January 2014

Lightsey Darst


The Female Body: Reading Mysteries

Then I pay for my glass of wine and walk outside.

Someone hoots out of a car at a trio of girls in short tight dresses teetering along in six-inch heels. They giggle back. I put my head down into my high collar. Coming along the sidewalk toward me I see a woman I've seen before -- a wanderer, if not homeless. She wears fatigues and combat boots and wraps her head up in a sort of turban; I don't know if she's a vet, but she looks as if she's stepped out of a film on war in the Middle East, with her clothes and her lean, athletic figure and the sandy gray cast on her dark skin. And her eyes: unlike a lot of homeless people, she will look directly at you if she catches you looking at her, look at you with bitter deep brown eyes, with all the accumulated scorn of her thirty-something years. She could be my age, I realize, trying not to look at her though she attracts my eyes -- she is a beautiful human -- my age but so much older.

I hurry to my car. The tripping girls have gotten nowhere.


Every so often I binge on mysteries. I like them serious, with moody gray-green covers, borderline alcoholic detectives, hard-boiled talk, and misty settings -- which is to say that I like them thoroughly genre, predictable and artificial. Lately, though, the fun of following clues in fog has been dimmed by my dawning awareness of the place of the female victim in most of these books. Men are killed for specific reasons, but violence against women takes an elemental form: inchoate evil seems released, massed, sometimes even appeased by female blood. This is chivalric and creepy -- creepy because, while men remain individuals, women become woman: host, vessel, barometer of cultural health. Now, the modern mystery is not so crass as to blame women for what happens to them, but this turns out to be a problem in itself: if women can't do anything to hurt themselves, they can't do anything to help either. And what might be one woman's preference, a matter for judgment and decision, becomes essential, a feature of the fragile sex.

Reading Christine Falls, John Banville's first mystery outing under the name Benjamin Black, I came across a line that gave me pause. A young upper-class woman has just returned from a car trip on which the lower-class chauffeur -- a predator -- has gotten fresh with her:

Yet for all the indignation she was forcing herself to feel she was aware of another, altogether involuntary feeling, a sort of buzzing, burning sensation at the front of her mind that was uncomfortable and yet not entirely unpleasant, and her cheeks stung as if she had been slapped in a hard yet playful, provocative way.

Banville seems unaware that most women, even young and "innocent" ones, clearly distinguish between erotic danger and real danger. Women who like to be slapped in bed -- and this is a taste some have, not a latent desire lurking in all -- do not usually like to be slapped in the real world.

I should have stopped there. But it's a mystery; I kept going. Sure enough, the young woman is eventually raped by the predator, and her rape is the novel's climactic event, somehow a reckoning, an answer to the nebulous evil inflicted by the young woman's family. Her body answers for others; the rift is closed.


It's a strange coincidence, then, that the next book I pick up is Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat. The story of this short novel is simple: wild Lise sets about her own murder, which she accomplishes in a day of vacation in Naples. Why she wants this, no one knows; whether she enjoys it, who can say; we can only watch her steer her way towards it. The journey is unnerving; picture, or don't if you'd rather not, Lise testing the point of a letter opener. But it's also inane: shopping for her trip, Lise is incensed at being offered a "stainless" dress, presumably because she wants to wallow. It's even hilarious: Lise can find plenty of men who want to screw her, but the "sex maniac" she seeks is so elusive that more than once she cries from frustration. (In this respect it's tempting to think that Spark somehow saw the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar coming and published this seven years before as a preemptive strike.) And, strange as this sounds, Lise's journey is at times inspiring as she pursues her course without regard to manners and virtues, stirring the world around her. Driving a car stolen from one of her would-be lovers, Lise passes by a policeman:

"Do you carry a revolver?" Lise says. He looks puzzled and fails to answer before Lise adds, "Because, if you did, you could shoot me."

The policeman is still finding words when she drives off, and in the mirror she can see him looking at the retreating car, probably noting the number.

This is precisely what Lise wants him to do: she is laying her crazy trail with a cool hand, casting her vote against the known world. In this respect she is like Spark, sending this wicked little rock of a novel flying into a glass house of essentialist morality tales.


My copy of The Driver's Seat, like all my books, is used. With a book like this, you have to wonder at the other reader or readers (though why don't I have that thought with Christine Falls?). But I don't have to wonder, actually, because I recognize the notes: it's my friend with the small but ragged hand. What does he say? Very little. By "Mrs Fiedke produces a trembling pink face-tissue" he writes "trans. ep.": transferred epithet, I take it, the tremble in the old woman's hand bringing the tissue to life. He underlines "and the past will never be mentioned" -- because of its role in the plot or its sound? Then nothing else. He's with me in the last terrifying pages, when Lise gets what she wants -- not what women want, but what this particular woman wants. Yet I don't know what he's thinking; I don't know what he takes from this scene.