An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about sleepwear. That’s right, robes, pyjamas, oversized tees, and other nightwear. One of the really interesting things about sleepwear is the way it’s changed over time, at least for a lot of people. It’s true in real life, and we can see it in crime fiction, too.
For example, in my novel Past Tense, I mention that my sleuth’s wife, Laura, wears an oversized tee to sleep. And she’s not alone; lots of people do that. Others sleep in shorts and a tee, or something else comfortable.
One of the points that Moira makes (you really want to read that post if you haven’t) is that, with so many hotels and other such places having en suite facilities, there’s not a need these days for things like robes and dressing gowns. People don’t need to be concerned about who sees what they wear to bed. But it wasn’t always that way.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly on board the famous Orient Express train as it makes its way across Europe. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works to find out who is responsible. As he questions the passengers, several mention a lady wearing a scarlet dressing gown with dragons embroidered on it. So, he asks every female passenger what her dressing gown looks like. For many, it’s at the very least an odd question. One of them even says,
‘‘I must suppose you have a reason for such a question.’’
All of the women answer the question, so we learn about their nightwear. And Christie matches nightwear to what you might call station in life, as well as temperament. So, Poirot also learns something about the women as he asks that question.
Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces his 87th Precinct team, in particular, Steve Carella. In the novel, two police officers are murdered; and, at first, it looks as though someone has some sort of vendetta against the police. Carella follows up on that possibility and traces the whereabouts of several former convicts who might resent the cops. One of them is staying at a brothel, so Carella visits the place. It’s owned by someone he knows, Mama Luz. When Mama Luz opens the door to Carella, she’s wearing a silk kimono that, you could argue, befits her status as the madam. She and Carella have known each other for a while, and they have an understanding. He basically leaves her business alone; she sees that things at the brothel stay under control.
Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Lora King, a teacher in 1950s Padadena, California. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she takes interest when he starts dating a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. She tries to be happy for Bill when he and Alice marry, but Alice makes her uneasy. And, little by little, she starts learning some things about her new sister-in-law that make her even more uncomfortable. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, Lora also finds herself drawn to it. A note from Alice (that actually mentions a nightgown) perhaps expresses this best:
‘You liked the voile nightgown you saw in my closet, touched it with your milky fingers and asked me where I’d gotten it. When I bought you one of your own, your face steamed baby pink, but you wore it. I knew you’d wear it.’
Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself drawn in in ways she wouldn’t have imagined.
In John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep investigates the murder of a US Marine named William Bradley. Sonchai’s police partner, Pichai Apiradee, was killed as a result of this case, so Sonchai is especially motivated to find out who is responsible. The trail leads at one point to the home of a Russian pimp named Iamskoy. Here’s part of the description we get when Sonchai gets to the place (just about lunchtime, when Iamskoy’s employees are still asleep, or just getting up):
‘…a woman answers the door. She is wearing a black dress…and reveals a lot of cleavage…
‘Andy,’ she calls without anxiety. Instead of Iamskoy, another woman appears in shorts and T-shirt. Then another. A fourth is dressed in a long nightgown, done up firmly at the neck.’
All of these women are in the same business, and it’s interesting to see how their different personalities are expressed in their sleepwear.
Of course, sleuths have sleepwear, too. In Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, for instance, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner investigate three murders. They all have the same murder method, but nothing else really links the victims. So, one important part of solving these murders is looking into the victims’ pasts to see if they have ever met, or ever would have had contact with each other. That involves background research done on the computer, and McCabe chooses to work at home,
‘…on the sofa in the living room, in her cotton nightgown and robe.’
And she’s not the only sleuth who sometimes works that way.
Of course, no discussion of sleepwear in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As any fan can tell you, his preferred nightwear is a large pair of yellow silk pyjamas. He wears them in several novels and stories. In fact, Gail Bowen pays tribute to them in The Gifted. In one scene in that novel, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, goes to a costume party with her husband, Zack. She goes as Archie Goodwin; he goes as Wolfe. And he is dressed in…. yellow silk pyjamas.
See what I mean? Sleepwear is an important part of crime fiction. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary on clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.