Beatrice Hitchman was born in London, studied in Edinburgh, lived in Paris for a year and then headed back to the UK to work as a documentary film editor. Her debut novel, Petite Mort, is set in the languorous Deep South and Belle Epoque Paris, and features a mysterious silent movie, with a missing scene, an ambitious seamstress, a starry actress and an illusionist husband. Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail) is out now at £12.99 (ebook/hardback). Beatrice Hitchman’s filmic alter ego is Irma Vep from Les vampires. Eithne Farry
Paris, 1915: the city is in the grip of a deadly band of criminals, Les vampires. A severed head is found in an air duct! A stage performer is murdered with a poisoned ring! A hundred aristocrats are sent to sleep with gas and their jewels stolen! And at the epicentre of this dizzying crime spree is anagrammatic mistress of disguise, ringleader Irma Vep.
In an early scene, Irma’s dressed as a Breton maid, complete with lacy head-dress – a look that takes guts, I’m sure you’ll agree, to pull off. In this outfit she infiltrates the apartment of the useless journalist who’s trying to unmask her, Philippe Guérande, and then makes a midnight escape out of his bedroom window. He’s too frightened to follow, and stands shaking his fist at her as she retreats. Later, she’ll expand her costume repertoire to include: exotic dancer, secretary, cat-suited sneak thief and – in a too-brief scene that set my cold heart racing – 1915 men’s lounge wear. But through it all, Vep is instantly recognisable – the eyes have it, flashing at the camera, utterly distinctive, utterly threatening, defying us to outwit her.
But it isn’t about the fabulous outfits. It’s not even about the enviable way Paris becomes Irma’s personal playground: a world of sliding bookcases, vertical climbing and operatic hideouts. It’s that, although Vep is a woman surrounded by men, she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She’ll just keep on doing what she’s going to do – stealing, cheating, upsetting people – indifferent to who’s watching, and with complete conviction. When she creeps away from Guérande’s apartment across the rooftops, Breton headgear shining in the light of the moon, she doesn’t look down once.