Book Review: Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective Close, Glen S, Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 261 pp. Hardcover €69.99. Reviewed by Tsz Yan Audrey Chan
Short-listed for the 2018 International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize
S.S. Van Dine famously claimed in his twenty rules for writing detective stories that there must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse better. He argued that the cadaver arouses the readers’ horror and desire for vengeance, under the premise that they are humane in nature. Glen S. Close’s Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective questions this basic assumption with an exploration of the crime genre spanning from Edgar Allan Poe’s classic detective stories to the present-day American TV series CSI.
Glen S. Close’s Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective makes a feminist attack on this convention, arguing that female corpses have been sexualised and dehumanised in a 180-year corpus of different sub-genres of Hispanic and Anglophone “necropornographic” crime fiction. Rather than exhaustively criticising the male-oriented nature of the genre, Close re-examines the phenomenon as an embodiment of male subjects’ inferiority complex as derived from their inseparable link with the maternal entity. However, Close overlooks certain aspects of the social values within some of the artistic movements he covers when criticising artworks through a feminist perspective.
Close introduces his reading of the portrayal of female cadavers in crime fiction through a Kristevan perspective, that is, by highlighting the relationship between male subjective identity and the maternal body. By Citing Kristeva, Close describes that ‘the male subject finds itself ever threatened not only by corpses and other forms of bodily waste, but also by signs of female sexual difference such as menstrual blood, the object of innumerable taboos in patriarchal cultures’ (17). To extend from such notion, Close implies that exposing the horror of signs of female sexual difference like menstrual blood, the misogynistic narrative of crime fiction serves to turn the mother into the abject in order to gain a male autonomous male identity. Unable to bear “the unpayable debt of life” to their mothers, male crime fiction authors refuse their corporeality and thus repress semiotic and maternal prehistory (16-18). With an introduction to the nota roja (yellow journalism), Close illustrates how yellow journalism unveils the public hunger for morbid arousal and “realness” with cover photos that display revealing female corpse and emphasis on their professions with sexual implications. This sort of journalism offers a foundation for necropornography, and is linked to similarly sadistic covers of novels such as Mickey Spillane’s.
The first section of Female Corpses in Crime Fiction, ‘Necropronography in Modern Crime Fiction’, traces back from the graphic descriptions of nota roja, to the history of the “morbid theatre” to shed light on how necrophilous voyeurism gave birth to the rise of necropornography in crime fiction. Long before the rise of “cadaveric literature”, Close notes (citing Philippe Ariès’ historical survey) that Eros and Thanatos converged as early as the late fifteen century in the theatre and Baroque paintings (37). Therefore, crime fiction relies on an inheritance of gothic aesthetics. He notes that the feverish visits to public Paris morgues (59) and popular erotic descriptions of sex murders in journalistic publications (43) inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. The heritage of morbid theatre went further in hardboiled detective novels, with the motif of striptease, frequently appearing. With the repetitive appearance of striptease both on a wide range of book covers and in hardboiled narratives themselves, Close further elaborates how the morbid theatre expanded in pulp crime fiction. The historical account in this particular chapter is rich, examining the visual elements of baroque art, journalistic presentation, and popular crime fiction, and offering the reader with a historical understanding of the rise of necropornography.
Moving onto Hispanic hardboiled novels, Close, who is an expert in contemporary Hispanic crime fiction, refers to the historical and political context of Spanish fascism to investigate its interest in voyeurism and sexual subjugation. He explains the commonly sexualised cadavers of blonde and red-haired women as the “sexual manifestation of the envy and resentment of politically isolated and repressed Franco-era Spaniards” in response to the liberal post-war U.S. consumer society (90-92). In addition to the interpretations of Llaugé Dausá’s ‘lustful frenzy as propaganda of Franco dictatorship’s sociosexual policies’ (102), Close notes the emergence of the sadistic tendency of Hispanic novela negra from the Spanish Civil War. As a result, under the Francoist Spanish influence with respect to its Catholic strictures on non-procreative sex, prostitute-women are punished and their identities obliterated in Hispanic novela negra. Returning to the Kristevan ideas, Close notes that sexual subjugation is often added in the works to make women incompatible with rational personal autonomy – this is interpreted as an attempt by the male subject to achieve autonomy from their maternal bond (125). While Close’s professional expertise on contemporary Hispanic crime fiction raises expectations in the reader for a deep analysis of the historical and political context surrounding contemporary Hispanic crime fiction , his overwhelming accusations against the novela negra could have been more firmly grounded in relation to the way Franco’s military background, and the lack of a constitutional system, turned Spain into a breeding ground of misogynistic Hispanic narratives.
In ‘Femicide and Snuff’, Close contrasts revisionist crime fiction and snuff fantasies to remind his reader of moral responsibilities. He focuses on Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, and how it achieves its revisionist function through an inconclusive narrative. Close considers 2666 as counter-literature of the novela negra, because it considers the victims’ perspectives with empathy and bureaucratic impassiveness without eroticising the corpses (144). Unlike conventional crime novels, 2666 stresses on the inner consciousness of characters instead of the sexual representations of female bodies. To emphasise the rise of the revisionist, Close contrasts 2666 with snuff fantasies that entertain the readers with imageries of dismembered and sexually violated female corpses. Through exposing extreme snuff fantasies in the genre of porno-historical novel such as Federico Andahazi’s El libro de los placers prohibidos to the reader, especially the removal of sexual organs and brains, he shifts the attention back to Kristeva’s theory of abjection as the male subject attempts to decipher “the principle of life” and to eliminate the sexual source that threatens their rationality (196). Here again, although Close relates his criticisms to an interesting Kristevan perspective, he puts too much attention on the contrast between the misogynistic narratives of snuff fantasies and the “empathetic” counter-literature. The discussions are somewhat one-sided and his attacks on Actionism (the movement was in heated countercultural debates regarding the sublimation of aggression and the artistic and political uses of violence during the 1960s) (160) and the hardboiled formula fail to do justice to artists who are particularly important in art history in relation to war and violence. His condemnation of artists for encouraging violent portrayals of female corpses under the disguise of artistic freedom is too dogmatic and devalues other forms of art. His approach to the hardboiled genre disregards its social values, for example, its resistance to the endemic violence and the trauma caused by the Second World War, or the decay of the social structures during Prohibition. The accusation that Actionist works are simply masochistic representations is problematic.
Finally, Close wraps up his monograph with a thorough examination of the development and changing representations of women and female corpses in new crime fiction such as TV drama. He makes a fair comment in his major analysis of CBS’s very successful CSI, he first acknowledging that the inclusion of female forensic pathologist and the emphasis on sympathy for victims defuse any potential erotic frisson (209). This is, as Close claims, a sort of progress for the genre. However, he also argues that the excessive scenes of female corpses in the popular show is another presentation of morbid theatre. These scenes serve to feed the “reality hunger” of the audience, therefore, the “CSI effect” again encourages us to perceive cadavers as “forbidding yet fascinating emblems of realness” (214). This is an effective conclusion with an examination of the contradictory “feminist” narrative of new media, especially when it comes to the tension between political correctness and ratings.
Female Corpses in Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Perspective is an inspiring, and in many ways interesting text, in terms of the tension between maternal bonds and male autonomy. I believe that this book contains valuable teaching material considering its new Kristevan feminist perspective providing students with a theoretical framework for a feminist reading. However, there are downsides to Close's approach, some of which Close acknowledges in his conclusion, where he writes that he is aware of potential criticisms regarding his strong opinions. While I have nothing against his bold voice, Close's writing exhausts his reader with endless aggressive attacks on different misogynistic representations in modern crime fiction, and his arguments do not, in my opinion, pay sufficient attention to the social values of certain forms of art. His repeated condemnations undermine his point regarding the expression of the male desire for autonomy from the maternal underlying many sadistic narratives. Close provides the reader with many interesting perspectives, including Activism and Francoist Spain as catalysts of such narratives, but, his examination is overwhelmed by conventional feminist readings.
Bio: Audrey Chan is a final-year undergraduate student at City University of Hong Kong and currently an exchange student at the University of Nottingham. She studies English and has particular academic interests in postmodern novels and metaphysical detective fiction. She also works as a student research assistant at CityU for a project named Extending the Literature Classroom: Creating Spaces for Student Discovery, which presents a self-discovery framework to students enrolled in literature courses.