Michael Brett’s Slit My Throat Gently will never be remembered as a masterpiece of detective fiction, and in fact may never even be in publication again, but the work remains a joy to read as Brett manages to do what the finest detective novelists often accomplish by creating an entertaining narrative that uncovers an engaging mystery while exploring several social issues that relate overarching narrative. By highlighting how the privileged classes are more concerned with maintaining class boundaries and distancing themselves from scandals that include sex and drugs than they are with ensuring the safety of their own children, Brett offers a critique of what has come to be known as ‘the 1%’. Brett also indulges in a little metafiction to question the authenticity of the genre he is writing in, adding another layer to the work. Though conventional in many respects, these elements make the work a guilty pleasure worth indulging in.
Class is one of the key issues that the novel explores as Brett highlights how the working class are compelled to compromise their principles based on economic pressures. When Elizabeth Jennings, a wealthy socialite, enters the office of Pete McGrath, the novel’s narrator, she immediately proves a difficult client, refusing to give McGrath information he needs for the proposed investigation while speaking to him in a condescending tone. McGrath takes issue with this rudeness, and notes that though they had “hardly started… she annoyed” him, which he saw as “a danger signal”. Despite his reservations, he takes the business, stating that “when you’re broke you smile” at such people (9). This motivation is exacerbated by the fact that he is at risk of being evicted and having essential services like electricity cut off. This demonstrates how class differences and economics create unbalanced social situations that allows wealthy people to dehumanize members of the working class and treat them as commodities rather than human beings, while the working class is left in a position where their only option is to grin and bear it.
Because an economic hierarchy positions the wealthy as powerful, maintaining that hierarchy becomes a priority to the wealthy, even when it is at the expense of one’s own family. Jennings is the most overt example of this. Though she has information that would help McGrath find her daughter, Jennings is reluctant to provide him with this information, in part due to his class standing. This is reinforced by the fact that when contacting her about information regarding her daughter, he is not allowed to use conventional methods of contact as she does not want people knowing that she is speaking with a detective. Thought this is partly because she wants to keep her personal matters private, it is also because she does not want somebody of McGrath’s class contacting her through informal means. This is reinforced by the fact that Jennings won’t allow McGrath to contact any of her friends, or her daughter’s acquaintances, and when he asks to attend a social gathering, she takes issue with the fact that he is present at a formal event. In each step, though privacy is in part the motivation for Jennings’ secrecy, it is clear that the class divide is also a significant factor. In this way Jennings impedes the investigation of her missing daughter, prioritizing the need for privacy and the maintenance of class divisions over her daughter’s wellbeing.
The novel likewise addresses issues of addiction, noting how the social stigma prevents addicts from getting the help they need. When Jennings discovers that her daughter is addicted to heroin, she is more interested in distancing herself from her daughter and hiding the problem. Both in relation to her daughter’s drug use, and her daughter’s sexual proclivities, Jennings threatens to disown her daughter, only making her daughter’s situation more desperate. It is McGrath who offers the most reasoned response to this kind of behaviour. He says that “It’s easy to judge an addict” because “doing it makes you feel superior, cleaner”, but goes onto say that “It makes as much sense as judging a diabetic or a manic-depressive.” He then concludes that “Rehabilitation is a long process” and that addiction is “a sickness” (39). In this passage, McGrath, contrary to the position of the American government, views addiction not as a crime, but as a health issue, comparing it with diabetes and depression. While countries like Portugal have decriminalized drugs to see a decrease in use, crime, and the spread of diseases, the view of addiction as being criminal and a question of morality continues to pervade American politics, leading police to conduct no-knock warrants on homes with no drugs or drug dealers that in some instances lead to the death or injury of innocent children. Brett’s writing, though, highlights the flaw in this thinking, as the tragic ending to the novel’s narrative serves to further reinforce this view.
Slit My Throat Gently also reads like a hip, self-aware detective story by employing metafiction in several instances in what seems to be an attempt to differentiate the novel from other works in the genre. When McGrath’s investigation stalls out, he goes “Out on the street” to try and get “a private eye hunch, the one you read about in books”, before going on to state that he “came up with zero” (53). In this respect, McGrath calls attention to the work as an artifact, questioning the authenticity of fiction when compared to reality, and in turn situating his own work as a piece that is more authentic. McGrath, unlike some detectives, must develop his theories through evidence, not through hunches that he then has to prove. He later goes onto write that “It’s only fiction writers who make things look easy” (65), further reinforcing this sentiment. When he employs a trick that might easily go over in a detective story and it doesn’t work, he tells his adversary that his “trouble is that [he doesn’t] read the latest detective stories” (92), ironically demonstrating that the typical person in reality won’t easily fall for plot devices laid out in works of fiction. In each instance, Brett uses metafiction contrast his work with that of other writers and encourages the reader to become hyperaware of the text that they are reading. Though a conventional tool commonly used in detective fiction, Brett does use it effectively.
Brett’s novel is in many respects an orthodox detective narrative, but in engaging with various themes and social issues, Brett creates a narrative that satiates fans of detective fiction, and allows those interested in a close reading to bite into something below the surface of the novel’s mystery. In invoking conversations on class and creating unbalance social situations, Brett highlights some of the issues associated with class. Likewise, his commentary on addiction proves insightful and prophetic, while his employment of metafiction adds a bit of irony and tongue-in-cheek humour to the work. It is still replete with the conventions of pulp-era detective novels, such as the objectifying blazon the narrator always offers upon meeting beautiful women. In one scene, for instance, he describe a hotel clerk as “a country beauty with a round face, white lipstick, dark eyeshadow, large brown eyes, and cropped blonde hair”, while guesstimating her age, and describing the “snug white sweater which moulded her truly remarkable breasts” (21). In this way, and through the mystery narrative itself, Brett appeases the typical reader of pulp-era detective novels, but by including social commentary and literary devices like metafiction, he is also able to offer a work that has several layers to it.
Brett, Michael. Slit My Throat Gently. New York: Pocket Books. Print.