By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, May 7, 2007
THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN
By Gil Brewer
Hard Case Crime. 220 pp. Paperback, $6.99
Starting with "Satan Is a Woman" in 1951, Gil Brewer (1922-83) published more than 40 novels under his own name and others. Often sporting provocative titles ("Backwoods Tease," "Nude on Thin Ice"), his books sold millions of copies as paperback originals. Mickey Spillane had bigger sales, and John D. MacDonald and Ed McBain were better writers, but Brewer, like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford and others, eked out a living in the jungle of paperback publishing. Now some of these largely forgotten pulp writers are hailed as early masters of noir.
Brewer's "The Vengeful Virgin," first published in 1958 and reprinted now, is not much of a novel by today's standards, but it's a wonderful time capsule. The time, of course, is the 1950s, when America was, sexually speaking, a vast wasteland. I don't expect anyone younger than 50 to believe this, but in the '50s large numbers of young Americans of both sexes graduated from high school, and even college, innocent of sex. Young women "saved themselves" for marriage, and young men existed in a state of profound ignorance and frustration. Since meaningful sex education was forbidden in the schools, young people often looked for enlightenment to the novels of Spillane, Erskine Caldwell and Brewer. "The Vengeful Virgin" (love that title) is a feverish elaboration on a familiar theme in 1950s pulp fiction: that the meeting of a lusty young man and a hotblooded young woman leads swiftly to sexual frenzy, murder and, finally, the inevitable wages of sin.
Brewer did not invent this theme. His story borrows heavily from James M. Cain's two 1930s bestsellers, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity." Cain himself had borrowed from the celebrated 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder, who, along with her lover, Judd Gray, was convicted and executed for having murdered her husband. The murder was so poorly planned that Snyder and Gray became known as the dumbbell killers, and the homicidal lovers in Cain's novels were equally inept.
Brewer opens his novel by having Jack, who sells and repairs TVs, knock on the door of 18-year-old Shirley. She lives with and cares for her stepfather, who's nasty, bedridden and rich. She's also a sexpot who, Jack soon tells us, "walked on the balls of her feet, throwing her hips out in back. It was there to be looked at, and she must have known it. . . . Looking at her, you knew it would be something to lay your hands on that soft white skin; very smooth, like a breast, all over." The next day they proceed to the kitchen floor: "She began to groan and moan, writhing wildly. She was a tiger. She tore at my belt, then began tearing at her clothes. . . . She yanked her sweater up to her neck and I got as crazy as she was." During the 1950s, millions of teenage boys skimmed eagerly through paperback novels searching for scenes like these, which were universally known as "the good parts." Brewer serves up many more for our titillation.
Soon enough, the lovers decide that the nasty old man grumbling in the bedroom has to die. Shirley wants her freedom, and she's willing to kill for it; she's in the woman-as-destroyer tradition that goes back to Cain, Hammett and Chandler. Jack lusts not only for Shirley but also for the money she'll inherit. He develops a monumentally stupid plan to kill the old man. We read along wondering if these two dumbbells could possibly get away with murder in an era that still demanded that sex, however feverish, not be explicit and that crimes not go unpunished.
All that would soon change. Thanks to court decisions and a general loosening up of society, explicit sex burst out in popular fiction in the 1960s and early '70s with novels such as John Updike's "Couples," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying." By 1981, when Lawrence Kasdan used the let's-kill-my-husband plot in his film "Body Heat," amorality was okay; he could have the woman (memorably played by Kathleen Turner) frame her dumbbell lover (William Hurt) so that she goes free while he goes to prison.
In recent years, sex has begun to fade as a major element in popular fiction. There's too much of it available via the movies, television and the Internet, not to mention in real life, for people to hunger for it in fiction the way they did 50 years ago. Any installment of "The Sopranos" contains more explicit sex -- and violence -- than the complete works of Mickey Spillane. Obviously, many novels still feature sex, but writers such as Tom Clancy and John Grisham, who offer little or none of it, have replaced the mega-selling writers such as Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, who made sex their stock in trade. Today, many readers look to novels as a refuge from the explicit sex that bombards them from every direction; suspense, not sex, is the engine that drives our popular fiction. That, in brief, is why thrillers dominate bestseller lists today.
"The Vengeful Virgin" -- which features a delightful, '50s-style cover painting of scantily clad Shirley kneeling, gun in hand -- is an artifact from a distant era. It's mainly of interest to hard-core students of noir, and perhaps to those of us who lived through the '50s and are amused to remember ourselves as pimply teenagers seeking thrills from all those milk-white breasts and quivering thighs in paperback novels. In time we grew up and learned that sex is easy; it's all that other stuff that makes you crazy.