Carter Brown’s The Mini-Murders: Homophobia, The Male Gaze, and the Police State

 

Carter brown the mini murders

Brown’s novels were perhaps most famous for their titillating illustrative covers.

When browsing through the covers of pulp-era detective novels, especially those by Carter Brown, it’s difficult to see the hypersexualized covers and believe that any of them could be ‘progressive’ outside of a hedonistic libertarian angle, and when one reads the pages there within, and gets a glimpses at the androcentric, heteronormative, and chauvinistic narratives, that sometimes cross the line into homophobia, it’s seems doubtful that such novels could be relevant to contemporary conversations concerning either gay rights or the wealth gap. The Mini-Murders, however, one of Carter Brown’s famous Danny Boyd novels, may do exactly that.  When a murder takes place, most of the novel’s cast feel as if jealousy stemming from sexual deviancies is the motive for the crime, and demonstrate a distracting preoccupation with one particular character because he happens to be homosexual, all the while the true murderer, a representative of big business, nearly get away with the murder.  The plot offers a parallel to contemporary American politics where conservatives are so busy trying to invigorate their base by arguing for archaic restrictions on marriage, that none of its conservative working-class voters realize their true agenda is to increase the wage gap by catering to big business.  The novel, though its characters are overtly homophobic, takes a descriptive approach and illustrates how puritan morals can serve to blind those who adopt them, preventing them from seeing the sin that is actually corrupting society: greed.

 

Another of the famous illustrative covers that made Brown's novels so popular.

Another of the famous illustrative covers that made Brown’s novels so popular.

The homophobic nature of the characters are present throughout the novel.  Private detective Danny Boyd is the first to express a mocking tone toward Flavian Eldridge, the flamboyant assistant to the novel’s famous fashion designer. Boyd asks him what he thinks about women with a ‘straight face’, whilst being quite aware of Eldridge’s orientation.  This demonstrates a conscious attempt to assert his heteronormative view onto Eldridge.  Such a view is often subconsciously present in any number of narratives, but Boyd makes a point of trying to draw a reaction from Eldridge.  His language, however, seems the most civil among the cast of characters.  Dion Freidel, the novel’s resident fashion designer and lady’s man, is even more insulting.  Eldridge suspects the house models of destroying Freidel’s latest fashion line out of jealousy, and so prescribes firing the “three stupid little bitches”, but when Eldridge leaves the room, Freidel says that Eldridge “should have made that four stupid little bitches” (11), inferring the Eldridge was likewise jealous and that this jealousy made him effeminate.  Given that Eldridge employs the misogynist ‘bitch’, one might be disinclined to empathize with him, but it becomes clear that the house models took the same approach as Freidel when it came to Eldridge’s orientation, referring to him as a “crazy little fag” (57).  This use of a homophobic misamatorist slur suggests that the entire culture that Eldridge lived in was dismissive of him because of his orientation, and was likewise preoccupied with his sexuality.

 

 

carter brown the desiredThis androcentric and heteronormative view, coupled with puritan sensibilities, leads the novel’s cast of characters to develop suspicions based the sexual proclivities of others, rather than recognizing the actual threat.  The preoccupation with Eldridge’s sexuality leads any number of characters to point the finger at Eldridge, suggesting that his desire for Feidel, and Feidel’s obstinate heterosexuality, led Eldridge into a jealous rage.  This demonstrates how, even without just cause, the heterosexual community views the homosexual community as a threat.  Puritan views on homosexuality might also be at play, and those who see homosexuality as a ‘sin’ or an ‘abnormality’, might then project greater sin and maliciousness onto those who identify as homosexual.  Eldridge, though, is likewise guilty of this androcentric perspective, suggesting that the house models, Stephanie, Kitty, and Deborah, are potential suspects because they are each jealous of the attention Feidel gives to the others.  Two other female guests, Libby Cathcart and Polly Peridot, as well as Feidel’s cutter, Lenore Brophy, cast suspicion on each other, suggesting that the others are likewise jealous enough of the attention Feidel gives other women that they might each be willing to commit murder.  Each of these characters believe so sincerely that the center of a woman’s world is the man whom she is sleeping with, that should that man take up with another woman, the scorned woman would resort to murder to appease her jilted heart.  This androcentric view is again reinforced by puritan sensibilities, as a life of vice that includes hedonistic sex, may also bear the fruit of other sin, such as murder.  This puritan, androcentric preoccupation with sex, though, clouds the actual issue at hand, which is avarice.

 

Another titillating cover from a Carter Brown novel.

Another titillating cover from a Carter Brown novel.

The cupidity that serves as the motivating force for most of the characters, often places profit over morality and empathy.  After one of the house models gets murdered and the investigation impedes Freidel’s professional progress, he asserts that “the whole world can’t just fall apart because she was murdered” (48).  Though Freidel had been intimate with the woman, and though she had helped his success, his concern is not with securing justice for her, but securing further profits for himself.  When another person murdered, Freidel takes the same stance again, stating that whilst his former employee is dead, “The rest of [them were] alive, and [his] company’s immediate future” was of a greater concern to him than what happened to the victim (109).  Given that Freidel repeatedly places his economic standing above those who are closest to him, and that those who remain around him still prioritize Freidel above themselves, it is clear that that the greatest threat, the love of money, is ignored by most.  Even Harry Kempton, Freidel’s original partner, fails to see Freidel’s avarice, which is especially troubling since he is the only person who recognizes a monetary motive from the onset of the narrative.  When Boyd suggests that Freidel may be teaming up with Art Luman, their third partner, to push Kempton out of the business, Kempton insists that Freidel wouldn’t do that because the two are friends, but Boyd asks Kempton what a friend is “where money is concerned” (64).  In the end, the motive for the murder is in fact money, but everybody, save Boyd and Kempton, failed to see the dangers of avarice as they were too busy postulating that the motive was related to sex.

 

carter brown murder is so nostalgicThe novel also introduces some interesting ideas about sex and gender.  While the male gaze is every present in the novel, with Boyd serving as the first-person narrator and constantly cataloging the features of every woman he sees, Brown turns the tables on the men in one scene where two models lust after Boyd.  They express that Boyd might be suited for an affair, but note that “in a situation like this [they] need a man who is also intelligent”, before going onto tell Boyd that “if there’s any grey matter under [his] crew cut, [he] sure keep[s] it well hidden” (60).  Here, the roles are reversed with the women leering at Boyd and judging him for his physical appearance, and valuing him for that, rather than his intellect.  Though Brown seems to lampoon the male gaze, he is also critical of women and presents a scenario that seems applicable to many ‘feminist’ dialogues that take place in online forums.  After tying up two of the models in the course of his investigation, Boyd forgets to untie them, leaving that duty to a local detective.  He claims that “the girls’ tempers had built to a point where if they couldn’t assassinate Danny Boyd, any other male would do” (119), and so the detective received the brunt of their anger.  This seems to be the approach taken some feminists who adopt generalizations about men and engage in counterproductive debates with those who do not wish to be lumped in with men who subscribe to oppressive patriarchal practices.  Brown seems to mock the male gaze, even as he embraces a genre of writing that makes excessive use of it, but at the same time he does not think that men at large should pay for the crimes of others.

 

carter brown hell catThough police have only a limited showing in the novel, there seems to be some allusions to issues with law enforcement.  It is important to note that if somebody wants thorough police work done, they cannot count on police, but rather must hire a private investigator, hence Boyd is brought in on the case.  When Kempton speaks of a police detective and mentions that the detective is a friend, Boyd observes that “To a cop… a friend is a guy you beat up with a rubber hose instead of a nightstick” (62).  This allusion to unnecessary violence seems to be prophetically accurate given the recent incidences of police brutality in Ferguson and New York.  Linking this comment, which has nothing to do with perceived race, with current issues that seem to have been influenced very much by race, may trivialize the issue, but what is clear is that even in the 1960’s, there was still a concern the police, regardless of race, abused their position of authority.  Given that citizens have to hire private investigators, and that police brutality was assumed to be a wide enough issue that one could make a joke about it, speaks to the flawed nature of law enforcement whereby citizens who need help have to pay for it, and citizens, regardless of skin colour, need to fear excessive abuses by police.

 

 

carter brown had i but groanedBrown’s work is seldom easy to unpack.  The storytelling is fast-paced, the characters highly stylized, and the narratives are always fun, but the attitudes of many of the characters, even the protagonists, are often antiquated, sexist, and chauvinistic.  When reading Brown’s work as descriptive fiction, where the author simply describes typical behaviour, his work can be read as a social lampoon, but he often times celebrates his protagonists who share in this behaviour, which can be read as an endorsement of such attitudes, though Brown may intend these protagonists to be unreliable narrators.  Whatever the author’s intent might have been, The Mini-Murders works as a kind of social analogy to America’s current political climate.  While Republicans appeal to their puritan base and argue against marriage equality, legitimate concerns, such as climate change, are denied by the right, while the government continues to deregulate big business and promote legislation that lowers or eliminates the minimum wage so that corporations can turn an even larger profit.  The real threat is the avarice of those already in power, like the killer in Brown’s novel, but the people at large are so preoccupied with puritan ideals regarding sex, that they are blind to the real threat.  In this way, the novel functions efficiently. As for its lampoon on gender roles, they also offer some interesting moments, as does his commentary on police, though neither is as effectively developed as they could be.  Analysis aside, the book was simply a fun read and would like keep any fan of detective fiction entertained for an afternoon.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, and if you are a fan of pulp-era detective novels, be sure to check out my other reviews of Carter Brown novels.

 

Works Cited:

Brown, Carter.  The Mini-Murders.  Toronto, Signet.  1968.  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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