Book review: Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg

Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg
Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah by John Flagg

John Flagg, pseudonym of American crime writer John Gearon who died in 1970, delivers a barrage of murder and mayhem in two fabulous 1951 mysteries… with the added bonus of a suspense-packed short story.

Death and the Naked Lady features a thrilling tale of stolen jewels, murder and espionage on board a luxury ocean liner, while The Lady and the Cheetah focuses on a deadly case of blackmail and sabotage among European nobility at a palace on Lake Maggiore, Italy.

In Death and the Naked Lady, American nightclub singer Mac McLean, who has ‘skyrocketed’ to fame in central Europe, returns to New York for a major gig but quickly discovers that his patron, Georges Fournier, has been murdered in Paris and Fournier’s valuable jade figurines have been planted in his cabin, making him the prime suspect.

It isn’t long before others learn of the precious jade owls and when the determined Louis Devois of the Deuxième Bureau boards the ship, it’s a race against time for Mac to unravel the mystery and prove his innocence.

Flagg fills the deck of the deluxe French ship, the Dauphiné, with an array of powerful, duplicitous characters with secrets aplenty and veiled motives. The dubious passenger list includes the outspoken, vitriolic Lady Irene Harcourt – who is having an affair with Mac – and her snobbishly aloof husband Albert.

Also on the list are the sinister businessman Joseph Pasquela who solicits Mac to spy on his stunningly beautiful wife Elisabeth, once ‘the leading nude at the Folies Bergère, reputed to have the most beautiful body in Europe,’ the unsavoury Armando Gonzales, and the movie star Lili Fenwick, a gorgeous, if unsophisticated, American actress with a tarnished reputation. Mac’s own sketchy past and his baffling rise to fame only add to the intrigue.

In The Lady and the Cheetah, the central character – a nomadic, devil-may-care newspaper correspondent named Rafferty Valois, discredited for fabricating news stories – has the same playboy qualities as Mac. They both enjoy extravagant, hedonistic lifestyles, they live in luxurious hotels in picturesque European cities, drink hard, play hard and rack up debt while socialising with celebrities and aristocrats. Unlike Mac, however, the redheaded Rafferty is ‘short and pixyish’ and ‘not at all good-looking.’ All the same, he’s still something of a womaniser.

The novel opens with him waking up in a suite in the famous Hotel Carlton in Cannes next to a beautiful cockney blonde whose name he has forgotten (not surprising, considering she calls herself Loretta Maximilian Toastmaster!)

Rafferty, who has overslept and missed his ship, is down to his last eighty dollars, having gone on a wild drinking binge the night before, treating ‘half the tarts of Montmartre to champagne’ and running up a hefty hotel bill.

Undaunted by his situation, he offers Loretta his remaining cash to get rid of her. But unlike Lili Fenwick, who clings to Mac, Rafferty can never seem to shake off Loretta and she follows him to Italy where the crux of the story takes place.

The plot of the novel is so sensational it sounds like one of Rafferty’s concocted news stories. Mistakenly believing an ‘absurd’ magazine article that labels Rafferty ‘The International Man of Mystery’ and details his ‘confidential jobs for the Shah of Iran and two or three Indian maharajas and several minor Balkan countries,’ a beautiful countess with a pet cheetah hires him to recover highly sensitive private letters which were stolen from her safe by a ruthless blackmailer.

She intends to announce her daughter’s engagement to the deposed King of Movania at the imminent grand ball she is hosting and fears the contents of the letters may destroy their marriage plans. Woven into the story are a murder mystery, American gangsters and a plot to see the king reinstated to the throne.

Highly entertaining and full of exciting twists and quirky characters, Death and the Naked Lady and The Lady and the Cheetah are a wonderful pair of vintage tales of murder in high society which have aged remarkably well and will charm a new generation.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £14.95)