Descriptive Detective Fiction: Carter Brown’s Remember Maybelle?

carterbrownrememebermaybelleCarter Brown’s hetero/androcentric detective novels make a habit of embracing a heterosexual male fantasy, and as he progressed in life, Brown’s novels shifted.  Where once there was a series of titillating tales that tease, often only flirting with fornication before the detective narrative usurps the nascent of sex scenes that featured Al Wheeler and Danny Boyd, Brown saw fit to introduce Rick Holman and insert material the reads as if it should have started with the words “Dear Hustler”.  I imagine that this, in part, was meant to satiate not only his readers, but his publisher’s perception of his readers.  Remember Maybelle? Is a perfect case in point.  Filled with erotic scenes that could be used as the basis for a pornographic film, the work seems, on the surface, to be not much more than masturbatorial material.  If the work was strictly erotica dressed as a detective novel, it would not satisfy, even in that context.  But the work is more than that.  It serves as hyper-reality, or rather hyper-fantasy, and in so doing, it demonstrates, through a descriptive approach, the inherent flaws in a number of social conventions, perhaps most prominently that of avarice, marriage, the objectification of women and rape culture.

 

Cater Brown (aka Alan Geoffrey Yates).

Cater Brown (aka Alan Geoffrey Yates).

The objectification of women is perhaps the most obvious issue at hand.  The protagonist, Rick Holman, is tasked by his ‘friend’ Craig Forrest, to uncover some photos that Forrest is being blackmailed with.  Crystal, a beautiful young woman who is apparently being used as Forrest’s sex servant, is present when Holman arrives at Forrest’s home.  Upon speaking with Holman, Forrest offers to throw a romp with Crystal in as part of his payment.  There are elements of a ‘crisis in masculinity’ here.  Holman seems opposed to a woman’s body being offered without her consent, so he turns down Forrest’s. Crystal promptly drops a misamatorist slur on Holman, and when he assures her that he is heterosexual, she tells him that she feels insulted.  Rather than being thanked for respecting her autonomy, he is emasculated and then told that he insulted her.  Forrest, of course, has no issues with this and dehumanizes women by telling Holman that Crystal is the “reigning queen of all the bitches you ever met in the whole of your bitch-meeting life”.  This comes up again when Holman is reminiscing about Maybelle, a young woman who Forrest used for sex and then tossed away. She committed suicide, in part as a result of Forrest’s callousness, and when confronted with a suicide threat, Forrest indulges in ableist and misogynist terms, call her a “crazy bitch”.  In using a term for a female dog, Forrest dehumanizes and devalues Crystal and Maybelle, and women in general, defining them in animalist terms.

 

 

Margaret Avison

Margaret Avison

Crystal, though, is not your passive sex kitten.  She is a femme fatale.  Later in the novel, she shows up at Holman’s home and seduces him.  She admits that when she was told to leave the room because there was “man talk”, she eavesdropped on the conversation, demonstrating how she refuses to adopt patriarchal prescriptions for behaviours.  She also inverts the objectification that seems inherent in the sex act.  She tells Holman that all men mean to her is “another prick added to [her] collection” and goes onto describe men as “specimens for [her] collection”.  The term specimen comes up several times and is reinforced by Crystal’s simile about sex: “This is the way I collect most of my specimens.  Pinned down like a butterfly while I have my own enjoyment.”  This employs a scientific rhetoric, reminiscent of Margaret Avison’s poem ‘Butterfly Bones’, invokes a realm which is prescribed by patriarchy as masculine, but one which Crystal seems to have invaded and employed for her own ends.  Likewise, Crystal invades the realm of art.  Whereas men more commonly made women the object of their art, Crystal tells the story of a woman who used to make plaster moulds of her lover’s penises.  At the end of their tryst, two men enter the home and proceed to beat Holman.  They are working for Crystal and are somehow involved in the blackmail case.  Crystal is in complete control all along.  She is not being objectified, but rather, is the one doing the objectification.  Though polarizing the issue does not solve it, Crystal represents the metaphorical social pendulum swinging back, perhaps too far, in order to correct itself.  She is strong, independent, sexually confident and refuses to adopt prescribed concepts regarding sex.  Though not an ideal feminist character, she does present some interesting feminist readings and challenges gender prescriptions.

 

Consider this post a belated Christmas present, in place of the corpse that Carter Brown gifted to one of his characters.

Consider this post a belated Christmas present, in place of the corpse that Carter Brown gifted to one of his characters.

While Crystal seems to break from the mould of passive sex servant, the male gaze is still very much a part of the narrative.  Even the protagonist, who seems to be the moral center of the novel, has no problem cataloging women whilst simultaneously fanaticizing about them.  When Holman meets Forrest’s blackmailer, Yvonne Prentice, he describes her body in fantastically eroticized detail, noting that her “breasts were full and jutted proudly with no trace of sag” and notes that the “bulge between her legs would have fitted nicely in the palm of [his] cupped hand”, before going onto note that his “pussy-tickling finger… twitched”.  Holman does more to humanize breasts, attributing pride to them, than he sometimes does to humanize women.  Later, after having copulated with Crystal, Holman notes that he “lay there, admiring the juxtaposition of [his] shaft against her face”, suggesting that it is only in the context of the sex act that a woman’s beauty has value.  Such passages are packed in the book, and not all are flattering.  When stepping into a strip club, Holman notes that waitresses were “bearing noticeable stretchmarks” that sagged.  It is clear that the male perspective is positioned as one that is all-too dependent on the physicality of the world around them, and not enough on the content.

 

With titles like "The Girl Who Was Possessed", it is clear that women are often viewed in terms of commodities in Carter Brown novels.

With titles like “The Girl Who Was Possessed”, it is clear that women are often viewed in terms of commodities in Carter Brown novels.

The elements of rape culture are perhaps the most troubling aspects of the novel, though if read under the pretense that they are part of a descriptive approach, they can offer some interesting insights into patriarchal biases.  When Holman sees Crystal arrive at his home in a provocative outfit, he wonders how taxi driver “hadn’t raped her on the way” and then postulates that said taxi driver had either already raped several women that day and was tired out, or that Crystal had willing engaged in intercourse with him.  The underlining assumption that a scantily clad woman would be assumed to have been raped for going out in public in revealing clothes is more than a little troubling.  This is reinforced later when, after dinner, Holman describes Crystal as a great cook and notes that she even clears the dishes, but while “this kind of domesticity was fine”, if she “came back into the living room afterward and started knitting, [he] was going to rape her right there on the floor”. Juxtaposing a character who passively enjoys and accepts the spoils of a domesticated woman, with such brutal and casual rape fantasies, suggests a link between the domestication of women and rape, or at the very least, suggests a link between patriarchal values and rape culture.  In relegating women to the metaphorical kitchen and enjoying the fruits of their domestication, we embrace and facilitate open oppression, which in turn supports rape culture.

 

Brown's titles often define women by how they are perceived, rather than their actual values or characteristics.

Brown’s titles often define women by how they are perceived, rather than their actual values or characteristics.

Part in parcel to this is Brown’s attack on marriage.  In the novel there are several marriages and proposed marriages, most of them based on a relationship of exploitation, often times motivated by avarice.  Crystal, though having a number of trysts with a number of men, is actually (spoiler alert) married to Benny Lucas.  Both are concerned with maintaining the marriage, but both partners are engaging in extramarital affairs.  This suggests that the marriage is either not based on love, or that monogamous relationships are not natural.  Either way, the traditional marriage is challenged here.  Louis Friedman, one of the antagonists, suggests a marriage between himself and the recently (spoiler alert) widowed Crystal, though he does not concern himself with her consent.  He assumes his wealth and power gives him a right to Crystal.  Likewise, Prentice attempts to blackmail Forrest into marriage so that she can enjoy being married to a celebrity.  She has no concern for what Forrest wants.  In both instances the proposers of these marriages do not wish to marry for love, but to satisfy their own desires and are more than happy to put their matrimonial partners in a position of submission and domination.  Marriage, in this case, serves as institutionalized prostitution at best, and in all practicality, institutionalized rape in practice.  Such an approach to marriage challenges our perceptions of marriage and challenges our blind acceptance of traditional marriages. Instead, it suggest we evaluate relationships, not based on whether or not they conform socially prescribe material conditions, but rather on the content of their emotive connection.  So long as such relationships are rooted in genuine affection, as opposed to the avarice and oppression that defined the marriages presented by Brown, this both presentation of marriage helps to promote common-law relationships, which at the time would have been viewed as ‘sinful’, and same-sex relationship as no less than equal to and perhaps higher than traditional marriage.

 

 

Brown puts the flaws of patriarchy on display, demonstrating how women are defined by the physical attributes, like hair colour, rather than the  content of their character.

Brown puts the flaws of patriarchy on display, demonstrating how women are defined by the physical attributes, like hair colour, rather than the content of their character.

The novel works to challenge, or at the very least document, several social issues, not the least of which is the implication of patriarchal gender roles, especially in terms of the oppression of women and the promotion of rape culture.  Brown accomplishes this through his depiction of marriages, the male gaze, and Holman’s brutal banality toward issue like rape and sexual harassment.  The book is entertaining in parts, and though some of the descriptions of the male gaze and sex scenes are laughably sensational, while simultaneously overtly offensive, the book is nevertheless enjoyable in many respects, both as a piece of crime fiction, and as a piece of erotica for a warp, androcentric, heterosexual male.  That, however, is not where the value of the novel lies.  Rather, its value lies in its documentation, be it intentional or otherwise, of oppressive androcentric, heterosexual fantasies.  Women in the novel succumb to sexual harassment, act as nyphmos, include men in lesbian affairs, or are in dire need to become subordinate to a man and embrace domesticity.  These are all problematic scenarios, but all serve to provide insight into the way in which patriarchy warps the human psyche.

 

If you are curious to read more about Carter Brown’s novels, feel free to check out my reviews of Until Temptation Do Us Part, The Phantom Lady, The Corpse, The Sometimes Wife, The Body, and The Aseptic Murders.

Rambler About Rambler

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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