Friday, April 04, 2014

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Red Carnelian,” by Phyllis A. Whitney

(Editor’s note: This is the 132nd entry in our ongoing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s tribute comes from New Yorker Erica Obey, the author most recently of a mystery novel titled Back to the Garden [Five Star]. She teaches courses on mystery fiction and Arthurian romance at Fordham University.)

My clergyman father--whose taste in books ranged from Helen MacInnes to Teilhard de Chardin--had one house rule when I was growing up: I was allowed to choose anything that I had the patience to read from his bookshelves. Admittedly, this led to some cryptic interpretive episodes involving As I Lay Dying and The Scarlet Letter. But in spite of a childhood acquaintance with everything from Ian Fleming to page 29 of The Godfather, only one thing ever really felt like forbidden fruit: the Gothic romances of Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, and especially Phyllis A. Whitney.

Born in 1903, Whitney’s life spanned the entire 20th century (she died in 2008), and her career nearly did as well. She began to write hundreds of stories for what she described as “pulp magazines” in 1925, and published her first children’s book, A Place for Ann in 1941. Two years later, in 1943, she published Red Is for Murder (later retitled The Red Carnelian) the book that set her on the path to becoming the “Queen of American Gothic Romance.”

It was a term Whitney herself disliked--and correctly so. Technically, the Gothic romance was an 18th- and 19th-century genre, whose terrorized heroines fled through a century’s worth of dismal ruins, midnight fires, mysterious warnings, and both literal and figurative skeletons in the closet, straight from Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho into the waiting arms of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre. Long derided as comprising “silly novels by scribbling ladies,” the genre began to be taken seriously by feminist critics in the 1970s and ’80s. Arguably, the most important interpretation of the Gothic romance was Claire Kahane’s contention that the heroine’s exploration of the closed rooms and haunted corridors of a mysterious mansion was a metaphorical exploration of the secrets of her own childhood home--along with the more complex issues of mother/daughter relationships and the anxiety of female authorship.

The Red Carnelian was published only five years after Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which many would call the last true Gothic novel. However, although it is clear that Whitney forged her career from the tricks of the Gothic romance’s trade, it also is quite clear that she is doing something very different, very modern and very American. In The Red Carnelian, Linell Wynn, who writes copy for Cunningham’s Department Store, stumbles across the dead body of Michael Montgomery, her ex-fiancé, in a display window--on the same day that he has returned from his honeymoon with another woman. Linell is the main suspect, but there is no shortage of others, for Montgomery had a knack of making everyone around him unhappy--including his new bride. That plot alone establishes the factors that made Whitney so popular: an independent heroine with an interesting career, a setting that is at least as interesting as the heroine, a mystery, and a romance. What makes it particularly American is Whitney’s choosing a department store for her setting, thereby moving the traditional Gothic’s discussion of desire and illusion from the closed world of the house and family into the larger world of the American success story.

Whitney’s emphasis on Linell’s professional abilities is also what makes it hard to define The Red Carnelian as a romance. Unlike her contemporaries Holt and Stewart, Whitney always insists on maintaining a balance between the mystery and the romance in her books. Indeed, The Red Carnelian’s hero, Bill Thorne, who is as gruff and practical as his name suggests, spends a great deal of time off stage, allowing Linell to solve the mystery on her own. This is not simply a demonstration of Whitney’s commitment to creating an independent heroine. It also demonstrates Whitney’s characteristic determination to balance the demands of the head and the heart in her novels. Traditional Gothic novels have always been about the heart, giving voice to such forbidden female desires as Jane Eyre’s “rebellion, hunger, and rage”--and I’m sure this is what made them feel so much more dangerous to me as a child than James Bond ever seemed. But while Whitney is not in the least afraid of exploring the psychologically charged issues of both familial and romantic love, particularly in The Red Carnelian’s denouement, her books always force her heroines to understand these desires as well.

In other words, the head matters as much in Whitney’s work as the heart--and Linell is particularly suited to using her head, because she is a writer. Significantly, she is not a creative writer; instead, she is a copywriter who observes and describes, rather than imagines. It is this objective aspect of her character that allowed her to see through Montgomery’s seductive exterior even before the novel begins. It also makes her clear-eyed enough to deconstruct the multiple false narratives the other characters tell, in order to discover the solution to the crime. However, after having solved the crime, Linell conspires with Sylvester Hering, the store detective, to create a false narrative of her own--and Whitney makes her reader complicit in that decision from the novel’s very first page. (Without, of course, giving away the ending.)

As someone who teaches a college-level course on mystery fiction, I can’t help but read such a concern with narration, truth, and falsity in the grimly post-modernist terms of Lacan’s and Derrida’s disappearing referent--especially given the book’s change in title from Red Is for Murder to The Red Carnelian. Granted, the change was probably made to bring the title in line with more well-known Whitney titles such as The Golden Unicorn or The Turquoise Mask. But Red Is for Murder is an allegorizing, interpretative move, suggesting a clear representational relationship between the text and its meanings. The Red Carnelian, in contrast, is a MacGuffin--a meaningless object of desire, like the suitcase in the post-modern masterpiece Pulp Fiction, whose only purpose is to trigger the characters’ narratives.

Whitney, I’m sure, would have no truck with such nonsense--and speaking as a recovering academic, I can only applaud her. However, such theoretical analysis is a good reminder not to underestimate the complexity of Whitney’s work--and to admire her straightforward handling of the complicated questions she addresses. For, when asked to describe her own writing, Whitney simply said that it was about arriving at “understanding between people.” Those words go straight to the careful balance between the head and the heart that gives Whitney’s work its enduring appeal. The reader’s head is satisfied by understanding the mystery--and Whitney’s awareness of the slippery nature of stories and words. But the heart is satisfied by the romance, along with the fact that any understanding arrived at in one of Whitney’s books is always “between people”: whether they are an innocent young girl and a dark, dangerous man; a mother and a daughter; or a conspiracy among Linell, Hering, and Whitney herself to allow kindness to temper justice in the mystery’s solution.


John said...

I think the term Gothic romance is a misnomer. She wrote romantic suspense sometimes with Gothic elements. But Red Is for Murder doesn't even belong to either subgenre. It's a detective novel. Rather than try to pass off this book as some kind of subversion of the traditonal Gothic novel from the Walpole/Radcliffe school you would have been better off drawing analogies to crime writers like Mignon Eberhart, Dorothy Cameron Disney, and best of all Zelda Popkin who set her first detective novel (Death Wears a White Gardenia, 1938) in a department store and had a feisty woman store detective as protagonist. They all had been writing similar books in the genre, all with strong independent woman lead characters, throughout the 1930s well before Whitney came along with her first contribution.

joan.kyler said...

I was a teenager in the 1960's and grew up reading Holt, Whitney, and Stewart. I was an eclectic reader, but I loved the excitement and mystery in these Gothic novels (the term used on the book jackets then).

Kelly Robinson said...

This is a great piece. I also found Phyllis Whitney via my parents' bookshelves. I read them, because I read anything I could get away with back then. I remember by the time I got to middle school and found her romances for young adults on the library shelves, I found them dull. I was used to the more grown-up excitement.

Julie Kramer said...

I adored reading Phyllis A. Whitney when I was growing up. I lived in a rural part of Minnesota and the bookmobile librarian would try to find new ones for me. My first novel, Stalking Susan, was published in 2008. Earlier that year, I googled Phyllis A Whitney and discovered she was still alive at age 104. I spent the next 48 hours trying to work up the nerve to write and ask her for a blurb. I wasn't sure a 104 year old woman would want to take time to read my book, but decided to give it a try. I went back to her website to find the contact button, but something had changed. A headline made it appear she had died. Because she had. A month later, I gave a speech at PLA, and talked about how she had inspired me, and that I had read her advice to writers: give every character a secret.The audience clapped. I posted a comment about this on the guest book of her website and her grandson contacted me to ask if I could send him a copy of my remarks.I did, and for the next couple of years, it appeared on her website.I was so proud. I wish I would have tried to find her earlier.