Coffin in Fashion (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1987; USA, Thomas Dunne Books

4 stars

Butler - Coffin in Fashion“The murders in Mouncy Street with boys, drugs, sadism had been thoroughly fashionable crime, really Sixties.”

It’s 1966 – the height of Cool Britannia.  The Beatles are bigger than Jesus; miniskirts are on the rise; and LSD has hit the streets.

Sergeant Coffin is led into the Swinging world of designers, models, and photographers (see Blowup).

He buys his first house – and there’s a dead boy under the floorboards.  Another teenager is missing, and the trail leads to Rose Hilaire’s fashion shop Belmodes.  Could the beautiful Rose, or her strange son have sexually assaulted and strangled three boys?

Coffin in Fashion is a stronger mystery than Coffin on Water, the first of her historical Coffins.  It’s a look into an industry (in the line of Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise or Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds) coupled with a late 20th century serial killer story.

The murderer(s) are well concealed (more so than Water, whose solution is revealed offhandedly here).

Butler, a historian, suggests that the killings are the result of the times.

Kids grow up in World War II hearing of “acceptable violence because that was what war was. Taken in with his bottle of National Dried Milk and vitamin drops that it was all right to kill.”

Young people lived with the fear of the Bomb; feeling they might be killed at any moment, they indulged themselves.  After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Coffin insisted that he sleep with the girl he was attracted to (who was seeing his friend at the same time), while another girl tried on a fur coat she wasn’t going to buy.

These, Butler suggests, are relatively innocuous.  Others assault children, or murder.

The sexual revolution had its dark side.  (I wrote my History Honours thesis on the BBC in the ’60s and changing moral attitudes.)  While the pill, no-fault divorce, and the decriminalization of homosexuality were all good, some people were pushing for the legalization of paedophilia and bestiality.  Sadism and “kinky” sex were widely practiced in certain circles, including the Establishment – see Lord Denning’s report into the Profumo affair.



Publishers Weekly (January 1988):

Butler (Coffin on the Water ) here recalls the 1960s, when Scotland Yard’s eminent Detective John Coffin was a mere sergeant.  Anticipating a promotion, he now buys a house that needs repairs and proves a catalyst to dire events.  Workmen find the body of an adolescent boy under the floor – and Coffin, though it’s not his case, keeps up with an investigation that comes to center on his own neighbors.  Attracted to Rose Hilaire, the sergeant learns that her son was a friend of the murder victim and of other missing boys.  Rose’s troubles multiply as she fights to protect her son and her dress factory, hard-won after years of poverty.  The business is threatened not only by scandal but by Rose’s designer, Gaby Glass, who schemes to take off with her creations.  Darting into odd corners, this mystery is a corker, filled with richly atmospheric scenes of London in the “age of Aquarius” as experienced by Coffin and the rest of Butler’s well-realized characters.


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