William Ard’s You Can’t Stop Me: Determinism and Existentialism in Pulp Fiction

YouCantStopMeWilliam Ard was an author from the pulp era, producing as many as 30 novels in a 10-year span.  Born in 1922, Ard passed away of cancer in 1960.  During his writing career, Ard created several memorable characters: western frontier man Tom Buchanan, Floridian detective Lou Largo, and New York detective Timothy Dane.  It is Dane who serves as the protagonist for his 1952 novel You Can’t Stop Me, which serves as a prototypical detective.  The novel may not stand out from other pulp novels in terms of narrative construction, it does stand out by moulding a narrative which seems to attack patriarchal capitalism while indulging in some deterministic/existentialists dialogue, creating a modernized, urbanized reimagining of an Arthurian narrative.

 

William Ard, smoking his way to cancer.

William Ard,.

Misogyny and violence against women are mutually inclusive, and this combination, which is inherent in patriarchal societies, is attacked by Ard in the novel.  The primary antagonist, Louis Gray, is presented as the emblem of such misogyny.  Louis marries a woman named Virginia, whom he meets while trying to get sober.  He convinces her that she is integral to his sobriety, appealing to her nurturing nature, a ‘feminine’ characteristic by patriarchal standards.  His true nature is revealed once they are married, but Virginia doesn’t supplicate to her husband despite the fact she feels trapped in the marriage.  In the midst of an argument with Virginia, Louis threatens her with a capital punishment for her refusal to supplicate to him: “Some night you’ll say something like that to me and I’ll kill you” (49).  As the argument intensifies, Louis’s threats are no longer satiate his hatred, and he moves to physical violence.  After assaulting Virginia, he apologizes to her.  When his apology doesn’t prove enough to quell what Louis sees as her insubordinate behaviour, he proves that the apology was insincere, returning to his threats, saying: “Some night I’ll kill you”.  Virginia interrupts him with her own response: “I know you will” (49).  This passage demonstrates the cyclical nature of abusive relationships.  Confrontation lead to violence.  Violence leads to an apology.  An apology is eventually followed by a confrontation, which eventually leads to another act of violence, negating the apology.  This demonstrates the insincerity of the apology, illuminating the fact that it is only offered out of motives based on self-interest, and when the apology doesn’t succeed in securing the offenders desires, the violence returns.  The picture is one of grim, patriarchal determinism where Virginia realizes how disempowered she is, but lacks the autonomy to rescue herself from her oppressor.

 

A movie poster for 'Rage to Live', a film adaptation of a novel of the same name by John O'Hara.

A movie poster for ‘Rage to Live’, a film adaptation of a novel of the same name by John O’Hara.

The source of the violence seems to be related to women who challenge patriarchal institutions like marriage.  Virginia, though married to Louis, refuses to turn herself over to him physically/sexually.  She maintains her autonomy within the marriage and doesn’t see their nuptials as perpetual consent.  This rejection of ‘nuptial obligations’ is reinforced in a subplot where a woman is murdered by her boyfriend.  When explaining the motive to Dane, police officer Hal Harper says that the boyfriend “had a real motive for killing her… He saw her coming out of a movie with another man.”  Harper though is troubled by the motive and Danes asks why, since “Women have been killed for a lot less” (68).  It turns out the man the woman was walking out of theatre with was her own husband.  Though infidelity is certainly an act that can cause distress and warrants the breakup of a relationship, it is not a capital offense.  In a patriarchal society, though, women are seen as property.  This objectification makes women expendable as objects, and so when women assert their own autonomy and act outside of their roles as objects, the violence that can ensue can have tragic endings.  This murder serves to demonstrate that the death threats heaped on Virginia are not to be taken as hyperbole, but as sincere.  In such contexts, when women behave as something other than property, they risk inciting the wrath of their sociopathic, patriarchal counterparts.  They are expected to behave as things, not people, but Ard is careful to note that trying to fit women into such constraints is problematic as best with an intertextual reference to John O’Hara’s novel A Rage to Live, which follows the narrative of a woman who embraces her desires and risks destroying herself social as a result.  It is also important to note that Ard portrays those who treat women as property as villains, denouncing such views.

 

Another novel by William Ard.

Another novel by William Ard.

The objectification of women in a patriarchal society is exponentially increased in a capitalist society.  One of Louis’s underlings, Larsen, has plans to organize a coupe over Louis.  Larsen believes that when he has ascended to Louis’s position in the hierarchy, Virginia will be his prize.  This logic is based on the false pretense that the only reason Virginia is with is for his money and that should Larsen be able to procure as much or more money, he can then possess Virginia.  He explains this logic to Virginia, and when she rejects it, he attempts to rape her.  Though she escapes the scenario unharmed, it serves to demonstrates how the concept of property, when applied to women in a patriarchal capitalist society, relegates women to the realm of property.  Virginia, like the maidens of Arthurian legend, is seen as a prize to be won in combat.  In Chrétien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Cart, it is stated that when a maiden is being escorted by a knight, “if another knight chose[s] to do battle with her defender and defeat[s] him… then he might do with her as he pleased without incurring dishonour or disgrace” (223).  This seems to be Larsen’s approach as he views his upcoming defeat of Louis as giving him the right to Virginia, and he seems to be unconcerned with and impending disgrace when he attempts to rape Virginia.  In this way, women are also seen as some sort of signification of masculinity.  By obtaining the prize of a woman, a man reinforces his masculinity.  Just as Geraldine Heng argues that women in Arthurian romances are “pivotal to conceptions of male identity and personal force” (837), so too do they perform similar roles within detective fiction, though Ard certainly seems to be challenging this conception of women by projecting such views onto the morally corrupt antagonists of his novel.

 

williamard5The male gaze is of course one of the symptoms of the objectification of women, and Ard demonstrates how it is maintained even in the most inappropriate times by the people one might least expect. Early in the novel, Dane is leaving a hotel room where he has just spent the night with a woman he met only the night before.  The male gaze might fairly be expected in such a scene, so when Dane looks upon an exposed breast and it is described as “bursting over the white sheet like a rising sun” (5), it seems as if the placement of the male gaze is expected.  Later in the novel a father hires Dane to look for his missing daughter, Ellie, who he prizes as a chaste and morally upright girl.  The father gives a photo of Ellie to Dane and it is described as featuring a “beautiful dark-haired” girl with a “fine figure” (65).  With the young woman missing, it seems inappropriate to be leering at her image.  It is akin to using the photos of children on milk cartons as masturbatory material, but even Ellie’s father seems concerned with Ellie’s appearance as he tells Dane that the image “don’t show off Ellie’s looks to the best advantage” (65).  Even her father, whilst in the midst of enduring grief, is concerned with how good his daughter looks in an image, though the fact that Ard writes him as a man incapable of using proper grammar aligns such mentalities with ignorance.

 

Another classic illustrative cover for a William Ard novel.

Another classic illustrative cover for a William Ard novel.

Ard’s attack on the patriarchy is interlinked with his attack on capitalism as well.  The man who kidnapped Ellie, Louis, is also a successful man on Wall Street.  Ellie’s father wishes to hire a man that doesn’t “give a hoot in hell for every Madison Avenue millionaire” (15).  This seems to be an attack on the privilege associated with money, an attack that is reinforced when Louis breaks into Dane’s office and tries to both intimidate him and buy him off.  Dane repels such an encroachment, telling Louis that “nobody barges in [his office] and tells [him] who [he’ll] take for a client”, asserting that nobody buys him off (21).  Louis responds by trying to assert his economic authority, telling Dane that he pays“more for a suit of clothes than [Dane] make in two weeks”.  Dane is unfazed by this and heightens the difference of their economic circumstances with a correction that doubles the disparity between the two, admitting that one of Louis’s suits cost more money than Dane “make[s] in a month” (21), but articulates that even that difference does not give Louis authority in Dane’s realm as Dane promptly and forcefully throws Louis out of his office.  This scenario is telling in that it demonstrates how those with money feel that they are above the law, and in the context of the novel, they are for the most part.  A number of police officers, for example, are paid off and illegal activities are overlooked.  This demonstrates the problem inherent in a capitalist societies as avarice is rewarded and those who may not be well off may be encouraged or forced to facilitate and/or participate in illegal or amoral activities.  Even Dane admits the flaws of the system as had his “visits had been reversed” (22), the day would have been more profitable with Louis being his client and Ellie’s father being rejected.  The novel concludes with an additional hero: a police officer named Lieutenant Betters (an allegorical name perhaps, reminiscent of the ‘Do Better’ character in William Langland’s Piers Plowman).  Betters refuses to be bought, regardless of who might have approached him first, and eventually, with the help of Dane, tears down an organized crime ring.

 

williamard4The morality—or rather immorality—of the capitalist structure is highlighted by an analogy that links capitalism with gambling.  In one scene, a character defends a gambling house, stating that the people who run it “don’t sell drugs there”, they only conduct a gambling house.  Dane counters this statement by suggesting that gambling is “a fatal addiction too” (145).  This link between gambling and drugs allows the reading to make a similar link between Wall Street and criminal activity. Louis notes that betting was gambling, and what he was doing on Wall Street “was ‘investing,’ for if it were gambling it would be nothing more than a common horse room” (77).  This analogy makes clear the similarities between the capitalist structure and gambling, articulating that the only difference is the aesthetics of the setting.  People on Wall Street who put their money behind a particular stock were no different than a person sitting at a craps table putting money on a colour or number.  With gambling already being linked to drugs and defined as a deadly addiction, the capitalist system, being contextualized as legalized gambling, is by extension also a deadly addiction.

 

williamard1This link between capitalism and illegal/immoral behaviours is strung through an existentialist/determinist dialogue Dane has with one of his antagonists later in the novel.  The antagonist, George, is a postmodern villain whose combo bookshelf/desk filled with “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Kinsey and Einstein”.  Also on the desk is a telephone” (71).  George is the head of the crime organization Dane and Betters aim to bring down, and he is boss who is very much akin to the crime boss organization described in George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, also known as Killing Them Softly), in that he represents the corporatization of crime.  He is unique in that he is educated, familiar with the classics, as well as with Freud and Kinsey, and well versed in how the capitalist system works.  He is able to make ‘legitimate’ money, but sees his illegal enterprises as more profitable and enjoyable.  When Dane meets George and the four hoods that he has working for him, Dane says the hoods “are what they are because they almost had to be.  It was dealt to them.  They’ve been after the easy buck since the day they were born and they grew up around the boys who knew how to turn one.  But not you.  The only hijacking and bootlegging and killing you ever saw was in the movies” (178).  This projects an almost deterministic mentality on the hoods, while at the same time suggesting the man with the education and money has free will and is more culpable because he had a choice.  It also suggests that his actions are a performance meant to imitate a romanticised projection of organized crime while the capitalist system offer no viable alternative to the hoods.

 

If I were casting a film adaptation of "You Can't Stop Me", Scarlett Johansson would be my first pick for Virginia!

If I were casting a film adaptation of “You Can’t Stop Me”, Scarlett Johansson would be my first pick for Virginia!

Though not a prominent role in the novel, there are instances that employ a descriptive approach to illuminating issues with race.  When Dane visits one building, the “door was opened to him by a gaunt and ancient colo[u]red man who appeared to have come a great distance… to perform the chore” (29).  The man holds the position of janitor, and being the only representative of people of colour in the novel, it is interesting then that he is placed in the service industry.  It is also interesting that Ard is sure to describe him as ‘ancient’.  Though the character would have had to have been 90 years old to have been born when slavery was still legal in America, Ard would have, in his lifetime, met a number of ‘ancient’ people of colour who were born whilst slavery was still legal.  The figure, then, could be read as such an archetype, and in that way can be seen as demonstrating that in a capitalist structure, it was difficult for a person achieve any sort of mobility between the classes.

 

The women in Quentin Tarantino films are far more likely to perform beheadings than be victim to one.

The women in Quentin Tarantino films are far more likely to perform beheadings than be victim to one.

Perceived race is only one aspect of the intersectional oppression endured, and in a patriarchal society, women of colour endure an oppression that even more crippling that it would otherwise be.  In the novel there is a Chinese woman.  Though she never appears in the novel, she is mentioned by Harper.  Harper tells Dane that a “poor little Chinee dame” (35) has been decapitated.  The woman is not even so much as given a name in the novel, she is simply identified by her perceived nationality, and her sex, striping her down to the most rudimentary aspects of her life.  Her perceived nationality is not even properly identified as she is referred to as ‘Chinee’, not Chinese.  When Dane has gotten all the information he can from Harper about the issue he was concerned with, he says “good luck with the Chinee” (36), reinforcing the categorization of the woman by her perceived nationality.  Later, when her name is discovered, she is till only referred to in the terms which she was introduced, and it turns out that she was the victim of a jealous lover.  Still the victim of misogynist violence facilitated by patriarchal ideals, as a victim she is reduced to categories, which further victimized her.

 

 

William Ard's publishers often used similar illustrative art for many of their covers.

William Ard’s publishers often used similar illustrative art for many of their covers.

For fans of detective fiction, the narrative certainly works, there it is missing the ‘whodunit’ aspect of a detective narrative.  There is no solving the crime, merely following Dane along as he collects pieces of evidence and uncovers the truth.  The work functions on other, more interesting levels, though.  Ard situates the working class as victims of patriarchal determinism, women as victims of patriarchal determinism, and the antagonists as capitalist and patriarchal villains.  The protagonist, Dane, is akin to an Arthurian knight, and is even referred to as such by Virginia when he rescues her at the end of the narrative (136).  The novel serves to entertain, but its true value is in its attack on capitalist patriarchy and its ability to note the degree to which patriarchy objectifies women is tragically intensified and validated by the capitalist system.

 

If you enjoyed this post on a pulp-era detective novel, feel free to check out my posts on Branded Woman, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown.  Also, check out this blog dedicated to William Ard.  For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

Works Cited

Ard, William. You Can’t Stop Me.  New York.  Popular Library.  1952.

Chrétien de Troyes. The Knight of the Cart. Arthurian Romances. Trans. William W. Kibler. New York: Penguin. 2004. 207-294. Print.

Heng, Geraldine. “Enchanted Ground: The Feminine Subtext in Malory” Le Morte Darthur: A Norton Critical Edition Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd 2004 New York: W.W. Norton & Company In. 835-849. Print.

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.

Comments

  1. Eileen Ard Heishman says:

    Dear Mr. Horn,

    I read your page and reviews on my father’s books. Your critical views are of course your own, but you may be interested in correcting some of the “facts” for the sake of getting it right. He was born in 1922, but died in 1960, and while he enjoyed smoking (which was an innocent pleasure in the days the photo you used was taken, around 1945 when he was in his 20’s) his cancer was in his digestive system and not the cause of his early death.

    I am always amused when I see reviews of my father’s books that impute all sorts of motivations along the lines of ‘political correctness’ of current times. He was definitely the hero of the underdog in any situation and in his personal life would not tolerate discrimination of any sort, but he also accurately portrayed the world as it was in his time and built his short novels around that reality in a way, I’m sure he hoped, that would entertain his readers.

  2. Rambler Rambler says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I am especially honoured that one of William Ard’s family took the time to read the post. My sincerest apologies for the misinformation on your father. It has been corrected. I had done some research online, and that was the only information I could find. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to correct this.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php