Carter Brown’s The Corpse and the Hyper-Heterosexual Detective

carterbrownthecorpse3The Corpse, one of the many novels from ‘Carter Brown’ (also known as Alan Geoffrey Yates) published during the golden age of pulp novels, features Brown’s most famous police detective: Al Wheeler.  He thinks outside the box, and by ‘outside the box’ I mean he likes to sleep with suspects and their daughters while moving corpses and planting them where he thinks they ought to go.  It is, as is always the case with Browns detective fiction, a hyper-heterosexual investigation, and though this overt bias is present, it doesn’t make the novel any less entertaining.

 

'The Corpse' is not to be confused with 'The Unorthodox Corpse', also by Carter Brown.  Some of his titles were a little formulaic.

‘The Corpse’ is not to be confused with ‘The Unorthodox Corpse’, also by Carter Brown. Some of his titles were a little formulaic.

Each of Brown’s novels seems to have issues outside of overt sexism that date the work.  The Sometimes Wife, for example, incorporates some troubling presentations of homosexuals, mixed with some language that could reasonably be called ‘homophobic’ (though I prefer the term misamoratist).  The Corpse, contributes to problematic presentations through the ableist rhetoric it uses when dealing with people suffering from mental illness.  The work shows the ignorance of people who aren’t educated on mental illness through Wheeler, who, upon entering a sanitarium, has to be assured that the patients have “got nothing catching”, and then refers the hospital as a “nuthouse” (thought a doctor is sure to note that Wheeler is “crude”).  The patients, of course, are not referred to as patients, but rather “inmates”, indicating the manner in which they are viewed, even by hospital personal, and this sentiment that is reinforced when Wheeler notes that there are “no bars” on a window.  When Wheeler hears a screams, he projects a lack of reason onto it, stating “it sounded like a scream for no reason”, suggesting that those with mental illness are perceived as lacking reason. There is, of course, the clichéd violent ‘inmate’, whose actions create a disturbance early in the novel and who is eventually brought back into the narrative at the climax for cheap dramatic effect.

 

 

carterbrownthecorpse1There is something that is perhaps progressive about the book, but it remains unclear.  In many works, there is a default ‘race’.  The colour of a character’s skin may never be mentioned, but it is assumed by many that the character is white unless otherwise identified.  Al Wheeler’s skin colour, for example, has not been mentioned in any of the novels I have read, but the assumption by many is that he is Caucasian.  In this narrative, though, there are several characters whose skin colour is not mentioned, but who are likely characters with African heritage.  Midnight O’Hara, it is mentioned, has blonde hair, and her shape is defined, in detail, by Wheeler who, as usual, exemplifies the male gaze.  The colour of her skin is never mentioned, but later in the novel, another character suggest that the colouring of O’Hara’s hair is not natural; the reason for this conclusion is not offered.  O’Hara plays in a jazz club and the trio of musicians she plays with are also likely of colour, but their skin tone is never mentioned.  Knowing the explicit link between jazz and Americans with African heritage, it might be tempting to assume that the musicians have African heritage.  The author leaves some details, specifically the colour of skin, out and allows the characters to be defined, but by the passions that define their lives: in this case music.  The reader is invited to fill in the blanks as they choose.  The jazz club is linked to narcotics distribution, which may reinforce a negative stereotype about Americans with African heritage, but Brown creates a scenario where a couple of the musicians are not involved, and the ring leader of the narcotics distribution is actually a Caucasian man with high social standing, debunking the assumption that drugs are a ‘Black’ problem and demonstrating that the issues are inherent in the system.

 

carterbrownthecorpseThere is, as is always the case with Carter Brown novels, an issue with the presentation of women.  Each of the women presented in the novel are objectified by Wheeler, and each is subject to the lecherous male gaze.  O’Hara is a participant in a crime, but Wheeler seems to be more focused on how she looks than what she might be guilty of.  This does not mean that this is how the author sees the women of course, and in one scene, as often happens in Carter Brown novels, a female character outwits Wheeler, while another scene sees Wheeler rescued by a woman.  Rena Landis is another female character in the novel, and she is portrayed as emotionally vulnerable and is eager to consent to the sex act with Wheeler.  Wheeler quickly agrees, but the reader is left wondering whether Rena’s consent is legitimate, or whether Wheeler is taking advantage of a naïve and troubled young woman.  This reading may undermined Rena’s autonomy.  Instead, Rena can be read as a woman who is simply aware of her own sexuality and not inhibited by patriarchal definitions of sexual virtue.  Either way, there is a depth to the character.  The third female character is Annabelle Jackson, a secretary are the sheriff’s office whom Wheeler spends several novels trying to get into bed.  He is not successful in this novel, but he makes progress towards that goal.  His own sexual promiscuity is challenged by Jackson in an interesting scene, but not much is done with this.

 

 

Carter BrownOverall the novel offers some interesting perspectives.  It’s presentation of Wheeler is the ignoramus who fails to understand mental illness provides as sharp critique of ableist mentalities, while Brown’s refusal to mention skin colour is an interesting approach that challenges the reader to see beyond colour, which in 1958, when the book was published, would have been considerably progressive for a mainstream novel such as The Corpse.  The treatment of women is problematic, but it is also diverse and the women do not fit into patriarchal archetypes, but rather challenge how we see women.  Even though the women are seen through the eyes of a lascivious cop the still demonstrate a diversity that subverts the patriarchal gender stereotypes.  Though Wheeler is the character we are meant to identify with, that does not suggest he is not also employed as a means with which to critique commonplace preconceptions and misconceptions.  His use of the word “boobs” several times throughout the novel indicates that.  At the end of the day, the novel is entertainment first, and in that respect it certainly fulfills with fast-paced narrative that entertains and provides just enough content for a critic to dig into without getting in the way of a casual reading that can simply entertain if that is all the reader wants.  Brown has constructed better plots in other novels, but this novel is great for any fan of detective fiction.

 

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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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