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murder is my mistress

15 august 2009

Harry Whittington has been called the King of Pulp Originals, the direct-to-paperback basic fare of mid-20th-century popular reading. Whittington's books came with energy splashed all over their covers. And if titles like Murder Is My Mistress didn't draw you in, the back of the book reiterated the promise of "a new type of killer . . . a killer whose mistress was MURDER." Never mind that the title of this one makes no sense even when rephrased in ALL CAPS. It looks like something you'd gladly consume in a few hours over a few old-fashioneds, if there was nothing better on your early-model TV.

Whittington was one of the most prolific of pulp writers, specializing, to judge from those covers, in westerns, mysteries, and smut. I had never read an entire novel by Whittington before, though I had run across some of his magazine stories. The cover of Murder Is My Mistress promises noirish thrills that include vengeance, disgrace, and death. Or rather, the cover behind that link promises such things: the cover of my copy just has the woman running from her stolid (and much more distant) pursuer. Though they're from different publishers (Phantom and Graphic), the pictured cover and my cover both promise to be "original." This suggests either that Phantom and Graphic were versions of the same company, or that copyright was just as woolly a concept in the print-centered 1950s as in our cut-and-paste age.

Despite its literal pulpiness, Murder Is My Mistress is written in a clean, understated prose with a minimum of plot sensations. The story is spare. Julia Clarkson, 39, is a banker's wife with two kids and a ponderous home in Elm City, USA. But 23 years earlier, in Manhattan, she had been the lover of a sociopathic intellectual bank robber. Despite the unpropitious qualities of that relationship, there was "an ecstasy that she had known in those faraway years with Paul . . . She had never known it again, not with anyone else" (162), and certainly not with her drably pompous husband Rod Clarkson. But the life of a bank-robber's moll being a bit stressful for her risk-averse feminine persona, Julia had ratted Paul Renner out and skipped town, to remake herself as the all-American mom.

Now, Paul has skipped parole back in New York, and has shown then up in disguise in Elm City, determined first to scare Julia out of her wits, then to reignite her sexuality, and finally to kill her. Plastic surgery, that all-purpose convenience of the pulp world, has given him a new identity. Julia finds herself wondering if every middle-aged man she meets could be Paul Renner.

One finds one's self thinking of a movie like Far from Heaven: or rather, realizing that filmmaker Todd Haynes was thinking of just this kind of pulp when he was creating Far from Heaven. It's a world of insufferably strait-laced conventions that serve as the thinnest of veneers over their vicious underpinnings. In that underworld, unescorted women are slipped mickeys in juke joints run by vice syndicates. Booby-trapped cookstoves explode in the faces of the kitchen help, killing them dead. Cars, kids' bikes, and other accoutrements of the subdivision turn into lethal traps. And every male confidant in the almost-womanless public world desires Julia, just as she "dreamed secretly of a man strong enough to dominate her, strong enough to protect her" (120) – strong enough to kindle something in her that her Rod never could.

Meanwhile, poor Rod is freaked out to the point of existential exhaustion at the thought that this woman whom he'd plucked from waitresshood 20 years before could (a) ever have slept with a man before he knew her and (b) show signs now of relapsing into the concupiscence common to all her short-order tribe. It's gonna take a lot of bourbon to live this down.

Murder Is My Mistress is not a mystery. Aside from the hapless, unlamented kitchen help, no killing incites the events of the plot, and anyway we know who the villain is, just not the details of his disguise. This peculiarly fantastic setting, played matter-of-factly by Whittington, allows for a nightmarish take on postwar womanhood. This is a world that could never have existed, that never did exist: but its potent fantasies underlay the 1950s that did.

Whittington, Harry. Murder Is My Mistress. Hasbrouck Heights, NJ: Graphic, 1951.