Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Pasties, G-Strings and Death, Oh My!
Once, I almost performed an actual burlesque routine in front of actual people, but I totally chickened out. Mainly, because I was Not In A Good Place and felt way too hideous and self-conscious to perform my Coney Island themed flapper act on stage at Dixon Place. Which I actually kind of regret. I mean, when did I become so self-conscious? Twenty-five years in life drawing classes as both artist and model have made me more than blasé about disrobing in public, but I guess here's the thing: As I once told a singing teacher in acting school, I would be perfectly happy standing naked in front of an audience but the thought of singing fully clothed in front of one made me want to die. Which brings me to the crux of the matter, i.e. performing and dying, which are delightfully written about in two murder mysteries penned almost 70 years apart.
Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders appeared in 1942 amidst assumptions that she did not write it. I don't buy it. The book is so deeply insider-y about the world of burlesque and is so clearly written from a woman's point of view, I can't really see it having been written by some editor from Harper's. In a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece (sorry, subscription required) from 1940 when she was in the middle of writing the book, she admits that her grammar and spelling are wretched and had an editor friend helping her out. What of it? So does everybody, and everyone concerned is dead now, and wouldn't you rather she wrote it? So, that's the story we're going with.
I loved this book. Chorus girls, burlesque dancers and aspiring starlets appear in all kinds of hard boiled crime fiction, vintage and modern, from S.S. Van Dine to Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy to Megan Abbott. They appear as shady dames, victims and comic relief, but only in The G-String Murders are they both author and heroine. I actually found it kind of thrilling. She very effectively creates a backstage world that simply no longer exists. The nuts and bolts explanations of how a burlesque house was run in the 1930s are fascinating, her dialogue is funny and gritty. It's a plot point that she makes her own costumes (oh, the story is told in first person by a burlesque star named "Gypsy Rose Lee"), and in the 1940 New Yorker piece she shows off her thrift store finds that she will be using to make new outfits - something many a modern burlesque performer has done. It's gritty and bawdy and charming.
The mystery itself is a little simple and wraps up far too quickly, but honestly, that can be said for nearly all first time mystery writers, and unless we're in the realm of the hard core mystery pros - Christie, Sayers, Grimes, Hill, Chandler et al, the plotting rarely impresses me. What is the most important thing in most mysteries, something Lee really gets, is the setting and the characters. She said in an interview that "I think there is no sense having people killed before the reader is acquainted with them" and she is as good as her word. The first murder happens about 100 pages in, but the lead up is a doozy, full of busts by the vice squad and backstage jealousies and intrigue and clues.
A little under seventy years after Gypsy Rose Lee wrote her first book, the second burlesque themed mystery to be penned by an actual burlesque performer was published by Hard Case Crime. The Corpse Wore Pasties, is by Jonny Porkpie, the self-styled Burlesque Mayor of NYC. Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, I became acquainted with Mr. Porkpie under another name, when he was wearing a hat other than Porkpie (that of Tiny Ninja producer). I found his book to be a very enjoyable read, and much like with Miss Lee's offering, its pleasures come more from the world in which it was set than from the mystery aspect. That said, the murder itself is fantastic, as it happens on stage in front of a cheering (and hooting) audience. It's both a burlesque of a death by poisoning and an actual poisoning.
There's a delightful economy in the telling of his murderous tale, which methinks betrays another hat Mr. Porkpie has worn, that of playwright. His exposition is breezy and organic. Most impressively, he uses an interrogation scene in the 9th Precinct (the story is told in first person by a burlesque presenter and performer named "Jonny Porkpie") to explain to both the cops and his readers what burlesque is. No, it's not stripping. Yes, they take off their clothes. But it's art, I tell you, art! He explains it very well, I promise you. And because I'm all about shameless plugs, a certain former burlesque presenter has lots to say on the subject - I mean of course my always dashing inamorato, the man most often known as Trav S.D.. Click on the babes & burlesque tag on his blog, or search up The New Yorker article on the New Burlesque in which he was featured.
The differences between the old burlesque and the new are massive. New burlesque is more of a sexually charged performance art. There's a long sequence where Mr. Porkpie visits his various suspects, burlesque dancers all, at their various day jobs which is quite telling - and very funny. In Miss Lee's book, burlesque was their day job. Porkpie's novel is funny and over the top, as much a burlesque of the mystery genre as it is a tour through the downtown performance world of burlesque. If you take my meaning. I looked at the Amazon reviews before writing this, and there were a few negative ones which I think missed the point of his book entirely, i.e. that it's a comedy, not an actual hard boiled detective novel. It reminded me a little of the very funny Robin Hudson mysteries by Sparkle Hayter (which are really, really worth reading and, I'm horrified to discover, are out of print) in that they riff on the hard boiled while set in a modern (mostly downtown) New York in a very specific milieu (in Hayter's case, cable news) which the writer knows top to bottom. Porkpie's book is sexy, silly fun and it's nice to know that 70 years from now, whatever version of burlesque is making its third or fourth or fifth comeback in the year 2080 will have a delightful mystery novel to show them what it was like back in the (no doubt) misunderstood aughts.