It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.
Now, Freddy Krueger wasn’t the first villain to adopt distinctive dress. I have no idea who it might have been — depending on how you interpret that, you could go back to Dracula, I guess, and doubtless even further — but the point at which your villain is recognisable by their sartorial choices rather than their crimes per se is an interesting one, and has been used to various effects in classic detective fiction over the years.
I believe that the first piece of classic detective fiction I read which relies on this conceit was Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher (originally published under the nom de plume H.H. Holmes), in which the leader of a religious cult — distinctively clad in a flowing, bright yellow robe — is seen threatening the man who has set out to discredit him through the window of the man’s study, and by the time the witnesses force entry has disappeared through locked and watched doors and windows, having murdered his adversary before doing so. Norman Berrow’s The Bishop’s Sword (1948) echoes this with another impossible disappearance, and adds an impossible appearance in two locations at the same time, by the charismatic leader of a religious cult who is at all times distinctively clad in a flowing white robe.
Dual appearances are at the heart of Helen McCloy’s slightly overwrought Through a Glass, Darkly (1941), too, in which teacher Faustina Crayle is observed becoming listless and borderline unresponsive in one location while simultaneously appearing miles away in the same dress to commit nefarious deeds. Alas, the real world nature of these books will immediately suggest the solution to these Same Person in Two Places at Once puzzles — I’m still waiting for a really brilliant solution to this which doesn’t rely on the obvious — but the fact that they must be easily identified when seen is obviously a key part of the scheme’s success. Were Faustina Crayle seen becoming listless and then someone pops up several miles away and commits a murder without bearing close resemblance to her…well, that renders needless the entire Faustina Crayle is Listless part of the scheme and the police just start looking for someone who definitely isn’t the woman who was practically asleep on the other side of town.
There are other examples of bad guys going out of their way to look sick and span and easy to spot — the delightfully bonkers Owl of Darkness (1942) by Max Afford, for one, in which a jewel thief dresses up as an owl for reasons which, if I’m honest, are lost on me a little — and you’ll doubtless have others in mind. There’s one particular book, reviewed on this blog, in which the entire impossibility hinges on the nature of how one person dresses, and it’s and absolute doozy of a solution…but I’m reluctant to mention titles because it’s something you need to come to as pure as possible.
This villainous vestiary of course serves the purpose which most people would expect from such books — the costume itself becoming the focus and so the question of who is within the clothes, and whether that is always the same person, gets obfuscated. This doesn’t really count as spoilers, let’s be honest, but if you’ve read that and thought “Oh my god! I’d never have thought of that, and now he’s ruined these books for me!” well 1) my most sincere apologies, and 2) I’ve recently inherited a fortune from a deposed royal from some country you’ve likely never heard of and I need help getting the money out of the country so please send me your bank details and I’ll make it worth your time if you understand me nudge nudge wink wink.
To me there’s an additional aspect, too, which I probably draw from this because it harks back to my comic-reading days and, if you’ll allow me a little artistic license (by which I mean “veering into an area where I must overstate my confidence in order to give some credence to what I’m about to say”), has been in evidence in this sort of crime and detective fiction for years, namely the recognisability of heroes. Yes, heroes, bear with me.
Think of Batman, of how much that black-clad, glowering, terrifyingly violent presence actually represents a tremendous amount of security — when Batman turns up, you know everything’s going to be okay. And you know Batman has turned up because there’s a six-foot plus man standing there dressed like a bat. Batman, unquestionably, is about brand recognition and how that can be used in a heroic way to instill confidence in people . Superman once called him “the most dangerous man in the world”, and for good reason, but undeniably he’s one of the good guys and the bat symbol and bat-themed everything is there to remind you not to be afraid. Equally Superman, red cape, blue suit, gigantic S (okay, okay, it’s not an S, but then that iteration is barely Superman at all)…these heroes have always been designed to be memorable and distinctive so that associate with their appearance is a sense of release and relief following whatever perils preceded them.
The same is true in crime and detective fiction. Any number of gentlemen detectives and generic pulp shamuses have been consigned to the dustbin of memory, but they would have all worn a sense of their own values — a physical toughness, a moral refusal to yield, a prodigious mental agility, a near-medical dependence on women or alcohol or sarcasm — as fully as any costume. The few we remember today — Sherlock Holmes, the Continental Op, Jane Marple, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer — can each be summed up in a few short characteristics which, no, don’t do the full gamut of each individual justice, but these markers are as clear as Superman’s S or the Lasso of Truth. And just as you trust that ass will be kicked when Wonder Woman shows up, you have confidence in Marlowe to do whatever it takes, and take whatever he does, to see the thing through. These characteristics are a shortcut to hope once again, and the reasons we have come back to these characters time and again, and reason so many of them have endured
So how does this apply to my villains, then? Well, if the villains are the opposite of the heroes, their own characteristics must be used to opposite ends. You take that aspect of recognisability, that facet of someone that gives you hope, and you use it to generate fear, a sense of dread, to draw the thunder clouds over the horizon and welcome in the storm. Except that villains don’t often stick around for long enough to develop recognisable traits; the one distinct advantage of the growth of television series is that they have provided much more scope for long-game character work to make the reappearance of a nemesis thought long-dispatched a tantalising prospect. Crime novels, alas, don’t work this way: villains are there to be vanquished, then the hero moves on in the next adventure and wipes the floor with another one, rinse and repeat.
And so a shorthand becomes necessary. If we’re not going to get to know them as people, get to know them as symbols: a yellow robe, a white robe, an owl costume. The security of the sight of familiar things is all the more powerful when something familiar is turned against you and made into an object of fear. If a plot sees one murder committed, and then another, and then another…well, a lot of leg-work may have to be done to connect them. If three murders are committed and a woman in a green coat is always seen leaving the scene, suddenly the mere presence of a green coat adds that frisson of terror. And if the detective’s love interest/partner/sibling/neighbour is found in possession of such a coat, or seen disposing of one, a small amount of shorthand has just provided a gigantic leap for your plot.
I read practically nothing by way of modern crime fiction, but it’s (probably) fair to say that such identity games have fallen by the wayside. There’s been an update of sorts with the growth of serial killer novels and films, with identities potentially skewed by the appearance of apprentices or copycats or — hey! — two killers having been working in tandem the whole time, but an increasing move to the psychological aspect, why the crime is being committed in this way, inevitably shifts the focus and intent even further away. I’m not going to lament this too greatly. Firstly, well, I could be wrong: for all I know, there were 128 crime novels published in the last six months which al relied on a killer in distinctive clothing committing a series of fairly banal murders that ended up being linked together by the tell-tale pink wig being found in the holiday cottage they had reserved using the false credit card in their dead twin’s name. That’s probably a book that someone wrote in the last decade. And if they didn’t, good on them, they shouldn’t, it sounds terrible.
But the second reason not to lament the loss of this — assuming, as ever, that it is lost — is that there is something so gloriously Golden Age about it. The possibilities it opens up for alibi problems or false identifications or even the sudden realisation that it could be absolutely anyone would only have been used to their full potential during that period of such creative overflow, and anything else would be a terrible waste. Which is not to say that it couldn’t ever be done well again, of course. Look at Wes Craven’s Scream films, for instance…