In 1941, actress/dancer/media personality Gypsy Rose Lee (born Rose Louise Hovick) published her first novel, the detective story The G-String Murders (available nowadays thanks to Feminist Press from the City University of New York network, my college alumnus system!), about murder and deceit in the 1930’s bursleque scene. In 1943, the book was adapted into the musical Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. It actually has an interesting history and place in crime fiction, alongside the figure of the author herself.
I actually discovered this book in my local leave-a-book/take-a-book shelf, a small micro-library by the subway station, and immediately snatched it up, a few years ago.
On a thematic level, the book is important in not only highlighting the work of women writers in the noir/crime genre, but also in how it in particular looks at a community and subculture of women that, like all good noir protagonists, perpetually live in the gray of fluidity that unsure social class and social standing can give. Private eyes are, for all intents and purposes, hired goons, in between social classes, between the haves and the have-nots, serving both, able to move between the two, but also viewed with scorn by either unless they’re needed.
Burlesque (and, one could argue, by extent women in workplaces/cultures/subcultures and the implied status of sex work that burlesque was viewed as at the time) is in the same vein of existence, which means that our narrator (Gypsy herself in fictionalized form) turning herself into an amateur private eye to figure out who is killing the other dancers in their little surrogate family (another post-modern trope of noir and post-war fiction that one could argue is also essential to what we consider noir as well at times, pulling apart the biological clan concept to re-knit it together again in the face of the ways that economic upheaval can destroy the connections we might have had to support us).
I finished it this year after the book sat on my shelves for a while, mostly because of the only major flaw with it, which is the narrative itself. Lee, while tackling a lot of legitimately-interesting ideas with her setting (something I really liked that she does well is realistic dialogue patter, creating a flow between two or more people that doesn’t feel trite or chewed-on, but natural), I actually got lost in the story a few times. I started it about three times before finally finishing it, losing track of what the point of the murders were, because the twist-within-the-twist of the ending quarter of the book both tying back to an element of the beginning and somehow also bringing in an almost out-of-touch aspect to the crime as a possible motive confused me, with the rush of trying to fill in al the blanks at the end being a bit of a disappointment.
I feel bad, because this book as the weight of being both an important noir and important feminist work of fiction. And maybe with another read-through, I might finally follow every single thread (and there are a lot, to match what felt like a large and active cast to the story) to actually “get” who did it this time, and why. Real estate? Shame? Spurned love? It was something like that, I think, and I’m bummed I can’t tell you exactly which one.