Torture, Tort Law and the Harm Principle in Carter Brown’s Tomorrow Is Murder

 

CBTomorrowismurderTomorrow Is Murder is a Carter Brown novel featuring his female detective Mavis Seidlitz.  In 1960, when it was published, the concept of a female detective was still a relatively new one, though Agatha Christie had already introduced the very popular Miss Marple.  Mavis, unlike Christie’s famous heroine, is no spinster, but lacks the intellectual capacity of Christie’s protagonist.  Instead of representing a progressive, competent female lead, Mavis serves as a stereotyped ‘dumb blonde’ figure, exuding many ‘qualities’ that make her character and the narrative problematic when read through a feminist lens, even though the novel does challenge and critique many aspects of  patriarchal society.  What is most interesting about this narrative, however, is not so much its feminist undertones or their conflict with chauvinism, but the elements of the narrative that exemplify the ‘harm principle’ and promote the validity of tort laws.  The novel is also interesting in how it deals with issues that remain current, such as torture, as well as its treatment of deterministic arguments.  The narrative, though problematic as a feminist work, and not as entertaining an example of detective fiction as some of Brown’s other novels, remains a book that speaks to contemporary issues.

 

cbtomorrowismurder1The implication of the tort laws is perhaps most interesting.  A subset of tort laws, known as the ‘duty to rescue’, implies that people who are able to prevent a crime against another person have an obligation to do so.  This is meant to discourage people from being passive participants in the exploitation or victimization of others.  In the narrative, Mavis is twice placed in imminent danger.  In one scene, she is waiting to be tortured by a woman named Abigail.  A woman named Dolores is standing watch over Mavis while Abigail is in the next room.  Mavis asks Dolores to free her, to which Dolores replies: “I don’t dare.  I’m sorry, honey… I think Abigail’s real insane now—she’d just as soon kill me” (88).  This exemplifies not only an instance in which somebody acts as a passive participant, but also demonstrates the motivation: fear.  Dolores is concerned for her own safety, and so does not want to interfere.  Mavis, though, makes Dolores’s complicity in the crime clear: “If you don’t help me now, Dolores, you’re just as much a murderer as he is” (88).  At this point Dolores realizes her complicity and assists Mavis.  This is not the case later in the novel when—SPOILER ALERT—Mavis is being held at gun point by Eddie, one of the antagonists.  Sam, who had previously been assisting Mavis, is about to leave the house where Mavis is being held hostage.  She pleads with Sam: “You can’t walk out on me now—once you’ve gone he’s going to kill me.”  Sam responds: “He’s just kidding” (123).  This again demonstrates how people act as passive participants to the victimization of others, but in this instance Brown offers a different motivation as Sam tries to plead ignorance to ease his conscience, pretending as if there were  no crime with his dismissive comment, which suggests that it is all a joke.  Eddie, for his part, refuses to let Sam off that easily and questions him: “Don’t you figure you ought to stay Sam, just in case I’m not kidding?” (124).  Eddie, who is described as a sadist, wants to expose the corrupt and indifferent nature of humanity, and does so as Sam not only leaves, but runs out of the house.  The tragedy is that the mentality which Brown critiques was still very common close to four years after this publication. Around that time, Kitty Genovese fell victim to murder as an entire neighbourhood watched and played the role of passive participant, while she screamed for help.  The pleading of ignorance goes on in a larger context with the complicit/complacent consumption of goods procured from conflict zones.

 

A German translation of 'Tomorrow Is Murder'.

A Danish translation of ‘Tomorrow Is Murder’, title ‘Mord I Luten’ (translated to Murder Is In The Air).

Brown’s treatment of torture also has implications for contemporary readers.  Reports of torture at Gitmo, the American detention camp on Guantanamo Bay, coupled with brutal images recorded at Abu Ghraib, have made the issue of torture relevant.  Although military tacticians like  Napoleon have opposed torture for centuries as it yields false evidence, many military organizations continue to  use it.  In the novel currently under discussion, it is Mavis who is tortured (87).  Though she passes out before signing a false confession, when she regains consciousness, she concedes that even though she is innocent, she will start “screaming and sign a confession” (88) if she is tortured again.  So a person who the reader knows to be innocent is willing to sign a confession to stop the torture. Clearly, torture is a problematic method. Equally importantly, the person ordering the torture is positioned as an amoral antagonist.  The police officer who facilitates Mavis’s freedom at the end of the novel does not make any suggestions related to torture; it is only the villain who seeks to cover up his wrongdoing that indulges in torture, placing those who employ torture in the realm of dehumanizing and self-serving behaviour.

 

Carter Brown wrote several novel featuring Mavis Seidlitz as the protagonist.

Carter Brown wrote several novel featuring Mavis Seidlitz as the protagonist.

As is the case in William Ard’s You Can’t Stop Me, another example of pulp-era detective fiction, Brown’s Tomorrow Is Murder  has elements of determinism.  Abigail, one of the antagonists, is asked a question about euthanasia; her reply is rooted in deterministic philosophy: “This of course presuppose the free will… Which is absolute nonsense!  Human beings are always at the mercy of the denizens of another world” (24), while Dolores argues that “all events—big or small—are predestined” (25).  This deterministic commentary, though, is undermined by the fact that they are articulated by characters who are performing.  Their motivations are dictated, not by sincere belief, but by instruction.  The truth of the matter is that even though Mavis’ client, Raymond Romayne, is murdered, his death was every bit a result of choices he made, and not a random victimization at the hands of people who forced a fate onto him.  Romayne chose a life of crime and chose to antagonize his future murderer, thereby creating his own fate.  There are elements of actual determinism in the novel though.  When Mike English, another of the rogues’ gallery of antagonists present in Brown’s novel tells the story of his childhood, he speaks to how his father taught him to roll drunks before being incarcerated and leaving Mike with his alcoholic mother and died while Mike was still young (99).  This does seem to suggest that Mike’s life was to some degree predetermined by the fact that his parents guided him in the direction he ended up taking.

 

The Mavis Seidlitz character seemed to have been written for Marilyn Monroe.

The Mavis Seidlitz character seemed to have been written for Marilyn Monroe.

As is the case with many of Brown’s novels, gender constructs play a huge role, and the idea of performance is key in this particular novel. Mavis, in taking on the role of a detective, must perform a ‘masculine’ role.  Mavis recognizes her former ‘partner’ Johnny Rio as an authority and seeks to imitate his performance when speaking to a client.  Even though she has no pragmatic purpose for ending a conversation with a person of interest in a certain manner, she says that she remembers that “Johnny Rio would never let an interview of a suspect… just kind of trail off into nothing” (12).  She does not understand the purpose of Rio’s approach, but seeks to imitate it, suggesting it is a performance and not a genuine act.  Early in the novel, Mavis considers how pretending to load and clean a gun when a prospective client walks in might bolster the client’s perception of her as a private detective.  Brown creates a clever juxtaposition here where Mavis compares loading a gun to managing her lipstick, noting how both acts are performances of sorts and how people will project certain characteristics onto people based on these performances.  The performances of femininity is questioned by Mavis later when she states that being “a female gets do darned complicated at time it makes [one] wonder if it’s worth all that make-up, nylons, and uplift jazz” (79).  Here Mavis uses the biological term female, which often speaks to sex, and links it with the performance which is often connected with the gender constructs.  For Mavis, the two are inseparable.

 

If Monroe were unavailable to play Mavis, Mimi van Doren would have also been ideal casting for the role.

If Monroe were unavailable to play Mavis, Mimi van Doren would have also been ideal casting for the role.

The performance of femininity is often reliant on aesthetics, and by embracing this, Mavis often serves to facilitate the male gaze.  Upon seeing Bubbles, the wife of Romayne, Mavis says that she “I couldn’t figure how she could wear even a strapless bra underneath, and if all that uplift as natural, she must have done something about the laws of gravity” (23).  This demonstrates how both Mavis and Bubbles are perpetually conscious of how the feminine appearance is being viewed by others.  This preoccupation with the feminine appearance spill into the unconscious mind as well as Mavis notes that she has a nightmare where she is “walking down the Strip in [her] Maidenform bra and nobody gives a damn” (46).  This suggests that that even in her sleeping hours, Mavis is concerned with how she is viewed, and far from suggesting that the male gaze is invasive, this passage suggests that the male gaze is encouraged and missed when it is not secured by a woman.  If the reader didn’t know that Mavis’s author was a man, this would certainly be the point where the reader it tipped off.  This becomes even more farcical when Mavis is walking down a hallway after being tortured and her life is still very much in danger, but rather than expressing concern about her safety or the ordeal she just endured, she notes that as she walked it “felt like there were more jiggles than usual, and it got [her] worried that maybe [she] was putting on weight and hadn’t noticed” (95).  Mavis then goes onto say that “a girl likes to be admired even under… conditions” (96) where their life is endangered and they just endured a brutal round of torture.  The fact that Mavis’s internal dialogue has her concerned with her appearance and not the critical nature of the situation she is in, further demonstrates how superficial she is and how facilitating the male gaze is her top priority.  Brown’s construction of this may be tongue-in-cheek, and it does serve as a key plot point here.  Mavis’s appearance capture’s the gaze of the men holding her hostage and allows Dolores to procure a gun while the men are distracted, demonstrating how the male inclination to indulge in the gaze is a weakness and how women can exploit it to men in a subordinate position.

 

Like Monroe and van Doren, Jayne Mansfield would have been well cast as Mavis.

Like Monroe and van Doren, Jayne Mansfield would have been well cast as Mavis.

Such a reading can make sense in the context of the rest of the novel as Brown often lampoons the male gaze.  When Mavis is on a television program, the show ends, but Mavis keeps speaking into a camera and it is pointed toward her.  The camera man, it appears, has decided to do a close-up of Mavis to get a good look at her, demonstrating how men sexualize women, even in situations where they are supposed to be giving priority to their professional obligations.  Mavis also notes that when Mike “looked at [her she] could tell by the sudden gleam in his eyes that his imagination filled in the detail the chiffon number blocked from his gaze” (35).  This passage does more than suggest that Mike has simply noticed Mavis’s beauty, but also that he is leering at her and undressing her with his eyes.  This is very different than simply glancing, and it is Mike’s interest in Mavis’s appearance that Mavis later uses to escape.  The gaze, aside from highlighting how men objectify women sexually and fail to see past their appearance, also demonstrates how men racialize women.  When speaking of Dolores, Mike refers to her as the “Latin-looking number” (35).  Though Mike knows her name, and though Dolores would have been more easily identified as the woman who made the premonition about Romayne’s death, Mike chooses to identify and define her by her appearance and perceived race.

 

Another Carter Brown novel featuring Mavis Seidlitz.

Another Carter Brown novel featuring Mavis Seidlitz.

This sexualisation of women also plays a big role in the demonization of the masculine realm which takes place in the novel.  Mavis calls upon what Hobbes would call he experiential learning and notes that if one were to “ask any girl who’s been around Hollywood longer than a couple of hours and they’ll tell you the same thing… [about the] Hollywood wolves who all come king-sized and keep telling [women] it’s what upfront that counts” (8).  This experiential learning creeps up often for Mavis as she notes that “Once a girl’s been out with three Hollywood talent scouts there’s nothing can surprise her anymore because she knows the score” (53).  The implication in both instances is that men in a position of power will take advantage of women sexually.  Is not only through sex that men oppress women, as they also hurt them physically.  Mike openly boasts of his misogynist sadism when framing Mavis as a “Big dumb blondes” before confessing that he “get[s] a kick out of hearing ‘em squeal” (35).  He later says that though he’s “never slugged somebody’s mother before… there’s always a first time” (36).  It is clear that Mike’s objectification of women has allowed him to dehumanize them and in turn abuse them.  This misogynistic sadism is common in other men in the narrative.  Sam, for example, tries to warn Mavis about the sadistic nature of Eddie, telling her that “he likes to hurt women… [and that] he enjoys it  (52).  Mavis replies: “So what’s the difference about him?… He’s a man, isn’t he—they’re all the same” (52).  This again demonstrates that Mavis’s experiential learning has taught her that all men are out to hurt women.  There are exceptions to this, as Mavis describes one man as “a guy a girl could trust and you don’t find them very often, not even among your girl friend’s husbands” (68), but this also shows that the overwhelming majority of men cannot be trusted by women and speaks to how women must be perpetually on their guard.

 

Though I don't find Mavis Seidlitz a compelling protagonist, she was popular enough to warrant several novels.

Though I don’t find Mavis Seidlitz a compelling protagonist, she was popular enough to warrant several novels.

Though Brown does clearly make a point of lampooning the masculine realm, his efforts are diluted by the chauvinism that seems inherent in his portrayal of Mavis by portraying her a dimwitted.  In one conversation she mistakes ‘euthanasia’ for ‘youths in Asia’ (24), and later expresses confusion over the word ‘capital’ as she notes that “Kidnapping is a capital offense, even if it does happen outside of Washington, D.C.” (30), but also articulates that her former partner Rio had to explain that to her.  When warned about a sadist, she assumes that a sadist is somebody who goes “out with different dames all called Sadie the whole time” (52).  And later, when the word ‘fence’ is used to describe somebody who moves stolen goods, she confuses it with ‘fence’ used to describe a barrier and even later refers to the fence as a wall in her confusion (71).  Such mistakes are farcical and frankly inconsistent with the narrative voice.  Though naïve, when narrating the the story, Mavis displays an adequate vocabulary, one that would certainly suggest she would have an understanding of most of these terms.  Brown’s puns, though perhaps an example of base humour, could be read as an attack on the English language that demonstrates the confusion created by homonyms and homophones, and how the system of signifiers we use is inherently flawed, but the context of the dialogue doesn’t seem to suggest that.

 

Another title from the popular Mavis Seidlitz series.

Another title from the popular Mavis Seidlitz series.

Despite her naivety, Mavis, and some of the other female characters in the novel, do manage to undermine gender constructs.  Though seemingly dimwitted in most instances, Mavis is able to come if with a plan that allows her to escape her torturer and relieve her male captors of their guns, a plan that is successfully pulled off by two women without guns against two men with guns.  While men in a patriarchal society are supposed to be more ‘clever’, Mavis clearly demonstrates that she can outsmart a men who not only have the advantage of their physically dominating presence, but also deadly firearms, reversing socially prescribed gender roles.  Mavis also makes a suggestion that would allow her and Sam to investigate Romayne’s antique shop unnoticed by Eddie and Bubbles.  Sam, being a man, should have been able to make this plan himself, but it is Mavis that demonstrates the ingenuity required to formulate such a plan (56).  When a confrontation arises in a coffee shop peopled by beatniks, Sam gets knocked out by two men and a woman, while Mavis manages to beat all three and thinks quickly enough on her feet to handle the shop’s body guard, while Sam is dazed (60).  Again, it is the man who is supposed to dominate physically and provide protection for women according to patriarchal gender roles, but Mavis is the one protecting Sam in this instance.  Sam is further emasculated when juxtaposed next to Dolores.  When Mavis confronts Dolores with her complicity in a murder plan, she assists Mavis.  Sam, however, is very much aware of the danger Mavis is in and rather than attempt to help her, he runs out of the house, leaving her on her own.  Dolores clearly displays more bravado and possesses a set of ethics that seems devoid in all but one of the male characters.  For Brown, gender traits are clearly characteristics that can be performed effectively by either sex, not merely the ones they are prescribed to.

 

Hypersexual illustrative covers were staples of Carter Brown novels, even for detectives other than Mavis Seidlitz.

Hypersexual illustrative covers were staples of Carter Brown novels, even for detectives other than Mavis Seidlitz.

The cartoonish portrayal of the protagonist does make the novel hard to read, and whatever feminist readings can be pulled out of this novel are undermined by the seemingly chauvinistic construction of Mavis.  The novel, though, does include interesting conversations on determinism, torture, the harm principle, and tort laws, and even its seemingly childish puns can be read as a lampoon of the inherent flaws present in signifiers.  If one can get passed the overt dimwittedness naivety of Mavis, and her complicit participation and facilitation of the male gaze, then there are feminist elements in the novel that can make for an interesting read.  Strictly as a detective novel, though, the work does not fulfill.  There are elements of the whodunit, but the narrative is not terribly engaging, while the characters are not constructed as well or in as interesting a manner as Brown has been able to do in other narratives.

 

If female protagonists in detective/crime novels interest you, check out works by Megan Abbott, and most especially Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple is a far more interesting portrayal of a female detective than the hypersexual Mavis.  If Mavis does interest you, check out my review of The Loveing and the Dead.  Carter Brown fans can check out a host of review of Carter Brown novels here.  If you enjoyed this post and would like to read others like it, browse the site and be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, to get updates on my most recent posts.

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. Hi there. Nice reviews on one of my favorite authors. Would like to point out one thing. I believe the German cover is actually one from Denmark. Winther is a publisher of the titles in the 60’s from Denmark.

  2. Thanks!

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