Shoot to Kill (Brett Halliday)

Posted: October 12, 2018 in fiction
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I would like to say that after a few weeks I still have a strong impression of this book, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a murder mystery that takes place over the course of an evening, and at 160 pages, it can be read in the same period of time. By 1964 the original author who wrote as Brett Halliday had already been retired for a few years, but the publishers were still cranking out Mike Shayne novels at the rate of one or two a year. I haven’t yet read anything between the very early Bodies are Where You Find Them and these later ghostwritten stories, so I can’t speak to whether the writing changes abruptly or gradually, but this is a much simpler story than that earlier one.

Tim Rourke, our favorite newsman, comes to Mike Shayne, Miami private eye number one, with a problem. His friend Ralph Larson is terribly jealous as a husband and is likely to do something violent to the man he thinks is screwing his wife Dorothy. Shayne has a talk with the wife and considers the matter closed, but later that evening she calls and asks him to stop her husband doing something terrible. He and Tim race out to the lover’s house, only to catch the husband in the act of shooting him. Conviction seems like a cinch, until it becomes clear that the gunshot didn’t kill him after all – he was already dead.

Because this is a Mike Shayne novel, there are organized crime and local politics, and police officers who are convinced that the private detective is the murderer himself, but these are details that elude me, being outside my realm of experience and interest.

He got out a cigarette and lit it, and looked around him slowly. It was a pleasantly furnished and comfortably cluttered, feminine-looking room. The long sofa along one wall was covered with gold brocade and littered with small soft cushions in bright contrasting colors that managed not to clash. There were end tables with big utilitarian ashtrays on them, and two comfortable-looking overstuffed chairs ranged against the wall opposite the sofa. The muted music he had heard through the door was coming from a stereo set with twin speakers that were detached from it and set at right angles in different corners of the room. The music was not familiar to him, classical, he thought, probably one of the three B’s. A door at the end of the room directly in front of him opened onto a bedroom with a big double bed that was unmade and had two rumpled pillows at the head of it.

Shayne liked everything he saw as he stood there and heard clinking sounds of glass against glass in the kitchen, and he frowned and tried to analyze the warm feeling of contentment that welled up inside him. It was definitely a woman’s place, and yet it welcomed his masculinity and made him feel immediately wanted. He did not know why that was, or how the woman in the kitchen had managed it so well, but he did know instinctively that she had managed it, not consciously probably, but as an expression of herself.

The woman who lives across the hall from Tim’s friends is fascinating, in an odd way. She’s here as a distraction, to illustrate just how focused Shayne is being on this one night, despite how much drinking he’s doing. I suppose I find sirens fascinating because I’m interested in the way people are moved by love and lust, and the different things that work to attract someone. I mean, I don’t find May’s apartment all that alluring, any more than I’d be drawn to the woman herself, with a little too much lipstick and a blouse that’s a little too sheer. It’s not every man that she can draw into her home; Shayne says that it is, and the narrator doesn’t disagree, but I do. There’s a specific sort of man that she can draw in, and it’s that sort of man that is being normalized here. Mike Shayne represents one type of masculinity, but there can be more than one. Despite the apparent lack of substance, this novel has a firm sense of gender roles and gender identity, and woe betide the woman who crosses those lines.

I heard recently that in BDSM relationships, it’s the sub who has the power, and I guess that makes sense. Once he (or she) decides to stop playing the game, it’s over. The situation persists because someone chooses passivity, and if he were to stop being passive then the dom would stop too, because consent is critical to BDSM success. That’s why there are safe words. This is the paradigm that is normalized for romantic relationships in this book, but without the safe words. Mike Shayne keeps muttering about how women don’t know what they do to men, as if men are irrational slobs ruled solely by their emotions and it is women’s work to keep them happy so they don’t run around killing each other. Men are violent, but women are powerful. Dorothy Larson tries to adopt the masculine role of actively choosing a lover (note May’s passivity, and think about how sirens are like spiders), so she fails in the civilizing-of-man role society assigned to her. It’s really her fault that her husband is a murderer, not his. With Dorothy as the active, Ralph is somehow made passive, so he’s powerless in the grip of his jealous anger. Other men feel sorry for him because the cuckolding makes him less of a man in their eyes, someone insufficiently dominant.

Which is, of course, rubbish. Every man is responsible for his own actions, both in reality and in the eyes of the law. It is not women’s job to civilize men or fix them in any way. It is not even women’s job to design a shag pad to seduce men who happen to pass through the corridor. To me, it is society that emasculates men by limiting their range of emotions and denying them access to healthy expressions of those emotions. I also blame society in general for restricting women’s access to education and the professions. I mean, Dottie is acting precisely as she’s expected to: Unhappy with your man? Get another! Don’t get a job or try for any sense of personal fulfillment apart from being a sex doll who cooks and cleans! You’re a woman! It’s like 1960s gender roles cut every person in half and expected them to be content as half a human. No wonder there was so much protesting.

A straight person recently told me that she had a strong value for the gay community because of our blending of both masculine and feminine traits, then told me that I was still halfway in the closet because of my traditionally male gender presentation. It was a weird conversation, and one that troubles me because of the larger conversation about gender and sexual orientation going on in the United States. We’re often told that being gay means being gay in the 1970s, when gay men tended to go to extremes of gender performance – either completely effeminate or so over-the-top butch that they dressed primarily in leather and motorcycle police helmets. But this is 2018, and being gay doesn’t threaten my masculinity. I don’t have to operate at a gender extreme, or seem androgynous to others. People can if they want to – I’m not saying we should blend into straight society. I am saying that we all have the right to determine what is natural for ourselves and the right to perform our own natures in the way we choose (so long as it doesn’t involve harming others). Some men wear nail polish and makeup; I don’t. Some men drive big trucks and hunt deer; I don’t. Some men wear a lot of black and play guitar; I do. Some men do none of these things, and that’s fine too. They’re still men.

It’s not a masculine or a feminine thing; it’s a mature adult thing to recognize societal expectations and decide for oneself how to interact with those expectations. Everyone gets to choose their own gender performance.

Unless you live in Miami in the 1960s. Then, men either keep their women at home through constant fucking or kill the men who step in as substitute fuckers. Mike Shayne’s world is fictional, but it’s the fantasy of the people of its time. People imagine a world that is simple and easy to understand because the one we live in is so far beyond us. There are so many things to be understood that there’s no way for any one person to understand them all. I mean, scientists have recently found a way to use one egg cell to fertilize another egg cell and create healthy offspring capable of reproduction. I don’t know if those mice really are lesbians, but in another fifty or a hundred years it might be possible for same-sex couples to have children who are the genetic offspring of both parents. It’s a concept I’m having a hard time comprehending, or maybe it’s something I hope for so much that my brain won’t let me think of it. With so much beauty and wonderment in the world, why reduce it to binary opposites? I’m not arguing against black and white when there are shades of grey – I’m arguing against black and white when there are green and blue and red, concepts that black and white can’t understand. Let the world be what it is, a huge sticky mess of colors and concepts and genders and sexes and sex acts, life and death and all the what-the-fuckery in between. Let people be who they are, no matter whether they match you in language, skin tone, or gender presentation. It’s a bit odd that I read a detective novel and extracted the message that we should all mind our own business, but it’s an odd world, and the more we learn the odder we find it. Welcome the odd.

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