NOVEMBER 17, 2019
JAMES GUNN’S 1942 novel Deadlier than the Male is almost completely forgotten now. It’s been out of print for more than half a century (with the exception of a dismal 2009 Black Mask edition that, clearly, no one proofread prior to printing). Outside of a few old blog posts, some scholarship done on the film adaptation Born to Kill, and a sparse IMDB page on James Gunn’s screenplays, nothing really exists of Deadlier than the Male. Searching for biographical information on Gunn is a futile endeavor. Almost all links point to the sci-fi writer James E. Gunn or the James Gunn who directed Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, when the book was published, at least one critic called comparisons to James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett “ludicrous” because Gunn was such a superior writer. The critic argued that Gunn “writes better than Cain ever wrote” and “Gunn’s humor is far younger than Hammett’s and for that matter, far funnier.” The book launched Gunn into a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter. And, most importantly for my purposes, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze pointed to Deadlier than the Male as his favorite example of what the best crime writing can do.
Deleuze’s 1966 essay “The Philosophy of Crime Novels” inspired me to hunt down an ancient copy of Gunn’s novel years ago. I’ve read and reread it more than I’d like to admit. I worry with every rereading that the book will disintegrate on me. The pages have gone beyond yellow and are now a dull brown. The paper tears with the slightest provocation. I understand now why Deleuze finished his essay by humbly requesting that French publisher Gallimard rerelease the book. In 1966, when books could only be had by mail order or lucking into a bookstore selling a copy, the novel — already 24 years old at that point — must have seemed irretrievably lost. Even now, 77 years after publication and with the benefit of internet booksellers, only a handful of copies are still available. First editions go for over a grand. Before long, the novel will be out of reach.
The real shame in this lies in the novel’s relationship with Deleuze’s essay. Deadlier than the Male without Deleuze’s essay is too wacky. Deleuze’s essay without the novel is hard to pin down. Taken together, they open a fresh approach to writing and reading noir.
Deleuze wrote “The Philosophy of Crime Novels” to celebrate the release of La Série Noire #1000. French writer, actor, and translator Marcel Duhamel had begun the imprint in 1945. He published French translations of works by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, David Goodis, Charles Williams, and Leigh Brackett, among hundreds of others. Duhamel himself translated works by Jim Thompson and Chester Himes. He even convinced Himes to switch from literary fiction to crime fiction and gave him $1,000 to start the book that would make Himes famous, A Rage in Harlem (originally For Love of Imabelle). When we talk about noir, we get that term from Duhamel’s series.
Deleuze celebrates Duhamel’s achievements in curating a new style of crime. For Deleuze, contemporary crime novels had shifted away from searches for truth. Initially, crime novels had been concerned with truth in the deductive (or Hobbesian) model as exemplified by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, or truth in the inductive (or Cartesian) model as exemplified by Gaston Leroux’s Joseph Rouletabille novels. But for Deleuze, who was writing on the verge of the postmodern moment, these quests for truth were dubious. The criminal, Deleuze highlights, “professes allegiance to justice and truth and the powers of deduction and induction” just as much as the cop. Further, police work in Deleuze’s contemporary crime novels (and most crime fiction of today) “had nothing to do with a metaphysical or scientific search for the truth.” It was, instead, a pattern of following hunches, seeking informants, relying on confessions (often made under duress), and rationalizing the worldview the cop brought into the investigation. The crime novel, then, becomes little more than a palliative in the face of a chaotic world. In these novels, the cops’ hunches are verified. The informants don’t lie. The confessions prove something. We live in a world with clearly demarcated good and evil.
Deleuze, of course, doesn’t go for it. After growing up in occupied France during World War II, writing on the verge of the massive student protests that would define the 1960s, and being a self-described “pure metaphysician,” Deleuze was always going to be suspicious of crime novels that profess an easy sense of order. Instead, Deleuze argues that crime novels work best when they look behind the curtain of this supposedly orderly society. “[M]ore profound than either the real or the imaginary,” Deleuze tells us, “is parody.” He goes on to say, “The most beautiful works are those in which the real find proper parody.”
This is why Deleuze is so taken with Deadlier than the Male. For him, it “is a marvelous work: the power of falsehood at its height.”
Deadlier than the Male begins with the provocative first line, “Helen Brent had the best-looking legs at the inquest.” Gunn spends more time at the opening of the novel describing Helen’s legs, her body, her clothes, and her affect than he does explaining what the inquest is all about. We don’t know who was killed or what Helen has to do with it, but we do know, just a few pages in, that Helen “must be destined for a bad end, not necessarily because the Devil would have such a lure for Helen, but because Helen […] would have quite a lure for the Devil.” The meaning is clear: Helen is a femme fatale. She is the female of the species who is deadlier than the male. Before we know what the novel brings, we know who to blame.
This opening must be why Deleuze reads the novel as a parody. The descriptions of Helen feel more like a spoof of a femme fatale than any trope we should take seriously. Part of the reason for that is just how over-the-top Gunn’s description of her is. Part of the reason has to do with what, exactly, Gunn attempts to focus on. He describes her “white sharkskin suit,” her “air of impeccable breeding,” the way she crosses her legs with a “stunning and careless showmanship,” her “elusive aura like white gold,” and her classy taste in clothes and accessories. Rather than describing a sexy, seductive femme fatale, Gunn creates a fabulous one. She’s far closer to Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly than she is to, say, Raymond Chandler’s Velma Valento. The third-person narrative voice reads like it comes from a gay man who wants to go clubbing with her.
This voice provides a clever counterpoint to the typical characterizations of femmes fatales. In Cain’s Double Indemnity, for example, Phyllis Nirdlinger enters the novel and the first-person narrator, Walter Huff, notices her “sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair.” He’s initially unimpressed until she starts hinting at a crime. That’s when Walter notices, “Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts.” When Frank Chambers, the first-person narrator of The Postman Always Rings Twice, first sees his boss’s wife Cora, he says, “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” When Cora and Frank first kiss, Cora tells Frank, “Bite me! Bite me!” Frank does, drawing blood. This idea of Cora as a temptress who pushes Frank beyond reason is exacerbated by the film adaptation. Lana Turner’s Cora is introduced in the film by a slow camera pan that starts at her feet, lingers on her legs, and takes in her scantily clad figure prior to giving her a line. She is instantly seductive, instantly sexual. She is, in a sense, the femme fatale that readers were very accustomed to in the 1930s and ’40s: the woman whom the narrator or the narrative gaze wants both to sleep with and to blame for all of his misdeeds. Gunn’s parodic portrayal of a femme fatale highlights the absurdity of this trope. He doesn’t want to sleep with her. God, no. He wants to help her pick out that marvelous outfit. And if that outfit should drive a man crazy, well, it was probably a short trip there.
When there is a genuine seductress in Deadlier than the Male, Gunn’s descriptions seem to revel in the comedy of the act. He introduces Mrs. Pollicker — a wealthy, soon-to-be-murdered woman entertaining a host of suitors — as “a small woman, fluttery, with very white skin and very dark teeth, with improbable red eyebrows and impossible red hair. She always wore a multitude of ruffles to conceal the fact that she had no chest.” When this bottle-red, dark-toothed woman engages in the actual act of seduction, Gunn describes her as “spreadeagled on the bed, a tangle of ruffles and red fox.” He tells us, “She was only a little drunk,” then sends her through motions that W. C. Fields could choreograph. Gunn takes a similarly sarcastic approach to other characters in the novel, painting one as “very regal. She looked a little like a greasy Queen Victoria, caught on a jerky elevator.” He has fun with his men characters, as well. One paramour wears “a white, fuzzy sweater like a college boy’s, but he was over thirty […] and unless he stood rather too close to a bright light he was very good looking.”
Gunn’s dry sense of humor in crafting his characters has an almost reverse-Tarantino effect. No one is stylized. No one is very beautiful or handsome or cool. All are exposed as far less attractive than they think themselves. They’re comical, and their comedy lends an absurdity to the proceedings.
Not that the proceedings aren’t absurd enough to begin with. Deadlier than the Male follows Helen Brent as she finishes her six-week, easy-divorce residency in Reno and, at the end of it, stumbles upon the bodies of Mrs. Pollicker and her lover. Gunn makes no mystery of who killed them. They were both murdered by a gold-digger named Sam Wild, who stumbles upon them when he makes a late-night call at Mrs. Pollicker’s. Two days later, Sam meets Helen’s sister Georgia at the train station. Three days later, they’re married. Though Helen and Georgia are sisters, their father, when he died, left all of his money to Georgia. Helen, who’d just divorced a sugar daddy without any more sugar, is back living off Georgia’s largesse. So is Georgia’s new husband, Sam. And his gangster buddy Mart. And Sam’s sister Billie. And Billie’s boyfriend Jack. And, if he can get his blackmail scheme to work out right, Sam’s psychiatrist (who’s not really a psychiatrist but rather a con man who bleeds patients for information that he can use against them). High jinks ensue.
As this description suggests, the plot is convoluted. It’s also easy to follow. Gunn shows all of the murders. His scenes shift from the points of view of each character as they plot against one another. Readers get to watch the type of madness that Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles only discover after-the-fact in the Thin Man series. In the end, Deadlier than the Male becomes a book that can’t be taken too seriously.
This, for Deleuze, is half of the point. From his perspective, crime novel tropes only work if they’re self-reflexively absurd. Take the femme fatale, for instance. As a trope in midcentury novels, it ostensibly exposed a truth: that women are the cause of man’s downfall. This idea has been fed to us from the first story in the Bible up to Gone Girl and beyond. As the sexist Rudyard Kipling poem that gives Gunn his title repeatedly insists, the female of the species is deadlier than the male. Gunn’s novel turns this on its head. No one in the book is deadlier than Sam Wild. He murders four people. No one else murders anyone. Helen has nothing to do with the first three murders. And, it’s true, Helen kisses Sam passionately and tells him to murder a woman whom he immediately murders, but Sam had been planning on killing her for most of the book. For half of the book, Helen prevents the murder. To pin the blame on Helen and that kiss is ridiculous. To even consider blaming Helen is to consider the absurdity of the femme fatale trope.
Even the trope of the investigator is turned on its ear in Deadlier than the Male. When Sam Wild kills Mrs. Pollicker and her lover in the early scenes of the novel, the Reno police have a lot of evidence to go on. Even a cursory investigation would point the finger at Sam. But the police choose not to investigate. The only person who looks into it is Mrs. Pollicker’s friend, Mrs. Krantz. Her investigations are more comical than diligent. Mrs. Krantz takes the money she inherits from Mrs. Pollicker and heads to San Francisco, not to find the murderer but to get drunk. Upon arriving in San Francisco, she sees Billie Wild wearing Mrs. Pollicker’s brooch. Mrs. Krantz is too drunk to realize what she’s seen until Billie is long gone. From there, Mrs. Krantz proceeds to drink more and hit on a young bellboy until, by pure chance, she enters back into the orbit of Sam Wild. She is only certain of who the murderer is when Helen — who doesn’t investigate but figures it out because Sam all but tells her he did it — tells her. Almost immediately, Helen scares Mrs. Krantz into going back to Reno and keeping her mouth shut.
Just as Gunn’s portrayal of the femme fatale exposes the trope as a hollow justification of patriarchal society, the comical investigations of Deadlier than the Male disrupt the comfort that crime novels are supposed to bring. They’re supposed to make us feel like murders matter even though we know that most go unsolved, even though we know that murders go unsolved because they happen every day and most people only care when there’s something spectacular about the case. Crime novels are supposed to make us feel like the police and the justice system, or at least the lone wolf private investigators, are obsessed with truth and will do everything in their disposal to find it. Yet we know that most cops, judges, and PIs in real life are just doing a job, happy to convince themselves that the most convenient suspect is the guilty one, untroubled by the fact that suspects who are marginalized by race or socioeconomic class are usually the most convenient scapegoats.
When crime novels expose these fictions that we insist on placing over our society — that the patriarchy knows best, that the justice system is just, that we’re post-racial, that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, that all humans are created equal — as hollow, they reach their highest form. It’s not enough for Deleuze when crime novels simply parody the form or the genre, the best novels parody what we perceive as the real. Therein lies the power of Deadlier than the Male: it takes our ideas of an orderly, just, civilized society where people act on rational motives; it eviscerates those ideas; and it leaves us laughing at the rubble.