Friday, January 18, 2013

"Saucer-eyed, skull-grinning, jut-jawed, false-breasted, fake-fannied..."

Mid-twentieth-century hard-boiled American crime fiction abounded in over-the-top physical descriptions of women, with extravagant curves decidedly in favor. Think of Richard S. Prather, author of the phenomenally bestselling Shell Scott private-investigator novels, from whose typewriter
"There was a lot of her already in the room before the rest of her got in."
is one of the tamer examples.

Gil Brewer's 1954 novel A Killer Is Loose, about a down-on-his-luck father-to-be who saves the wrong man's life, shares the predilection for tall, curvaceous women, but its descriptions of them are brief, matter-of-fact, and almost chastely decorous.

Instead, Brewer saves his verbal steam—enough of it to run several turbines, a manufacturing plant or two, and a small city—for the opposite physical type:
"She was one of those ash-blonde, bony, saucer-eyed, skull-grinning, jut-jawed, false-breasted, fake-fannied, angle-posing, empty-thighed in betweens they stamp out like tin slats for Venetian blinds in some bloodless, airless underground factory to supply that increasingly bewildering demand for sexless models such as she for certain women's fashion magazines, where they loll backward gaping and pinch nostriled in tight red and silver sashes, over an old freshly varnished beer barrel, holding long skinny umbrellas, point down in a sand dune. Sometimes you see them swooning pipe-lidded, paper-pale over a swirling Martini in a triple-sized cocktail glass with their long fleshless golden-tipped claws clamped buzzard-like around the stem. Give me curves, dimples, and swollen thighs, every time. I'm an easy man to please."
I'm not sure I like that invocation of buzzards (animal comparisons are often problematic), but the overall description contains much to enjoy and to provoke thought. For one thing, it goes beyond physical description to sketch the woman's character. (She's shrill, cruel at no risk to herself, and not a nice person.) For another, though I don't mean to suggest that such was Gil Brewer's intent, the description might strike a chord today, in a culture suffused with worry over obsessive desire by some women and girls for unhealthy skinniness and of occasional outbursts of anger toward a fashion industry that glorifies such a look. Gil Brewer would have had no trouble agreeing that real women have curves.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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12 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Do you know who the cover artist is? I really that jacket

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: The painting is by Lu Kimmel, according to this Gil Brewer website http://noirfiction.info/bib.htm And this site offers ample evidence that Lu Kimmel was a fine one for painting zaftig maidlach: http://fineart.ha.com/c/item.zx?saleNo=5054&lotIdNo=31040

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that the jacket has only the faintest, allusive rather that direct relationship to the story, if that, which compels a reader to use his or her imagination, not to mention what the publisher hoped would catch a prospective buyer's eye.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, I just noticed the gun.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Sometimes, over-the-top writing is the best writing of all. That is a wonderful passage. It perfectly describes my feelings every time I try to find an article in Vanity Fair.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Over-the-top writing is wonderful--in moderation. That passage would not have stuck out nearly as much in a novel by Prather.

Does Vanity Fair publish articles?

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I tried to post a couple of comments at your place a week ago. In the best Wordpress manner, the comments did not appear, and I was given no indication that they would appear, the comment moderation was enabled, that I had failed to post correctly, or that anything else was amiss.

I tried to tell you that I;ve never been able to regard Charles Portis neutrally since I would out he was best man at Gene Foreman's wedding.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Sorry about the comment thing. I'll investigate. Kind of bugs me, since comments are about the only compensation one gets in a desultory vanity blog.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We desultory vanity bloggers have contributions to make. (Notice I not write "...to the national debate" or, even worse, "the national conversation.")

I have always had that trouble posting Wordpress blogs no matter which computers I post from. So I have to think the fault lies with Wordpress and not with me or with individual desultory vanity bloggers.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Your posting of the cover art and the excerpt cause me to wallow in nostalgia for the good old days--especially the 50s and 60s when paperback original cover art (some of it pure eye candy) and gritty prose by writers who were Mickey Spillane's antecedents (and targets of intolerant feminists everywhere) were magnets for an addicted used bookstore browser and paperback buyer like me.

January 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

PS: And some of the greatest reincarnations from that era have been offered by Hard Case Crime. What a great series!

January 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of the great things about Hard Case is that it doesn't just issue covers in the style of the old paperback originals, it brings back some of those artists from the old days and commissions new cover paintings from them.

January 19, 2013  

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