Saturday, March 16, 2013

ALTERNATIVE CRIME: A Woman in Purple Pajamas

I continue my reading of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries with this oddball book with an oddball title. Turns out it's by a writer who is the only person to have more than one book published by this imprint. Wilson Collison wrote The Diary of Death under his own name and it appeared as one of the first books in the Scarlet Thread series of mystery novels in 1930. A Woman in Purple Pajamas followed one year later in February 1931. It purports to be a police procedural with a quasi-impossible crime. The result is indeed impossible in a completely unintended connotation of that word.

A Woman in Purple Pajamas is a casebook pastiche. Collison, in a nod to the late Victorian police procedurals, creates narrator Willis Kent, a "first-grade detective" and Harvard graduate, who also serves as the books "author." Kent gives a brief background in his Foreword on how he quickly rose to his current rank under Lt. Martin Brannigan and attempts to get the reader to believe that this novel is a work of non-fiction. Kent is continually reminding the reader that the police work of fictional characters in detective novels is entirely unlike that of authentic policemen. He proposes that his story of the Rand murder will reveal how police really investigate a murder. The book is to be a sort of experiment in which the reader follows Kent from start to finish, viewing evidence and hearing eyewitness accounts as he received them in chronological order. The entire book takes place over the span of twenty four hours.

Jimmy Rand, libertine millionaire playboy, is shot in his bedroom on the night of one of his loudest and busiest weekend parties. Brock Warwick, secretly in love with Rand's wife Denise, just happened to be outside at the time of the murder and is the first of many eyewitnesses to come forward. Just prior to seeing Rand shot in the open French windows leading out to a second story balcony Warwick claims to have seen a woman wearing purple pajamas who disappeared after Rand fell to the ground. There is some business which makes the room appear to be locked and inescapable but later interviews with suspects quickly dispenses with the impossibility angle. The bloodstained purple pajamas appear and reappear in a variety of locations but finding which woman had been wearing them -- something that should be easy and obvious based on the different heights and shapes of the women involved --  proves to be one of this Harvard educated cop's most difficult tasks. Lying suspects are Kent's undoing.

During the investigation Kent learns that his chief seven suspects were all in Rand's bedroom at some time during the night.  He also learns that at least three suspects had planned to kill Rand. One of these would-be murderers is also an eyewitness to the killing and makes the mistake of trying to talk with Kent in confidence. He is, of course, overheard and becomes the second victim. This unleashes a wave of hysteria among the party-goers when his dead body is found at the foot of a staircase in the main hallway. Despite the fact their host was killed and that the police on are on the premises at the time of the second murder the reveling extras are still drinking and dancing oblivious to a murder investigation. It takes a second murder for the police team to get the news out.

Suspects are found hiding in closets, hiding in clothes trunks, and otherwise behaving like stock characters in a bedroom farce. Denise Rand is depicted as a hysteric who can't answer simple questions without being reduced to a quivering, stammering neurotic. When asked how tall she is, she replies, "I don't know," her answer to most everything asked of her. Kent is merciless in questioning Mrs. Rand, moreso than any other character. There is a third degree scene in which he badgers her about the purple pajamas until she finally cries out, "I don't know! stop -- for God's sake, stop asking me questions!" 

Like most mystery novels of the Alternative Classic School to which this book assuredly belongs there are frequent passages of unintended comedy.  Here is a random sampling:
At this point, you assisting detectives may well point out my stupidity and utter uselessness of my method of procedure.

Once a man becomes vexed and loses his temper, fifty percent of his efficiency and powers of deduction are destroyed. You can't reason when the blood is circulating too freely.

Silence persisted then for a long moment...

I felt abruptly tantalized; as though I were a little boy being teased; as though some disgusting prank-player had run a grater over my skin and irritated it.

It was a fertile thought; it came to me with large chunks of logic and interesting possibilities.

I simply can't be a fictional detective, so I must admit that the servants had meant little to me in connection with the case. I had, of course, blundered stupidly in not questioning Parker [the butler] -- but then, how was I to know that the poor fellow was to be murdered...?
The repeated comparison between real life and fiction like that last quip above gets to be grating. Why do writers think this is clever? Additionally, Kent constantly brings up his Harvard education which as the story progresses becomes an increasingly dubious claim. Either that or he was in the bottom of his class. In this case the mention of an Ivy League education has nothing to do with Kent's intellect. He is counter-intuitive to the point of exasperation. Despite his claim about "large chunks of logic" filling his "fertile thoughts" many of his so-called unorthodox techniques are not radical, but inane.

There is an interesting coda to the publication of this book. It appears to be a novelization of a screenplay. Wilson Collison named his narrator/author in A Woman in Purple Pajamas after movie producer and screenwriter Willis Kent. This seems to be some kind of in-joke between Collison and Kent. It can be no coincidence that the title of the movie, A Scarlet Week-End, is blatantly used to promote the book on the rear panel (see photo at right). I was unable to unearth anything else about the reasoning for using Kent's name as the policeman narrator.

The film version is apparently a lost movie according to the entry even though the website links to a review of the film on Cinefania, a Spanish movie website . Reading the brief review it seems that the film is very much in line with what I read in the book. But is it a legitimate review? Does the film truly exist? Or did the reviewer read the book and write a summary passing it off as a review of the movie? There is all sorts of similar fraudulent review and ratings of lost films are perpetrated on the internet day in and day out. If anyone has truly seen A Scarlet Week-end I'd be interested to know what the movie is really like.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE:  This serves as the second book in the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block.  The book fulfills the category Colorful Crime. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Category 1: Murder is Academic
Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew (also a "Scarlet Thread Mystery" coincidentally)


  1. "The repeated comparison between real life and fiction like that last quip above gets to be grating." Would that be like a grater being run over your skin and irritating it? (snicker--sorry, John, couldn't resist). So...was this one worth it at least for the unintended comedy?

  2. HA! Guess I wasn't too "grate" in catching my own repetitiveness.

    I wasn't guffawing at the clunky writing. More rolling of the eyes. The mystery actually was pretty good with some good detection but it's just not consistent. And the whole thing gets way too melodramatic. A sense of humor would've helped. Kent takes himself too seriously even with his attempts at self-effacement.

  3. :-) I do really like that cover--nice and simple with the lady in the purple pajamas as the focus. (I do kind of wonder about the man with the hula-hoops around his hips though...are those suspenders?)

    1. Yes, Jimmy Rand was in the process of undressing when he got shot. The drooping suspenders are even mentioned in the book. He was a randy Rand. ;^)

  4. I'm a newish subscriber to your blog, and I'm also researching a book on lost films. It was a neat stroke of serendipity to end up here while looking for some info on The Scarlet Week-End.

    I'm not sure if that Spanish synopsis is legit, but it might be. I've found reviews of The Scarlet Week-End in old newspapers and mags, and they don't seem to suggest a wild departure from the book's plot.