Murder Is My Business: Pulp Fiction vs. Capitalism

An illustrative cover of 'Murder Is My Business' from an older publication.

An illustrative cover of ‘Murder Is My Business’ from an older publication.

Just as Alan Geoffrey Yates wrote detective fiction under the name Carter Brown, Davis Dresser wrote under the pen name Brett Halliday to create the popular private detective Michael Shayne.  The character proved popular enough to warrant film series that included seven motion pictures from Twentieth Century Fox starring Lloyd Nolan, four low-budget films, a series of radio programs, and a television series.  By the time Dresser/Halliday had grown weary of writing the titles, the Shayne character remained popular enough to commission other writers to continue the franchise.  Murder Is My Business is one of the Shayne novels penned by Halliday, and also one of the narratives that made it to the big screen, though it was under Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) and not among the more respected Twentieth Century Fox productions.  It is a clever piece of detective fiction, written as WWII was coming to a close, and Halliday uses this back drop effectively to explore issues of nationalism/tradition, as well as economics, morality, gender/sex and ‘race‘.  As is the case with many detective novels from the pulp-era, there are times when it borders on a celebration of chauvinism, and a lampoon of it, but the story is effective and entertaining, and Halliday paints an unflattering picture of capitalism, which is always a sure method through which to gain my approval.

 

 

A more recent cover from the Hard Case publishers who have re-issued a number of pulp-era detective novels.

A more recent cover from the Hard Case Crime publishers who have re-issued a number of pulp-era detective novels.

As is the case with Carter Brown’s The Mistress, Halliday uses Murder Is My Business as an opportunity to highlight potential biases in the media.  When one man comes to Shayne with a story, he tells the man to “Try the Free Press… Neil Cochrane [a reporter there] will pay you something for that information” (82).  The inherent problem with this is that ethical media outlets make a practice of not paying people for information because offering financial remuneration for a story is a sure way to generate misinformation.  Offering rewards for information creates a conflict of interest.  If somebody is being paid for information, they may be liable to embellish if it means a bigger pay day.  Cochrane concedes to this, saying of another person with information that he “offered him five C’s for some dope that would fry Towne at the polls.  Why not” (129)?  This not only demonstrates that the news outlet is willing to pay for information, but is blind enough to not see any issues with it.  Cochrane also reveals his motives: It will take Jefferson Towne, the novel’s antagonist, down in the polls during his mayoral campaign.  This desire to tank the political aspirations of a candidate speak to a political bias as well as a financial one.  Cochrane desires to sabotage a political campaign, not deliver the news.  With such an overt bias, such a reporter cannot be trusted.

 

Most detective novels in the pulp-era had hyper-sexual illustrative covers.

Most detective novels in the pulp-era had hyper-sexual illustrative covers.

Halliday also takes an opportunity to lampoon the hypocrisy of American morality.  Shayne, who visits El Paso from New Orleans invited the police chief out for a drink.  He responds: “We’re pure in Texas.  You have to buy it by the bottle and swill it in private” (94).  This speaks to the idea of morality as a performance.  Though drinking was traditionally done in saloons in Texas before prohibition, a newly constructed idea of what it means to be ‘Texan’ has emerged.  Though drinking is legal, it is to be done only in the privacy of one’s home.  It is not done in public, and so people can keep up the pretense of abstinence.  This is strictly a performance though.  A similar thread appears when Shayne visits Juarez, a city in Mexico.  He mentions to Rodriquiz that the city has “Marijuana and the pipe joints”.  Rodriquiz replies: “I think you will find in Old El Paso or any other American city the same… In Juarez we do not turn our backs and pretend it is not so” (137).  Here Rodriquiz suggests that the two aren’t different in practice, merely in performance.  The honesty present in Juarez actually makes them more moral since the people of El Paso do the same things and simply deceive themselves that they don’t.  The American need to publicly hang on to Puritan ideals is made out to be hypocritically ridiculous in a single sentence.

 

Another cover from a Michael Shane novel.

Another cover from a Michael Shane novel.

As is the case with many detective novels from the pulp-era, Halliday’s presentation of the masculine realm illustrates a problematic prioritization of values when sex is involved in the equation.  In the first scene, Shayne’s secretary enters his office and he asks if she locked the door behind her.  She replies: “I never lock the door when I come in here” (9).  The subtext here suggests that she wants to be able to exit easily, implying that some unwanted advances can be expected.  This is reinforced when Shayne asks about the client in the other room.  Rather than ask what the issue is, he asks “Is she pretty” (9).  When the answer is no, he asks if she has money (9).  This demonstrates the value system Shayne holds.  He is first interested in sex, then in money.  There is no concern as to whether or not the task at hand has merit, or if Shayne has the ability to get the job done.  Sex and money are the only questions.  There is also an allusion to the fact that men socially help each other out towards achieving sexual conquests.  When Carmela Towne is in Shayne’s hotel room when he arrives, she explains that she “bribed the bellboy” and that when he “asked [her] if [she] was Mrs. Shayne, and [Carmela] told him [she] wasn’t, and he seemed to think that made everything all right” (46).  The bellboy then assumes that Shayne would want a sexual liaison facilitated, even if it meant allowing somebody into his room without his consent.  Halliday clearly creates a world where men prize sex above all else.

 

shayne8As can be expect in such a hypermasculine and hyperheterosexual society, the presentation of women is problematic at best, though Halliday presents this flawed presentation of women as a symptom of the masculine chauvinism.  When speaking of a young teen girl, the Dyer, the sheriff of the El Paso police, dismisses the thought that her questionable legal behaviour is the result of juvenile delinquency.  He insists that there “are hundreds like her in Juarez and El Paso preying on the soldiers” (66).  The issue here is that the teen is quite young and so it may be the solider and a panderer who are taking advantage of her economic depression, thereby preying on her, not the other way around.  The fact that the girl is Hispanic and therefore a member of a perceived race may play a role since young girls in racialized minority groups often find themselves sexualized at a young age.  Though Halliday doesn’t suggest racialization has a role in this instance, his protagonist does racialize women.  Upon seeing Carmela, for example, he notes that she had “a well-kept figure for a Mexican woman of that age” (70).  He frames Carmela’s beauty through her perceived race, rather than simply identifying her as beautiful, and implies through this that there is a stereotype of what ‘Mexican’ woman are supposed to look like and how they age.  Though much of this negative portrayal of women is spoken through characters, the omniscient narrator does display the language of oppression.  When describing Carmela’s laugh, the narrative voice notes that “Hysteria was added to her laughter” (116).  The word ‘hysteria’, to describe an undue, extreme and unmanageable emotive outpouring.  The word is overtly feminized though as it is derived from the Greek for ‘uterus’, and so can be seen as facilitating the patriarchal language of oppression.

 

The hyper-sexual paratext of pulp-era novels was a key selling point.

The hyper-sexual paratext of pulp-era novels was a key selling point.

Patriarchal oppression often relies on the power of tradition when socializing women to internalize and become complicit in their own oppression.  The thread of feminist theory is present in the dialogue put forth by Carmela.  Ten years prior to the events in the novel, Carmela was with a man named Lance.  Her father, Jefferson Towne, didn’t approve and hired Shayne to dig up dirt on Lance.  When none was found, Jefferson asked Shayne to fabricate information.  Jefferson sought to control his daughter’s sexual choices, much like the creepy men who walk their daughter’s down the aisle for modern-day ‘purity balls’ (aka: creepy-men-who-are-obsessed-with-their-daughter’s-vaginas parties).  It is Carmela’s mother, though, that helps to convince Carmela to concede to patriarchal authority, a choice Carmela later regrets: “I’ve hated myself for letting Father do that to me… My mother was Spanish, you know.  She taught me that it was a woman’s place to submit” (48).  The tradition of submissive women is ingrained in Carmela’s mother, and so the women internalize the submissiveness and be complicit in their own subordination.  Carmela, though, is an example of the kind of regret that results in such supplication.

 

When second printings were issues, they would usually see new covers.

When second printings were issues, they would usually see new covers.

One of the more interesting parts of Halliday’s novel is the way in which his protagonist manipulates language.  Upon arriving in El Paso, the newspapers assume that Shayne has been hired by Jefferson.  Shayne never says this, but he often speaks in ambiguities that allow people to project what they want onto his words.  When one man hopes to get money from Shayne for some information, he asks Shayne if Jefferson is paying him well.  Shayne does not answer the question and only responds with an ambiguous statement: “I generally get well paid.”  When asked if Jefferson is willing to pay out to win the election, Shayne does not confirm that he has any insights into Jefferson’s mind.  Instead he says “I guess he would” (79).  When the man asks if Jefferson is going to get off of the murder charge and win the election, Shayne says “It looks that way” (80).  In each instance Shayne uses ambiguous language that says nothing but allows the person talking to take whatever meaning they want out of his words.

 

Yet another hyper-sexual cover from a Michael Shayne novel.

Yet another hyper-sexual cover from a Michael Shayne novel.

Capitalism is also presented as a social ill. Though Halliday was certainly not writing in the socialist vein of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, there are some clear attacks on capitalism, which seems to be personified by Jefferson.  The name is fitting since Thomas Jefferson was rumoured to have originally wrote that Americans had the right, not to ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, but rather, the ‘pursuit of property’.  American hegemonic institutions have often praised the idea of individualism, and this might be how Jefferson would frame his ascension to wealth.  When Shayne asks how Jefferson made his money, Dyer answer that he did it by “trampling anyone who got in his way” (27).  Shayne notes that people used to obtain this kind of success through “rugged individualism” (27), and thereby suggests that the self-interest at the expense of others that Jefferson exudes is contrary to the American notion of individualism.  Because this approach has brought Jefferson success in a capitalist structure, though, one can read this as an attack on capitalism.  Lance echoes this anti-capitalist sentiment when he asks Shayne if “a fat fee [is] more important to [him] than the welfare of [his] country” (57).  Lance seems to make clear that a society where getting a pay cheque is the top priority is one that is inherently flawed.

 

Hard Case has maintained the spirit of the pulp-era paratext by commissioning illustrative covers painted in the same spirit as those from the pulp-era.

Hard Case Crime has maintained the spirit of the pulp-era paratext by commissioning illustrative covers painted in the same spirit as those from the pulp-era.

The narrative is entertaining, and has good pacing., though the characters are not always fully developed, and their motivations are not always clear.  The sub plot regarding spies and Nazi sympathizers turns out to be a superfluous narrative points meant to pull the reader off the track of the murderer, and it weighs the narrative down a little because it is such a loaded cultural reference.  There is a key piece of evidence that is introduced in the first chapter that allows the reader to solve a portion of the mystery, though it requires an attentive mind to remember the detail and recall it.  Such plot devices provide the most fun for fans of detective fiction because it allows them to play along.  The novel, though, had other elements that make the work a more interesting piece of fiction if readers enjoy doing more analysis of the plot and dialogue.  Given the fact that El Paso is a border city and there were a number of Mexican characters in the work, it would have been interesting to read more elements that spoke to concepts of perceived race and nationalism, but the work remains enjoyable while offer interesting interpretations and presentations on social issues ranging from capitalism to patriarchy.

 

If you enjoyed this post on a pulp-era detective novel, feel free to check out my posts on You Can’t Stop Me, Branded Woman, The Name Is Jordan, Stamped For Murder, Pardon My Body and a host of novels by Carter Brown.  For updates and new posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Halliday, Brett (aka David Dresser).  Murder Is My Business.  New York.  Hard Case Crime.  1945/2010.  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.

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