Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Red Threads by Rex Stout


published 1941




LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES





Red threads



[Fabric designer Jane Farris has just taken delivery of a new outfit, and wants to try it on]


She had the lid off and the top garment unfolded and was holding it up for inspection. ‘Oh my God! … Hey what’s that? Oh – snip that thread, will you, Cora? Isn’t it pretty fine?’… She laughed. With the smock off and likewise the dress that had been under it, the pink silk hanging from the shoulder straps left almost as much bare skin displayed as if it had been a fashionable swimming-suit.

The skin was nicely tanned. She touched the pink silk. ‘Have you seen these, Eileen? Brettons are featuring them – they call them Shapesheers! Isn’t that terrible? Sheepshears, Shakespeares – it will haunt you. Cora, please dear, the brown pumps from that cupboard – no, over there – I’m glad it isn’t sweltering, because I do want to show this sort of casually – and oh, I forgot to phone Roberts & Creel to send samples of that two-sixteen mixture - ’

Miss Delaney was emptying a drawer, trying to find stockings to go with the brown pumps.

commentary: I first mentioned this book in one of our Tuesday Night Club entries on Rex Stout, but felt I hadn’t done it full justice. I loved the clothes content of the book – there’s a great description of a fashion show, plenty of detail of how the business works, and a lot about traditional weaving. We find out that eight or ten women in the New York fashion industry earn more than the US President. There is a discussion of whether an outfit should be priced at $200 or $300 – a lot of money in 1941 (still is).

Jane, above, is trying on a jacket and skirt – she has woven the fabric, to incorporate the very-important red threads, which have come from her boyfriend’s vintage (as we might now say) jacket. So it is a striped tweedy material, and that thin red line is going to be vital evidence in a murder investigation. As the proprietor of Clothes in Books, I don’t lightly say this, but it is actually quite difficult to visualize either the boyfriend’s jacket or the suit created by Jane. I wish I knew exactly what Stout had in mind.

Later on Jane wears a ‘straw falcon hat… at an angle that stopped before it touched the tilt of freakishness.’ I don’t know what a falcon hat is…

The designer setup resembles that lodestar of fashion/murder, Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham, over on this side of the Atlantic a year or two earlier – the plots are completely different.

Jane’s undergarment is going to be important again – because she is mugged for the vital clothes, and left to wander round a country estate in her slip.

I did enjoy this book, but feel it really suffered from the lack of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, who would have raised it to higher levels.

Red Threads 2

There’s more discussion of slips in this recent entry on the book that inspired the musical Pajama Game.









16 comments:

  1. I always like Stout's writing style, Moira, and in particular his eye to the visual. Little wonder you enjoyed the fashion in this one. I agree with you, though; the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are really important to the series. Stories without them feel a bit..less.

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    1. Yes, Margot, that's it exactly - he was a good writer with great characters. But the best characters were definitely Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin...

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  2. Isn't that gorgeous! It looks so elegant. You could wander around in that quite happily I should think. As long as you were tall and thin.

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    1. I know, yes, I suppose the slip dresses of modern days are in the same line...

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  3. Moira, it's no surprise that Rex Stout's "Red Threads" shows considerable insight into the fashion industry - remember that his wife, Pola, (of Pola Stout Fashions) was an influential fabric designer. The book, by the way, was the one solo outing for Inspector Cramer, usually Nero Wolfe's sparring partner of sorts in the Wolfe books. Interesting, but, as you've said, it lacks Wolfe and Archie.

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    1. Thanks Les - I'm pretty sure it was from you that I learned about that unexpected fashion wife in Stout's life!

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  4. I probably said the same in your previous post on this book, but I would probably rate this book lowest among the non-Wolfe books. I love Cramer's character but he works best playing against Wolfe and Goodwin.

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    1. I remember reading this ages ago, and have forgotten an awful lot about it, but I seem to remember that the main character is a young, female fabric designer (like Stout's wife). Cramer is mainly a supporting character until the climax of the book. At this point of his career, Stout still seemed to want to vary his detective characters. I read a Tecumseh Fox novel called BAD FOR BUSINESS, and discovered later on that Stout had been persuaded to turn it into a Wolfe novella BITTER END. When I got the chance to compare the two versions of the story, the Wolfe won hands down. Stout's work benefits so much from the character of Wolfe and the wise-guy narration of Archie.
      There doesn't seem to be any doubt that Stout had a lot of help from his wife as regards the inside knowledge of the fashion business. However, the problem may be that it's very easy to assume that your audience knows everything that you're talking about just because you understand it. I don't suppose that it helps that the book is now over 75 years old. Because the stories were written without much thought for posterity, he never thought to explain what the hell a Falcon hat was, and now it's lost in time. I tried to google it, and only got pictures of Humprhey Bogart in a fedora!

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    2. Tracy - there was a lot I did like about this book, of course the theme made it interesting for me, but in the end we all know what we want from a Stout book...

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    3. ggary - yes I did try to find a falcon hat, but no luck. It's fair enough really, he didn't have an obligation to try to work out which references would date. And actually it's one of the challenges I enjoy, trying to track down contemporary references, particularly clothes-related ones. I get a real buzz when I succeed - not the case this time.

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  5. Ha! Having in my usual careless fashion managed to not notice this post's heading, I grew increasingly confused as to why a pattern book, Hollywood Patterns, was being criticized for its lack of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

    Okay, let me say it first: Duh.

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    1. I think that's a very fair point, I don't blame you for being mystified! And don't you think Hollywood Patterns would make a great title for a crime book...?

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  6. Not one I'll be rushing to find thanks.

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    1. As Tracy keeps telling you, you should read Stout - but don't start with this one.

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  7. Oh, gosh, I always wanted to be able to wear a slip or dress like that, but fate and genes didn't give me the tall, thin figure I wanted as a young person.

    But I cannot imagine a Rex Stout book without the Wolfe/Goodwin banter. That's the fun of it all.

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    1. I'm just the same Kathy, would never be me! It's not a bad book, but the trouble is you just keep thinking how much better it would be with our friends in it...

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