The Corpse Wore Pasties (2009) is the debut mystery from Jonny Porkpie, New York's self-appointed Mayor of Burlesque. In the great tradition of Kinky Friedman and Gypsy Rose Lee, the detective and protagonist The Corpse Wore Pasties is Mr. Porkpie himself.
In the novel, Jonny Porkpie is producing a friend's burlesque show for an evening. His job should be easy. He's working with professionals, after all, he just need to make sure everything runs smoothly. The evening's show also features some of Jonny's best friends, consummate professionals like Cherries Jubilee and Jillian Knockers, as well as other respected performers like like Angelina Blood. Jonny is unpleasantly surprised, however, by the arrival of Victoria Vice - a known plagiarist and all-around nasty character. The latter would be forgivable, but Victoria's history of stealing other performers' acts makes her persona non grata in the burlesque community. Jonny is shocked when she shows up and is quickly thrown into the role of peacemaker, which mostly entails keeping her away from the others.
Not far enough away, as, in one of the most memorable opening pages in the annals of Hard Case Crime, Victoria dies a very messy death. On-stage, too. How awkward.
This opening scene sets the tone perfectly with its combination of messy murder and ruthless innuendo (not the other way around). The protagonist Porkpie cracks wise, winks at the ladies and delivers a constant stream of engaging, showmanlike patter to the reader. Yet his constant editorialising gives way to a respectful silence when the victim undergoes one of the more horrific deaths in recent mystery fiction, choking to death (descriptively) on rat poison.
Despite the innovative (and enjoyable) setting, The Corpse Wore Pasties is a very traditionally structured mystery. Following Victoria Vice's death, Mr. Porkpie is under suspicion of murder. To clear his own name (and satisfy his curiosity), he's forced into the role of amateur detective. The bulk of the investigation is Mr. Porkpie tracking down and interrogating the book's cast of (suspected) femme fatales. Although these dialogues has a Pasties flair - one takes place with Mr. Porkpie suspended in a dominatrix's dungeon, another with him hiding in a risque zeppelin costume - the core traditions of noir fiction remain intact. Every interview reels in a fresh catch of red herrings and tightens the screws just a tiny bit more. Mr. Porkpie gets in deeper and deeper trouble, eventually winding up in a madcap scenario with both the murderer and the police breathing down his neck.
The dialogues are the heart of The Corpse Wore Pasties - and they're predictably great. Mr. Porkpie (real) has the showman's gift of comic timing, and that translates well to the written page. For both light banter and serious interrogation, he keeps the story moving and fleshes out the book with a cast of very real, very lovely and very dangerous suspects.
However, Mr. Porkpie also writes a great action sequence, especially given that this is his debut. One scene, when Mr. Porkpie (fictional) crawls across a support beam of the Brooklyn Bridge to escape pursuers, is particularly well done, as is the dramatic finale, a tense battle with the murderer. The author's ability to seamlessly flip between the comic and the dramatic is on full display. Jonny Porkpie has the ability to make the audience both gasp and giggle, not unlike the golden era of James Bond.
Don't let the bonkers title and deliberately goofy premise fool you, this is a well-constructed mystery and a sterling debut. The Hard Case Crime series isn't just about resurrecting the best in lost noir, it is also about contributing to the genre. A Corpse Wore Pasties is an excellent example of how the traditions of detection can hold up in any setting - even the most ludicrous. (And that wackiness? Adds a lot of fun.)
Final note on cover art: A corker from Ricky Mujica. David Bryher, one of the fussiest human beings I've ever met, picked up our copy and said, "There is not a single thing on this cover that does not please me." I wholeheartedly agree.
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who can't twirl a tassel.