Books poured out of ‘Carter Brown’ like vomit from the mouth of a Japanese porn star water from a faucet during the peak years of his career, though some literary critics might suggest the outpouring was more akin to defecation. In his later years the sheer volume of work subsided into a trickle, but work was still produced. The Phantom Lady is one such novel. Like in his other works, Brown interlaces interesting social issues with fast-paced crime fiction that centers around a hyper-heterosexual private detective. In this case, as in The Sometime Wife, Brown peoples the novel with homosexual characters, peppering the narrative with misamatorisms (pejorative terms for homosexuals), but the work can be read both as a product of a misamatorist world, and as a critique of such a world, depending on how one sees it.
The novel centers around one of Brown’s less-famous detectives (no Al Wheeler or Danny Boyd here) named Rick Holman. A talent agent named Sandy Parker hires Holman to look into the past of Alison Vaile, her client, and, spoiler alert, her lover, with the hopes of clearing up some questionable events that are impeding a commercial deal worth $250 000 (which in 1980 was worth a little more than it is now). Holman takes the job and, as is the case with the detectives in many of Brown’s novels, gets to see several naked women and has intercourse with several of them. The issues at hand, from the perspective of a queer theory reading, concern the use of pejorative terms for homosexuals amators, be it for the women described with a homograph for a contraption designed to hold back water, or for the men described with a term that is also slang for cigarettes in Britain. Such misamatorisms are littered throughout.
There presentation of homosexuals amators within the novel is also problematic. A man, ostensibly a homosexual, though this is never explicitly stated, is employed as an enforcer by a man running a prostitution ring. Like the antagonist in the film Irreversible, this man is a sadist who beats women. There is also a bisexual woman whose principles are questionable. She has neither empathy nor solidarity for people who might share the same ‘tastes’ as she (be they snails or oysters). In fact, she helps heterosexual criminals in blackmailing Vaile after documenting on film the pleasures she takes in women whilst ‘high on dope’. Apparently Brown thinks smoking pot makes you unable to recognize a camera crew filming you as you perform cunnilingus on another woman. I’m guessing Brown was a straight edger. Regardless, a bisexual woman is willing to assist a heterosexual blackmailer referred by an
homosexual amatorist woman. Is Brown suggesting that these characters lack moral fiber? Such suggestion reinforces negative stereotypes of people who don’t share a heterosexual approach to love making. Even the novel’s victims, Parker and Vaile, demonstrate a conniving approach as they manipulate Holman into taking on a highly dangerous case, then fail to give him information crucial to handling it.
But we are only halfway through the narrative. It is important to note that the key antagonist of the novel is a heterosexual male. Not to be outdone by amators, individuals of the heterosexual persuasion engage in Machiavellian pursuits throughout the novel. It is not just the amators who embrace vice, but the heterosexuals as well. Eddie Braun, for example, is not only a panderer of women; he is also a blackmailer (of heterosexuals and amators alike). There is also the complacent and complicit Duane Larsen, who is more concerned with his career than with the safety of the women he is blackmailed into hiring out for sex. He is a self-medicating alcoholic who pronounces an instantly classic maxim: “It makes for a lousy world when you see it sober.” There is also a ginger red-headed man named Pete who may draw the ire of ginger sympathizers from the ACLU by portraying red-headed people as villainous and self-serving. On a side note, if a film adaptation were made of this novel, Louis C.K. would certainly fit the bill physically for Pete. These characters are essentially amoral. None of them have objections to homosexuality amatorism in principle, rather, they have an understanding the social prejudices and hope to turn a profit on them. Because Braun hires an amatour as his muscle, and is also involved with a bisexual woman, it is clear he has not personal issues with same-sex love. Rather, he is simply willing to take advantage of the social stigma. His vice is avarice, demonstrating that in such contexts, it is the social values that are the issue, both in terms of the stigma placed on amatours and the excessive value put on economics in a capitalist society. The pandering of women, for example, is an exclusively heterosexual phenomenon in the novel, and one that is encouraged in capitalist society.
The novel ultimately offers a didactic moral lesson at the end, and does so in truly postmodern fashion. After Holman uncovers the blackmail, and all guilty parties are left dead on the ground, he delivers the incriminating video to Parker and Vaile, and though he himself has used misamatourist expressions throughout the novel and sought to emasculate others with such rhetoric (I couldn’t hope to count the number of times he employs the misamatourist “F” word to insult others), he comes to realize amatourist love as legitimate love stating that a “close relationship is a close relationship, regardless of the sexes of the people involved.” Parker replies: “Is that your profound thought of the week?” She clearly doesn’t feel like she needs the approval of a heterosexual male and couldn’t care less that she now has his approval and understanding. She requires his approval no more than he requires hers, and so mocks the didactic moral offered by the protagonist.
Though the characters are amatours in many instances, the sex presented is, unfortunately, strictly heterosexual. The intimate scenes between Vaile and Parker or Vaile and ‘Gloria LaVerne’ are not described in any detail. The male heterosexual reader (and perhaps some female ones as well), will likely be at least a little bit satisfied with some of the ‘intimate’ scenes. There are some gems in here, such as when Holman walks sees Sylvia Madden naked: “Her full breasts stood free, contemptuously ignoring gravity”. ‘Contemptuously ignoring gravity’? BRILLIANT!!!! Then there is the description of a topless escort’s breasts: “Her breasts were full and deep, the coral-colred nipples large and semi-tumescent.” Such a great vocabulary for such a perverted mind. Reminds me of somebody I know. By the end of the novel Holman is about the ‘bed’ his third conquest of the novel.
As is the case with novels that portray a heavy, hyper-hetero narrative, amatours are not the only marginalized group to be subject to demeaning language and problematic plot points that promote stereotypes: woman are also marginalized by some of the characters in the novel. One woman, Julie, who is working as an escort for the novel’s villainous panderer, is described by Larsen as a ‘two-bit whore’ (though in actuality her services cost $600 a week), and is later, as she makes breakfast for Holman, referred to by the detective (who had ‘bedded’ her the night before) as a “goldplated bitch”. I’m still trying to determine if that was meant as a compliment, or as an insult. Needless to say, such language is problematic at best, but the author does not prescribe such language, he merely describes it.
Brown, though, does not offer this as the only presentation of women in the novel, as he allows them to define themselves and demonstrate a full range of characteristics. Parker and Vaile, for example, are bright enough to compel Holman to do their dirty work for them. Madden is able to manipulate Holman as well and get her personal gratification from him at the same time. A secretary, Liz Moody, who is assumed to be a red-headed incarnation of the ‘ditzy blonde’ stereotype, is soon discovered to be quite bright once her boss is out of hearing distance, explaining that boss “fired his last secretary because he figured she was too smart”. This demonstrates not only the ingenuity of Moody (who also offers a contrasting view of gingers red-headed people that contrasts the iniquitous Pete), but also demonstrates the failing of men who fear intelligent women, thus demonstrating the social currents that intelligent women must navigate.
Ultimately the work serves as an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek example of the aged crime-fiction novel, replete with anachronistic biases, entertaining clichés and the gorgeous women and sexual escapades that are staples of Brown’s detective novels. It is a guilty pleasure, but one with a rich cornucopia of socially charged content that can be read critically if the reader wishes to do so, or simply enjoyed for the fun and entertaining narrative that it is.