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Playboys & Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London.

Playboys & Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London. By Angus McLaren. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. 264. $24.95.)

On 20 December 1937, four men lured a representative of the jewelry house Cartier to the Hyde Park Hotel in the West End of London, where they attacked and robbed him, escaping with eight rings worth the equivalent of half a million pounds in today's currency. While the criminals were apprehended within a day of the crime's commission, newspaper coverage of the incident continued for the months leading to their trial in 1938, and for some time afterward. The tabloid press dubbed the four the "Mayfair Men," for the prestigious neighborhood in which the crime had occurred. All four were products of elite British public schools and respectable families, raising anguished questions about their motivations and leading many to see them as emblematic of the moral decay of society following the First World War.

Working with newspaper coverage of the crime and trial, the archives of the Metropolitan Police Office, and contemporary novels and films, the eminent historian Angus McLaren painstakingly recounts the crime, along with its trial and aftermath, in his new book, Playboys & Mayfair Men. Using a long-forgotten episode as a window into British society, McLaren finds that gender and class continued to be significant fault lines in interwar Britain. In particular, he argues, a new kind of masculine identity--that of the playboy--emerged in the years following the First World War. In the early years of the twentieth century, traditional British masculinity had emphasized "respectability, reserve, and decorum" (110). The playboy, however, represented a new way to be a man--privileged, entitled, and not especially industrious--that contemporaries feared was a by-product of Britain's burgeoning consumer culture, and a sign of its decline.

Through the use of thick description, McLaren reconstructs not only the crime, but also its investigation, trial, and aftermath. Divided into two parts, "The Crime" and "The Context," the book sheds light on the interwar Metropolitan Police and its methods of crime detection, the legal system and debates over the use of corporal punishment in British prisons, and the rise of fascism as a political ideology and movement among men in Britain. Befitting a study based in the illustrated press, the book includes photographs, maps, and reproductions of newspaper stories about the crime and its perpetrators.

McLaren's book will be required reading for anyone interested in the cultural effects of the First World War in Europe. Its main contribution lies in its use of extensive press coverage to examine what meanings contemporaries took from the crime and its perpetrators. Historians of women have written extensively about the figure of the flapper as a challenge to traditional markers of class and gender in the interwar era. The playboy emerges here as the masculine equivalent, a locus of anxiety about the pace of change in an increasingly mobile and consumerist society, and an example of an upper-class culture that held "a grotesquely inflated sense of entitlement" (83).

Laura E. Nym Mayhall

The Catholic University of America

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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Mayhall, Laura E. Nym
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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