Chauvanism and Ableism in Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin

 

GilBrewer TheVengefulVirginGil Brewer was one of the many writers of crime fiction during the pulp era, and though he was not as prolific as some authors, he did manage to publish over thirty novels between the early 50’s and late 60’s.  Whilst detective fiction was the flavour of the day, and Brewer did dabble in that genre, his more popular novels were the literary equivalent of sexploitation films: crime narratives with a heavy dose of Frank Miller‘s Three B’s: ‘booze, broads, and bullets’.  Nude On Thin Ice, Satan Is a Woman, The Bitch, and Backwoods Teaser are among some of Brewer’s more popular works, but it was The Vengeful Virgin that publisher Hard Case Crime chose to bring back into circulation.  The novel centers on a young woman who is taking care of her aged and ailing step-father.  Her father is dying, but not dying fast enough, and when Jack (the owner of an television/stereo store: the 1950’s equivalent of an Apple Store) arrives, she manages to seduce him and talk him into helping her murder her wealthy step-father that she might inherit his fortune.  The book is a quick, fun read, but the plot is clichéd, the characters are a little flat, and Brewer’s presentation of both women, and mental illness is troubling.

 

With titles like The Bitch, it is not surprising that Brewer has less than flattering presentations of women in his novel.

With titles like The Bitch, it is not surprising that Brewer has less than flattering presentations of women in his novel.

There are three women with significant roles in the novel: Shirley, Grace, and Mayda.  None of them are presented in a reasonable manner.  Mayda is a married neighbour who is presented as unfaithful, Shirley is a young woman willing to kill for money, and Grace is Jack’s ex-girlfriend who fails to understand boundaries and stalks Jack after their break up:  Mayda portrays women as unfaithful and disloyal;  Shirley presents women as possessing an all-consuming greed that leads to homicide;  Grace portrays women as dependent on men and emotionally unstable.  Though there are women who display the kind of level of sociopathic or pathological behaviour present in these three women, the fact these are the only presentations of womanhood in the novel is what makes it problematic.  There is a lack of diversity.  There are no emotionally stable women, or women’s whose morality seems commendable.  Instead, they are all women who are willing to infringe on the rights of others to satiate their own desires.  It is understandable that in a crime novel, there is going to be a focus on the criminal element, but the fact that there is an utter absence of women who are strong, independent, moral, and emotionally stable, suggests a presentation of women that seems overtly chauvinistic.

 

 

In concert with The Bitch, the title Little Tramp further suggests Brewer's presentation of women is problematic at best.

The title Little Tramp suggests Brewer’s presentation of women is problematic.

Given its hypersexual nature, it is not surprising that the women are also all framed in a sexual nature.  The descriptions of each of the women focuses on their sexual attributes.  Grace, for instance, is cast aside after Jack deems that their sexual chemistry has dissipated.  This suggests that the only reason Jack got involved to start with was for sex, and that once the sex was no longer engaging, then Grace had nothing else to offer Jack.  Mayda is likewise valued only for her sexuality, and whenever she is not having sex with Jack, she is deemed as a nuisance.  Shirley is valued both for sex and money, but once Jack has the money in tow, he begins to consider getting rid of Shirley.  When each woman is described, nothing complimentary is said about any of them outside of their physical appearance.  This borders on misogyny, but given that the narrative is written in first person through Jack’s perspective, this could simply be a character flaw in Jack and not a representation of the author’s own views.

 

With titles that frame women as 'teases' (such as Backwoods Teaser) it is not surprising that Brewer's novels might contribute to rape culture.

With titles that frame women as ‘teases’ (such as Backwoods Teaser) it is not surprising that Brewer’s novels might contribute to rape culture.

There is a brief passage that where Jack speak to rape that is especially concerning.  After meeting Shirley, he describes her as ‘screwy’ and then says “She made you feel as if you wanted to rape her”, though he immediately concedes that he “was screwy too” (33).  Brewer does frame this logic as ‘screwy’, and again, this is the narrator speaking, not the author, but the passage is indicative of rape culture.  It suggest that the desire to rape is instilled into the rapist by the victim and is therefore an overt form of victim blaming.  The scene in which Shirley and Jack first consummate their ‘affections’ is especially problematic since Shirley actually rebuffs his advances and says no, but Jack pushes himself on her until she yields.  After this, she confirms her desire and retroactively gives her consent.  This narrative fosters the ‘no-means-yes’ mentality that is inherent in rape culture, and because the novel is meant to be titillating, and mean to appeal to readers who seek to indulge in sexual fantasy, the scene encourages the readers to fantasize about rape and validates such fantasies by suggesting that the women ‘want it’.  Whether the intent of the author or not, this is the potential product of such plotting.

 

The Red Scarf, another novel from Gil Brewer.

The Red Scarf, another novel from Gil Brewer.

Aside from gender issues, the novel also has some instances of ableism that are troubling, specifically in terms of the presentation of mental illness.  The character Grace is shown to be an unbalanced character who engages in stalking.  This kind of behaviour is often related to anxiety issues, amongst other potential root causes, but none of this is explored in the novel.  She is simply dismissed as ‘crazy’.  The staling and obsession is used as a plot point, which reads as though the author is using the mental illness to further his plot, but doesn’t give the illness a fair representation in the novel.  Shirley is likewise described as ‘screwy’ and has what appears to be anxiety issues, but they are likewise not explored and used to add melodrama to the climax scene.  This is especially troubling because the anxiety she seems to be suffering fromleads to attempted homicide and suicide, and though suicide is a legitimate concern for many people dealing with mental illness, linking homicide with mental illness fosters problematic stereotypes about mentally ill people that are simply not reflective of the behaviour that is typical amongst people who suffer from depression or anxiety.  The fact that the causes of these illnesses are not explored, and that they are dismissed as ‘screwy’ or ‘crazy’, and used to push plot points creates a narrative that comes off as lazy and insensitive.  It is perhaps unfair to fault Brewer with this given that such ableist tendencies are the result of cultural programming and it is not until relatively recently that people have become more considerate about such issues, but even in the era there were more thorough and sympathetic presentations of mental illness in literature (see Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and from the perspective of a contemporary reader, these elements of the novel weigh the narrative down.

 

 

GilBrewer6As far as the ‘goods’ go, the novel is mildly entertaining, but far from original.  The plot of killing an aged, ailing person for inheritance has been done enough times that in order to be engaging, the novel has to put a unique twist on it, and there is simply nothing in this plot that is particularly unique.  The characters are a little flat.  Jack is an amoral character who is neither bright nor interesting.  Given that it is a titillating novel that promotes sex as a selling point, I must say that even as far as erotica goes, the novel fails to deliver the goods.  The sex scenes are not arousing, and the descriptions of the women and sex act seemed rushed.  The climactic scene devolves into melodrama for melodrama’s sake.  Shirley’s actions seem unreasoned and without purpose, and the explanation that is offered is unconvincing at best, while Grace’s role in leading police to Jack and Shirley seems improbable (she had apparently followed the couple down a highway for hours without them noticing her car).  It is not a gratifying ending, or an interesting one, either of which could have made its lack of logical forgivable, but the biggest crime is that the reader is simply not invested enough in the characters to care what happens to any of them.

 

GilBrewer4As a publishing house, Hard Case Crime has done some great work in terms of preserving some works from the pulp era.  They have brought back some fantastic titles such as Branded Woman and The Girl With the Long Green Heart, but not all of their selections are of the same quality.  The Vengeful Virgin is perhaps more successful at what it does than Honey in his Mouth, another re-issue from Hard Case Crime, but there are other books on the Hard Case Crime roster that are far more entertaining.  As is the case with almost all of the Hard Case Crime books, cover art is quite exceptional and does a great job of capturing the spirit of the pulp era.  Artist Gregory Manchess paint the cover manages to paint in a style that is uniquely his, but still carries echoes of the illustrative art featured on a number of beautiful covers during the pulp era.  If you are looking to spend an afternoon reading some good crime fiction, The Vengeful Virgin may appease your appetite, but Branded Woman and The Girl With the Long Green Heart are better options from the Hard Case Crime catalog.

 

If you have a fondness for detective fiction from the pulp era, be sure to check out my reviews of other Hard Case Crime publications, such as Honey In His Mouth, The First Quarry and The Last Quarry by Max Allan CollinsLittle Girl LostSongs Of Innocence, Branded Woman, The Girl With the Long Green Heartand Murder Is My Business.  You may also like my reviews of pulp-era detective fiction such as You Can’t Stop MeThe Name Is JordanStamped 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:

Brewer, Gil.  The Vengeful Virgin.  Hard Case Crime; London.  1958.  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.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php