Friday, June 22, 2012

FFB: The Brotherhood of Velvet - David Karp

Psst, over here.  Ever hear of the Bechtel Corporation? They've got their hand in everything, you know. How about Opus Dei? Evil Catholics trying to control the world just like Bechtel. Halliburton was behind 9/11. And the Illuminati are everywhere, of course. Conspiracy theorists will tell you all that and a whole lot more if you lend them your ear for an hour or two.  Jim Watterson tells you a similar horror story about a secret society bent on world domination in The Brotherhood of Velvet (1952), David Karp's finely crafted noir nightmare. The group bent on destroying Jim is The Brotherhood of the Bell, a fraternal order he joined back in his prep school days. They have been shaping and controlling his life for the better until poor Ted Appleton keeps making desperate phone calls and Watterston makes the mistake of seeing him in person.

"If you have any of God's mercy, you'll help me, Watterson. Please, please" are a few of the lucid words Ted Appleton manages to get out between hysterical sobbing and cryptic comments about "those bastards" who have somehow managed to get Appleton fired from his job, kill his wife, and ruin his son's future army career just as he is about to graduate from West Point. It's all the work of the Brotherhood. He pleads with Watterson who listens and is both embarrassed and curious, but reluctant to help this man who seems on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  Watterson eventually refuses to help Appleton and a few days later Ted blows out his brains on a park bench.

UK paperback published
under Karp's pseudonym
Then the Brotherhood contact Jim personally.  They want him to get his best friend Clark to resign from his job in the Secretary of State's office where Jim also has a high level position. As a nudge to help Jim engineer the resignation they provide some documents which reveal Clark had indulged in some gay sex practices when he was a teenager.  To Jim's mind this is the worst possible and entirely damning secret to any man's reputation, one that will haunt and ruin him for life.

He follows the Brotherhood's instructions but soon regrets what he has done. Now trapped, and a victim of a plot to destroy his own life, Jim finds his only hope is to expose the Brotherhood and their far reaching and sinister power. But who will believe him? 

Such is the mindset of the "homosexual panic" novels of this era. The title alone was slapped on this book by Lion Books in an attempt to appeal to the salacious reading tastes of the "sleaze" market that churned out gay and lesbian books of dubious merit as cheap thrills. Most of those books are utter junk. This one, however, is not. In fact the gay interest in the book is only incidental. Still Karp uses the increasing overt gay and other "deviant" sexual behavior as an insidious sign of the degradation and moral bankruptcy of 1950s America in an effort to underscore the paranoia Jim experiences.
Sexual deviation was the one thing that no one ever quite forgot. Notorious lechers were still box office idols, reformed drug addicts found their way into civilized company and the American theatre, ex-jailbirds were mayors, and congressmen, panderers and thugs were accepted into American business, and bigamists, usurers, adulterers and murderers were as common and numerous as the household fly -- but publicly exposed homosexuals run a particularly hot and long gauntlet. The sin of adolescent hands and flesh and touch in a wooded darkness of summer lasted a long, long time, bayed wildly and loudly by the wolves of our land.
Karp makes sure we know that Jim is a sexual man with a terrific appetite for his wife Vivian, one of those characters who displays her sexuality freely and wildly often appearing in scenes wearing little but underwear or a loosely open dressing gown. Her body is on constant display when she's onstage. We need to know Jim is involved in a healthy straight marriage with a woman he desires, a job that allows them to live a comfortably rich life before we see him begin his fall at the hands of the Brotherhood. But no sooner has the Brotherhood sent him on his dreadful errand to ruin his friend's life then he begins to succumb to corruption and secret desires himself.  He finds himself sexually attracted to Clark's wife, he refuses the advances of Vivian who then further insults him by making insinuations about his close friendship with Clark calling him "your dear, dear friend."  All sorts of seeds are planted in the reader's mind as we read of Jim's own words (he narrates the story) so that we are often questioning his perceptions and sanity.

The book is relentless and bitter in its depiction of a corrupt world.  Bribery, indulgent sex, heavy drinking, and deceit are on every page.  Jim falls deeply into a mire of sarcastic cynicism. He finds his only solace in bars where strangers become his friends.  Plays the role of a cheap flirt with a cocktail waitress and is embarrassed by what he has become. All due to the machinations of the Brotherhood of the Bell. But is the Brotherhood real at all?  There is an ambiguous aura hovering over the book as is the case with most novels that deal with conspiracy theories. Is it truly a plot or has Jim lost his mind and imagined it all as a result of paranoid schizophrenia?

Dean Jagger & Glenn Ford in the
1970 TV movie adaptation
It's odd to me that Lion Books chose to play up the gay element of the book in a tawdry marketing ploy. It taints the book and has unjustly placed it among other lesser books with which it has little in common. Karp is an intelligent writer. He has trenchant insights and a sharp prose style. This is a noirish thriller that is also great writing, a literate novel as Lion calls it on the rear cover of my copy.  It's not sleaze at all.

I urge you to find a copy in one of its many incarnations. It's been reprinted several times in paperback both in the US and the UK.  Read it or else! The Brotherhood is watching and they will know if you don't follow these instructions.


  1. Sounds great, and the way you describe got me thinking of secret societies and the work of Stevenson and Chesterton and especially Athur Machen's often overlooked little gem, THE THREE IMPOSTORS (or am I reading too much into it?). Anyway, sleazy marketing aside, I shall definitely look this one up - thanks John.

    1. I didn't even think of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. But you're right to compare the two. Was there a secret world controlling society in The Three Impostors? I only remember the weird and supernatural bits in that brilliant book. Believe it or not, I found references to The Brotherhood of the Bell as a *real* secret society on various conspiracy theorist websites on the interweb. Amazing, isn't it?

  2. Say what you will about Lion, their covers sure catch the eye. I was reminded of the Lion edition of André Tellier's Twilight Men. You'd almost think that for a decade or so violet was set aside for use only on books about men in the shadows.

    Another one to track down. Thank you, John.

    1. Strange that it was the green carnation that was at first the underground signal for men seeking other men for pleasure. When did it change from green to shades of purple and pink? I truly thought this was going have more gay content and was expecting to read something I would ridicule in my review. I was genuinely surprised that the book is smarter and better than a "sleaze" novel. Completely different than what I was led to believe it was all about. I'm sure Karp meant the book to be titled The Brotherhood of the Bell. The title it has now is a sophomoric metaphor, one that never appears in the book.

    2. I have a feeling you're right about the title. I can't help but ask whether each cover actually depicts a scene from the novel. Or are these - the first two anyway - also part of the attempt to place the book in that different twilight zone?

    3. The Lion edition does depict a scene from the novel except for the fact that the street light should be out. It's from a scene when the electricity goes out when Jim and Vivian are having an argument in their bedroom. As for the UK edition, I'm guessing the woman is the cocktail waitress Jim picks up who likes to have sex with her stockings on and that the blond man in purple (again!) is a character who appears in the final chapters who attempts to seduce Jim after having spied on him from a toilet. The last book cover is more symbolic of the paranoia Jim experiences.

  3. In ADVISE AND CONSENT, poor Don Murray plays a Senator who is in the closet refusing to acknowledge his true sexuality. His one great sin: a relationship I believe he had while in the Navy or Army or whatever. But we're given to understand that he's been 'straight' ever since.

    When threatened with exposure (he's married as well as a Senator) over an upcoming Senate vote, he commits suicide. It's quite moving. But I suppose in those days, this WAS the worst sin. It's a terrific film if somewhat melodramatic. Charles Laughton plays a conniving Southern senator, he's wonderful. I think it was his last film.

    Anyway, that's what I thought of when you mentioned Jim's friend Clark and quoted that passage from the book.

    That's how my mind operates.

    I liked THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY - outlandish, but still frightening in an odd sort of way.