Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn

Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn

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Book Review of Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn

Of all the many texts – philosophical, scientific, literary – or art works – cinematic, painterly – or even sporting endeavours – anyone for tennis? – which Gilles Deleuze corrals into his singular plane of thought, perhaps none is quite so surprising, quite so downright strange, as James Gunn’s Deadlier Than a Male.

Deleuze mentions the book at the end of an affectionate tribute he wrote in 1966 celebrating the 1,000th edition of La Série Noire, a Parisian imprint devoted to the publication of pulp noir thrillers (which can be found in The Philosophy of Crime Novels, in Desert Islands & Other Texts (1953-74)).

He discusses the various figures in the traditional crime novel, playfully contrasting the rationalist French school, most strikingly characterised in the figure of Gaston Leroux’s Ruletabille, who, by pure deduction, solves among other things one of the most famous ‘locked room’ mysteries of all; with the English empirical school, whose most famous character is of course Sherlock Holmes, the master of inductive semiology.

But, Deleuze argues, La Série Noir records the death of traditional detection. In the new Noir, the cop is much more likely to use an informant or torture a prisoner, beating information out of them, than he is to indulge in scientific deduction or metaphysical speculation. What this represents, ultimately, is a shift in the genre from a will to truth to the depiction of ‘a society at the heights of its power of falsehood’.

This is a theme which Deleuze continued to elaborate in his great works on cinema. It doubtless has important socio-political implications as well. But, in the very minor literature of James Gunn, it seems to me to have a rather different, though no less intriguing, import.

So, what of James Gunn? Well, despite having a middle name beginning with the letter E, he is not James E. Gunn, the famous science fiction writer. He is reputed to have written a number of Hollywood scripts, on the back of the ‘success’ of Deadlier Than a Male, in the late 50s and through the 60s. In fact, somewhat implausibly, Deadlier Than a Male was made into a Hollywood movie, under the title Born to Kill.

It’s very hard to imagine the almost hallucinatory events of the novel translating to the big screen in 1947 – although it’s just about possible to imagine John Waters or David Lynch making some headway with it. It’s also possible that Claude Chabrol might have fancied having a go at turning it into a movie, based on his admiration for the book: “It has a freely developed plot and an absolutely extraordinary tone, pushing each scene towards a violent, ironic and macabre paroxysm…an unexpected dimension, a poetic depth…”

Intriguingly, this appears to be Gunn’s only novel, and certainly, as Deleuze notes, it’s his only work published in La Série Noire. Deleuze even hints that Gunn could be a pseudonym for the editor of the series, Marcel Duhamel.

But maybe that’s just Deleuze joining in the fun of the false. What Deleuze does say is that Deadlier Than a Male is his ‘personal favourite’ from the 1000 editions in La Série Noire, that in it, ‘the power of falsehood is at its height’, and that it is where ‘the real finds its proper parody’ – whereby ‘parody shows us directions in the real which we would not have found otherwise’.

Certainly, Gunn’s novel creates a world unlike any other, a kind of Alice in Wonderland version of Dante’s Inferno, no more disturbingly than in the notorious ante-climactic murder scene on the San Francisco sand dunes, played out against the sound-track of the assassin singing ‘Toreador-ey, don’t spit on the floor-ey, use the cuspidor-ey…’ Even by Noir standards, the characters lack any sympathetic traits.

Gunn makes no effort to explain motivations or trace histories. All takes place in a more or less undifferentiated present. The ‘heroine’, Mrs Krantz, is a waddling, sweating, bourbon guzzling lady of a certain age, who tracks the killer of her only friend, the debauched Mrs Pollicker (who is always popping next door, accompanied by her 2 poodles, to tell Mrs Krantz of her latest ‘conquests’), by means of smell. Not that she herself has smelt him.

But Mrs Pollicker, just before her violent demise, had told Mrs Krantz, that she’d got ‘a new one…He smells. All the time. Like an animal.’ This news provokes Mrs Krantz to ‘open her mouth with a wet smack of ecstasy’; and, as the novel progresses, serves as the dim guiding thread which she follows on the labyrinthine descent into hell which the novel describes.

Of course, nothing like this has ever been written before. The parody is wildly inconsistent, but Deleuze is surely right when he says that, by this means, Gunn creates directions in the real which are wholly new. At the same time, Chabrol is correct in his capturing of the intensity of the rhythm of Gunn’s writing.

Each chapter builds – or perhaps better, meanders – towards, or into, extraordinary points of what are, in effect, bifurcations. It is as if the novel is following those bifurcating pathways described by Borges.

But what is most striking, for me, about this ‘technique’, is that each of these bifurcations is produced by a lie. I have never read a book in which lying is, to such an extent, the norm. On the one hand, this helps to explain Deleuze’s point about a society at the height of the power of falsehood. But it also, I think, explains the lack of depth in the novel.

Normally, the detective probes beneath the surface, trying to excavate the truth behind appearances. In Gunn’s work, there is no depth, no truth, no motivations to be discovered. There is just a more or less endless play of lies, each new lie leading to a new bifurcation, creating a new fictional space which the novel dutifully explores… until the next lie, and the next bifurcation.

Deadlier Than a Male has just been republished in a finely produced (though haphazardly copy-edited) edition by Blackmask. It’s not a great work of literature. But it is a singular text, in all sorts of ways.

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