Friday, February 21, 2014

FFB: Death Wears a White Gardenia - Zelda Popkin

I think to many mystery readers the specialty mystery is a relatively new idea. There was discussion on a few other vintage mystery blogs a few weeks ago as to what constitutes the "cozy mystery" - a term I am growing to loathe. I hear that term and rarely think of the traditional mystery of the Golden Age, but instead of these new specialty mysteries that deal with bakeries, cheese shops, pet sitting services and amateur sleuths who enjoy home crafts like needle point and sponge painting on walls. Assiduous readers of vintage mysteries already know that these types of specialty mysteries -- books set in a specific milieu with crimes directly related to that setting and solved by either an amateur or professional detective -- were rather common in the late 1930s and early 1940s. One of the first creators of a specialty mystery was Zelda Popkin who gave us Mary Carner, a department store detective. In her debut appearance, Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938), Mary helps the New York police solve the murder of an executive at Jeremiah Blankfort & Company, a rival to world famous Macy's.

Not long after the doors of Blankfort's have been opened for a gala celebration and huge store wide sale marking the 50th anniversary of the store, the body of Andrew McAndrew, the store's credit manager is found strangled, his body shoved into a small space between salesman’s cubicles in a remote area open only to store employees. The body was discovered by a professional shoplifter who had previously stowed a suitcase containing some ladies' lingerie he was planning to take out of the store unpaid for. He is held for questioning while Mary makes her way (under orders from her boss Chris Whitaker) to McAndrew's office. She is told to change the locks to his office doors, but her innate detective instincts take over while doing that relatively routine task. She notices several unusual things, like a woman’s handkerchief and some torn papers that arouse her curiosity.

Soon the interrogation begins and motives and secrets are uncovered like new merchandise being put on display. The hysterical Evelyn Lennon, McAndrew's secretary confides in Mary that she was having an affair with her boss. Not one for discretion Evelyn's fling with McAndrew was well known among her gossipy co-workers and even McAndrew's wife. When Mrs. McAndrew is brought in for questioning there is a nasty catfight that escalates from bitchy insults to face slapping and hair pulling. Mary and Chris have to intervene before the two women suspects are carted off to jail.

The structure of the story is borrowed from the Van Dine school with Mary in the Philo Vance role (minus all the snooty erudition) and a team of Manhattan police, the D.A. (a former judge in Popkin's book) and Mary's boss Chris Whitaker all working together to solve the murder. In the course of the investigation Popkin gives us a neat little seminar in the business aspects of department store, the importance of store detectives and the fine art of shoplifting. Popkin and her husband were at one time involved in their own publicity firm and handled several department store accounts providing her first hand knowledge of pre-World War Two era retail.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Popkin wastes no time in getting straight to the action. From the very first sentence when we know shoplifter Joseph Swayzey is up to no good to the discovery of the murdered credit manager a short time afterwards the story moves at a brisk pace. The investigation is non-stop with few side trips to the land of backstory. I found it to be engaging, fast paced and populated with excellent characters. In addition to the delving into the backstage of a department store Popkin 's great strength is in creating a lively group of fully realized characters all of whom have distinctive voices. She has a gift for real dialogue and also adds a nice period flavor in her frequent use of shop girl slang and urban idiomatic speech.

Death Wears a White Gardenia was Zelda Popkin's first mystery novel. Mary Carner, her department store detective, went on to solve more murders in five other books. Three of Popkin's mystery novels were reprinted in the Dell Mapback editions. For those who enjoy browsing and hunting used book stores or the various online markets they are usually easy to find and very affordable. Boson Books, a small press, has also reprinted Death Wears a White Gardenia as well as Time Off for Murder.

For more about Mary Carner’s sleuthing adventures read TomCat's reviews of Murder in the Mist and Dead Man's Gift at his blog Beneath the Stains of Time.

Zelda Popkin's Detective Novels
Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938)
Murder in the Mist (1940)
Time Off for Murder (1940)
Dead Man's Gift (1941)
No Crime for a Lady (1942)
So Much Blood (1944)

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This book serves as yet another space filled in on my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card (Golden Age version). It's space D4 "A Book with a Professional Detective"


  1. Sounds like great fun (though it is hard to imagine a Van Dine story without all the erudite asides ...) - thanks chum. The single giant department store continues to have a romantic fascination that is lost in the mall era though there is that Twilight Zone episodes about the dummies that made it all a bit more unsettling.

    1. And there's that marvelous story "Evening Primrose" by John Collier, too. I think TheTwilight Zone episode (with Anne Francis, right?) owes a lot to that story. For years I had wanted to see the Sondheim TV musical based on Collier's story. Sometime in 2010 it miraculously was released on DVD and I finally saw it for the first time only a a few years ago. Bits and pieces of it have been uploaded to YouTube. Maybe even the entire production.

  2. I like the idea of female department store detective, which makes perfect sense. And I would buy every Dell mapback (especially mysteries) if I could afford it. Will definitely look for this one.

  3. You call them "specialty mysteries" and I call them "information mysteries" but we agree on the form and purpose ... to allow the reader to get a backstage look at some little-known milieu which will provide the basis for a mystery plot and carry the reader along if the plot flags. I've always liked this novel, and the rest of Popkin's work in general, and I'm delighted to hear that some of the novels are coming back into print. But I've always wondered why she didn't use a pseudonym -- maybe she thought Zelda Popkin was at least memorable, if not remotely euphonious?

    1. She was proud of her Jewish heritage and being the wife of Louis Popkin. Her mainstream novels show her interest and pride in her heritage. Most of the reviews I've found show she had received literary acclaim. One book even sold over a million copies which was quite a feat,back in 1945-46. When your writing is that good doesn't really matter how you sign your name.

    2. I'm having a strange sense of deja vu on this one, John. I can't decide if I've seen it reviewed elsewhere or if I managed to read it in the days before blogging and forgot to write it down. That Dell mapback cover looks awfully familiar.... I do believe I'm going to have to hunt down a copy and read it for myself just to be sure. (Like I need an excuse to add another title to the To Be Found list....)

  4. Right off the top of my head, John, I started trying to remember any other department store mysteries. The only one that sprang to mind is the Ellery Queen book I read last year, THE FRENCH POWDER MYSTERY. I wonder if that's the only one. At any rate, you make Zelda Popkin's book sound very intriguing. (I love the author's name!) I will definitely keep an eye out.

  5. I will henceforth remove "cozy" from my references and instead use "speciality" to describe these stories. Thanks for setting me straight. Love essay.

  6. Sounds like a lot of fun. I drool over these mapbacks.

  7. Never even heard of Zelda Popkin before. Sounds fun.