The Man in the Red Underwear is a pastiche of prose and poetry with absolutely no purpose except to make the ready break out in giggles. There are hints of parody of Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel and a dash of social satire on gender roles and class mores, but not enough to get in the way of a good time.
In the waning years of Queen Victoria’s reign—let’s face it—the party scene was a big bore. What could you expect? The old broad was still wearing black fifty years after her husband Prince Albert died. She could have at least gone to purple. Nothing seemed to amuse her, so it was left to her subjects to take up the slack and cut a few rugs, so to speak. Lady Cecelia Snob-Johnson did her part by throwing a fling-a-wing-ding every year at her brownstone in a semi-elegant section of London.
Now no one exactly knows how Cecelia managed to get the title of lady. She didn’t come from the best of families. Her father, JohnBob Snob, held sway in the theatrical West End of town for years, and rumor had it that Victoria knighted him after one particularly lascivious production of Romeo and Juliet. This was, of course, before Albert kicked the bucket. So if JohnBob was a lord, his daughter had to be a lady, a lady without any money but a lady nonetheless.
The financial situation brightened appreciably when Cecelia caught the eye of coal magnate Sampson Elias Johnson. She got a twofer with old Sampson Elias. He was rich and built like his biblical namesake. In fact, Cecelia couldn’t keep her hands off him and by their first wedding anniversary she gave birth to her beautiful daughter Millicent. However, Sampson Elias believed in not asking his employees to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. So he hacked and hewed right alongside his miners. He dropped dead from some nasty lung ailment before he could sire any more children. This left Cecelia wealthy but no love life and no social standing. High muckety-mucks never forgave poor Sampson Elias for having coal stained hands as he lay in state at Winchester Cathedral.
Nevertheless, Lady Cecelia Snob-Johnson never gave up hope that her annual gala would bring the social acceptance she so craved. Everything had to be spit-polished and dusted. Her ballroom glistened, and her library was impeccable. It was in the library where she hoped she could bring her immense power to seduce her detractors to its full potential. The guests slowly arrived, and the orchestra began warming up. No matter what else anyone could say about Cecelia, she put out the bucks to buy the best musicians in town, for at least one night.
To calm her nerves, Cecelia dashed from the ballroom for one last inspection of the library. She ran her fingers across the mantel and pleasantly found no dust. Looking up, she made sure her daddy’s fencing swords—believed to have been the very weapons from the production of Romeo and Juliet which prompted the Queen to knight him—were securely affixed above the mantel. In the middle of said mantel was a small framed photograph of Lily Langtry, the only person of high society who liked her. Cecelia gave the picture a quick kiss for good luck. Next she went to the far corner where an ornate oriental screen stood. Cecelia was particularly fond of the expensive flubdub because it was the last thing Sampson Elias Johnson bought her before dropping dead. He may have had dirty fingernails but he knew how to treat a dame right.
In front of the screen was a chaise lounge, large enough to accommodate a seductress and her victim. After fluffing the pillows on the lounge, she decided a small libation to stiffen her resolve so she went across the room where she poured herself a drink from the stylish cabinet suitably equipped with her ladyship’s favorite liquors. She turned to look at Lily Langtry’s photograph and toasted her in anticipation of a successful evening. Cecelia then decided to break out in a soliloquy in rhymed iambic pentameter, a habit she had inherited from her father.
Each year I give a party for the people of great wealth and world renown.
They’re kings and queens and dukes and earls and ladies in their gowns.
Oh hell, I might as well get real—those snooty types, they always turn me down.
I love the party life, it fills me with delight, the razz and the matazz.
I want to prove I have more charm than any of those high class rotters has.
This year I asked Prime Minister Lloyd George who rudely had the flu.
Instead I got Scotland Yard’s Sir Malcolm Tent so I am truly blue.
My daughter Millicent invited Victoria’s grandson so he’s a prince.
He should be quite a catch for any gala’s list, but he is dull and really dense.
I love the party life, excitement and romantic light.
I want to fall in love at least for just one night.
Invigorated by her pitiful attempt at poetry, Cecelia returned to her ballroom, a large space bedecked with gold, crystal and mirrors which looked quite sad because so few people were in it. Her daughter Millicent, wearing a brilliant blue satin gown with startling décolletage, worked the crowd, smiling and offering a tray of canapés. The social pickings were so slim that the arrival of Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard Malcolm Tent made her heart flutter for a moment. But only for a moment because he was dressed in a drab black suit frayed around the edges. He also lacked an aptitude in personal ablutions. He needed to decide whether he wanted a beard or to be clean shaven. In his current condition he was neither. Cecelia breathed deeply and swept across the dance floor and locked arms with the inspector.
“Oh, chief inspector, I am so pleased you could attend my annual gala,” she gushed. “It’s the highlight of the social season for the poshest inner circles of London upper class.”
“I don’t care,” he muttered.
Cecelia leaned in to catch what he said. “Pardon?”
“I don’t pardon.” Tent appraised her in askance. “The Queen pardons. I merely arrest.”
“No, I mean, I was asking what you said, Sir Malcontent,” she clarified.
“My name is Malcolm Tent,” he clearly articulated. And I’m not a sir. More’s the pity. Anyway, I said I don’t care. Forgive my bluntness. I’m obsessed over the shop robberies in Soho.”
Cecelia’s eyes lit with excitement. “They are quite bizarre. According to reports in the Times, a man in disguises exposes himself in—oh, dare I say it—in red underwear!”
“An exhibitionist, quite obviously.
“And then he commits robbery!” Her breathing became quite labored, as though she were reading aloud a penny dreadful novel. “And he’s so handsome, according to reports. And evidently well bred, by the cut of his tights. Aristocratic. How could anyone so high be so low in Soho?” Cecelia realized the dozen or so other guests in the ballroom had stopped milling around to listen in on their conversation. This sense of sudden importance made her cheeks flush. She was sure she was on her way to social acceptability. She raised her voice so all around her could hear. “How is the investigation going?”
“Exactly how much has he stolen?”
“And why are you asking so many questions?” Tent matched her volume decibel for decibel.
The mood of the guests noticeably changed. She could decipher some of the mumblings as, “Yeah, why does the old busybody want to know so much?” and “Who does she think she is, interfering with Scotland Yard?” Cecelia realized she needed to gain the confidence of Inspector Tent in privacy so she gently pushed him toward the library door.
“Inspector, you must see my photograph of Lilly Langtry in the library. She autographed it herself. It’s quite fascinating.” Once Cecelia had him alone behind closed doors, she began her confession which, because she was unusually nervous, came out in iambic pentameter.
You know I love the party life, but one thing I adore.
Some juicy gossip makes me want to roar. Tell me more!
You got dirt on the upper class? You bet your ass
I want to know who’s doing what to you know who.
Who’s spending money faster than they make it on the job
And I’ll tell you which royal prince is nothing but a slob!
Tent headed for the door.
I swear you make me pull out my hair! I don’t care!
I just care about the lair of the man in the red underwear!