Gender, Race, Capitalism and the Environment in Carter Brown’s Wheeler, Dealer!

carterbrownwheelrdealerCarter Brown’s novel Wheeler, Dealer! (yes, there is an exclamation mark in the title) is one of the last novels featuring Brown’s detective Al Wheeler (yes, the title is a pun on the protagonist’s name).  Most of the Al Wheeler novels came out in the 50’s and 60’s.  This title was published in 1975, under a very different social climate than its predecessors.  Brown (also known as Geoffrey Alan Yates) had introduced a new detective named Rick Holman in the 70’s, who was a little more in touch with the hedonistic debauchery of the mid-late 70’s and early 80’s, but for this narrative, Brown felt the need to draw on one of his favorite detectives from the past.  As is the case with many of Brown’s novels, the works serves as a descriptive piece that highlights a number of social issues, including gender issues, rape culture, issues of perceived race, ecocriticism, and there is even an instance of paratext that serves to demonstrate the influence of capitalism on literature.

 

By 1975, when 'Wheeler, Dealer!' was published, Signet Books have moved away from the illustrated covers which Brown's early novels were famous for.

By 1975, when ‘Wheeler, Dealer!’ was published, Signet Books have moved away from the illustrated covers which Brown’s early novels were famous for.

Many of Brown’s novels invoke the male gaze, and Wheeler, Dealer! is no exception, but what makes it especially problematic is its context within an assault.  Wheeler describes, in detail, the women he interacts with.  Of one he says: “her bottom was beautiful—deeply rounded with a kind of upthrust that confounded gravity.”  In this instance the description is relatively harmless, but in the context of an earlier scene, it becomes problematic.  After Wheeler discovers a young secretary, Faye, who has been stripped, bound and gagged, he takes particular pleasure in leering at the exposed body.  When untying her, he allows his hand to ‘slip’ so as to allow it to touch her bare skin.  This is repeated in a later scene where a person of interest who Wheeler is interviews refers to a young woman, Lulubelle, who is staying at his house an “insolent bitch” and pulls her panties down in front of Wheeler, forcing ice cubes into her panties as a reprimand for trying to get a drink when he instructed her not to.  Wheeler, who was about to leave, opts not to intervene in what he suspects to be an act of abuse stating: “I changed my mind about leaving… Lulubelle’s delectable bottom was exposed in all its ripe glory, and I’m always a man to appreciate a work of art.”  Wheeler shows an utter disinterest in assisting the woman, and instead becomes complicit in the victimization by enjoying the fruits of both assaults (though the latter turns out to be a sexual game between the couple).

 

 

Carter Brown

Carter Brown

After Faye’s assault, Wheeler offers to drive her home, but instead of taking her directly home, or to the police station to question her, he brings her to his apartment with the hopes of seducing her.  Faye’s response, needless to say, cannot be described as receptive.  Wheeler is the prototypical fool who believes that rescuing a woman from rape is going to get her so wet that she’ll be unable to resist the advances of her ‘hero’.  This, obviously, is not how it works out.  One is far more likely to have a drink thrown in their face than be rewarded for such a proposal at such a time.  Wheeler concedes after he is rebuked that the “whole concept of seduction whimpered, then died inside [his] mind.”  It likely should have died before he vocalized it.  He doesn’t seem to learn, though, as he goes onto say: “My timing had been lousy, I admitted to myself. So maybe another day?”  Another day?  Seriously?  You just tried fucking a girl that, for all she knows, was about to get rape an hour prior.  Who says romance is dead?  Al Wheeler does!

 

With titles like 'Lament For A Lousy Lover', it is clear that many of Brown's novels were filled with characters defined by sex.

With titles like ‘Lament For A Lousy Lover’, it is clear that many of Brown’s novels were filled with characters defined by sex.

But like Arthurian heroes, Wheeler is full of contradiction as he seems to be very much opposed to rape culture in another scene.  When questioning a woman, Corinne, she propositions him.  She asks him if he is like all other men and feels that she owes him ‘something’ (Captain Obvious says: “I think the subtext implies that the ‘something’ is sexual intercourse”).  He believes that her offer is under duress and replies: “Sex under duress? It doesn’t grab me”.  He seems to respect her autonomy and does not wish to reap the reward of a perceived pressure she might feel to ‘perform’ for him.  Her response is to emasculate him by shouting: “Chicken!”  Brown creates a scenario where the female responses are just as varied as Wheeler’s moral code.  One woman throws alcohol into his eyes for trying, another emasculates him for not trying.

 

Some of Carter Brown's 'cover girls' were slim hipped.

Some of Carter Brown’s ‘cover girls’ were slim hipped.

Though Brown’s characters are usually eager to climb under the sheets when the opportunity avaisl itself, they often spurn sex as well, and when they do, they are often emasculated.  In Wheeler, Dealer! Brown uses such a scene to explore concepts of gender performance.  A young woman, Corinne’s sister Anita, comes onto Wheeler: he rejects her.  Her response, like her sister’s, is to emasculate him.  She asks: “So maybe I’m not your type?  You prefer them with big boobs, and a fat ass”.  This demonstrates the irony of current notions of beauty.  With many obsessing over weight and the fashion industry prescribing terms like ‘plus-size’ to describe models who aren’t waif thin, it is interesting to see that women 40 years ago were faced with the opposite problem: they didn’t have enough curves.  This demonstrates how notions of beauty are almost entirely constructs, as are notions of femininity.  Biologically, nature creates men and women with forms that are sometimes similar.  In Anita’s case, she is slim-hipped, much like Edward Albee’s Honey in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.  She assumes that her figure is Wheeler’s reason for refusing sex, proposing/asking that if “a girl has a kind of boyish figure and you like it, it means you’re a latent homosexual, or something?”  This scene serves to put forward several questions, but most importantly it torpedoes the notion that sexual preference is a question of morality.  Being attracted to a woman with a ‘boyish’ figure would be, by the letter of the ‘law’ (or rather Leviticus 20:13), perfectly moral, yet there are women whose figures are more ‘masculine’ than others and that being attracted to such figures is not unnatural or immoral.  Therefore, being attracted to like figures present in the opposite sex would be just as likely.

 

 

Pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren often employed gender performance in their paintings.

Pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren often employed gender performance in their paintings.

Later in the novel, Brown demonstrates that it is not the physical form that his protagonist is attracted to: the sex, but rather the performance of gender. A woman named Martha comes onto Wheeler, offering to cook him dinner and thereby performing part of the patriarchal prescription of femininity, which places women squarely in the domestic sphere.  When Wheeler arrives for dinner he discovers that Martha is provocatively dressed in a maid’s outfit, a tact she employs twice in the novel.  This further reinforces the domestic role, a role which stands in stark contrasts to Martha’s position in society as she is independently wealthy.  A woman who has power, then, has to create the illusion of submissiveness.  When she asks Wheeler if he has sex on his mind, Wheeler replies:  “With you in that outfit I’d have to be a fag, or something, not to have sex on my mind.”  Though misamatorist words like ‘fag’ are heavy and weigh down the work, the sentence is important for two reasons.  Not only does it reinforce the emasculation of men who do not indulge in sexual acts and/or fantasies by using a pejorative term to emasculate such men, but it also demonstrates that femininity and masculinity are performances by focusing on the outfit being worn, rather than the actual body.  Wheeler does not note that it is Martha’s body that inspires sexual thoughts, but rather the ‘outfit’ that does.  The outfit is part of the performances of femininity, not a biological/natural manifestation of femininity, thereby defining femininity as a performance and not a biological reality.

 

Martha, Corrine and Anita, the women of 'Wheeler, Dealer!' serve as figures that challenge patriarchal norms as they each manipulate and control men, like this figure from a Gil Elvgren painting that juxtaposes a man with a dog.

Martha, Corrine and Anita, the women of ‘Wheeler, Dealer!’ serve as figures that challenge patriarchal norms as they each manipulate and control men, like this figure from a Gil Elvgren painting that juxtaposes a man with a dog.

Though detective novelists like Raymond Chandler have presented characters whose perceived race is something other than ‘Caucasian’, issues of perceived race does not often in many detective novels.  Wheeler, Dealer!, though, is one of the rare Brown novels that does address the issue of perceived race, and also links it with notions of nationality.  The Martha character has a servant of Asian descent.  His name is Sammy Wong, but she simply calls him Charlie, after Charlie Chan, demonstrating how she embraces archetypes and stereotypes, and refusing to even learn his name as it is easier to stereotype a group than learn about an individual.  She tells Wheeler her reasons for calling Sammy ‘Charlie’, and Wheeler sarcastically mocks her insensitivity, saying: “I bet he laughs at that all the time”.  When Wheeler later refers to Sammy as Charlie, Sammy says:  “She told you what she calls me?  Real cute, huh?” before going onto note that he is an “an inscrutable oriental”, and mockingly asking: “Can’t you tell, just by looking?”  Sammy demonstrates an ironic understanding of the ‘oriental’ stereotype, but Brown’s character subverts this further as Sammy notes that he is a “third generation American, and if anybody talks Chinese to [him, he has to] have… get [his] grandmother… translate.”  This demonstrates the severity of the gap between the stereotypes and the individuals, while also illustrating how even after generations in a country, one’s appearance can, for close-minded people, erase a person’s nationality and define them as ‘foreign’.  Brown’s protagonist, though, does not embrace such a mindset.  Later in the novel, when Sammy lets him into Martha’s house, he says “Sammy Wong opened the door”, not ‘Charlie’, recognizing Sammy’s identity and preferring it to the stereotype.

 

Brown's 'cover girls', like his characters, lacked diversity (unless you consider featuring redheads, brunettes and blondes 'diversity'), but 'Wheeler, Dealer!' does have at least one character whose perceived race is something other than 'Caucasian'.

Brown’s ‘cover girls’, like his characters, lacked diversity (unless you consider featuring redheads, brunettes and blondes ‘diversity’), but ‘Wheeler, Dealer!’ does have at least one character whose perceived race is something other than ‘Caucasian’.

Capitalism also plays a role in the novel and is linked with ecocriticism.  When one company plans to ‘reclaim’ a swamp area, an “ecology group started a great scream about destroying the bird life”.  The company hired a public relations firm, however, and “gave [the ecology group] a couple of acres as a sanctuary… and the money to help them run it”.  The group seemed surprised and accepted the terms.  The scenario establishes the motivations for destroying the environment are based on profit, and that even those who seek to protect the environment can sometimes be bought off.  It also demonstrates that those who destroy the environment can rationalize its destruction by promoting other environmental causes, not realizing that they are all interlinked and that whatever good they do is subverted by the damage they cause.  This is an especially important issue today with companies able to pay carbon taxes that allow them to pollute the environment under the pretense that they carbon tax will be used to preserve the environment.  The environment, in Brown’s estimation, takes a back seat to economics.

Both sides of the Kent ad that serve as a part of the paratext in Brown's 'Wheeler, Deal!'

Both sides of the Kent ad that serve as a part of the paratext in Brown’s ‘Wheeler, Deal!’

The environment is not the only thing that economics trump as the literature itself is also usurped by economics.  In the middle of the novel, a high-gloss advertisement breaks up the narrative.  This piece of paratext is an ad for Kent cigarettes.  It reads “Come for the filters… …you’ll stay for the taste.”  The page on which the ad is placed is not only in colour, but also printed on a thicker page.  The juxtaposition between it and the text’s pages are interesting as the ad is actually more costly than the pages of the novel, suggesting that, for some at least, the value is not in the pages, but in the ad.  The bottom of the ad also has a warning “The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous To Your Health”.  This serves as another form of juxtaposition that demonstrates that economics comes ahead of the well-being of the consumer.  Capitalists are more concerned with making money than improving the lives of the people the profit from.  By encouraging consumers to ‘stay for the taste’, the advertisers are hoping that those reading the ad will place immediate gratification over their long-term health, and interesting aspiration, and one that is especially disheartening considering that it likely worked.  This piece of paratext seems especially out of place since nobody even smokes in the narrative.  There are many detective novels that featured chain-smoking sleuths.  Brown’s Wheeler is not one such detective.  Most instances of paratext are simply additions to the text, such as page numbers, titles, publishers’ names.  Some believe that the art work on the book’s cover, and other instances of paratext, cane change the meaning of a book, or how it is received.  This is certainly the case here as the ad transforms the book from something meant to be read, to something that is essentially a delivery mechanism for a cigarette ad.

 

Another of the infamous Carter Brown illustrated covers.  They also serve as interesting examples of paratext.

Another of the infamous Carter Brown illustrated covers. They also serve as interesting examples of paratext.

When looking at the work in the context of other Carter Brown novels, and even other Al Wheeler novels, the narrative does not hold up.  It is entertaining and will likely satiate and fan of detective fiction from the era, but it will not leave them with the impression that they have read a masterpiece of the genre.  The work though, as is the case with many of Brown’s novels, serves as an interesting record of the social practices of the times, using a descriptive approach to catalogue social issues concerning gender, sex, perceived race, economics and, to a lesser extent, the environment.  The work is an enjoyable read, and can be fun to analyze should a reader care to take the time to do so.

 

If you are curious to read more about Carter Brown’s novels, feel free to check out my reviews of Remember Maybelle Until Temptation Do Us Part, The Phantom Lady, The Corpse, The Sometimes Wife, The Body, and The Aseptic Murders.
And be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

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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