Wade Miller’s Branded Woman: The Feminist Crime Novel?

branded womanIf there was ever a feminist detective novel before contemporary novelists like Megan Abbott started to reinvent the genre, Branded Woman is it.  The novel, accredited to ‘Wade Miller’, was actually co-authored by two men: Robert Allison Wade and H. Bill Miller (I will refer to them as the singular ‘Miller’ for the sake of this review).  The writing team was responsible for the more famous work, Badge of Evil, which was adapted by Orson Wells into his classic film Touch of Evil (thank you Wikipedia), celebrated for its opening sequenceBranded Woman, though, is a departure from the androcentric realm of the typical detective novel.  It centers on a female protagonist, Cay, who has run in questionable circles.  As a result of some smuggling done in a territory run by an enigmatic crime boss known as ‘The Trader’,  Cay has been branded with a scar across her forehead in the shape of a ‘T’, or as ‘Miller’ describes it, a decapitated cross.  She spends five years plotting her revenge and the novel describes the apex of that journey.  Though not an ideal feminist narrative, Branded Woman does present a progressive view of women in that a beautiful woman does not allow herself to be defined by her looks, but rather by her intellect and resourcefulness, while detailing the most productive relationships she has as non-sexual in nature.  Miller describes a number of scenes where Cay presents herself as equal to, or even superior to, the men around her, creating a well-rounded, non-sexualized female protagonist that even Vaerie Solanas would love.


brandedwomanupdatedCay hires a private detective named Hodd to assist her in tracking down The Trader, and Miller uses their relationship to challenge conventional male/female relations.  After acting paternally, Hodd is instructed by Cay to not “act so damn fatherly”.  When Hodd sees a man follow Cay into the bathroom, he initially thinks she “would handle him” herself, and rather than chastise him for being late in helping her, thanks him for thinking she is capable. She even chastises him for being too timid, placing him in what would be considered, by patriarchal standards, the ‘feminine’ realm, with Cay sitting atop the ‘masculine’ realm.  They key aspect of the relationship is set out by Cay, who expresses gratefulness for the fact that Hodd “seemed to have no intentions of trying to paw at her”.  This is a far cry from the typical, hypersexualized relationships between private detectives and woman in hetero/androcentric crime fiction.  The relationship is strictly professional and devoid of any sexual connotation.  This is reinforced when Cay is negotiating the terms of her relationship with Walt, a man she becomes romantically involved with.  When he coddles her, she tells him not to “treat [her] as a nice soft stat-at-home toy.”  Clearly Cay has no intention of playing the damsel in distress, the sex kitten, or the conquest.  She seeks to define her relationships on her own terms and does not fit in with clichéd presentations of femininity common in detective fiction.



The Tiger's Wife, another novel by Wade Miller.

The Tiger’s Wife, another novel by Wade Miller.

Aside from reformatting the male/female dynamic, Miller also lampoons the masculine perception of women.  When Hodd informs Cay that he is a good shot, Cay decides against telling him that she was known as a bandit in some circles, allowing him to maintain his misguided notions on femininity.  Later Cay notes that “most men… could see women only in the half role of passivity, never as positive or active factors”.  Hodd is not the only example of this.  When Cay takes on a Walt, who (spoiler alert) it later turns out is The Trader as a lover, she notes, after suggesting a sexual encounter with no commitment, that perhaps “it’s too cruel a game for a man”.  This reverses the role of masculine sexual predator and suggests that it is the men who are too weak to handle indifferent sexual encounters and have emotional attachment issues.  Later, Walt tells Cay that men “are bound up in their strength, women in their beauty.  That’s the way of nature”, suggesting that patriarchal prescriptions are merely a reflection of nature.  At the novel’s apex, after Cay recounts how she had received flowers, Walt observes that she is all “female emotion and no reason”.  Both these observations on the part of Walt prove ironic.  He relegates Cay to the realm of the physical in terms of her beauty, and does not acknowledge her strengths: fortitude and intellect.  Instead he suggests first that she is defined by her beauty, and then by her emotions.  It was not her emotions, though, that allowed her to uncover Walt’s ruse, but rather the male perception that women like flowers.  Ironically, it is this misconception which men adopt that allowed Cay to unpack the mystery. Her fortitude and intellect allow her to exact her revenge, whilst the flawed masculine misconceptions about women offer her clues and allow her a metaphorical camouflage.


The Killer, another novel by Wade Miller.

The Killer, another novel by Wade Miller.

Whilst demonstrating the misconceptions that patriarchy promotes concerning women, Miller simultaneously notes the negative perceptions men have harnessed in women.  Upon meeting Swan, another male figure in the narrative, Cay evaluates him and notes that, as “for villainy, he exhibited less than what she considered the male average.”  This places men in the role of presumed villain, understandable considering how Cay has been treated by them.  When Swan needs to be lured into a trap later, Cay seduces him, both with her ‘feminine charms’ and the promise of wealth.  The omnipresent narrators notes: “Lust and greed; the double-barreled appeal overcame his caution”.  Here Swan is accurately perceived as a man who would allow lust and greed to override his common sense.  Not a flattering portrayal of men, and not one that would suggest that men are intellectually superior to women.  The man is situated as the one who cannot control his desires, rather than the woman.  Of course, the title of the novel is crucial in defining the perception of men.  Cay is branded with the letter ‘T’, and explains that The Trader looks upon her as property.  This suggests that men are perceived as defining their relationships with women in terms of property.  There is no emotive equilibrium between men and women, only that of oppressor and oppressed, owner and property, and Cay’s journey is one that seeks to relieve her of this construct.


South of the Sun, also by Wade Miller.

South of the Sun, also by Wade Miller.

It is not strictly patriarchy that is attacked here, but capitalism as well.  When ‘The Trader’ is explaining his actions to Cay, he notes that she first came into his life and that he “had to take steps to protect the all-important self.”  This is a capitalist mentality.  The Trade sought to protect his own interests, and so viewed all competition as ‘other’, or as an enemy.  He responded in kind.  When Cay meets up with D’Hereau (a former associate of The Trader), she learns that though he and The Trader are at odds, they share a similar ideology, as D’Hereau prescribes that “Integrity should never interfere with income.”  It is not surprising that, with such similar philosophies, The Trader and D’Hereau find themselves at a discord, since capitalism turns everything into a competition.  The devaluing of integrity and virtue in place of avarice only serves to demonstrate the flawed nature of the capitalist system.


Kiss Her Goodbye, by Wade Miller.

Kiss Her Goodbye, by Wade Miller.

Surprisingly it is a minor character named Felix who may serve as the moral center of the novel.  Whilst the likes of D’Hereau and The Trader embrace avarice, and Cay serves vengeance, Felix seems to be the voice of reason, stating that “None of us flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.”  Cay places men, understandably, in the category of enemy.  The Trader and D’Hereau do the same in regards to anybody who may infringe upon their profits, an approach that is in keeping with Swan and his wife Concha.  None of these people ‘flourish’ by the end of the novel, not even the protagonist who gets what she wants.  Felix suggests breaking the barriers of constructs and trusting one another, prophetically noting that an ‘atmosphere of suspicion and distrust’ benefits nobody.


Wade Miller's Stolen Woman.

Wade Miller’s Stolen Woman.

Though the novel is forwarding thinking in terms of sex/gender, it is problematic in terms of perceived race, most notably in the presentation of Swan’s wife Concha.  She is described, not as beautiful, but rather, as possessing “animal handsomeness”.  Her swarthy complexion and its beauty is defined in animalist terms, which is problematic in that it encourages an animalist categorization for people of colour.  Concha’s beauty, in the context of Cay’s ‘white’ beauty, falters according to the omnipresent narrator who notes that Concha’s becomes a “heavy creature, course and lowborn” next to “white-sheathed blondeness” of Cay.  Again, rather than humanistic terms, Concha is described as a ‘creature’ that is inferior, not next to Cay’s beauty, but next to Cay’s whiteness.  The terminology is dehumanizing, and the juxtaposition reinforced the perception the people with a paler skin tone are superior.



Nightmare Cruise, by Wade Miller.

Nightmare Cruise, by Wade Miller.

Miller takes the time to explore some elements of rape culture as well, though that term is perhaps applied anachronistically to the novel.  In one scene, Cay wake up on a boat after being drugged, with Walt at the helm.  He assures her that he has not done anything to her whilst she was unconscious saying: “You don’t know what a hell of a time I had keeping my hands off of you”.  This contextualizes rape as an innate or biological urge, which is problematic, but also demonstrates that, biological or not, it can be suppressed.  Cay responds by asking: “You’re not asking me to let that pass for love, are you?”  This questions how one should view such inaction.  Inaction seems to be positioned as an act of virtue, almost one that Walt expects a reward for, or at least a show of gratitude.  The absence of an act is not virtue in and of itself, but merely the absence of vice.  Is one the same as the other?  The scene is interesting, but is ultimately undermined by the fact that Walt turns out to be (spoiler alert) The Trader, who has no respect for Cay’s autonomy.


Wade Miller's The Girl From Midnight.

Wade Miller’s The Girl From Midnight.

The book is an entertaining narrative with some progressive and interesting, if at time problematic, commentary of social issue.  The antagonist is an enigmatic existentialist, rejecting the past and defining himself in the present. When Cay says she must confess her past to him, he responds: “What’s a past?”  This is a sharp contrast with Cay who is defined by her past.  There are also interesting philosophical scenarios.  In one scene Cay notes that her “outfit’s warmth was uncomfortable now but that would prove a virtue on sea at night.”  This speaks to how a specific item can be a detriment in one context, and a virtue in another, which suggests that other virtues we hold might in turn be injurious to us when placed in another context, encouraging a constant re-evaluation of what we hold as important in life.  With nuggets like these, a fast-paced narrative with colourful characters, and some interesting social commentary, Branded Woman makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.


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Footnote: Many of the images from this review were borrowed from here.

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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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