Carter Brown’s Play Now… Kill Later: The Existentialist Detective Novel


One of the infamous illustrative cover that helped to make Brown's novels so famous.

One of the infamous illustrative cover that helped to make Brown’s novels so famous.

As is the case with most Carter Brown novels, Play Now… Kill Later is a template of pulp era detective fiction.  It is filled with titillating women, each peered at through the male gaze, has an androcentric perspective, and follows a private eye as he unravels a mystery in which everybody is lying about something.  And like other Brown novels, it also has capitalist greed as one of the central motivating factors in the novel.  However, what sets this novel apart from other works by Carter Brown is that it is propelled by existential anxiety rather than by lust or greed. Rafe Kendall, who hires private detective Rick Holman, sets into motion a faux blackmail plan, not to turn a profit, but because he wants to get rid of people in his life without them coming away with a negative opinion of him.  Just as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that “Hell is other people”, Kendall seems to hold the same sentiment, and like the characters in Sartre’s famous play Huis Clos, he is so preoccupied with what others think of him that his every decision is based on appeasing others and securing a favourable opinion. The existentialist notion that identity is socially constructed, then, is what shapes the narrative.


An alternate cover of Play Now... Kill Later.

An alternate cover of Play Now… Kill Later.

The blackmail scam that private detective Rick Holman must undermine is important to Kendall, not because he isn’t willing to pay money, but because he does not want people to believe that he has plagiarized his latest play, as the blackmailer claims Kendall has done.  Rather than paying the blackmailer, Holman suggests that Kendall allow the case to go to court where Kendall will be proven innocent.  Kendall, though, is not concerned about the money he might have to pay out, only that his reputation will be sullied.  Even if he is proven to be innocent, Kendall reasons that his name will still be associated with plagiarism and that he would never be able to bear it.  Though he knows that he is the author of the play, the authentic truth is not what concerns Kendall.  Instead, it is how others construct his identity that proves to be his primary concern.



Another of the famous illustrative covers that adorned Carter Brown's novels.

Another of the famous illustrative covers that adorned Carter Brown’s novels.

Kendall is consumed with protecting his literary identity. In one instance, he tries to cover up the fact that he had an outside writer assist him with reorganizing his plot.  Though work-shopping is common practice among writers, Kendall does not want others to know that he needed help refining his play.  When he hires Holman, he fails to inform Holman about this outside writer and gives instructions to an actor named Talbot and a poet named Ashberry, both of whom live in Kendall’s abode, not to mention it to anybody.  The entire household, in fact, is sworn to secrecy about it.  In hiding this information, Kendall actually impedes the investigation, and in so doing illustrates again that his reputation is his first priority. He even feels compelled to put up this front when working with a private detective who appears to have no interest in literature.


One key plot point concerns Kendall’s daughter, Antonia, who is not actually his daughter, but rather the product of an affair his ex-wife had with another man.  Rather than allowing himself to be viewed as a cuckold, however, Kendall feigns that Antonia is his own daughter, and allows her to grow up believing as much, placing the appearance of propriety above the truth.  In the process, he denies Antonia any sort of a relationship with her biological father, undermining how self-serving he is and the degree to which he values how others view him.  Though he could not stay with his ex-wife, he could likewise not allow his daughter to view the marriage as a failure, and so he created an alternate narrative for his wife, claiming that she died.  All of these false narratives were created not to protect people in Kendall’s life, but rather to ensure that a favourable public opinion of Kendall would be preserved.


And yet another illustrative cover from a Carter Brown novel.

And yet another illustrative cover from a Carter Brown novel.

Several characters seem to leach off of Kendall in the novel, and though he seeks to get rid of each of them, he refuses to allow himself to confront them personally for fear that they might form a bad opinion of him.  His manager, for instance, is embezzling money from Kendall, and though Kendall is aware, he does not want the manger to think he is untrusting.  Instead, he asks Holman to launch an investigation into his finances under the pretense that it is part of the investigation Holman is conducting into the blackmail.  Likewise, Talbot and Ashberry, the actor and poet that Holman provides with a home and allowance, have both worn out their welcome with Holman.  Rather than simply kicking them out, though, he brings Holman in to antagonize them and cast doubt upon them.  As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Kendall feigned the entire blackmail scheme that he might create this drama and have a reason to evict his boarders.  Even when it comes to people who have abused or used Kendall, he still seeks to secure their approval, demonstrating that the social construction of Kendall’s identity shapes his every decision.



And still another illustrative cover from a Carter Brown novel.

And still another illustrative cover from a Carter Brown novel.

Though the novel is perhaps not as engaging as some of Brown’s other works, indeed, it is clear from the onset who committed the novel’s only murder as only one person doesn’t have an alibi, it still offers an interesting existentialist subtext that makes the novel enjoyable.  In creating Kendall as a person whose own self-worth is defined by how his identity is socially constructed by people he doesn’t even know particularly well or even care for, Brown has created a figure that calls to mind the characters of Sartre’s Huis Clos, but places the character in a stylistic pulp-era detective novel that is replete with beautiful women, colourful characters, and a fast-paced narrative that makes the work a pleasure to read in a single sitting.


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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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