scandal. (“It all happened on the day when Doctor Hoskins was doing that op for multiple tumors three weeks ago. You know—I was doing the anesthetic and you were holding the instruments while he worked,” confides the lovelorn Christopher.)

Cottage Sinister offers all the pleasures of a typical village mystery with a mild vein of cynicism running throughout. Attractive though it may be, Crosby-Stourton is presented as insignificant even in its own region. “True, Wordsworth walked over one day from Nether-Stowey and wrote a rather poor sonnet in praise of its ‘historic stones and slumbrous living dead,’ but he soon passed on and wrote better sonnets elsewhere.” It is populated by eccentric characters whose opinions are easily swayed by gossip. Some are a little too eccentric, in particular the village constable who is addicted to misusing big words, but others are more entertaining.

Let it never for a moment be supposed that Mrs. Greene so much as breathed a word of what she had read in the telegrams. She listened very carefully to all that was told her and then went on her mute and mysterious way. And yet—somehow or other—her very silence, coupled with various noddings and shakings of the head and an attitude of “I could a tale unfold” was more pregnant of wild rumors than if she had disclosed the whole contents of Dr. Hoskins’ dispatches.

The murders at Lady’s Bower illustrate how old traditions are giving way to modernity, even in this isolated village. Local girls are no longer content to work as servants. Squires’ children want to marry for love, not money or social position. Modern medicine offers new treatments for age-old problems, as afflictions that ruined the lives of older generations can now be treated and discussed frankly. I was initially surprised by this book’s setting in an English village, having always associated Patrick/Quentin/Stagge with more sophisticated American milieus. Despite the seemingly quaint backdrop here, however, Cottage Sinister is fully on the side of youth, science, and progress. When Sir Howard advises Christopher against his friendship with Lucy, arguing that it is “tactless for a young man in your position to go around so ostentatiously with the daughter of a servant,” his son disagrees.

In my position…and what exactly is my position, sir? A young and indifferent medical student with his way to make and not even one major operation to his credit. In what respect am I superior to a fully trained and remarkably efficient young nurse?

Many young people of the village are cheerfully going their own way, to the astonishment of their elders. With change comes conflict, however, and this generation gap may have deadly consequences.

Cottage Sinister accomplishes a neat trick. It includes the atmosphere a reader might wish to find in a golden-age village mystery, while adding more modern and humorous touches that subvert the standard cliches. The solution includes several impressive twists that almost make up for the lack of fair play. There are some first-novel wobbles: it’s a little long, there’s a stretch in the middle where nothing much happens, and the rustic dialect adds nothing to the book. Still, maybe I’m just in the right mood for this sort of thing right now, for I found Cottage Sinister a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend time.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

It’s really everything that you want from this type of story wrapped up with a neat little bow.  Top that off with a solution that truly caught me off guard (and predates a similar known-but-not-exactly-famous twist) and I was left a bit stunned.  This is one of those books that you finish thinking “damn, that was good”, and then a week later you’re wanting to preach the gospel of.  Just to be clear, there’s nothing exceptionally brilliant about this one – don’t think you’ll walk away shell shocked or enamored by some clever jolt – but man, the pure GADness of this is astounding.

The Passing Tramp

Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn’t work like it should, in my view.

Availability

Cottage Sinister is available as an ebook in the US from the Mysterious Press.

The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“The case,” he said slowly, “far from being solved, has just begun.”

Racing up Arrow Mountain in a desperate attempt to escape the forest fire that has cut off the road behind them, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are relieved to discover a house at the top of the mountain. Their refuge is short-lived, however. Something strange is going on at the Xavier mansion, a situation that can only end in murder. As the flames creep higher and higher up the mountain, the entire group is facing certain death. What they don’t know is how that death will come—from the fire, or at the hands of a human killer. Continue reading “The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”

Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen

Drury Lane's Last Case by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Fact of the matter is, Lane, we’re in something crazy, I’m not getting any money out of it, it’s the nuttiest yarn you ever heard, and I’ve got to do something about it.”

Since leaving the police force to set up shop as a private detective with his daughter Patience, Inspector Thumm has encountered some strange propositions. This one has to be the oddest, however. A man with a blue and green beard hires him to guard an envelope, which he promises contains “a secret worth millions.” What seems like easy money proves to be anything but. As one crime follows another, Patience, the Inspector, and their friend Drury Lane are drawn into a literary scandal that will change their lives forever. Continue reading “Drury Lane’s Last Case (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Did the old chap have a fainting spell?”

“The old chap,” said Ellery grimly, “had a bullet spell, that’s what he had. He was murdered, Major—drilled through the heart.”

Buck Horne isn’t just a movie cowboy; he’s the real thing. He can bust any bronco, rope any steer, and hit any target with his trusty pistols. Lately, he’s been riding a very different kind of range: Broadway. Buck is hoping that appearing with Wild Bill Grant’s rodeo at the Colosseum will revive his screen career. Instead, it ends his life.

Twenty thousand spectators watch in horror as Buck is felled by a gunshot, his body trampled by dozens of horses. One of those twenty thousand people is Buck’s killer—but one of them is legendary detective Ellery Queen. Continue reading “The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian by Stuart Palmer

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You seem to know everything.”

Miss Withers smiled grimly. “I don’t—but I intend to.”

This journey across the Atlantic was meant to be the start of Rosemary Fraser’s independent life. The nineteen-year-old has grand plans for her trip around the world, but nothing is turning out the way she hoped. On the very first night of the voyage, she meets an attractive man who convinces her to tryst with him in a storage locker, only to be humiliated when a fellow passenger locks them in. Her partner leaves Rosemary to bear the shame alone.

Rosemary has become the laughingstock of the ship. And if her parents find out what happened, all of her dreams are over. So when Rosemary vanishes from the deck one foggy night, the other passengers assume she committed suicide—all except Hildegarde Withers. She suspects there is a killer on board, but will she be able to convince Scotland Yard? Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer”

The Tragedy of Z (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of Z by Ellery Queen

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“A murder’s no place for a young girl.”

Patience Thumm is back from her grand tour of Europe and eager to jump into the family business—which happens to be murder. Her father, the former Inspector Thumm, has left the New York City Police Department to become a private investigator. The Thumms are hired to look into the shady activities of Senator Joel Fawcett. Their misgivings are justified when Fawcett is found murdered, clutching a broken toy box in his dead hand.

A case this challenging calls for a master detective. Thumm calls upon his old friend Drury Lane, who is lured out of retirement to investigate the murder. In Patience, Lane recognizes a budding detective whose skills might equal, or even surpass, his own. And despite her father’s misgivings, Patience is determined to prove that a woman’s place is at a crime scene. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Z (1933) by Ellery Queen”

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)

The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

So this was murder. This was murder, and it happened to people one knew, and it did indescribable and horrible things to them. Frightened them first, perhaps. Fear of murder itself came first—simple, primitive fear of the unleashing of the beast. And then on its heels came more civilized fear, and that was fear of the law, and a scramble for safety.”

The Cases of Susan Dare collects the adventures of a young author who writes “murders…lovely, grisly ones with sensible solutions,” but doesn’t see why her fictional sleuths should have all the fun. Aside from her series detective, Nurse Sarah Keate, Mignon G. Eberhart’s work usually focuses more on romantic suspense than crime-solving, so it’s a nice change of pace to see both elements combined in these stories. Continue reading “The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G Eberhart (1934)”

The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“No one said anything for a long time, and the chill wind of tragedy crept into the room. It was hard to believe, looking out into the sunny gardens, that the master of all this peace and beauty and luxury lay, a stiff headless corpse, in the County Morgue.”

Ellery Queen’s Christmas plans are unusual even for him—the famous sleuth is spending the holidays in Arroyo, West Virginia, where schoolteacher Andrew Van has been crucified and beheaded, his body nailed to a signpost and posed in a T shape. Unable to make any headway on the murder, Ellery slinks home in defeat.

Only a few months later, however, a second shocking crime takes place, this one much closer to home. Wealthy businessman Thomas Brad has been found dead on the grounds of his Long Island estate. Brad’s corpse is crucified, beheaded, and posed just like Van’s. Ellery is certain the crimes are connected, but what could these two men have in common? The answer could lie in the nudist colony that has just moved in across the bay… Continue reading “The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen”

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (91/0 stars)

That’s what comes of investigating a crime in which all the suspects are daffy. Reason! Motive! Logic!” He threw up his hands. “Bah!” he said.

For decades, the antics of the “mad Hatters” have delighted New Yorkers and tormented the father of the family, York Hatter. It’s sad, but not surprising, that York has finally taken his own life. In the aftermath of his death, however, conditions have not improved at the Hatter mansion, where everyone must follow the will of the wealthy and mentally unstable Emily. Any of her children or employees might wish to free themselves from Emily’s dictatorial ways. Yet when the murder attempts begin, they are aimed at an unexpected target. Actor turned detective Drury Lane must determine whether one of the Hatters is truly mad before the entire family is wiped out.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen The Tragedy of Y finally brings all of Ellery Queen’s gifts together into one brilliant work. The crimes are striking, the characters are distinctive, and the solution is breathtaking. While still a bit too long, the pacing is also much tighter, with many of the tedious scenes of searches and interviews that dragged down previous books streamlined or eliminated altogether. Queen no longer feels the need to pretend that thirty different suspects are all equally likely to have committed the crime; instead, Lane focuses his attention on only a few locations and suspects, with excellent results.

The Hatter family first comes to the attention of Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno through the disappearance of York Hatter. Once a promising chemist, York found himself increasingly dismayed by his wife Emily’s harsh, erratic ways, which have damaged their adult children.

One of them was always in the news. If it was not blond Conrad attempting to wreck a speakeasy in his constant cups, it was brilliant Barbara leading a new poetry cotillion, or holding levee under the lavish endearments of the literary critics. Or it was Jill, youngest of the three Hatter children; beautiful, perverse, sniffing sensation with avid nostrils. Once there had been the faint rumor of an excursion into the land of opium; occasionally the tale of a carousing week-end in the Adirondacks; always, with bimonthly monotony, there was the announcement of her “engagement” to some son of wealth … never, it was significant, to a son of family.

York’s disappearance is seemingly resolved when a body surfaces in New York Harbor. Its pocket contains a suicide note signed by York Hatter. In the months that follow his death, however, the Hatters are cursed by a series of sinister events. The crimes all seem to be meant for Louisa Campion, the beloved daughter of Emily Hatter’s first marriage. Louisa is deaf, blind, and mute, but her other senses are highly developed. She is able to provide more clues than the killer might have expected, which only puts Louisa, her half-siblings, and Conrad’s wife and two young sons in even greater peril.

The character of Drury Lane is toned down a great deal here, compared to his introduction in The Tragedy of X. He comes off as quite a credible detective, rather than the ego monster of the previous book (though the narrator still can’t help reminding us that the sixty-year-old Lane doesn’t look a day over forty). There is a strange dynamic forming between the three sleuths. In the first book, Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno are starstruck by the famous actor, only to find themselves helpless as he steamrolls over them. Now, Lane seems to make Inspector Thumm and DA Bruno uncomfortable with his very presence, yet Thumm, at least, is more than willing to clap back. When Lane compliments him for a good idea, Thumm responds sarcastically, “I get ’em sometimes—mostly when you’re not around. You take something out of me.” Lane’s deafness is barely mentioned here, though once again he tries to impersonate a person whose voice he has never heard—good luck with that. However, his deafness does allow him to be sensitive to Louisa’s situation. He is able to win her trust even as it never occurs to the others that she might be able to communicate.

The Tragedy of Y by Ellery QueenIt’s hard to know what to make of the book’s treatment of Louisa. Lane and a few others are kind to her, and she is actually the most observant witness in the case. She notices more, and communicates more clearly, than any of her relatives (even Thumm admits that Louisa is the only member of the family who’s all there, mentally). Yet the narrative itself seems to hold Louisa at arm’s length. Much is made of her blank, staring eyes; she is described as madly flapping her hands about even after it is known that she is speaking in sign language. Emily Hatter’s deep love for Louisa is one of her few endearing qualities, but everyone else considers it further proof of Emily’s insanity. Thumm, Bruno, and even Louisa’s own siblings refer to her as “the deaf-mute” and “the deaf, dumb, and blind woman” instead of by name. Thumm has a soft spot for Barbara Hatter, in part because she has what he considers the “correct” attitude toward Louisa: “I won’t say she loves the deaf-mute, but from all I’ve fished out of ’em Barbara pities her, tries to help her get some interest in life—what you’d expect a real woman with a heart in her to do.” Given the book’s themes, this portrayal of Louisa as something incomprehensible and less than human has ominous implications.

Questions of eugenics and breeding come up over and over in Tragedy of Y. It’s repeatedly stated that Emily should never have had children, given her disease, which is strongly hinted to be syphilis. Strangely, however, the famous “madness” of the Hatters is so subtle that only the keenest eye can detect it. Even the infamous Emily comes off as more eccentric and misunderstood than actually insane, a woman who makes men uncomfortable because she will not compromise herself to please them.

Into the mortuary trooped a silent company: a woman and three men. It was not necessary to wonder why the woman should be in advance of the men; this woman, you felt, would always take the lead, hold the reins, press the charge. She was old, old and hard as petrified wood. Her nose was a pirate’s hook; her hair white, and her eyes dipped in ice, blue, and unwinking as a buzzard’s. That chunky jaw would never waggle in surrender.

Since so much of the story depends upon the idea of inherited disease, it’s worrisome that detecting this madness is so difficult and subjective. Drury Lane makes much of the fact that the Hatters look perfectly normal and healthy—only a trained eye like his own could spot the signs of mental instability. In fact, the signs are so small as to be barely discernible to the reader. I only recall two examples of the siblings behaving abnormally in the entire book: Conrad flying into a rage during an interrogation, and Conrad and Jill becoming hysterical at the reading of their mother’s will. But since it’s common knowledge that the Hatters are mad, it’s easy enough to see tiny proofs of it if you, like Lane, are looking for them. Disturbingly easy.

That ending, though…what a shocker it must have been in 1932. Even now, when readers may not be so surprised by this particular twist, the way it plays out is astonishing. And even better, the solution really is the only one that makes sense; all the evidence points to it, with the choice of weapon serving as one particularly inspired clue. So far, I have found the first two Drury Lane novels to be harder and more mean-spirited than the Ellery Queen books; that ruthlessness is put to perfect use here, as Lane presses inexorably forward with a course of action that most detectives would shrink from.

The Tragedy of Y strikes me as the first “real” Ellery Queen book. Each of their preceding novels has some unique aspects that make it easy to understand their growing popularity, and The Greek Coffin Mystery is especially impressive, with its ingenious solutions. But this is the first time all of the necessary elements have come together to create a complete and immersive experience. It’s truly a stunning achievement, with an ending that will linger in the memory.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

This is one of those rare titles that just grabbed a piece of me and held on to it.Murder in RetrospectGreen for DangerFog of DoubtShe Died a LadyDeath Comes as the End, maybe even The Hollow – these are books that stick in your mind, and The Tragedy of Y goes down as one of those.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

This is a vast improvement on The Tragedy of X. Drury Lane seems a more human character this time round and has reined in his quotations, to the extent that he does seem quite different to the character of Ellery Queen this time round. 

At the Scene of the Crime

So to sum things up, the story is readable overall, even if its solution is extremely predictable. It could’ve done with some polishing and it may have worked far better without Drury Lane in a starring role. A more appealing detective is called for— a more reasonable, likeable one, not an exaggeration of unlikeable mannerisms.

Availbility

The Tragedy of Y is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.

The G String Murders (1941) by Gypsy Rose Lee

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway. ”

Gypsy Rose Lee never expected to make her Broadway debut bumping and grinding in a burlesque joint for forty dollars a week. It could be worse, though. The Old Opera House still retains some of its threadbare glamour, and the boss always bails the girls out right away whenever there’s a raid.

But it’s a funny thing about that raid. There are rumors that it was an inside job, that someone at the theater tipped off the cops. Either way, Gypsy can’t forget the feeling of fingers closing around her throat in the dark that night as she ran from police. When one of the strippers is found dead, strangled by her own g-string, the shabby but familiar atmosphere of the Old Opera House takes on a menacing air. Love triangles, blackmail, and long-hidden secrets are all laid bare. The show must go on, but, unless Gypsy can find the killer, so will the murders.

Gypsy Rose Lee at the Typewriter
The author at work

You know this isn’t Agatha Christie when the book opens with a group of strippers taking up a collection to buy a new ladies’ toilet. The G-String Murders is a wonderfully cynical, madcap comic mystery that provides a peek behind the scenes of a vanished world of burlesque. Gypsy Rose Lee was famous as an “intellectual stripper,” though there has always been speculation that her two mystery novels were ghostwritten. There’s no doubt, however, that Lee provided the inside information that makes this book such a treat. Gypsy’s deadpan take on the sometimes seedy, sometimes surreal, and sometimes terribly dull lifestyle of a burlesque artist in pre-World War II Manhattan is unique in the annals of mystery fiction. It is an inside job, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

The charm of the book is that it’s a workplace comedy that just happens to take place in a very unusual industry—basically The Office in a g-string. The characters may be strippers, showgirls, and baggy-pants comedians, but they still spend their time squabbling over shared workspace, organizing office parties, and worrying that a new hire is getting special privileges.

Gypsy even has a budding workplace romance with comedian Biff Brannigan. “If Biff had been in any other business and I had been anything but a strip teaser, we would be going steady, or he might have been my beau. In burlesque, romances seem to be different; we eat night lunch together.” But the endless war between Lolita La Verne and Dolly Baxter, who are both in love with the same worthless actor, provides daily evidence of how messy a relationship with a coworker can become. In such a jaded atmosphere, love doesn’t stand a chance.

To make matters worse, the Princess Nirvena comes out of nowhere to snatch the best spots on the bill. Her Royal Highness looks awfully familiar to Gypsy. “Didn’t I know you in Toledo?” she asks.

She stared at me as though I were some biped prehistoric marine mammal.

“I haff nevair been in—how you say—Too Ledo. Always I haff danced for royalty. Then the revolution and poof! It is gone. Now the Princess Nirvena throws pearls to swine.” That was her exit line. Before we could answer she was gone. Nothing but a heavy scent of perfume to remind us that she had ever been there.

The other strippers are outraged when the Princess flouts house rules requiring that net pants be worn beneath their g-strings. Her near-total nudity is an impossible act to follow. With this new offense coming right on the heels of the raid, the atmosphere in the theater becomes mutinous. What is meant to be a joyous celebration of the new toilet ends with the discovery of a corpse.

None of this is the least bit titillating, nor is it meant to be. Stripping is nothing more than a day’s work for Gypsy and her colleagues. Their impresario, H. I. Moss, genuinely believes that the Old Opera House offers “clean entertainment for the whole family,” rivalling the Ziegfeld Follies or Eugene O’Neill. Though most of his performers would not go that far, they do take a professional pride in their work that bears no relationship to its actual quality. Gypsy is quite candid in her assessments of her colleagues’ routines.

For all her big talk, Jannine was quite small. When the Columbia was the theater in New York, she was featured as ‘The Darling of the Runways.’ When you consider that the fire department made us take out the runways several years ago and that the Columbia had been torn down for over ten, it made Jannine a little old for the type of work she did. That week, for instance, she was doing “Won’t Someone Please Adopt Me and My Baby?” She wore a short baby dress and carried a huge rag doll! When she stripped the dress, the audience got a flash of diapers pinned on with an oversized safety pin. If they were insistent enough she’d strip the diapers, too, but it took a lot of coaxing. The last few years she’d been finishing with the diapers on.

All the real drama is happening backstage, however. The Old Opera House is a world of its own, a marvelous setting for old-dark-house shenanigans. The run-down building is full of nooks and crannies, including trap doors, hidden staircases, and a water pipe that runs between dressing rooms for convenient eavesdropping.

It’s not surprising that the performers prefer to stick together inside the theater, despite their bickering, given how the outside world judges them. The raid is a shocking experience for Gypsy, who is manhandled by a policewoman and humiliated by a female judge.

When she got to the charge blank I saw her write “Prost …”

“What are you putting down?” I heard myself shout.

“I’m booking you for prostitution, and don’t speak until you’re asked to.”

“Speak?” I screamed. “I’ll tear this jail down, I’ll …”

“Well, then,” she said coldly, “what are you in for?”

“I’m an actress. A strip teaser.”

“What’s the difference?” said the matron and finished, “… itution.”

This ugly experience is a stark reminder of the prejudices the performers face outside the walls of the Old Opera House, making it all the more cruel that a killer is about to rob them of this safe haven.  Given the strippers’ contentious relationship to law enforcement, it’s only natural for Gypsy to investigate the murder on her own. She can’t trust anyone—not even Biff.

For a while, the murders seem like an afterthought, with the main focus being on backstage atmosphere and relationships between the suspects. The mystery takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it goes all out, with false solutions, fake-outs, and even a few locked rooms (though these are not exploited as much as they could have been, and The G-String Murders cannot be considered a true locked-room mystery). Lee is always keen to undermine cliches. Gypsy faints after discovering a dead body, in the fashion of a true heroine, only to be greeted with disdain when she awakes. “Nice thing, a big horse like you fainting.”

The G-String Murders provides a full bill of entertainment: hilarious comedy, gruesome murders, and a devious mystery plot. What makes it so memorable, however, is the detailed and matter-of-fact look at a way of life that no longer exists. Some of the indignities of life on the lowest rungs of show business could drive a person to murder, but Gypsy and her colleagues can’t imagine living any other way.

Second Opinions

Tipping My Fedora

Can these really be reclaimed as feminist texts? You decide – this guy in his 40s found the book highly diverting and it certainly made for a bracing and welcome alternative to traditional backstage mysteries! 

Availability

The G-String Murders is available as a paperback or ebook from the Feminist Press. There are also many used copies available.

The film adaptation, Lady of Burlesque, captures much of the spirit of the book (despite some inevitable censorship), and Barbara Stanwyck gives a pitch-perfect performance as Gypsy. The film is in the public domain and widely available.