Books

That time Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a mystery novel

 

Girls girls girls neon sign

Girls, girls, girls! Raunchy girls, rough around the edges. Stripping by night, getting choked to death with their own G-strings by day.

Written in 1941 by celebrated clothing-taker-offer Gypsy Rose Lee and reprinted in 2005 with many, many typos (perhaps in an effort to be faithful to the original text) by The Feminist Press, The G-String Murders falls a bit flat as a murder mystery. But as a peep at the vanished world of burlesque between the Great Depression and WWII, it is well worth a look.

Written during the height of the pulp fiction era and reissued at various points under the titles Lady of Burlesque and The Strip-Tease Murders, The G-String Murders is more a thinly veiled memoir than mystery novel; a sort of audition for Lee’s 1957 opus Gypsy: A Memoir, which inspired the 1959 musical, Gypsy.

“Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. … As long as I live, I’ll remember seeing that bloated, bluish face, the twisted, naked body, and the glitter of a G-string hanging like an earring from the swollen neck.”

After this murderous tease, Gypsy Rose Lee sashays into the depths of the theater, offering the reader a whole 70 pages of backstage shenanigans that are far more fascinating than the eventual murders.

More like this: “That time Sylvester Stallone wrote a novel”

The world of a 1940s burlesque theater might seem tame to modern readers at first blush. “The signs backstage,” Lee writes. “were all over the place: FULL NET PANTS. NO BUMPS. NO GRINDS. KEEP YOUR NAVEL COVERED.”

Until you get to the drinking. The strippers are always drinking. And the gruesome back-alley cosmetic surgery.

“With all the nonchalance in the world, she let her robe drop to the floor. Everyone in the room stared at her until their eyes popped. The long, stringy breasts she had flashed the day before were standing straight out! They were the most voluptuous breasts I had ever seen. … ‘I knew a guy once that had paraffin pumped in his face because it sagged so. Looked good, too — for a while.’”

And, of course, the murders.

Among the dead: aging stripper La Verne, mysterious “Russian” stripper Princess Nirvena, and local small-time gangster Louie.

Whodunnit?

Was it the murderous Stachi?

Or the also-murderous Jack?

Or “ladykiller” Russell?

Or was it the roof-scaling Chinese waiter with the ginseng root fetish?

Or the lesbian policewoman?

Honestly, I haven’t a clue. It all got terribly confusing toward the end.

Forget the murder mystery. It’s incidental to the plot, because The G-String Murders is ⁠— like my latest novel, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story ⁠— a work of metafiction that presents the reader with an unexpected, Kurt Vonnegut-style protagonist and narrator in the form of the author herself.

It’s fun, it’s a little dirty, and it’s a unique time capsule for a vanished era. It was also made into a movie starring Barbary Stanwyck; a movie I think we all should watch right now.

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