I've been reading a lot of early transgressive fiction as research for an essay to be included in a book slated for 2016. This has led me into a strange and fascinating world of crime novels with plots that touch on formerly taboo topics mostly to do with sexual preference and unusual sexual practices. So when I fortuitously came across a book called The Fetish Murders (1973), with that cover seen at left, I had to read it. It's not at all transgressive fiction as I thought it might be since it has at its core a respect for morality and normalcy and does not revel in all things rebellious or counterculture. Thankfully, it did not turn into a serial killer novel as the title seems to imply. It's an attempt to present what most people in the 1970s (and I guess quite a few these days, too) would view as a distasteful subject -- erotic fetishism -- in a humanistic compassionate setting. It succeeds to a degree, but it disappoints on a whole other level.
The Fetish Murders begins with a comical scene in which June Hissock, "Carnival Queen of East Ganford", storms into the police station to report being attacked. She is the latest victim of a scissors wielding maniac who has been cutting locks of hair from young blond women. June is incensed; her hairdo is ruined. And the attack occurred just before she was to award some prizes at a school in one of her many beauty queen publicity gigs. Smart aleck journalists have alternately dubbed this hair crazed phantom the Demon Barber and Jack the Snipper. The newspapers also make a lot of allusions to Pope's "Rape of the Lock". It's all tongue in cheek and ridiculing and all a bit wrong. For they have no idea just how dangerous this hair clipping creep will become.
No one has ever seen Jack the Snipper, not even the women whose hair he is collecting. Each young woman has been attacked from the rear, the hair quickly snipped from the nape of the neck and the attacker fleeing before the victim even knows what's been done. Sergeant Pinnett is a bit worried that the attacks seem to be on the rise. He has a daughter who also has blond hair. What if she should be next?
You can guess what follows. Not only is Marjorie Pinnett next on the list she is also fatally stabbed with the scissors in what appears to be an attempt to fight back. And now the Demon Barber is no longer just a creep but a murderer.
This is very bad news for reporter Peter Stack. He had just written an informative news feature on fetishism in which, quoting expert advice of psychoanalyst Dr. Luton-Bailey, he explained the harmlessness of the attacks. The article was to reassure the public and prevent hysteria and vigilantism. He's alarmed by the murder and even moreso when he learns the victim is the daughter of a police officer who he overheard vowing to seek revenge on the Demon Barber. Stack revisits Dr. Luton-Bailey to try to understand why the fetishist suddenly became violent. When the psychologist hears that this particular hair clipping attack happened from the front he comes to the conclusion that the Demon Barber must've been recognized by Marjorie. And in that moment he felt it necessary to kill.
Luton-Bailey is one of the better realized characters. His psychology is modern and sound, even sympathetic, but still a bit too Freudian. I was disappointed that here was yet another instance of a psychological suspense story that dealt with aberrant behavior that must be explained away by an absent father, a domineering mother, and a belittled and abused child who grows up to be a deeply disturbed adult living out "perversions" in order to deal with trauma. No attempt is made to discuss fetishism as a form of eroticism without the taint of mental illness. Not all sexual fetishism is about mommy and daddy issues. There's a lot more involved in the fetish world that Avon Curry didn't seem to want to explore.
Bringing us to the writer. That name is an obvious pseudonym and by page 20 I was sure that the androgynous sounding Avon Curry was probably a woman writer. The way that Marjorie and her friend Nancy are depicted, the detailed talk of women's clothes and hairstyling, the sensitive nature of so many of the male characters -- this seemed not to be a male writer at all. And I was right. After consulting The Dictionary of Pseudonyms I learned that Avon Curry was one of several pen names used by the prolific writer Jean Bowden.
|Jean Bowden, retired at age 90|
The Fetish Murders begins as a crime novel and slowly evolves into a psychosexual mystery but is never a true detective novel. Early in the novel Bowden reveals the identity of the killer and the existence of his mysterious girl friend Angela Good. The book alternates between Peter Stack's sleuthing -- both as a quasi psychological profiler with Luton-Bailey's assistance and a physical evidence gathering detective -- and the tortured behavior of Dennis Justinson determined along with Angela's help to shift the blame to an imaginary mad killer. There is one final twist Bowden adds towards the end of the book that is no real surprise to a modern crime fiction reader and sadly so ineptly handled that it fairly ruins the book. When the end comes it is violent as expected, tragic, a bit pathetic but wholly contrary to how the author led us to believe she felt about her antagonist. When Peter Stack calls Dennis "that thing" I was not just disappointed, I was pissed off.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card R5 -"Author who uses a pseudonym"
Doesn't sound like something I'd be interested in reading, John. That said, do I risk spoiling things for others in asking whether the cover is a spoiler? I was reminded of nothing quite so much as the two earliest paperback editions of Kenneth Millar's The Dark Tunnel/I Die Slowly, both of which give the game away.ReplyDelete
I thought I did a good job of skirting around the problem of that bothersome cover, Brian. But since you brought it up the answer is a very sad "Yes!" I had hoped it was intended to be a metaphoric illustration. A big "Boo!" to Ace Books for allowing that cover painting. This seems to be the only edition otherwise I would've posted the UK cover. But oddly enough I don't think the book was published in England.Delete
Thanks for all the great info John - not a book i have ever come across and it sounds like a title that is probably really worth writing about (and less to actually read!)ReplyDelete
It's a shame that Bowden ends up denigrating everything about the murderer in the end after presenting in him in a somewhat sympathetic light. It's hard to disassociate Peter Stack's thoughts from those of the author so strongly are they expressed. But a book like this published in 1973 I think paved the way for richer, more complex books treating similar ideas like Val McDermid's The Mermaids Singing twenty years later.Delete
I've never heard of this book, but I've met Jean Bowden a few times and found her extremely pleasant. Her Tessa Barclay books were highly successful, though I've never read any. She very kindly passed on to me a stock of her old copies of EQMM, and has had a great interest in the genre, but is not especially well known for her crime writing. She was at one time a journalist and she told me a wonderful story about interviewing Agatha Christie, who really was not at all keen on being interviewed,...ReplyDelete
I've read a couple of interviews she gave and her words coupled with her kindly looking face in photographs led me to believe she must be a delightful woman to know. I think she's still alive. Throughout her career she was a major figure in promoting women writers in England. I should l add that SWWJ (mentioned in passing in my essay) stands for Society of Women Writers and Journalists and has been in existence since the late 19th century. Bowden was the SWWJ president for a number of years and was a leader in a women's writer group in Croydon.Delete
Sadly Jean died earlier this month (November 2016)Delete
-aged 96 -she lived independently until a few weeks before her death -a kind and interesting neighbour.
Here's a comment emailed to me from realthog whose Wordpress account was rejected by the very mercurial Blogger software:ReplyDelete
This book sounds like a must-have! Off to Powell's, etc., I go . . .
Bowden was the SWWJ president for a number of years
That's it! The name and face were very familiar. My mum used to be involved with the SWWJ, and so I met various of its officers over the years.
A very interesting post although I probably won't read anything by this author.ReplyDelete
This is pretty much a 180 from any interest I would have with books, reading, writing.ReplyDelete
Be glad i decided not to write about THE BUTTERSCOTCH PRINCE, Richard! I can just imagine the comments I would've received had I reviewed that extremely sexually graphic book! I thought I was taking a chance with this book in reviewing it here, but I was surprised that I got *any* comments.Delete