I’m not sure precisely what “A Situationist Detective Story” is, and rarely read true crime, preferring to indulge in make-believe murder and mayhem. A noir-addict ought to be comfy with unhappy endings, which no one expects in true crime books. We can only look for some satisfactory resolution: The suspect arrested, the crime solved, the guilty tried and sentenced with some measure of justice done for the victim.
There’s no such satisfaction with Jean Mary Townshend’s 1954 murder. Fred Vermorel’s Dead Fashion Girl (2019) deals not only with the crime and initial police investigation, but what the author considers a six-decade cover-up of bungled inquiries and period prejudices, the book as much a look at prim and proper postwar middle-class England and the hush-hush decadence of mid-1950’s London bohemian culture.
Twenty-one-year-old aspiring fashion designer and sometimes model Jean Mary Townshend worked as a theatrical costumer in London’s west end, commuting by train to her parents’ South Ruislip home. Following some after-work fun, she was last seen alive walking home late at night. Her body was discovered the following morning, evidently strangled with her own scarf. Although it was reported at the time (1980’s documents indicating otherwise) that there were no signs of sexual assault, Townshend’s fully clothed body was found with her shoes and underthings carefully removed and left nearby. Other incidents occurred right in this same vicinity over the next few years, with suspicion initially falling on U.S. servicemen from a nearby Air Force base to members of the well-to-do set. Efforts to reopen the investigation or obtain records have been rebuffed and the case remains unsolved.
Dead Fashion Girl is filled with minute details and numerous photos. Yet, what makes the book more interesting than a by-the-numbers police procedural for a true crime neophyte like myself are the portions devoted to the mid-fifties milieus Jean Mary Townshend inhabited along with the authorities’ fixation on the decadent London scene, proto-beatnik and artsy cliques. Vermorel’s known for so-called “anti-biographies” and pop culture books covering the Sex Pistols, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, Kate Bush, Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss and others. His Dead Fashion Girl provides a good glimpse (especially for an uninformed Yank) of a pre-Mod/pre-Profumo affair London scene. It may leave you uneasy and even furious that Townshend’s killer was never brought to justice and now, over sixty years later, most likely never will be. Sadly, there’s no justice for the Dead Fashion Girl.