Meet Me In Darkness: An Imitation Detective Novel

 

MeetMeInDarknessNot all detective novels are created equal.  Though the genre was at the heights of its popularity in the mid-20th century, it did not mean all novels sold well or were well written.  Raymond Bank’s foray into detective fiction is an excellent case and point.  Meet Me In Darkness was the first ‘Sam King’ detective novel, and was very close to being the last (only one other Sam King novel was ever written: The Computer Kill), and for good reason.  Whilst the beautiful illustrative cover meets the standard of other pulp-era detective novels, and Sam King is placed on a par with other detectives popular in the era in terms of his womanizing ways, the work utterly fails as a detective novel.  With nonsensical plot turns, poor detective work, and no details that allow the readers to play along with the solving of the mystery, there is little in the work to keep a reader interested.  That said, the novel does offer an interesting take on the ways in which patriarchal capitalism objectifies women.

 

GENDER

 

Alexandra Daddario would be well cast in the role of Thelma Richardson if there were ever a film adaptation.

Alexandra Daddario would be well cast in the role of Thelma Richardson if there were ever a film adaptation.

Both Dorothy Baird and Thelma Richardson, suspects in the murders that the plot revolves around, have motives that are rooted in their lack of autonomy under patriarchal capitalism.  Dorothy Baird, for instance, seeks to leave her husband, but is tied to him economically as he is both her husband, and her supervisor at work, reinforcing the hierarchical nature of marriage in a patriarchal society.  Carl Rose, one of the novel’s antagonists, notes that “Like lots of people, [Baird] figures money is a husband” (50).  This squarely places marriage as an economic relationships, further demonstrating how women are financially dependent on their husbands, and how marriages are based on finances, not love.  More noteworthy, however, is Thelma Richards.  It is noted that prior to the events of the novel, Richards tried landing a wealthy husband and had to put on a show to suggest that she herself was wealthy.  To do this, she took out a loan, and when her plan failed, she was told she must pay back the money.  The men whom she borrowed money from were willing to let he pay the money back “in trade, white slavery style” (57).  Before doing this, however, she sought the help of Rose.  He offered her money in exchange for sex, but held the agreement over her head to assert control over her.  She worked for him as a waitress, paying her debt back slowly, but she is overtly framed as a commodity in a patriarchal society that views women’s bodies as something to be traded and sold on the open market.  Through both Baird and Richards, marriage is viewed as a kind of institutionalized prostitution and women’s bodies are framed as commodities, reinforcing the ways in which women are made subservient to men under patriarchal capitalism.

 

 

Scarlet Johansson would be well cast as Helen Alexander in a film adaptation.

Scarlet Johansson would be well cast as Helen Alexander in a film adaptation.

Perhaps the best example of the oppressive nature of patriarchal capitalism is Helen Alexander.  It is Alexander whose fiancé is murdered at the beginning of the novel, along with his soon-to-be ex-wife.  Alexander’s life is a humble one: she is a teacher who lives in a hotel.  Though she has a noble profession, and one that was dominated by women, her finances were far from ideal and her quality of life meager by American standards.  Her only hope was to secure financial security through marriage.  Her potential husband, though, ends up backing out.  His response is to this retraction is to give her 49% ownership of the hotel in which she lived. This frames marriage as an economic arrangement, as his ideas of reimbursement is providing Alexander with the independent means that marriage would have provided, suggesting that the end goal of the proposal was financial security.  It is eventually revealed that (SPOILER ALERT) Alexander was behind the murders, and it is noted that with the money she would have been able to secure, she “could pick and choose a husband, or not pick one if [she] chose” (134).  This further highlights the suggestion that when choosing a husband, it is not companionate marriage that is the objective, but financial security.  Having financial independence, then, allows a woman to choose a partner she wants, or opt not to choose a partner at all.  If money is a factor in that choice, than any subsequent consent is under duress of some kind, which again frames marriage as a form of institutionalized prostitution.

 

PERCEIVED RACE

 

Movies like High Yellow addressed the nomenclature that marginalizes and objectifies those who have diverse ancestry.

Movies like High Yellow addressed the nomenclature that marginalizes and objectifies those who have diverse ancestry.

Whilst ‘race’ does not play an overt role in the novel, there are some allusions to race that are problematic, though they serve more as evidence of the symptoms of prejudices based on perceived race and do not come across as overt or malicious instances of such bigotry.  In one instance, Richardson notes that the men she indebted herself to wanted to introduce her to ‘white slavery’.  This term is problematic for a couple of reasons, but most notably because it inherently implies that enslaving a white person is somehow different than the enslavement of people of colour and therefore needs its own term.  The enslavement of the people of Africa, for instance, was simply called ‘slavery’, not ‘black slavery’.  Like the term ‘reverse discrimination’, the phrase ‘white slavery’ implies that the oppression is meant to go in one direction, and that when that oppression is reversed, it needs a special signifier.  The other issue is that ‘white slavery’ is often used specifically to describe when white women are forced into the sex trade, but giving ‘white’ women their own term, whilst other women are collectively grouped together under terms like ‘sex slaves’ and ‘human trafficking’ suggests that when this crime happens to ‘white’ women, it is somehow a greater concern. Such terms should be universally applied, otherwise the marginalization of one group is prioritized above others.  Another issue is the fact that Banks’s protagonist keeps referring to a piece of luggage as being ‘high-yaller’.  The term ‘high-yellow’ (or ‘yaller’ as used in Southern dialects) is used to refer to people of colour with white ancestry, often resulting in what some describe as a ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’ skin colour.  To use this term to REPEATEDLY describe the colour of the suitcase, instead of a term like ‘tan’, is akin using terms like ‘Indian red’ and makes light of the categories that the dominant culture has placed marginalized people into.  With the use of terms like ‘white slavery’ and ‘high-yaller’, the work’s casual use of racially loaded terms weighs down the work, and though it likely had no effect on readers at the time of its publication, from a contemporary reading, it makes the novel seem dated and insensitive, especially since no broader commentary on issues relating to perceived race is offered.

 

AS A DETECTIVE NOVEL

 

Raymond Banks failed to form a detective novel as entertaining as peers like Carter Brown.

Raymond Banks failed to form a detective novel as entertaining as peers like Carter Brown.

Literary merits, or lack thereof, aside, the biggest issue with the work fails to sustain the standard of even a mediocre detective novel.  Sam King is among the worst detective to ever appear in text.  He repeatedly makes mistakes, allows himself to be taken over by smaller and older adversaries, three times secures and fails to deliver the boon before finally succeeding, and makes any number of amateur mistakes.  He is not stylistic or interesting enough to be endearing, the descriptions of the women fail to engage either on a literary level, or a sexploitative one, and the plotting seems to have been made up as Banks went along.  There are any number of ridiculous plot points and twists that seem meant, not to add to the story, but rather, to the word count, as if Banks were required to hand in at least 140 pages.  This also comes through in his writing, which is often times redundant.  None of the characters come across as particularly interesting, most especially the three key suspects and the protagonist, and perhaps the biggest sin of all is that the reader is not given any substantial evidence with which to try and solve the crime along with Sam King.  Even strictly judging the work strictly as a work of genre fiction, and not as a piece of ‘literature’, the work fails to meet expectations.

 

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

The Computer Kill, the only other 'Sam King' novel.

The Computer Kill, the only other ‘Sam King’ novel.

Though Banks seems to construct a narrative that calls into question the symptoms of patriarchal capitalism, it also presents women as predators trying to ‘trap’ a husband.  The women of the novel also lack any sort of depth and are framed strictly through masculine eyes, which is to say they are only constructed in terms of what they can offer men, or are judged by men.  Though one might argue that this is the result of the unreliable narrator, a depth of peripheral character can be achieved through the limited perspective unreliable narrator; Banks just fails to do so.  He also fails to offer a creative, interesting, or relatable protagonist.  Sam King comes across as a hack who got lucky, not as a wiz who had was one step ahead of his adversaries.  Coupled with this, the casual use of racially charged terms does the work no favours.  As mentioned, though, the work’s biggest problem is that it fails to meet the standard of the mystery genre.  With weak characters, poor plotting, and subpar writing, the only thing left to keep readers engaged is the solving of the mystery, and for that, there are no clues offered.  All the reader has is Sam King’s instinct, which was not revealed until the final pages, and which he only validated with a trick that is performed in the in the closing scene, and is not revealed until shortly thereafter.  That said, the artwork on the cover is enjoyable, though as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

 

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Works Cited:

Banks, Raymond.  Meet Me In Darkness.  New York: Popular Library.  1960.  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. Andy Ancel says:

    As one of Ray Banks’s two sons, I found your analysis interesting. Maybe it’s better to be remembered in a negative way than not be remembered at all. We lost my dad in ’96. He was better known as a science fiction writer. He once told me how he organized the story in Meet me in the Darkness. It was interesting. I do have a different last name (is other son is still a Banks) but was close to him right up to the day he passed away…

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. Sorry to hear about your loss. I’ll be sure to check out his science fiction work if I happen to come across any.

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