The detective novels penned by Alan Geoffrey Yates under the pseudonym Carter Brown offer a descriptive approach as to how women were viewed in sexual terms during the mid-20th century. His novel The Unorthodox Corpse is no exception. In it, he employs the detective-era blazon, which catalogues a woman’s physical attributes like a traditional sonnet, but conveys them through titillating prose rather than poetic verse. Through this process, and in concert with the rhetoric of his narrator, Brown highlights how women are both sexualized and objectified. Though Brown’s novels typically frame women as sexual conquests, The Unorthodox Corpse is unique among them in that it highlights how young women’s sexuality is policed through age of consent laws, and how society tries to usurp the sexuality of young women by denying them the right to make decisions regarding their own body, even when the state deems them old enough to do so. Though Brown employs a descriptive approach through his imperfect protagonist, the work ultimately promotes the empowerment of women both my underscoring the flawed traits of the narrator and the men around him, and by promoting the sexual autonomy of women.
THE BLAZON & THE OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN
The Unorthodox Corpse begins with a blazon that embodies the ways in which women are objectified. When describing Annabelle Jackson, the novel’s narrator, Al Wheeler, refers to “Her ample curves” that “were lovingly enfolded in a brown knit dress”, and her “Deep tan”, which made Jackson look “as if she’d been sculpted from milk chocolate” (5). This language is telling, not only in that it demonstrates the sexualisation of women by referring to her curves and using sexually suggestive language with words like ‘enfolded’ and ‘deep’, but also because it describes women in terms of consumption. Milk chocolate, for instance, is a commodity that is bought, sold, and eaten, or consumed, for pleasure and not for sustenance. In using such language, Wheeler is demonstrating that he views Jackson as a commodity that is designed for pleasure, not as a person with whom he might have a symbiotic relationship with. This is underscored when he closes his blazon by describing her blonde hair as “gold foil” and stating that “she looked good enough to eat” (5). Gold is, again, a commodity, and one that is frequently bought, sold, or traded, while his assessment that she looks good enough to eat reinforces the notion that women are viewed as products meant to be consumed.
The spirit of this rhetoric is reinforced through other blazons that objectify women. In one passage, Wheeler observes an outfit that displayed the thin waist of Miss Bannister, a teacher at the school where he gives a guest lecture. He notes that Bannister’s “full skirt hinted at long, shapely legs” (11). Though the woman in question wears a long skirt that is not revealing, Wheeler insists on projecting a sexualized image onto it, postulating that the woman had “long, shapely legs”, though he could not see them. Here, Wheeler usurps the autonomy of a woman who dresses conservatively, likely to avoid being sexualized, and pulls a sexual image out of it. He also notes that her top was “flame colored”, framing it in passionate, fiery terms, and then asserts that it “was doing a half-hearted job of concealing equipment” (11). This rhetoric fuels the lusty and impassioned tone, and reinforces the notion of women as objects by referring to her breasts as ‘equipment’, and making them sound utilitarian in nature, rather than human. This happens again when he notices Bannister in a “décolleté gown that had given a hint of a full bosom”, which he notes “hadn’t been misleading.” He goes on to state that “Her breasts were full, perfectly round, with dark nipples. Her waist was narrow and swelled softly to well-round thighs. Her legs were long and perfectly shaped” (85). Rather than questioning why she is dressed in such a revealing manner, he instead jumps into a titillating description of her physical features in a sexual context, which is admittedly more suited to this particular context given that it takes place in a bedroom.
Wheeler’s focus on Bannister’s sexual appearance reinforces the flaws of objectifying women in that it blinds one from recognizing their human characteristics. In this particular passage, Bannister is trying to ensnare Wheeler so that he can be accosted by a third party. Had Wheeler instead considered her motives, he would have been able to anticipate such an ambush. This is consistent with his early observations, as he noted Bannister’s bosom “deserved better than banishment to a school for girls” (11). Here Wheeler sees Bannister in strictly sexual terms and fails to consider that a professional career might be fulfilling to her as a person, and not viewed as a ‘banishment’ simply because she wasn’t being used for sexual gratification. Wheeler even goes so far as to say that “there should be a law against women being equipped with brains as well as all their other formidable weapons” (113), suggesting that only women who aren’t sexually appealing ought to have an intellect. The crime scene photographer that Wheeler calls in has a similar approach. When he sees the corpses of a young student, he offers a callous, and sexually charges response: “What a waste… She was quite a dish… Got anything else for me, Lieutenant…. Must be some real art studies in a place like this. Not that the blonde wasn’t a dish. But me, I don’t go for still life” (29). Rather than considering the tragic loss, the photographer sexualizes the homicide victim, and then suggests that she isn’t important to him because she can’t be used for sexual gratification. In the process, even Wheeler appears disgusted by the character, thus encouraging the reader to view the photographer’s views critically. Brown challenges this objectification of women and refusal to recognize their character by illustrating how it serves as a shortcoming when employed by his flawed narrator, and presenting other characters who employ such an approach, like the photographer, as comically despicable human beings.
Brown’s novel also explores the ways in which female autonomy are usurped and challenged, whether it be through conversations about age of consent, or workplace harassment. When Wheeler’s supervisor asks Wheeler to fill in for him as a guest lecturer at an all-girls school, Wheeler responds that he is interested in “Women… not school girls” (7). His captain’s response is that the school has “fifty students, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one” (8). This reveals an element of predatory sex as Wheeler responds by saying “Oh!” and his captain observes that “the light dawns” (8). There is this notion that the age of consent gives them permission to officially sexualize these young women, but that there is still a degree of naivety on the part of these would-be victims and a predacious overtone to the subtext of the language. The problem in this instance is that the women do not have a say as to whether or not they are sexualized, and instead have some arbitrary age thrust upon them by men who decide behind closed doors whether the women are old enough to be sexualized. This is consistent with the way Wheeler treats Jackson in the workplace. Though she chooses to be professional, Wheeler does not respect her autonomy and sexualizes her at work by leering at her. She responds by asking him why he has “been staring at [her] for… ten minutes”, to which he responds by saying he is “fascinated with [her] typing speed.” In this instance, though, Brown demonstrates how women are capable of asserting their autonomy as Jackson responds by telling Wheeler that his “eyes must be out of focus” because she “type[s] with [her] fingers” and “that’s not what [he has] been staring at” (8). In this sense she calls him out and asserts her will, but the passage is indicative of the ways in which men try to usurp women’s sexuality, whether outside of their presence, or in front of them.
While Brown presents a critical portrayal of the ways in which men try to usurp female autonomy, he also shows how women can not only reassert it, but also the ways in which it respecting female autonomy is mutually beneficial. When Wheeler is pursued sexually by a young woman, he initially categorizes her and then rejects her assertion of self-determination. Throughout the novel, rather than referring to her by name, he refers to her a ‘redhead’, twice in the scene where she makes herself available to him (125). In this way, he sees her only as a type, and categorizes her based on her appearance. Though he knows all the women in the school are of the age of consent, when she makes herself available to him sexually, he responds coldly: “How old are you?” When she affirms that she is of the age of consent, eighteen, he replies that she should “Come around and see [him] when [she’s] twenty-two”, and then they “could have a date” (93). While this seems responsible on the surface, in that Wheeler seeks to first ensure that she is old enough to give informed or mature consent, there is an element of condescension here. Though the government has recognized that she is old enough to consent, and though she is old enough to vote, and though men at the time would have been old enough to be drafted into military service, Wheeler still refuses to recognize that a woman at the age of eighteen can make a mature decision, and so rebuffs he choice despite the fact he finds he attractive.
She does not accept this, however, and offers a retort: “You want more positive thoughts about eighteen and less about twenty-two. Here I am, in the bloom of my youth, unmarried and carefree, at the age of consent, too, remember. What’s twenty-two got that I haven’t got except four more years?” (125) Upon hearing this, Wheeler concedes and agree to take her out to dinner. Though age of consent laws can be controversial as some are too low, while others create scenarios where teens relatively close in age could face criminal charges for engaging in a consensual act, there is a double standard as young men in their late teens are celebrated for their sexual conquests, whilst women of the same age are seen as victims despite the fact that most studies suggest that women mature faster than boys both physically and psychologically. In this respect, the ‘redhead’ makes is clear that she understands the situation, and what the implications of a sexual relationship are, asserting her intellectual capacity and maturity. This, not merely her chronological age, convinces Wheeler to indulge himself. Thus, he recognizes her sexual autonomy, and they can mutually enjoy whatever sexual relationship the two engage in. His initial questioning of her and verification that she is cognizant of the implications of a sexual relationship, though condescending, shows that Wheeler is seeking informed and mature consent. This is a positive reading in that it promotes a culture of consent. At the same time, Brown’s phrasing of her argument serves to challenge the condescending perspective that men usually view female sexual autonomy with, making the passage doubly effective in a feminist context.
Though the narrators in Brown’s detective novels are prone to overtly and excessively sexualizing and objectifying the women in the novels, there is far more at work than a surface reading would suggest. The detective’s blazon is emblematic of the way patriarchal society objectifies women, but the descriptive approach Brown employs does not validate such a view: it lampoons it. This is demonstrated most effectively when Wheeler falls prey to a malicious trap because he is too focused on describing a woman’s body. Discussion between men and the behaviour men display toward women in the novel also demonstrates the ways in which men ignore and usurp female autonomy and sexuality, but this is again a descriptive approach and does not inherently endorse such behaviour. This is especially clear when Wheeler is taken to task by the ‘redhead’ who asserts her desires and convinces Wheeler to not only reconsider, but change his position with respect to her ability to make choices regarding her sexuality. Though The Unorthodox Corpse could not fairly be framed as a template of feminist literature, and though it is problematic on many levels, the work does point out flaws with the patriarchal view of female sexuality and the ways in which men sexualize women, and does so through a sinfully seductive narrative and highly stylized characters who serve as entertaining archetypes from an antiquated era. Brown, as he often does, provides a guilty pleasure in genre writing that gives casual readers a surface narrative the is easy and fun to digest, but one the simultaneously engages complex social concepts that attentive readers can interact with should they desire to do so.
Brown, Carter. The Unorthodox Corpse. Toronto, ON: Signet. 1957, 1961, 1970. Print.