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