- Sirens Blaring:Desire and Women-Authored Crime Fiction in the Mid-Twentieth Century
“You can’t get a man with a gun,” laments the sharpshooting, boisterous Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical comedy Annie Get Your Gun, one of the most enduring theater productions of the decade. The catchy tune of the refrain—“With a gu-un, with a gu-un / No, you can’t get a man with a gun”—is meant to be funny, and it is. Like most jokes, it also tells the truth. Annie must lose a shooting contest on purpose to win the heart of Frank Butler, the sexy, insecure object of her desire. Written to showcase Ethel Merman, whose big voice and butch style were critical to its success, the show’s winking portrayal of male vanity contributed to its tremendous popular appeal. But Annie’s comic plight animates the stage. A pitch-perfect metaphor for the postwar conditions of American women’s agency, the resolutely heterosexual Annie finds that asserting her equality undermines her ability to achieve sexual fulfillment. Her gun, as phallic prosthesis and symbol of equality, threatens Frank’s manhood directly. The penultimate line of Berlin’s song makes the problem explicit: “A man may be hot / But he’s not when he’s shot.” Although recently returned World War II veterans and their intimates probably laughed as hard as anyone at lines like this, it seems likely that they knew, more than most, just how much trouble the war’s unsettling of gender conventions had caused. And it hardly seems accidental that the hot-not-shot sound of “ought” is the song’s final rhyme. The history of sex expression has never been exclusively defined by what people want; it’s always been a question of what must, what should, what is supposed to be happening.1 [End Page 179]
There are relatively few guns in Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s, the venerable Library of America’s new omnibus edition of women-authored crime novels edited by Sarah Weinman, and women don’t shoot any of them. These texts target the faulty logics of conventional heterosexuality with a sharpshooter’s accuracy, however. Taken together, they issue an irresistible invitation to reconsider how women’s desires were understood within a male-identified genre preoccupied with both imagining transgression and restoring order. This field of inquiry is wide open: despite the wealth of scholarship on crime fiction, the critical profile of these particular novels is so low that fully half the titles won’t draw a single hit in a database search of the MLA bibliography. With plot elements that feature more than one murderous split personality, a psychotic babysitter, a housewife who hides a dead body but loses track of her grocery list, and a serial rapist-strangler named Dix Steele (really), these novels reward surface reading.2 Taking the nineteenth-century founder of the modern detective story at his word, shouldn’t we follow Edgar Allan Poe and make sure we don’t miss what’s hiding in plain sight? Perhaps. It’s still hard to let go of the idea of plumbing hidden depths for meaning, especially when analyzing representations of sexuality; the assumed inscrutability of desire has structured US crime narratives from the beginning. Poe’s first detective story wasn’t “The Purloined Letter,” remember. It was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which opens with an epigraph that encourages readers to have fun guessing what songs the Sirens used to lure sailors to their deaths.3
In instructively different ways, two important new feminist studies of women’s sexuality, Steven Dillon’s Wolf-Women and Phantom Ladies: Female Desire in 1940s US Culture and Amanda H. Littauer’s Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties, unpack that mythic Sirens...