Murder Must Satirize:
James J. O'Meara
Ann Sterzinger’s Girl Detectives
Girl Detectives: Amateurs In Hate
Illustrated by Frankie O’Malley
Chicago: Hopeless Books, 2013
“[S]ince you’re both trying to frame each other, she really IS a better writer than you. I think she has a great future in detective fiction. OUCH!”
I’ve recently been exploring the world of pre-War boys’ books so you can imagine excited I was to find a new book, a first novel, by someone vaguely on Our Side (friendly with Andy Nowicki at least) called Girl Detectives.
It’s funny, sometimes hysterically so (more on that soon) and sharply observant, in a refreshingly un-PC way (more on that too). But I can’t help selfishly feeling a little let down on the girl detective front.
Here‘s what we have instead of a hipster girls’ adventure tale:
Girl Detectives centers around the copy monkeys — proofreaders — who inhabit the bottom rung of the officially “Leftist Lite” but rigidly hierarchical and anti-meritocratic journal Chiculture, one of those hipster arts magazines that have come to infest our metropolises, like (the late) NY Press or Creative Loafing; in particular one Pill Dombroski, a petite bundle of career resentment from Milwaukee, topped off by a purple fauxhawk and sending out waves of Jim Beam and unwashed band T-shirt; and her cubicle mate, the vaguely BBC-African Helen.
Lording over them are the “real” writers, such talentless but inexplicably pampered phonies as Maurinette Meede, the Patsy Stoneish restaurant “critic,” and Humph Moray, the faux-Brit book “critic.” And finally, and literally above all, is Kimmie Wrigley, scion — scioness? — of Chicago royalty, who no sooner arrives than she is given a plum position and takes up with Humph, who just happens to be Meede’s latest boy toy.
Then, she disappears.
The Wrigleys being above using the plebian police engage the services of a Tribune crime story re-write guy who wants to become a detective. (Really?) Apparently lacking confidence on his first job, he deputizes his two main suspects, Pill and Meede, to investigate each other. And thus, after about 200 pages, we meet the Girl Detectives; which I think is entirely too long to wait.
Just before then, however, is my favorite part of the book. About 40% in, according to my Kindle, a section occurs out of nowhere — the author deals with this by giving it the lugubrious title “Entr’acte”– in which we enter the stream of consciousness of a character we’ve met but otherwise ignored, Arts Editor Sybyl Sarta, as she winds her way home, obsessively commenting on the morons around her – the word is her version of Big Daddy’s “mendacity”:
When she left the office – that den of morons – and headed for her SUV, she’d been dizzy with rage . . . [S]he’d been faced with edit-ees from both of what she called the Two Classes of Jerk-ass Morons . . . the Not-so-Bad Guys . . . [and] the Bookish Fucks . . . The sound of the powerful engine starting up soothed her, but then she pulled to the mouth of the garage and saw the moron-heavy cataract of traffic she would face on her way home.
Winding up in her bath with a bottle of Chianti, wishing she could personally thank the inventors of baths and wine, she stages a preposterous, Homeric mock-epic sea battle among the office morons, summarizing the plot so far with toy boats:
“Yes, avast! – here’s the SS Pill Dombrowski. This boat should never have been allowed upon the Chiculture waters. If you can even call it a boat – it looks like a boat, but this boat lies so constantly that perhaps it is really some kind of hippopotamus in a thin coat of boat skin. What noise does a hippopotamus make? Uh, hm, maybe it’s actually a disguised sea lion,” said Sybil. “ARRRR! ARRRRR! ARRRRRR! I’m a boat! I’m a boat! Sybil, you’re so stupid I know you’ll believe me! I am really so totally not a sea lion!” The S. S. Pill slopped about, splashing Sybil’s thighs as it attacked the other, superior, yet helpless vessels. . . . It looks dark! The hippo-lion shitboat has them all surrounded!
She reached out of the tub and grabbed her favorite ship, an enormous, elaborately carved piece of wood, the Star Destroyer of nautical toys. “It is! Thank god! It’s the U.S.S. Sybil Sarta! Everybody cheers! Bam! Pow! Launching missiles filled with logic and sense, the Sarta DESTROYS the ugly hull of the Dombrowski! Its stupid crew despairs! They’ve been hit! Over and over!”
It’s unmotivated, as I say, and nothing comes of it, and frankly a bit moronic itself, but it had me coughing and snorting and generally making a complete fool out of me on the subway train. All these characters operate on the same level of childish hate, but at least La Sarta has found a way to have fun at it.
Clearly, if the whole book were like this I would recommend it unreservedly. As a whole, however, the book just fails to integrate what we might call the girl part and the detective part.
They don’t even become girl detectives until it’s half over! No real girl would sit still for a book that fails to deliver up the girl detectives tout suite, nor would the cigar-chomping, derby-sporting publisher of such pulp.
Did I bring unfair expectations to the table? No more than the publishers, who tell us to expect a heady mix of Wodehouse and Chandler, two of my favorite, though very different, authors.
Both authors are so noted for their immaculate prose that Wodehouse collections regularly contain a selection of his most memorable passages, or “Plums,” and Knopf recently published a whole book of Philip Marlowe one-liners.
I imagine that passages like Sarta’s Sea Battle are what they have in mind, but as funny as it is it’s not at all Wodehousian; while the general level of frustration and careerism makes for an atmosphere – or atmos’ as Bertie might say – a world away from, say, the bank office shenanigans of Psmith in the City (also based, like this book, on the author’s own experience).
In fact, the only Woosterism I could locate was the narrator’s “The glittery false lashed flashed as the eyes fluttered up” (Bertie being fond of using adjectives for nouns – a forkful of the old scrambled, perhaps). But then, basically, there’s no one like Wodehouse.
As for Chandler, there’s nothing remotely Chandleresque about the writing here, except for this passage, that suggests what Chandler might have done with Chicago:
The skyline — the only real skyline in the flyover states — rose and fell in graceful, cold imitation of natural hills, a silly, lonesome clump of fingers poking over the barren lake toward the flat heavens. There were bodies buried in the foundation of every tower and people looked up at their lines with dumb wonder, as though aliens had put them there.
Otherwise, passages like this
“What remains an object to my confusion is the origin of your quote-unquote detective’s title, Mr. Roger — or is it Mr. Edgar? What I don’t understand is how you slunk from a low-level editorial post straight to a position in which you assume the authority to slither about interrogating innocent citizens.”
are just no match for Chandler; here’s how Marlowe handles upper-class abuse:
“I think you’re a very stupid person. You look stupid. You’re in a stupid business. And you came here on a stupid mission.”
“I get it,” I said. “I’m stupid. It sank in after a while.” (Farewell My Lovely)
Nor is there anything especially Chandleresque about the plot or the mystery. Not even a character murdered for no apparent, or explicable, reason! The murder itself takes place offstage — “murder by implication” as MST3k would say — show, Ms. Sterzinger, don’t tell! — and the “mystery” amounts to no more than waiting around for the real detective to put the pieces together, since it’s his first case, and the dumbass, as he later admits, neglected to search the suspects’ offices at once, he fails to find the planted clue immediately.
Chandler’s characters tend to be eccentrics but also scumbags, and other than a few minor characters, like Elisha Cook’s “little man” in The Big Sleep, the detective is the only moral force, Here the detective and everyone else is just another loser.
“Er, . . . team? More like a sick fucking family, if you want a metaphor.”
There’s no particular moral compass:
Was it awful to frame an innocent woman, even if she was a successful moron? It was relatively easy to tame [the surge of guilt] just by asking herself a question: why is it so much worse to take a knife to somebody than it is to have more luck than you deserved? Answer: maybe it isn’t.
Of course there’s no moral compass in Wodehouse either, but there “Charm is the only prerequisite in the Wodehouse ideal . . . with it, you can do very little wrong.” Trouble is, no one here is charming, except bathtub Sybil.
And the detective’s idea of setting the employees to gather evidence against each other is not only implausible but the sort of thing Marlowe would have just shaken his head sadly at. His “criminological theory” (Marlowe’s already reaching for the door knob) amounts to
“The extraction of sensitive information via apparently accidental psychological torture. In layman terms, the crazier an investigator can drive a person who’s hiding ‘info’ . . . about a murder the more likely she is to blurt that shit out.”
In short, this is Colombo TV land, not Chandler’s mean streets.
I think what the publishers are meaning to suggest with their chimerical Chandler/Wodehouse is someone else entirely: Dorothy L. Sayers and her gentleman amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Sayers herself once described Lord Peter as “a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster.” Moreover, like Sterzinger, she was a copy-writer when she began writing her mysteries in 1922, although it was not until 1933’s Murder Must Advertise that she made use of the setting.
Far from being an invidious comparison, Sterzinger does win hands down on the stylistic front. Compared to her, Sayers seems stodgy and old hat.
On the other hand, the comparison does highlight my major complaint here. Sayers was wise enough to kill off the victim beforehand, and start right off with Wimsey on the scene. (The staff doesn’t know it’s him, but we do: “She says [the new copy-writer is] like Bertie Wooster in horn-rims”). The fey Wimsey, playing at detective and posing as a copy-writer, is something of a girl detective himself, an upper-class Pill, as it were.
But with Girl Detectives, it’s as if Sayers had gone on for 200 pages on the antics of an ad agency, then killed off a particularly hated character, introduced Wimsey, had him irritate everyone with his patented Woosterism, and just had him wrap things up in the last chapter. Her detective fans would have asked, why did I just read 200 pages about an ad agency, and perhaps a few ad agency fans would feel that things were fine until that chap got hit on the old bean and that damned nuisance Wimsey turned up to ruin everything with his silly damned snooping, what what?
Another advantage of Sayers method is that rather than front loading the book with the procedures of the magazine’s editorial staff, Sterzinger could have, like Sayers, introduced us to them as the story progresses. If Pill, like Wimsey, had been a girl detective pretending to be a copy-writer from the start, the reader would learn the business along with her, including the details that evolve organically into the solution of the mystery. Here, the murder is just a drunken incident that could happen in a bakery or the White House, and hipster magazine production plays no role in the crime or the solution.
Now, you’ll recall that I mentioned at the top the author being “one of us,” and here the novel truly invokes the atmosphere of Wodehouse and Chandler, to the extent of reflecting a White, non-Communist worldview; in short, non-PC. The magazine (wonderfully christened Chiculture, with all the hints of ‘chic’ and ‘chick’ you’d expect it to have) is analyzed in all its trustafarian “Leftist lite“ glory and handled with the contempt it deserves. A visit by our two girl detectives/mutual suspects to a sushi joint allows the author to unashamedly revel in a whole palette of Orientalisms — perhaps having it both ways by letting the author’s surrogate cringe and hide under the table as things degenerate; while an obviously Affirmative Action hire is introduced early to be roundly mocked and dismissed, with characters later wondering whatever happened to that guy?
The sort of Amazon reviewers who take a star off Chandler for his disdainful “dames” or “male cuties,” or Wodehouse for Bertie’s blackface antics, or other “shameful attitudes of their time” will not be amused; and we say good!
This is a “first novel,” as they say, and I understand that there are several later ones, which I look forward to reading, and I hope there’s plenty more to come. The odd thing about fiction among the alt-Right is that it sometimes seems so terribly . . . black. We need to break out of the bitter young fogey mode that society expects from us and have some fun. And look! Sailing to the rescue – the Good Ship Sterzinger! Hooray!
1. See my review of We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness here.
2. The author has unwisely chosen to render his speech phonetically, a staple of American “humor” from Twain to Lovecraft that died out for reasons that are all to evident here: the reader’s struggle to sound out whole passages of Hmmph’s and Kwthfth’s. I wonder if that was Lovecraft’s inspiration for Cthulhu and other deliberately unpronounceable cult names? Instead, I turned them out and dubbed in Mr Ingleby from the Granada TV production of Sayers Murder Must Advertise, of which more anon, or else Ade Edmundson’s Hamish the Food Critic from Patsy’s magazine on Ab/Fab, nicely bringing him together with his paramour, Maurinette the food critic.
3. The ‘Plums’ of P. G. Wodehouse (Folio Society, 1997) and Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, ed. Martin Asher (New York: Knopf, 2005).
4. See, for example, “Jeeves and Wooster: The Evolution of Genius” by Thomas Aston, MA (Cambridge), in Jeeves and Wooster: The Evolution of Genius: ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ and ‘My Man Jeeves’ annotated with Essays on History, Biography, Development and Writing Technique; Kindle, 2014.
5. Confusing the victim with one of the detectives, as starts happening on page 280, does not count.
Always search the office! Sheesh, Joel Cairo would eat his lunch. See my “Humphrey Bogart, Man among the Cockroaches” in The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).
7. Aston, op. cit., xii. Of course, charm has its own dangers: “Simple, creamy English charm . . . Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.” — Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited.
8. “I told you, I’m a detective. I work at it.” –- The Big Sleep.
9. Already by 1972 Robert Aldrich had decided that Marloweland could no longer be believably filmed, and resorted to casting Judaic Eliot Gould as a nebbishy gumshoe who shrugs and soft-shoes away at the end, to howls from the fans. Compare his previous attempted demolition of Mike Hammer, discussed in my “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick” here.
10. See “A Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers” attached to the Open Road Media kindle editions of Sayers’ Lord Peter books.
11. My original acquaintance with Sayers was through Granada TV’s 1972 dramatization of Murder Must Advertise, starring Ian Carmichael, which necessarily cut down on the verbiage, leaving an impression more like a series of Sterzinger’s bitter bon mots. Chandler, by the way, was a bit equivocal about Sayers, calling Gaudy Night “God, what sycophantic drivel . . . How silly can you get?” but adding, “Yet this is far from being a silly woman.” Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 291.