THE G-STRING MURDERS (1941) by Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy-Lee-G-String-Murders-pocketRose Louise Hovick (1914-70), better known under her stage name, ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’, had a brief but notable career. Her autobiography, Gypsy, detailing her rise to become the ‘Queen of Burlesque’ was a Broadway hit and was later filmed with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood and then remade with Bette Midler. She was also an early exponent of that curious pop culture phenomenon, the ‘celebrity author’ – i.e. not a famous writer but someone who is already well-known who then writes a book. Indeed, as so often with such endeavours, for a long time there was speculation that the book had in fact been ghosted (by Craig Rice), though this seems to have been definitively refuted. This was her first of two screwball mysteries …

I submit the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the ‘Golden Age Girls’ section where I have elected to review 8 mysteries by women authors published pre-1960.

“It is safe to assume no culture but our own could fashion such a unique national character as Gypsy Rose Lee. She cannot sing, dance or act but she earns more on the stage than Helen Hayes or Katherine Cornell” – Life magazine (1942)

Another recurring facet of celebrity mysteries is that the famous ‘authors’ appear as themselves in the book – examples of this include George Sanders’ Crime on My Hands (1944) and Stranger at Home (1946) (ghosted respectively by Rice and Leigh Brackett) or more recently in the books credited to actor George Kennedy (actually written by Walter J. Sheldon) and TV personality Steve Allen (actually the works of Sheldon again and also Robert Westbrook).

Gypsy Rose Lee allegedly hard at work on her mystery novel.

Gypsy Rose Lee allegedly hard at work on her mystery novel (Eliot Elisofon. New York City, 1941. © Time, Inc.)

The G-String Murders also follows that ‘celebrity author’ pattern with Lee appearing as herself, investigating a pair of murders and providing a lively and humorous backstage look at the salty goings on at a burlesque show. Indeed, the book tries quite hard at the outset to be fairly piquant with its frequent references to toilets (all the strippers want to chip in to get a replacement one), though the toilet in question ultimately proves to be where the first body is found. If Lee is being a bit unsubtle in her attempt to be a tiny bit scandalous (at least for 1941 readers), it also has to be said that an early scene set in a women’s holding cell at police headquarters is in fact pretty harrowing in the depiction of the squalour of the cells and the treatment the strippers receive at the hands of the police.

“Say, ain’t you Gypsy Rose Lee?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “Do I look like the sort of woman who would do a striptease?”

Gypsy-Lee-G-String-Murders-avon‘Gypsy’ has been performing her act for 28 weeks at the Old Opera Theater in New York City when the show gets unexpectedly raided by the police, the manager thinking that someone is out to sabotage his lease on the place. During the ensuing fracas the lights go out and someone tries to strangle Gypsy, something she initially blames (erroneously as it turns out) on a butch and overzealous policewoman. The book does actually take quite a while to get going in terms of the mystery plot (the first body is only discovered nearly half way through) but there is plenty of lively incident and ironic banter to keep things trundling along as we are introduced to a cast of characters and their various tangled relationships.

“Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theatre isn’t the sort of thing you are likely to forget”

The performers include: man-hungry Lolita La Verne, the ‘Golden-Voiced Godess’ and her nemesis, the hot-tempered ‘Dynamic Dolly’, Dolly Rogers; then there are Gypsy’s best friend, Gee Gee Graham, and her semi-romantic buddy, first comic Biff Brannigan; lisping and addle-brained Alice Angel and the vaguely Communist Jannine; and newcomer, Princess Nirvena, who upsets everyone by actually stripping without keeping on her fishnet pants as they are all supposed to. On top of this there are several shady characters backstage including MI Moss, the manager who gives his whole cast one share in the theatre after bailing them out of jail; Louie Grindero, La Verne’s on-off boyfriend (and convicted white slaver), and Russell Rogers, a straight actor reduced to burlesque looking Gypsy-Lee-G-String-Murders-pbfor one last break and moving from one damsel to another to try and get it; then there are Starchie and the ‘Hermit’, to old-timers, Sammy the choleric theatre manager, Siggy the costume salesman and many more (perhaps too many if truth be told). Then, on the night that the new toilet is being unveiled during a party, the door to the cubicle is opened and one of the girls is found inside, naked, strangled to death with one of Jannine’s plush-lined G-strings – or so Gypsy thinks before she faints. Shortly afterwards it goes missing and Biff may be responsible … Then the picture of La Verne’s mother goes missing along with her bankbook just after she got her hands on $10,000. Then another one of the girls is strangled with a g-string, her body found inside a box used as part of the act.

“I hope the cops don’t think every G string in the theatre is a clue, too. If they do we’ll be catching a hell of a lot of colds”

The book was first published in the UK under its variant title, The Striptease Murders (as Julian Symons reminds us, at the time a g-string was only associated in Britain with violins), said edition also coming with explanatory footnotes for some of the jargon such as ‘grouch bag’ (small purse) and ‘gazeeka box’ (magician’s vanishing cabinet). I don’t know if these were in all editions, but they are there in my Pan reprint from 1959 with the fairly lurid cover (as seen here on the right) bellying the essentially comedic, even slightly screwball, tone. In that sense at least it is easy to see why some may have through Craig Rice had a hand in it.  The book was adapted fairly swiftly into a pretty decent movie as Lady of Burlesque in 1943 by director William Wellman with the great Barbara Stanwyck taking the leading role (review to follow soon). In 1942 Lee published a second mystery novel, Mother Finds a Body. Both have recently been reprinted as part of the ‘Femmes Lee-Striptease-Murders-pan-US-editionFatales’ series from the Feminist Press at the City University of New York and are also available on Kindle. 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! In addition it is also constructed with enough care so as to create not one but two false endings, going to the trouble of creating a classic theatrical climax – with a villain falling from the flies of the theatre to the stage below – but then revealing that some one else is in fact the murderer – which then proves not to be the end of the story. I expect a few double bluffs in an Ellery Queen but was very pleasantly surprised to see them used here too. Great fun.

“It was the same feeling as when your brassiere strap breaks before it’s supposed to”

This is the eight and final review that forms part of my contribution to the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, completing my plan to read pre-1960 mysteries by women authors. Here are the links to my other reviews:

Golden Age Girls

  1. Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) by Georgette Heyer
  2. Unfinished Portrait (1934) by Agatha Christie
  3. The House (1947) by Hilda Lawrence
  4. Brat Farrar (1949) by Josephine Tey
  5. Do Evil in Return (1950) by Margaret Millar
  6. The Tiger Among Us (1957) by Leigh Brackett
  7. The April Robin Murder Case (1959) by Craig Rice (and Ed McBain)

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

About these ads
This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Craig Rice, Friday's Forgotten Book, Golden Age Girls, New York, Scene of the crime, Screwball. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to THE G-STRING MURDERS (1941) by Gypsy Rose Lee

  1. Sergio – So glad you chose to take a look at these novels. More than many ‘celebrity authors” books, these show some skill. I know there are still a few questions floating around about whether she actually authored these books but my understanding, like yours, is that she really did. I give her credit for that. And these’s a nice, sassy sense of humour in them isn’t there? They’re neat, enjoyable stories.

    • Thanks Margot – I really enjoyed this one and the humour is definitely a big part of it. I do like the screwball sensibility of the pre-war era and it certainly works very well here. I don’t have a copy of the second one yet though.

  2. Colin says:

    Excellent stuff Sergio. I’ve only ever seen the movie, the very entertaining Lady of Burlesque, but I’ve just ordered a copy of that Pan edition you featured.

    • Cheers mate – really hope you enjoy it – I’m going to do a review of the movie in the New Year but it’s actually pretty faithful as I recall (make a great double bill with Ball of Fire)
      Lady of Burlesque

      • Colin says:

        Looking forward to that then. I agree on the Ball of Fire double bill – Stanwyck was near the top of her game at that point.
        BTW, I went for the Pan edition as I just love the covers – got a bunch of Ellery Queen Pans.

        • Thanks Colin and I completely agree about Pan. As a kid, for me if it had the little square with the flautist in the top right hand corner, then I knew it was going to be good – obviously one would like to think one gets more discerning about such things, but … I used to have all the Bonds in pan editions (now I think I only have one left – probably shuldn’t have lent then so freely).
          Bond (pan editions)

          • Colin says:

            Charging off topic here i know, but what the hell! I still have a few of those Bond Pans. Of the ones you featured, I have Thunderball (don’t actually like that cover), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Man with the Golden Gun. I also have older beaten up edition of Moonraker and this edition of Live and Let Die, which I recently saw going for silly money on Ebay.

          • Well done mate, I don’t have any of these anymore (just whipped the image off the interweb) – but then, I’m a bit sentimental but not a collector. I think I had the FYEO of the image I attached but the LALD I think I have is a different one. I do have the movie tie-in edition somewhere …

  3. Colin says:

    Odd, that picture of LALD seems to have disappeared. Anyway, here a link to it: http://imageshack.us/a/img821/4343/lald.jpg

    • That is a very nice cover Colin, very nice indeed! I don’t even like Thunderball all that much as a book (or either of the movie versions or 3 if you include the Moonraker movie) – of the covers I think OHMSS is the one I remember best.

      • Colin says:

        I have this edition of Moonraker but, as I said it’s pretty beaten up.
        Uploaded with ImageShack.us

        Agreed on Thunderball, it’s a bit of a dog both as a book and a movie.

        • it’s weird about THUNDERBALL, isn’t it? It is still technically the most commercially successful Bond f them all (if you adjust for inflation) – I really hope SKYFALL knocks it off that peg because it just doesn’t deserve – he doesn’t even say “Bond, James Bond” in it, ever!!!

  4. Colin says:

    Blast it! Wrong again – anyway, here’s the link:

  5. John says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I saw the film long ago. Stanwyck gets to show off her adept dancing talent (Like Joan Crawford that’s how she started in the biz). The locked room bit is a utterly lame, but for a mystery novel written by an entertainer I think it’s a damn good plot!

    If you read the most recent biography of Lee (Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Oxford University Press, 2009) you will come across a section in which the author, Noralee Frankel, lays to rest finally the claim that Lee did not write her mystery books. She cites a letter from Craig Rice herself praising Lee for the cleverness of the The G String Murders. Rice was involved in the screenplay for Lady of Burlesque and somewhere in the lore of this book as it relates to Lee and Rice (perhpas embellished by RIce’s own exagerrations) there developed the utter myth that Rice ghost wrote the mystery novels Lee wrote alone.

    • Thanks for all that info John – fascinating stuff (it doesn’t help matters that Rice herself was known to have used ghosts herself). According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), they claim that Rice really did write the sequel … I hope to do a post on the movie soon …

  6. TracyK says:

    Very interesting. I had heard of the book, but not the movie. (Or at least it slipped from my memory.) And for some reason had no idea the books were written in the 1940s. So I will have to find a copy of this one. I would rather have a vintage paperback, but depends on the price.

    • Hope you find this to your tasate TracyK – I think it’s a bit of a hoot and well worth a modest investment. It has to be said that the covers for the paperbacks from the 40s and 50s are a bit lurid but also have a much for amusing feel about them – the cover from one of the recent femme fatales reprint just makes them look like porn really
      G-String Murders (Femme Fatales)

  7. piero says:

    Mio caro Sergio, le promesse, per me, sono questione d’onore.
    Ti avevo promesso di spedirti dei libri, che difficilmente avresti trovato sul mercato anglosassone, e così ho fatto. Il pacco è partito stamattina da Bari. Ho usato la Raccomandata internazionale, perchè un dipendente delle Poste, mi aveva spiegato che con quello che mi avevano detto altri, avrei speso un casino di soldi. Invece così, 13 euro di spedizione. me l’avessero detto prima…
    Ora che lo so, appensa trovo dell’altro te lo invio: devo trovarti soprattutto gli Halter, e qualche altro Steeman. Purtroppo la serie più agognata, sono i Pagotto dei primi anni ’50, che proposero autori solo francesi, ma del calibro di Steeman, Very, Secrest, Boileau. C’era persino il Boileau, “Le Repos de Bacchus”, una grandissima Camera Chiusa, da cui Hilary St George Saunders, mi pare, trasse un romanzo che ammiccava al Boileau insieme con elementi di Thriller, e che tu dicesti, mi avresti voluto inviare.
    Ciao.
    Piero

  8. piero says:

    Most beautiful woman! At least in this photo.
    Very sensual

    • Apparently as notable for her personality and style as a performer – here is a very discreet look at her work ‘in action’, emphasising her comic patter:

      • justjack says:

        Wonderful clip! I love that Alan Jenkins introduced her, and Ned Sparks was the waiter. Good old Warner Brothers, the only place that we’d get to see Gypsy Rose Lee *as a stripper* in a movie back in the 40’s.

        I was just on IMDB, doublechecking that this indeed was a clip from the wartime morale booster “Stage Door Canteen.” Gypsy was a star in tv and movies right up until the end of the ’60’s! I never would have suspected.

        • She started very early of course and the success of Gypsy on Broadway (and then as a movie) certainly helped keep her in the limelight though she was clearly very media savvy – it’s always a shock to me when I remember that she wasn’t even 60 when she died.

  9. Great choice, Sergio. That photograph is a classic. I need to read some of the books by these Golden Age Girls including Gypsy Rose Lee, a revelation for me. Many thanks…

    • Thanks Prashant – really glad you enjoyed this one – that still of Lee ‘at work’ is very nice – not entirely sure who it belongs to so i may have to remove it soon actually as I think it belongs to Time Magazine – definitely don;t want to mess with those guys!

  10. Pingback: THE HORIZONTAL MAN (1946) by Helen Eustis | Tipping My Fedora

  11. curtis evans says:

    Late to this one, but very enjoyable as usual, and, man, that Pocket Book paperback illustration is sexy! And that photo is hilarious. Add a computer and substitute a middle-aged male (not that anyone would want to) and you’d have my place during the writing of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.

    • Cheers Curt – the Pocket edition is certainly a bit nicer looking (sic) than the Pan edition I have. Obviously I had no idea that you did ‘magic mike’ when not writing …

  12. justjack says:

    Well Sergio, I’m not *quite* finished reading G-String Murders, but I’m past what must have been the first false ending so I’m pretty close. I’m pretty sure that the movie version eliminated that second false ending, so I’m excited to see what it’s going to be. I have an idea, though…

    Speaking of slang, this was one of the very few times I’ve seen “grouch bag” in print. It’s said that Groucho Marx got his nickname from “grouch bag;” apparently he was known as something of a tightwad, and he had a grouch bag of his own.

    • That’s really interesting Jack, I had no idea that this was where Groucho got his name from – I’d not heard the phrase before reading the novel (and was initially worried it may have had a lewder second meaning actually …)

  13. justjack says:

    Finished!

    What a fascinating book. Not a great book, and I’m not even sure it’s actually all that good, because the writing is too rough. Too often, she picks the wrong word for a situation (eg, she’ll say “realized” when what she really meant to say was “remembered”), or the motivation for characters’ actions is left obscured. There were times when I had no idea what was happening in a scene. I also think there were too many characters to keep track of, and not enough details provided to differentiate them (really, only the hilariously naive, lisping Alice Angel stood out as a fully drawn personality). Still, the plot itself was interesting, and as a historical curio it has its own inherent value. For that matter, the very fact that the writing is so unpolished lends strong support to the assertion that the book was *not* ghost-written, and I like it that much more, knowing that Gypsy really was the author.

    What a strange concoction! The plot is like something straight out of a classic cosy mystery; if Agatha Christie had dabbled in pole dancing as a hobby instead of archeology, she might have come up with this story. And the *style* of the writing is like something out of a Stratemeyer Syndicate book; if the Hardy Boys were the sons of a famous burlesque comic instead of a detective, they might have solved just such a mystery as this.

    All in all, I did enjoy “The G-String Murders.” I don’t think I’d recommend it to fans of murder mysteries per se, but I would recommend it to people who, like me, are fascinated by the pop culture of earlier times.

    The 1943 “Lady of Burlesque,” directed by Wild Bill Wellman and starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a good version of the novel. I just discovered that it’s available free at the Internet Archive, where you can either stream it or download it to your computer and watch it. (http://archive.org/details/LadyofBurlesque)

    Sergio, I continue to enjoy your blog. Hurry back!

    • Excellent review Jack – The book does certainly have a rough diamond quality to it but there is a gaiety and charm to that, as you say. I hope to be blogging much more regularly from Tuesday at least for the next month or so – thanks very much for the encouragement and support.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s