Dress Down Sunday: Murder Among the Nudists

 

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


 

Murder Among the Nudists by Peter Hunt


published 1934


 
Murder among the nudists 2
 

[investigating officer Alan Miller, an undercover nudist, goes to consult with one of his subordinates]

He went off by himself to see O’Donnell… who was smoking a cigarette in the shade of the gate house. He blushed and sniggered covertly at the naked Miller.

“Stop it you oaf. Get up on your feet. Let’s go over behind those trees for a talk. Give me a cigarette.”

O’Donnell obeyed pompously. “How do you like having no clothes on, Chief?”

“Very much. I always was a nudist, you know.”

“You was, sir?”

“At heart. Now I’m taking it seriously. I’m not turning in a budget for new uniforms for next year.”…

[They discuss progress in the case]

“That’s all for now. Enjoy yourself.” Miller flipped his cigarette away, got to his feet, strode off towards the street of cottages. He whistled an air. O’Donnell looked surreptitiously and amusedly after him, watching his sunburned buttocks diminish past the willows.Nudism, to O’Donnnell, was the foundation for a dirty joke, and a rare kind of lechery. He was surprised at Miller.
 
Murder Among the Nudists


[Shortly afterwards] Miss Botto trotted past [Miller], laughing. She waved to him.

This suggested to Miller a certain effulgence, the effect of moving flesh; golden leaves, fat bunches of grapes, a slender faun; Autumn, a picture he had once seen somewhere, perhaps in the Luxembourg. Miss Botto ran through the rove, and brief stripes of light slid along her shoulders and her thighs.
 
 
commentary: Never was ‘looking at what goes on under the clothes’ a more accurate description.

A quick reminder: A couple of weeks ago I read an almost-forgotten murder story by ER Punshon. Browsing in a list of titles at the end of the book, I came across this one, with the description ‘featuring a naked Detective-Inspector going undercover in a nudist colony’ and was truly intrigued, as were several of my readers (the usual suspects – you know who you are).

I immediately tried to get a copy of it, and after a few false starts I succeeded. I’ve now read it, and what a strange and wonderful book this is. I can’t decide quite what I would make of it if it hadn’t had the unusual and striking setting of a nudist camp in Connecticut. For a start, if the intro hadn’t made it plain, I would have thought it was a British book until a good way in: it resembles an old-fashioned village mystery, until two of the characters go for a louche jaunt to New York City. And it does become obvious that the timing must be just before the end of Prohibition.

Alan Miller is Chief of Police in the small town of Totten Ferry. When a woman is found dead at the local nudist camp he goes to investigate. After an initial look he takes the very bizarre decision to go undercover in the camp, from where he investigates the crime (to the great amusement of his fellow police operatives), pretending to be just another nudist.

The nudists are eccentrics and oddities, and there is an assumption they must be vegetarians and teetotal. One of them tries to psychoanalyse everyone. Unfortunately, the assembled characters aren’t very much distinguishable, I never really got them straight.

It becomes apparent to the astonished reader that actually one of the points of the weird setup is to establish a unique version of the impossible murder, a symbolic ‘locked room’. The nudists bring nothing into the camp, and they have no objects unaccounted for: therefore they have no means of committing murder, no weapons, and no way to conceal a weapon. They don’t use electric light. Some pins and needles and later other tools become an important part of the plots, and Miller has to find out what was going on. The murder is committed via, of all things, a washing machine, which does genuinely merit this splendid passage:
A great flash of lightning came, and a great peal of thunder like the sound of universal destruction. Miller and Fullilove remained alone over the fluttering candle flame, beside the sinister washing machine.
At various points the police confiscate the nudists’ clothes to make quite sure none of them can leave or wander round the town.

There is some murky discussion of different kinds of sexuality, and the trip to New York is very compelling, with a sinister old liftman and some mindgames – it does read somewhat as if it had been spliced in from a different kind of book, something more noir-ish and would-be literary.

Just when you start to think the nudism is merely a playing piece in a murder game, some passage makes you see how much Hunt is enjoying this, that there is a faint note of eroticism running through the book, and that he most definitely is hoping to tease and captivate the reader. The book is also amusing, with some very funny lines.

It is not the best murder story ever, but is well worth reading for its sheer exoticism. In fact I kept thinking of Gladys Mitchell – the story stops and starts and disconcerts the reader as hers do, and wanders around all over the place, and while I don’t think Mitchell ever did use such a setting, she would have been the woman for it… Mrs Bradley would surely have gone undercover as a nudist without turning a hair.

This webpage advertises the book: I didn’t have any luck with the links and buttons on the page, but emailing the address there did produce results…

The pictures. Well, I did my best for you. The top one is a postcard showing a nudist camp near Berlin in the era of the book (via Wikimedia Commons). I think they are doing their exercises.

The lower one is from the NYPL, and is apparently a satirical illustration poking fun at women who will wear their furs even when they are wearing little else.

You can never say Clothes in Books doesn’t put in the effort when it comes to picture research.



***** ADDED LATER: When my copy of the book arrived I was rather disappointed that the publisher hadn't seized the opportunity to place a fancy illo on the cover. Paula Carr - see the comments below - had a similar experience. And then she looked more closely at the abstract design... 






--I am the world's worst photographer, I'm not sure if you can see anything in the pattern. But Paula and I can assure you that there is something there - in two different parts of the cover!



























Comments

  1. Perversely the most 'you' book you will ever review here, ever! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see exactly what you mean! Thanks (I think).

      Delete
  2. Moira, I love this, you are my book heroine. Thank you for hunting this down. I MUST read it. The sinister washing machine made me laugh out loud.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chrissie - you will enjoy despite its shortcomings. It is unique.

      Delete
  3. Never let it be said that you don't do what it takes to track down a lead, Moira! I'm so glad you did, too, as it does sound like a good story, if strange. Funny you'd mention Gladys Mitchell, too; I was thinking of her work as I read the post. They seem similar in some ways. Now I really must read this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel that this time I boldly went where not many had gone before (or not recently) Margot. Definitely that slightly surreal tough that the Great Gladys had.

      Delete
  4. John Ball's The Cool Cottontail features Virgil Tibbs (of In the Heat of the Night)investigating a murder in a nudist camp.

    According to Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in The Long Weekend, servants at posh nudist camps were obliged to wear aprons to distinguish them from the upper class customers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for two great extra facts. The title of the Ball book sounds all too appropriate.
      I just re-read Graves' Goodbye to All That, and loved it, I should look out Long Weekend now.

      Delete
    2. Incidentally, was your second picture an illustration for Saki's Mrs Packletide's Tiger? It looks very apt:

      ... it seemed a fitting and appropriate thing when Mrs. Packletide went to the County Costume Ball in the character of Diana. She refused to fall in, however, with Clovis's tempting suggestion of a primeval dance party, at which every one should wear the skins of beasts they had recently slain. "I should be in rather a Baby Bunting condition," confessed Clovis, "with a miserable rabbit-skin or two to wrap up in, but then," he added, with a rather malicious glance at Diana's proportions, "my figure is quite as good as that Russian dancing boy's."

      Delete
    3. I don't think it was, but it would be perfect wouldn't it, what a good idea. I love Saki, and Clovis, and this is a great one.

      Delete
  5. I'll admit to being a bit puzzled why someone would establish a story in a nudist camp in Connecticut, which is too cold to go without clothes for a good eight and a half months of the year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point. I have to say, he didn't at all amke the camp sound fun, in any way, except for one night when they break all the rules.


      Delete
  6. Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery features a nudist colony on Long Island (at least it's in the summertime!), and a drearier depiction one couldn't find if one tried. This, at least, sounds like a bit of fun! I'm glad you got to live your dream, Moira, by finding and reading it! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See comment above Brad - not too much fun. But I had fun reading it, and, as you so rightly say, living the dream...

      Delete
  7. Giggled my way through this. What a weird read. Another one to add to my To Be Read list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You will giggle your way through the book....

      Delete
  8. Hurray, you found it! Although I agree with you that I had no idea the setting was the US until you mentioned it.

    I was guessing the first picture was German. You can tell they're all so fit -- even at a distance. Most books describing a nudist colony always go on about the saggy skin and unattractive bulges.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think nudism in Germany was associated with the body beautiful, less so elsewhere. The book does NOT on the whole suggest much beauty...

      Delete
  9. P.S. The buttons on the website worked for me. They go to PayPal, so maybe they only work if you have a PayPal account?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do have PayPal, but I wonder if it was because I was outside US?

      Delete
    2. That was my second guess.

      Delete
  10. P.P.S. I have a Pinterest board called Women and Parasols, so I added your second picture to it. It looks as though they were using illustrations from the La Gazette du Bon Ton as their inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I doubt if I would go looking for this book, but if it ever presents itself at a used book store or a sale, then I would try it.

    I keep thinking I have read something with nudism as an element, but if so, it isn't surfacing. There is a Richard Prather book that I want to find where the private detective goes undercover in a nudist colony -- Strip for Murder (1955).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm surprised and impressed that readers have come up with a few titles. I might try some more.

      Delete
  12. I had to come back to let you know that I just got my copy of the book from Mr. Tucker. It looks like a print-on-demand book (which is fine because I'm not expecting some leather bound classic) and has an abstract design for the cover.

    When I first saw it, I thought the pattern looked a lot like those old "Magic Eye" pictures -- the ones where, if you focused/unfocused your eyes just right you would see a 3-D image. And it was! A nice little lagniappe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my goodness you are right, I am looking at it now!

      Delete
    2. That is amazing, how does that work?

      Delete
    3. Tracy, I have tried to show part of the cover in the entry above, though am not a very good photographer...

      Delete

Post a Comment