|Vintage Pulp||Mar 22 2021|
If it bends, it's pulp. But if it breaks, it's parody.
Does the line in our subhead ring a bell? It's from Crimes and Misdemeanors, the 1989 Woody Allen film, spoken by Alan Alda, but applied to comedy. The quote is: “If it bends it's funny, but if it breaks it isn't.” That jumped into our heads when reading James Gunn's Deadlier than the Male. Gunn is described by New Yorker reviewer Clifton Fadiman as bloodier, nastier, and tougher than James M. Cain. Well, okay, but Gunn and Cain come at crime fiction from slightly different angles. Gunn is a good writer, though. No doubt about it. He plays with subtle alliterations, symmetries, and anastrophes that mark him as a skilled practitioner of his art. But can he write a murder book? Was he even trying? Was his primary goal to bend the genre, or to break it?
Deadlier than the Male has been described as a pulp parody but we aren't sure about that. Gunn comes up with some off-the-wall similes, but we don't see them as satirical. We think he simply wanted to push the established tropes of the crime novel a bit farther than usual. He wanted to write a femme fatale that was more of a femme fatale, and write deadpan cynicism that was even more so, to be more Cain than Cain perhaps, which we think Clifton Fadiman was correct to point out in his review. So then, returning to the question of whether Gunn's goal was to write a murder book, we think it was. It bends, but we don't think it breaks.
In terms of plot, what you have here is a woman who vows to unmask the murderer of her friend, while another woman decides to dig into the shady history of the man who's married her younger sister. Murderer and husband are the same man, and his plan is to get his mitts on his new bride's fortune, while of course avoiding any connection to the previous murder. Both women are metaphorically deadlier than the male, since both could be the ruin of the main male character, but their deadliness derives from loyalty, persistence, wiliness, and a lack of scruples. It's not's quite good versus evil, so much as scalpels versus hammer, which we thought was a cool approach.
But you know how you read something, know it's artful, yet fail to be fully engaged? For us this was one of those books. Is it a failure of the writer or the reader? We'll take the blame. We have certain tastes. By now, if you've visited Pulp Intl. often, you know what types of books get our juices flowing. If you tackle Deadlier than the Male you'll probably have the sense of reading something notable. And if you like to get under the hood you'll find a lot of stylish work inside. But will it get your pulse racing? Umm.. *looking over our shoulders to see if any literary critics are near* ...we doubt it.