James Gunn’s ‘Deadlier than the Male’: Psychology of the Femme-Fatale

Helen Brent had the best-looking legs at the inquest. She had a white sharkskin suit that had cost $145. She had an air of impeccable good breeding that had cost a great deal more. From the looks of things, she was no usual divorcee. Obviously, she was a woman of great wealth, of travel, of culture, of charm; she was a gorgeous blonde; she had been around. Perfectly poised, she crossed her legs with stunning and careless showmanship.

Her name was Helen Brent, she said, and she was thirty-one; her home was in San Francisco; she was in Reno to get a divorce from her husband, Mr. Charles Brent.
She had been in Reno—how long?
Six weeks; during that time she had stayed at a boarding house on the edge of town, run by a Mrs. Krantz and her daughter, Miss Rachel Krantz; Miss Rachel Krantz was in the courtroom.
On the previous Thursday, she had left the Krantzes’ and gone to the Hotel Riverside?
She had gone back to the Krantzes’ at eleven that night to pick up a handbag?
And about what time had she left the Krantzes’ to go to the hotel?
About five.

Deadlier than the Male is the only novel by American writer James Gunn, who wrote the book in 1943 at the age of 23.  The story was adapted by Hollywood for the 1947 film noir Born to Kill.  In his short life – he died at the age of 46 in 1966 – Gunn wrote screenplays for movies and television.  Little is known of his life, and he remains a tantalizing mystery.

The novel was chosen as the 50th book to be published by French publisher Gallimard under the Le Série Noire imprint.  In 1966, the radical French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, in a tribute on the publishing of the 1,000th title in the series, which was started in 1945 by editor Marcel Duhamel, wrote:

The most beautiful works of La Série Noire are those in which the real finds its proper parody, such that in its turn the parody shows us directions in the real which we would not have found otherwise. These are some of the great works of parody, though in different modes: Chase’s Miss Shumway Waves a Wand; Williams’s The Diamond Bikini; or Hime’s negro novels, which always have extraordinary moments. Parody is a category that goes beyond real and imaginary. And let’s not forget #50: James Gunn’s Deadlier than the Male.

The trend in those days was American: it was said that certain novelists were writing under American pseudonyms. Deadlier than the Male is a marvelous work: the power of falsehood at its height, an old woman pursuing an assassin by smell, a murder attempt in the dunes—what a parody, you would have to read it—or reread it—to believe it. Who is James Gunn anyway? Only a single work in La Série Noire appeared under his name. So now that La Série Noire is celebrating the release of #1000, and is re-releasing many older works, and as a tribute to Marcel Duhamel, I humbly request the re-release of my personal favorite: #50.[1]

In a review in 2008 of the re-issue by Black Mask Publishing, British academic Robin Durie said of the novel:

It’s very hard to imagine the almost hallucinatory events of the novel translating to the big screen in 1947 [in Born to Kill] – although it’s just about possible to imagine John Waters or David Lynch making some headway with it. It’s also possible that Claude Chabrol might have fancied having a go at turning it into a movie, based on his admiration for the book: “It has a freely developed plot and an absolutely extraordinary tone, pushing each scene towards a violent, ironic and macabre paroxysm…an unexpected dimension, a poetic depth…  Of course, nothing like this has ever been written before. The parody is wildly inconsistent, but Deleuze is surely right when he says that, by this means, Gunn creates directions in the real which are wholly new.”  … At the same time, Chabrol is correct in his capturing of the intensity of the rhythm of Gunn’s writing. Each chapter builds – or perhaps better, meanders – towards, or into, extraordinary points of what are, in effect, bifurcations. It is as if the novel is following those bifurcating pathways described by Borges.”[2]

Deadlier than the Male is like no other noir fiction.  The weird story of a deranged con-artist who marries into a wealthy San Francisco family, while told in the third person, reveals the thoughts and motivations of the central character, an attractive 30-something divorcee, Helen Brent.   In film noir-style, the book opens in flash-back as Helen gives testimony at an inquest in Reno into a double murder.  Helen, in Reno to engineer a quick divorce, by chance stumbles on the victims of a double domestic murder.  We know the killer and that, unbeknown to Helen, he was still at the murder scene when she came across the bodies.  Gunn’s story goes on to explore how the lives of these two people become entwined, and how lies upon lies lead to the final denouement where Helen’s true self is revealed to not only the reader but to herself.  As the story plays out there is a virtual  cavalcade of odd-ball characters drawn with keen psychological insight in a series of ongoing scenarios that are woven in an almost surreal  “more or less undifferentiated present” [Durie].

These psychological insights are strongest as we follow Helen’s obsession to find out the ’truth’.  A truth which as she uncovers seeks to hide by lies and intimidation.  Her motivations are never fully fathomed but at the end we know fully what she is capable of.  Helen is sexy, smart, charming, even loving, and constantly battling her better instincts to strive for a physical security which can only be bought by money – and lots of it.  Pitted against her is a lurid drunken widow out to find the killer out of loyalty to one of the victims – her debauched friend and drinking companion who dallied with younger men.   The comic encounters of this ridiculous aging sleuth are nevertheless successful – albeit not without real danger – she just escapes death at the hands of psychopathic hood in the sands dunes of Frisco in a scene as violent and perverse as you would find in a Coen Bros. movie.

… ‘The truth is, Helen, you’re uncivilized still. You’re out of the jungle, or to be more exact, you’ve gone back to it. You have enough intelligence and enough courage to realize you don’t need other people. You’ve decided to live alone with your strength. And that’s where you fall down’…

…Helen’s mind seemed to grow endlessly inside her head. She saw herself standing alone, in an infinity of space and matter. She was quite solitary, and very strong. No one was close to her, no people. She would never be able to have anyone close to her again.

A must read.  Get the re-issued paperback here – also available is the eBook version for 99cents.

Postscript: The obscure French film Corps et biens (1986) from director Benoît Jacquot is also based on Gunn’s novel.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, The Philosophy of Crime Novels
[2] Book review by Robin Durie

2 thoughts on “James Gunn’s ‘Deadlier than the Male’: Psychology of the Femme-Fatale”

  1. I wish I could do something other than play cheerleader here, but I am afraid my knowledge of this novel, Gunn and the aesthetics here are incomplete. A shame too, as you have penned a magisterial post, one you should be proud of in every sense. Seems like this has a compelling and odd chemistry, and for for contemporary audiences at this very time with the impending release of the TRUE GRIT re-make, you have done more than raise eyebrows with this intriguing revelation:

    “The comic encounters of this ridiculous aging sleuth are nevertheless successful – albeit not without real danger – she just escapes death at the hands of psychopathic hood in the sands dunes of Frisco in a scene as violent and perverse as you would find in a Coen Bros. movie.”

    Looks like the paperback can be acquired on a lark.


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