|Vintage Pulp||May 13 2021|
Sorry to scare you. Just triple checking. So it's a firm no on that dinner invitation. Any chance you'd meet me for coffee?
In one of our favorite episodes of The Simpsons, Bart is on edge because he's being stalked by Sideshow Bob, who wants to kill him. Homer decides to show Bart a new hockey mask and chainsaw he's bought. He bursts into Bart's room wearing the mask, brandishing the roaring chainsaw, and yells, “Hey Bart! Check out my new hockey mask and chainsaw!” Bart screams in terror, and Homer, realizing he's chosen the worst possible time to show off these purchases, backs out of the room apologizing. Amazingly, a scene exactly like that occurs in Mignon G. Eberhart's 1946 Miami based parlor mystery White Dress, except protagonist Marny Sanderson is terrified of a killer who's been stalking her while wearing a black raincoat with a black scarf wrapped around his head. Another character dons the same costume and walks unannounced into her room with the intention of confirming her description of the killer. He doesn't yell, “Hey Marny, did he look anything like THIS!” But he might as well have. His subsequent apology: “My God, how stupid of me. It never occurred to me that I might frighten you.” We got a hearty laugh from that.
None of this is to say White Dress is bad, but it's certainly obtuse in parts. It's also old fashioned, even for a novel from the period. Authors like Dashiell Hammett had debuted more than a decade earlier and changed the conventions of detective novels, peopling them with hard-boiled men and women. Swooning flowers of maidenhood like Marny continued to exist in the sub-genre of romantic mysteries Eberhart specialized in, but ladies of leisure faced with murder don't react in proactive ways. That's where the romance comes in, as Marny attracts the attentions of a dashing Navy flier who makes it his latest mission to swoop down and save the hot damsel in distress. Though more decisive than Marny, his approach to the mystery is often ridiculous. Without getting deeply into it, suffice it to say he has a couple of dangerously cockeyed brainstorms. But you know what? For all its quirks we still liked White Dress. It's a window onto a romanticized realm we've never understood. Maybe it never truly existed. But viewed anthropologically, it's engaging and amusing.