Pardon My Body: The American Detective as an Arthurian Knight

pardonmybodyDale Bogard’s Pardon My Body is certainly not the prototype for the pinnacle of detective fiction, but it is a work that approaches the genre with a few unique qualities that make it worth taking a look at.  Unlike many of the detective novels from the pulp era that rely on sex in the narrative, Bogard’s work is utterly devoid of sexual content, aside from a couple of allusions, though the cover art and title don’t seem to project such a celibate approach to storytelling.  The narrator does adopt chauvinistic views, though he avoids crossing over into misogyny (if you are of the mind that the two are not mutually inclusive), and when the protagonist offers views that would be considered less forward thinking in terms of gender roles, he is often quick to concede that he is ‘old fashioned’, suggesting his ideas are outdated.  The narrative works in much the same way that a traditional Arthurian tale might work, only in place of a knight, there is a retired reporter turned amateur gumshoe, and instead of a maiden, there is a secretary. But the romantic notions mirror those of Arthurian romance, and so does  the structure of the plot, and though the work may not be innovative in terms of narrative, it is, at the very least, entertaining.

 

leadherBefore getting into the story, it is important to note that the edition I read, which was a 2009 reprint of the original 1951 publication, was edited by Harlequin Books.  The publishers claim that abuse of women and scenes which depicted attempted rape have been excluded from some of the re-prints, though it is unclear what has been taken out from which novels.  For me, this is essentially altering history.  I do have a problem with it.  It would be like removing the racial epitaphs from Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry FinnSome have called this a bowdlerization of the original text, and that seems like a fair assessment to me.  This is censorship, and I do not approve.  My review, then, is based on the assumption that the portions I did read were at least faithful reproductions of what the author originally wrote.  As to what is absent, I cannot speak to that.

 

 

Dale Bogard was like a faux Hunter S. Thompson.

Dale Bogard was like a faux Hunter S. Thompson.

It is important to look at the narrative approach.  The book is clearly fiction, but it is written in first person, and the novel’s protagonist happens to share the same name as the author.  It seems as though the author was attempting a kind of gonzo journalism before Hunter S. Thompson invented gonzo journalism.  The only problem, of course, is that the work is clearly fiction.  Bogard may have been a reporter, and he may have been 36, but he certainly did not participate in a chain of events like the ones that unfold in this novel.  That said, because the author intentionally blurs the lines between author and character, it becomes tempting to conflate the two.  Where most authors can absolve themselves of responsibility for their characters’ perspectives, Bogard links himself very closely with his protagonist. The character Bogard is not simply a mouth piece for Bogard, but becomes Bogard’s actual voice.  Though perhaps a stunt to encourage sales by confusing fact and fiction, like more recent authors such as James Frey did with his work A Million Little Pieces, it is more likely that Bogard was employing a tactic more along the lines of what Geoffrey Chaucer did in his work,The Canterbury Tales, where he used the same literary device to create a self-deprecating alter ego to shape the work.  Given the similarities with other medieval works, I’m more inclined to believe Bogard was taking Chaucer’s approach, and not Hunter S. Thompson’s journalistic immersion or James Frey’s fictional memoir.

Alternately, Bogard's approach to naming his protagonist after himself could be compared with Chaucer.

Alternately, Bogard’s approach to naming his protagonist after himself could be compared with Chaucer.

In the context of this tactic, the gender stereotypes Bogard uses become more interesting to look at through a feminist perspective.  Early in the novel, the protagonist turns down a date with a woman/former co-worker.  His reason is primarily because he doesn’t want to ‘talk shop’, but he is careful to note that it is not “that [he] hate[s] women”, but rather because he is simply “an old gripy sourpuss”.  It has been suggested that in medieval times, men chased women around until old age made them impotent.  Once they reached the age of impotence, they invested their time in writing about how horrid women were (sour grapes).  Here Bogard suggests that he is perhaps past the age where he is chasing women, but does not take the opportunity to bemoan his experiences with them.  Instead, he adopts a self-deprecating role that suggests the views of such men should not be taken seriously because they are by nature sour.  This role is reinforced when Bogard rescues an young woman named Julia Casson (who I don’t believe is a Christ figure even though American authors are famous for giving Christ figures the initials ‘J.C.’).  Upon lifting her up from the road on which she was lying, he observes that she was “quite a dish, but [he] wanted steak and mushrooms”.  This juxtaposition places women on a par with cattle that has been prepared as food, which is not a progressive view to say the least, but it also indicates that the Bogard character is disinterested in sex and far more interested in food.

 

Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered, and though there were many witnesses, nobody intervened or reported the homicide.

Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered, and though there were many witnesses, nobody intervened or reported the homicide.

After rescuing Casson, Bogard takes her to dinner, and it is here that his not-so-subtle chauvinism is moved along a little further.  Upon arriving at the table, Bogard fails to ask Casson what she might like, and instead orders for her (steak and mushrooms, of course).  Bogard also orders a cold steak “For the lady’s cheek”, which was swollen up from a beating she had taken, but Bogard offers another story to the waiter: “She fell over the washing machine at home.”  This narrative places Casson squarely in the domestic sphere, subverting the fact that she was actually taking a very active role in the public sphere when she received the bruise.  The scene also speaks to the lack of concern people show for women.  The bruise could have been attributed to domestic abuse, but nobody asks her about it, preferring to avoid conflict like the witnesses to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  As dinner progresses, Bogard watches Casson expertly smoke a cigarette before saying: “I think women ought to smoke like beginners, with a delicate cough or two”.  Here Bogard projects a construct onto Casson: an ideal behaviour he thinks women ought to employ.  At the end of this observation, though, he adds: “I’m an old-fashioned guy”.  Much like his ‘sourpuss’ comment, this confession negates the comment that precedes it as he contextualize such a construct as outdated and ‘old-fashioned’.

 

 

Dale Bogard's character uses figures such as Veronica Lake as a template against which he compares other women.

Dale Bogard’s character uses figures such as Veronica Lake as a template against which he compares other women.

As their conversation develops, we see that Casson is perhaps the more articulate of the too.  Bogard asks her: “What were you doing in the roadway just now?”  She responds simply with: “Lying there”, noting that his phrasing of the question was wrong and forcing him to acknowledge that he failed to offer the words that communicated his intended meaning.  As the conversation moves forward, Bogard says: “You look ravishing”.  Casson replies: “I like that word.”  This is a curious piece of dialogue.  The root of the word ‘ravishing’ is ‘ravish’, which is means to rape or take by force.  When telling a woman that she looks ‘ravishing’, then, one is essentially saying that she looks rapable.  The word, though, has shifted in meaning socially over the centuries: the word ‘ravish’ can be taken to mean ‘to take with passion’, and ‘ravishing’ is taken to mean something along the lines of ‘radiant’.  Still, the root of the word is troubling, and it seems odd that Casson would take the time to offer her approval of the word.  This is especially odd in that after she is questioned by police, a police officer notes that the men who assaulted her did not steal anything from her and didn’t “take any interest in [her] honour”, meaning they didn’t rape her.  It seems almost a slight to Casson that the men didn’t assault her sexually and that Bogard’s compliment soothed what rape culture might see as a bruised ego on the part of a potential victim.

 

Kate Upton might be a modern version of the pinup models of the 50's and 60's.

Kate Upton might be a modern version of the pinup models of the 50’s and 60’s.

Other gender constructs are dissected.  When Bogard enters a hotel lobby, he notices a girl and describes the young woman’s smile as an impression of “Miss Veronica Lake’s best pinup expression.”  Veronica Lake was a famous pinup model during the 1950s, when the book was authored, akin to today’s Kate Upton or Lucy Pinder.  That Bogard feels the need to frame this young woman’s appearance in this manner suggests that the prescribed notions of beauty presented in the media serve as a template against which men measure women.  Though this was still accepted practice at the time (and remains so today for many people), the fact that Bogard has contextualized himself as a man with an antiquated mindset, suggests that such an approach is likewise antiquated and outdated.  As he approaches the young woman, he notes that she “wore a low V-cut dress and leaned forward slightly in case I was interested.”  This idea that she had dressed to please whatever men she might encounter during the course of her day is another example of backward, chauvinistic mentalities, and because it is linked with Bogard’s ‘old-fashioned’ temperament, it too is called into question.  Coupled with his use of endearments like ‘sweetheart’ and constructs of what married life is supposed to be like, it seems that many of the prescribed gender roles which Bogard embodies are presented as outmoded, most especially when he reminisces about how his mother used to put him to bed with hot water just before he exclaims: “Mother—I could drink a double brandy right now.  Without warm water.”  Certainly a man who needs to self-medicate and demonstrates a mommy-complex, if not an oedipal complex, is not one whose maxims should be universally applied.

 

Using models like Lucy Pinder as templates of beauty can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Using models like Lucy Pinder as templates of beauty can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Aside from gender issues, Bogard actually manages to encompass some pretty interesting postmodern themes in the piece, most notably when he is describing the interior of a faux widow’s home.  As he walks around, he catalogues everything he sees: “Chippendale, Queen Anne, and early American Colonial period pieces fought with each other and all three were at war with 1950’s functionalism—black glass and a combined radio and television cabinet in polished whitewood picked out with crimson candy stripes.  The result of the battle was inconclusive.”  The room seems to be a postmodern masterpiece, employing the pastiche and juxtaposition that draws on classical and modernist approaches.  Bogard throws in an ism or two, and concludes, as all postmodernists should, that nothing conclusive emerges from such a scene: only more questions.  Bogard also defies classification himself in the novel, stating at one point: “I don’t represent anybody but myself”.  As some critics might be tempted to situate Bogard as an archetype of white male privilege, but he is careful to tell the reader that he is to be read as an individual, denying a structuralist approach.

 

If I were casting the role of Julie Casson, I might be inclined to award to to Monica Bellucci.

If I were casting the role of Julie Casson, I might be inclined to award to to Monica Bellucci.

There is also the question of the performative aspect of life.  This theme comes up subtly throughout the novel, perhaps most overtly when constructs of gender are discussed. But there is also a moral performance in the novel.  Casson (SPOILER ALERT) ends up being behind several of the murders that take place in the novel, and though she exclusively kills those who set the murders in motion, she does so for her own personal gain, and not for any moral purpose.  When Bogard confronts Casson, she tries to explain her motives (a convincing one given her place as a woman in patriarchal society that denies her autonomy), telling Bogard that it was he she wanted to be with.  He responds: “Save it, pretty baby—save it for the Grand Jury.”  The irony, or course, is that Casson was the maiden to Bogard’s knight.  She was the reason he was pushing the investigation.  He wanted to help her and protect her.  Casson, though, was more than capable of protecting herself.  Bogard’s words, though, are not his own.  After employing the melodramatic cliché, Bogard’s internal dialogue continues: “I hadn’t meant to say that, I hadn’t meant to say anything.  I didn’t know anymore what I was saying.”  It is clear that by this point, Bogard is playing a role, performing as the embodiment of some moral code or and extension of the justice system.  He no longer has authority over his own words and must fall in line with clichés of the genre.  This seems an example of performative utterance, with Bogard demonstrating the power of words.  This might also be an aspect of metafiction, where the author himself steps in and is speaking directly to the reader.  Is this the point in the novel where the character is usurped by archetypical troupes of the genre?  Or is the author grappling with this troupes himself?  It is an interesting question and creates a unique scenario that is not common in detective fiction.

Another title from the re-issues which Harlequin Books republished.  Be sure to try to get your hands on the originals.

Another title from the re-issues which Harlequin Books republished. Be sure to try to get your hands on the originals.

The final sequences serve to undo the romanticism that created a parallel between the detective novel and the Arthurian romance.  With Casson revealed to be a character whose morality steps too far outside the bounds of what Bogard can accept, a confrontation is inevitable, and with a thorough cop who has been following Bogard throughout the novel arriving at the perfect time, Casson is shot and killed.  What follows is an inversion of the typical romantic ending: “I went down with her onto one knee.  The way I had once before.  I remembered it.  I would always remember it.  That was why I was crying.”  Where the protagonist would typically get on one knee to propose to the maiden he had rescued, here Bogard gets on one knee to lift her corpse, mirroring the motion he had made earlier in the novel when rescuing her.  At the time the initial gesture seemed like heavy-handed foreshadowing of a coupling to take place after the novel’s climax.  Instead, it was a foreshadowing of another kind.  The wedding is replaced with a funeral.  Bogard, who has shown nothing but  disinterest in sex throughout the novel, arrives home in the early morning hours to a call from Louella, the faux widow.  She has acquired more humble lodgings fitted to her new economic standing.  Like Casson, Louella was not bequeathed what many would have seen as her rightful inheritance, but she opted not to kill the men who fractured her security.  Bogard is lonely, as is Louella, and so they agree to be lonely together, with no promise of romance: there will only be the distraction of physical gratification.  As Phillip Roth wrote in The Dying Animal, it is “only when you fuck that everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated is purely, if momentarily, revenged.”

 

The art work on the covers of the Carter Brown novels were much better than those used by Harlequin Books.

The art work on the covers of the Carter Brown novels were much better than those used by Harlequin Books.

Thought the work is not unique in its lampooning of prescribed gender roles, it does find a unique way of unpacking these ideas.  The use of the author’s name as the protagonist’s name is an interesting tactic, examples of which I have not seen within the detective genre until now. It provides unique opportunities to criticize chauvinistic attitudes while also allowing postmodern moments of metafiction.  The scene in which the interior design is catalogued is perhaps the best example of the postmodernist approach.  The narrative, in terms of a detective novel, is not as engaging as some, and certainly not as original, but it is entertaining.  The true value of this novel though lies in the layered narrative, which leads the reader to inquire about the authorial intent and to carry out compelling  analyses.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you enjoy it and would like to read more reviews of detective fiction from the pulp era, feel free to read my reviews of the Carter Brown novels Wheeler, Dealer! Remember Maybelle Until Temptation Do Us Part, The Phantom Lady, The Corpse, The Sometimes Wife, The Body, and The Aseptic Murders, as well as Wade Miller’s Branded Woman and Harold Q. Masur’s The Name Is JordanAnd be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler to get updates of my most recent posts.

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

 

Yegg: A burglar or safe cracker.  Said to be the surname of a famous safecracker, but not one who was so famous we actually know who he is anymore.

Shamus: A Yiddish term for a detective.

Muckheel:  Cannot find this one anywhere.  I am open to suggestions.

 

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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