Fred Vermorel - Dead Fashion Girl
"This is a true crime book like no other."
Fred Vermorel turned rock writing on its head with his studies of celebrity and fan culture, controversial ‘anti-biographies’ of Kate Bush, Kate Moss, The Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood. Now he has mined his own formative years to create a mould-breaking work of true crime writing, which aims to separate the real Britain of his Fifties youth from the mythmaking of historians, filmmakers and commentators, in order to illuminate the mystery of a murder that occurred in his hometown, the London suburb of South Ruislip, when he was only eight year’s old.
Twenty-one-year-old Jean Mary Townshend was found in a patch of wasteland near the train station in the early hours of 15 September 1954. She had been strangled with her own scarf and, while her body showed no signs of sexual assault, her underwear had been removed and placed in a neat pile beside her. Jean had a glamorous job for a girl from the suburbs – having won a scholarship to Ealing art college at 14, she was now working as an assistant to fashion designer Michael Whittaker at Berman’s, and had been on her way home from a night spent with her boss at The Londoner, an elite nightclub in Soho. The strangeness of her death fed press speculation with a particular Fifties mix of prurience and prudery, a hint that she might have stepped a little beyond her social station and paid the ultimate price.
But the public would never find out, as the case was never solved… until Fred got on the case. Finding that the paperwork from the original investigation had been sealed and embargoed until 2058, he deployed a mix of resourceful thinking and the instincts of a natural born bloodhound to find out exactly who had committed this crime – and who had wanted it covered up.
This is a true crime book like no other. It’s subtitle, ‘A Situationalist Detective Story’ refers to the French theorist Guy Debord, whose ideas informed the youthful Fred when he was at art college with Malcolm McLaren. He uses these principles to view the crime, and the time and the place in which it took place, from every conceivable angle, like a detective walking the crime scene over and over again. As it took place so long ago, this required the harnessing of all his skills as a dogged researcher and interviewer. Fred contacted private investigators, retired policemen, security specialists and two extraordinary women whose lives closely connected with Jean’s on that fateful night, to open up the time tunnel.
Jackie Cliff and Liz Baron had also grabbed the opportunity to do something different from becoming a housewife – and their stories say so very much about the Fifties and the violence that lurked so close to its apparently respectable surface. Jackie shared the same tube carriage home with Jean. Also a former art student, she was on her way home from jazzing at The 100 Club, where she had been catching the eye of Humphrey Lyttleton and the ire of Joan Collins. Jackie had seen Jean on the last train many times before – but had always been too shy to talk to the sophisticated, beautifully turned-out designer to talk to her. Actress Liz Baron was married to dancer and actor George Baron, the co-owner of The Londoner, the clandestine nightclub where Jean had spent her evening, just a few streets apart from Jackie. These two women effectively give Jean a voice through their recollections of an era, which illustrate explicitly and shockingly just how difficult it was to be a bright young woman in this man’s, man’s man’s world.
Vermorel considers all the suspects in depth – including Liz’s husband and Jean’s employer, Michael Whittaker, whose oeuvre has mostly been lost to history, but for the perhaps telling creation of Diana Rigg’s kinky catsuit in The Avengers. In this, Fred was assisted by a couple of other star witnesses – the coppers who paint a candid picture about the levels of brutality and corruption within the force they served. He also delves into the tangential weirdness that swirls around the events of Jean’s murder, including the Profumo Affair, the Portland Spy Ring and the activities of the man known as Phil the Greek.
Not only does he arrive at an entirely convincing solution to this case, he also, via Jackie, appears to solve the mystery of the identity of Jack the Stripper, who committed the unsolved murders at least six women between 1959 and 1965 in and around the Thames – another case that has been sealed for public consumption for the next century. This is one of the most brilliant, thorough and enlightening books about an unsolved murder and the lost promise of a young woman’s life that I have ever read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Review by Cathi Unsworth who has been called The Empress of Noir. Her novels include: Bad Penny Blues, Weirdo and Without The Moon.
Reviewed by: C.U.