The Reflexive Carter Brown, or the Prescience of Last Note for a Lovely

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Abstract

Despite Carter Brown’s status as the least known of Australia’s most successful authors, research has been done on his productions, his style, and his bibliography. This work, by its very nature, often precludes close reading of a traditional kind. A certain amount is known for example, of the purchase of the international rights to the Carter Brown mystery series by American publisher Signet in 1958, but no work has been done on the effects that this shift may have had on the novels themselves. This article proposes to read Last Note For a Lovely, a novel published the year before the deal with Signet was signed, in order to lay the foundations for future analyses of subsequent Carter Brown novels published after 1958. The reflexivity of this novel is such that the characters appear at times to be voicing the concerns of Alan Yates, the writer behind Carter Brown.

Carter Brown is very likely the most successful Australian author that most Australians have never heard of. Initially styled Peter Carter Brown, he hit the ground running: his first novel, The Lady Is Murder, appeared in 1951, and by 1955, by some estimations, he already had over seventy novels to his name and, if their covers are to be believed, sales figures of some ten million copies (Johnson-Woods, ‘Promiscuous’ 164). By the end of the Carter Brown series in the mid-1980s, the number of novels totalled at least two hundred and seventy-three, and given his success overseas, Toni Johnson-Woods appears justified in referring to Brown as a ‘literary pandemic’ (‘Promiscuous’ 164). To return to his status today, we can certainly suggest that his is the most dramatic case of an Australian author who has entered a kind of parallel literary canon overseas, especially in France where he features prominently in bookshops, while remaining little more than an amusing curiosity in the history of Australian pulp publishing, a collector’s item even, but only, precisely, because his books are now so hard to find.1 Johnson-Woods has explored Carter Brown’s rise and fall in a series of essays.2 A recurrent theme to emerge from her research is the difficulty of establishing a definitive bibliography, and this for two basic reasons: first, Carter Brown, Peter or otherwise, was not Carter Brown – to borrow a phrase from Johnson-Woods, ‘Alan Yates was never Carter Brown: Carter Brown was an “editorial style”’, which meant that the name itself belonged, initially, to his Australian publishers, Horwitz (‘Mysterious’ 88) – and, as a result, it is not always clear which authorial figure lay behind the various Carter Brown novels. Second, Carter Brown novels were literally pulp, which means that they were published, sold and read in staggeringly large numbers but were designed to disintegrate, as opposed to the rarer literary jewel whose hard covers protect against the ravages of time. It is arguably the case that the bibliographical story of which the present study is a part, which is born of a desire to revive interest in Carter Brown, has itself become a further cause of the texts’ failure to be read. Who, when, why and what Carter Brown was have, not unreasonably, become the most pressing questions, and they require quantitative rather than qualitative methodologies. Perversely then, reading the individual novels has become something of a luxury, if not an impediment insofar as the answers to these taxonomical questions emerge precisely from distant reading techniques and stand in fact to be contradicted by analysis based on close reading. As a result, those who still read Carter Brown (in the original English, at any rate) are more likely to be members of the general public than academics. Johnson-Woods rather embodies this reading paradox. On the one hand, she is genuinely obsessed with Carter Brown and claims to be among the few people (perhaps the only person) to have read almost the entire corpus;3 on the other hand, she admits that her pleasure is not of the type provoked by serious literature. As she states, ‘[t]he most overt characteristic of the stories is their overriding comic tone. Nothing is serious in the world of CBMS [the Carter Brown Mystery Series]: the settings are outlandish (an inordinate number occur in mortuaries and nudist camps) and the characters zany’ (‘Crime Fiction’ 65). The suggestion here is of dead textual bodies and, again quite literally, nothing other than the barest of narrative bones.

What we propose to do here is to follow in Johnson-Woods’s footsteps, but at the same time to head in a different direction. Like Johnson-Woods, we shall focus on the change in style of the Carter Brown stories, which can be equated to a shift in control from the authorial dominance of Alan Yates to the editorial dominance of his publishers:4 ‘CBMS novels’, she writes, ‘were not always so wacky, however. The earliest stories more closely mimicked the hard-boiled tradition, but around 1955 Yates’s style changed’ (‘Crime Fiction’ 65). Most important, in the framework of the present analysis, is the shift from a variety of protagonists appearing only in one novel, and not always in an official capacity as a detective, towards a focus on fewer detective protagonists who would recur, and star, in their own series within the broader Carter Brown mystery corpus. Whereas Johnson-Woods traces this change through a meticulous study of the available publishing data and correspondence between author, agents and publishers, we propose to look for evidence of Alan Yates’s experience of what it means to be Carter Brown in the text itself, and specifically in the novel Last Note for a Lovely, first published in 1957, and thus at this tipping point between the era of the one-off protagonist and that of the detective series. While it looks like an early novel in the Carter Brown writing cycle, our research indicates that at least one hundred novels bearing the name ‘Peter Carter Brown’ were published prior to Last Note for a Lovely. The novel follows protagonist Carl Vosper on the quest to find not only the murderer of Toots Yabach, renowned trumpet virtuoso and jazz composer, but perhaps, more importantly, his own purpose and identity as either a jazz critic or an amateur detective. Johnson-Woods herself quotes this very text in order to demonstrate the interplay of ‘bizarre events’ and ‘wise-cracking . . . linguistic wordplay’ that she considers the trademark of Alan Yates’s earlier writing (‘Crime fiction’ 64). One passage in particular catches her eye. In it, protagonist Carl Vosper, notorious jazz critic for Offbeat magazine, has an animated conversation with his beard, which claims to be an essential element of his professional success. This is without doubt a light-hearted and witty passage; it is also, however, a barely veiled metaphor for Yates’s own tenuous grip on his identity as a writer. Furthermore, as such, this scene is metonymic of the novel as a whole, which stages the gradual transition of Carl Vosper from cynical jazz critic to reluctant, but increasingly genuine and genuinely hardboiled, detective.5

At first, it is Carl’s beard that does the wise-cracking: ‘We raced out of there faster than Liberace races through a number’; in opposition to this, Carl plays it straight: ‘We want no part of it. We are a jazz critic, not one of those characters who extrovert in those lurid covered books on the news-stands. Our job is to cover the festival for Offbeat – nothing more’ (cited in Johnson-Woods, ‘Crime Fiction’ 65). The use of the first-person plural seems easy to explain here, but the tensions at play are nonetheless interesting. On the one hand, Carl rails against ‘lurid covered books’, with his criticism levelled both at the cover art and the stories that they contain (for how could he know how these characters behave without having gone beyond the cover, especially since the lurid covers of such novels famously bear little to no relationship to the plot? [Johnson-Woods, ‘Crime Fiction’ 70–72]); on the other hand, Carl owes his status as jazz critic to his beard, which is to say, he looks the part and is himself an extrovert character. And yet it is the beard, which Carl threatens with a razor if it does not ‘moderate [its] tone’ (cited in Johnson-Woods, ‘Crime Fiction’ 65), that urges him to get involved in the case and thus to stray from the jazz festival. In other words, there is a sense here of an extrovert element (the lurid beard) that wants the protagonist to play detective while the protagonist himself wishes to resist and to do straight jazz criticism. At the same time, Offbeat is a magazine which will, one supposes, adorn the same news-stands as the lurid covered books; and, after all, what is so straight about jazz criticism? The answer, of course, lies in the tension between high and low culture. Offbeat, and jazz itself, may be unsyncopated, but they are certainly not at the same end of the stand as the beard appears to be headed. There is a will to the literary here, but it does not stand as a categorical refusal of the quality of the generic. Beneath the lurid covers, there is a lot going on.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the status of the jazz-beard dialogue/solo in the Carter Brown corpus. For our part, we first came to Last Note for a Lovely via its French translation, Solo de Baryton. The novel was published in Gallimard’s Série Noire in 1961; its translation was signed by Janine Hérisson, one of series director Marcel Duhamel’s inner circle. Famously, after a raft of editorial changes enforced on Duhamel by Claude Gallimard in 1948, the series had become synonymous with loose translation choices, which often included cutting lengthy passages deemed extraneous to the plot (see Rolls et al. Origins and Legacies). The expression for which Duhamel is famous in this regard, ‘couper dans les gamberges [cut the intellectualising]’, suggests a kind of cutting to the chase that had precisely characters like the arty and self-consciously loquacious Carl Vosper in mind, and one might reasonably infer that talking beards would have struggled to make the cut. Certainly, when we first read the passage cited by Johnson-Woods, we recalled the scene but had the impression that such a cut had been applied. However, when we compared the 1961 French version with both the first and second editions, that is, those published by Horwitz in 1957 and 1959, respectively, Hérisson’s translation turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the original. The passage cited by Johnson-Woods is not present. It is not unheard of for hardboiled thrillers of the period to continue to evolve after their initial publication. A good example is James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which displays textual variations in almost every republication. It is also difficult to know in which year the various extant editions of No Orchids for Miss Blandish were published, as they usually contain no date other than 1939, which was the year of the novel’s original publication, despite often having been printed some decades later.6 In the case of Last Note for a Lovely’s missing beard, it is not clear whether Johnson-Woods was citing a later version of the novel, whose (real) publication date was unidentifiable, or whether what she had to hand was a manuscript. In other words, it is not clear whether the talking beard was trimmed before the novel’s publication in 1957, which perhaps seems more likely, or whether it was added to a later edition. If we run with the scenario of the excised beard, this suggests that the arguments on which the novel’s plot is predicated, including ideas of the value of high Art (notably in the form of music, and especially jazz in this case) versus derivative artistic products designed for commercial purposes, were already playing out in terms of the novel’s own status, its quirky ars gratia artis elements being sacrificed in favour of the fast-paced and generic detective plot. Carl’s beard, in other words, whether entirely present or not, is metonymic not only of the protagonist’s textual hesitation between his opposed roles as jazz critic and detective hero, but also of Alan Yates’s own paratextual dilemma as the author, at that stage at least, of the Carter Brown series: any aspirations that he may have had to high culture could hardly compete with the lurid crime novels that, if they did not bring him fame, at the very least paid his bills.

The first edition of the novel opens with Carl reflecting on his appearance, of which his beard is a key element, giving him ‘a certain, distinguished look – halfway between intellectual and piratical. And isn’t that how the jazz critic of that eminent magazine, Offbeat, should look?’ (7). The passage that may or may not have replaced that cited by Johnson-Woods comes five pages later, at which point Carl has just discovered the dead body of Toots Yabach, the headline act at the jazz festival that he has been sent to cover. Carl decides, in a critical move that has him holding on to the jazz critic position on the hardboiled protagonist spectrum, that discretion is the better part of valour:

And I wanted no part of it. There was nothing I could have done to help her. And, after all, I’m a jazz critic, not one of those dreadful characters who extrovert in those books with the lurid covers you see on every news-stand!

Doubtless someone would discover her body in due course – and the police would also discover her murderer in due course. I pointed my beard firmly in the direction of my rented apartment and followed it. My job was to cover the Festival for Offbeat – nothing more. (12)

At this initial point of the story, where the paratext (the lurid cover) is giving way to the text (the story beneath), where what the novel is not meets what it might more properly be said to be, it is not surprising that there should be resistance. In this case, we meet Carl half-way; indeed, he both is and is not one of those dreadful characters (of a Carter Brown mystery), a jazz critic in a luridly covered novel that will in time live up to its paratext. The original cover art of the novel, of course, as is typical of the Carter Brown series and pulp fiction of the period more generally, is more focused on attractive young women than on either detection or jazz (see Figure 1). As Carl declares, a jazz critic is always already styled as both intellectual and piratical.

Figure 1: Original cover of Last Note for a Lovely (1957).
Figure 1: Original cover of Last Note for a Lovely (1957)

We learn, too, at this early point that Carl Vosper is convinced that Toots, whom he is due to interview for Offbeat, is not in fact the composer of her trademark solos. On the one hand, then, we have Carl Vosper, a jazz critic in a detective novel, determined not to descend to the grubby level of the hardboiled detective; and on the other hand, we have the most celebrated jazz musician of her day, who has been reduced to the level of a dead body, her legs protruding from behind her bed in a pose that embodies the hardboiled crime scene. Furthermore, while he is undermined by a piratical tendency, which is flagged by the covers beneath which he emerges, she is suspected of not being the author of the work for which she is the public face. Alan Yates, we argue, has something of both of these characters about him: he, too, is caught in 1957 in a moment of indecision, between the desire to write works other than lurid crime novels and the practicalities of making a living as a writer. In other words, he wants his thrillers to be piratical without abandoning all pretensions to intellectualism, even perhaps to literature. At the same time, he hopes to retain control of his artistic production, to be the public face of a textual body that does not end up dead on the cutting room floor. Other things that ended up dead on the cutting room floor, so to speak, after 1958, include the musicians of the first cover (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cover of the second edition of Last Note for a Lovely (1959).
Figure 2: Cover of the second edition of Last Note for a Lovely (1959)

The principal narrative development in the novel is Carl’s transition from jazz critic to amateur detective; indeed, this character arc arguably eclipses the great reveal at the end. Repeated chance encounters with two women drive this change. The first is Sandra Van Bilton, who will turn out to be the daughter of a wealthy and influential businessman; the second is a musician, aptly named Melody Lane, who earns her living writing jingles. At their first meeting, Sandra challenges the success of Carl’s bearded look, to which he replies ‘Appearances are sometimes misleading’ (7). This comment is proleptic and reflects on all the main characters: Carl will in fact be variously successful; Melody Lane will turn out to be called Agnes Meldew and to be the composer behind Toots’s solo performances; and Sandra will be exposed as the murderer. While Carl’s encounters quickly reveal him to have a dangerous addiction to alcohol (although he gradually moves away from his initial preference for Benedictine), his relationship with Melody is particularly focused on questions of genre. Carl refers dismissively to Melody’s musical compositions, by which she earns her living, as ‘pop tunes!’ (13). At face value, this is the least ambiguous position taken in the novel: it clearly refers to Carter Brown’s machine-like production, which by 1957 was making money not only for Alan Yates but also for Horwitz Publications in Australia, who would sell the overseas rights to his novels, or rather the Carter Brown series, to the American publishers Signet just one year later (Johnson-Woods, ‘Mysterious’ 75). The way in which Last Note for a Lovely pours scorn on its own genre, albeit in musical rather than fictional terms, goes some way beyond the reflexive comments typical of detective fiction, according to which events experienced in the novel are described as being the stuff of ‘real life’ in contrast to the extravagant, and lurid, stuff of detective fiction. Whereas such self-distancing reflexivity, which arguably underscores crime fiction’s tendency to resist its own narrative constraints, is generally understood to function comically and ironically, in this case Carl’s advocacy of high cultural products (albeit jazz rather than classical music) and his denigration of generic derivatives are harder to dismiss.

Arguably, the heavily signposted reflexivity of Last Note for a Lovely is as retrospective as it is prescient. For, when Toots Yabach steps out on to the stage at the jazz festival and delivers one of her trademark solos (14), despite having been dead for some hours, the audience may well be forgiven for feeling a touch of déjà vu; indeed, five years before the spotlight reanimated the career of Toots Yabach, the curtain was famously raised on another musical hoax. In 1952, that curtain, lifted by Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), exposed Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) as the real voice behind the miming Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). In that case, Singin’ in the Rain was born out of a compilation of previous musical numbers and staged, pertinently, the resurrection of a dead genre, which is to say, silent cinema at a time when the MGM musical itself was paradoxically both at the peak of its powers and also faced with its own imminent demise. Singin’ in the Rain was also a highly reflexive production, with its own colourful use of mise en abyme, including billboards showing the stars of the film as the stars of the film-within-the-film, and the frequent staging of stages. Indeed, when Kathy is seen doing the voice-over for Lina’s dialogue for the new talking picture, Debbie Reynolds’s voice is in fact dubbed: it is Jean Hagen who does the voice-over for the voice-over scene, and who thus provides the dubbed voice of her own character. Whereas Reynolds’s voice is also replaced for two of the film’s musical numbers (‘Would You?’ and ‘You Are My Lucky Star’) by that of Betty Noyes, it is finally with her own voice that Kathy/Reynolds steps out on to the stage to replace Lina/Hagen for the final rendition of the titular track ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.

For the purposes of the present analysis, the intertextual referencing of Singin’ in the Rain has two allied functions in Last Note for a Lovely: it points to the shift in genre, in this case from jazz criticism to detective fiction; and it also demands that the reader question whose voice is emerging in the narrative. Melody is revealed to be the ‘real’ talent, or at least the composer of the music behind Toots’s success and her name is itself something more than a simple play on words: there is no suggestion that Toots is not a virtuoso trumpet player, but Melody’s own ability to replicate the former’s trademark style reveals this talent to be less rare than the marketing of Toots’s star power has led people to believe. A short trip down memory lane reveals it to be a reflexive/intertextual hybrid: ‘Melody’ appears in Singin’ in the Rain in the form of the grandiose ‘Broadway Melody’ number (which harks back to a 1929 Arthur Freed/MGM musical of the same name); ‘Lane’, for its part, echoes the happy place down which the singer-in-the-rain walks.7 Our contention here is that the real voices behind the voice-overs, which are suggested but never formally revealed in Singin’ in the Rain, demand closer analysis. In this case, the Yabach/Lane nexus leads back to the real voice of the author behind the covers, whose own story of unsung talent is being staged, albeit sotto voce, or just off screen.

Thus, when Toots Yabach steps out onto the stage (‘in person’: this corporeality is mentioned various times in the build up to the performance), she marks the end of an era not only for Carl Vosper, whose intellectual side will give way increasingly to the piratical, but also for Carter Brown, whose novels will henceforth privilege the likes of detectives Al Wheeler, Danny Boyd, Mavis Seidlitz and Rick Holman. Prior to 1957 and the publication of Last Note for a Lovely, fewer than 7% of Carter Brown’s heroes were recurring detectives; in 1958 the overseas rights were purchased by Signet; and between 1959 and 1975, fewer than 3% of his protagonists were not recurring detectives.8 The remainder of this article will expose some of the ways in which the investigation of Last Note for a Lovely sheds light on the authorial fears beneath Vosper’s character arc. As Vosper himself puts it when describing his profession, ‘Jazz-merchant meaning, for you uninitiated slobs, a person who can make up a story out of nothing – even without facts! [. . . ] Well, I had the facts right enough. Enough almost to write my own autobiography – or obituary!’ (51). Interestingly, while Vosper will carry the day, solving the case and fading out in a (literally) picture-postcard honeymoon with Melody, Alan Yates’s success will result in the gradual disappearance of one-off heroes of Vosper’s ilk; and when it comes time for Yates to write his own autobiography, he reveals very little of Carter Brown’s story (despite ostensibly handing it over to his alter ego: the book’s title is Ready When You Are, C. B.!) and his narrative is continually interrupted by italicised sections nominally written by his best-known detective protagonist, Al Wheeler.

A pivotal moment in the story comes when Carl is kidnapped by hoodlums. Left in an isolated cabin to await his execution, he uses his long words to entertain Max, the member of the gang left to guard him. In exchange for some catchy expressions, Max agrees to teach Carl how to deliver a crushing blow to the solar plexus. He even consents to let Carl try the move out on him. It is therefore by learning how to fight hardboiled-style that Carl escapes his predicament. Henceforth, his attempts to talk like a detective become increasingly convincing. His next move leads him to seek sanctuary in Melody’s apartment. She warns him against any funny business, to which he replies: ‘I never felt less inclined to try funny tricks!’ (84). Two things are voiced here: an absence of artifice, which suggests that Carl’s tough-guy act is perhaps, or is at least intended to appear, less of an act than his previous performance as jazz critic; and a convergence of protagonist and narrator. The first-person narrator crosses a threshold when he enters Melody’s apartment (including swapping Benedictine for Scotch), and it is a turning point of a whole life, that is, a life that is whole, its disparate parts brought together. The savage voice comes from deep inside, from below the level of the narrative performance: ‘“I never felt less inclined to try funny tricks!” I said savagely. I stepped into the apartment and she closed the door behind me. “Never in my whole life!”’ (84). If this is Alan Yates stepping out from behind the mask of Carter Brown, it also marks his passage into a life of fewer funny tricks and increasingly high levels of editorial constraint.

Toots’s performance at the jazz festival, it emerges, involved a double layer of doubling: the sound was a recording made by Melody; the body double was provided by a woman called Dolores Dante. Dolores’s fate is to die just like Toots, which Carl describes in unflattering terms when confronted by the man ultimately responsible, Toots’s impresario: ‘This is repetition, and repetition is always so boring’ (96). But not to repeat will prove difficult; indeed, non-repetition will have a homeopathic dose of repetition at its core. Carl discovers that Melody is the composer of tunes that he considers jazz worthy of the name of ‘music’ (89); he also learns that her real name is Agnes Meldew and that she has been the victim of Clintoch’s professional control, including blackmail. His response is telling: he burns the newspaper clippings pertaining to her past: her ‘facts’ (106). The paradox of this gesture, which privileges improvisation over the printed record, is that it is made by the detective hero. In behaving recklessly, and thus heroically, he becomes the embodiment of the hardboiled detective, but he also inoculates himself against full conversion, for, as noted previously, writing one’s narrative without the facts is the art of the jazz-merchant.

This idea of inoculation is important. It reminds the reader not to seek a simple solution (of the love-trumps-all or it’s-the-music-that-counts kind). Melody and Carl meet ‘in person’, as it were, at the intersection of two opposite arcs: hers is from the superficial to (acknowledgement of) the profound; his is from (an affectation of) the profound to (what would otherwise appear to be) the superficial, which is to say, the language of the pulp thriller. Melody emerges (in Carl’s eyes, at least) from Toots’s shadow, but there is no redemption for the reality that was Agnes Meldew, whose facts are burned. If Carl’s future retains the heart of the jazz critic within the body of a detective, his name remains the same. Melody’s pseudonymity appeals beyond the text, to the nexus of Alan Yates and Carter Brown. Alan Yates does not map neatly onto Carl-jazz critic in opposition to a Carter Brown who summons Carl’s inner detective; instead, Alan Yates writes all of Carl Vosper, and all of Carl Vosper is Carter Brown. We argue here that Last Note for a Lovely is a lament for Carter Brown by Carter Brown; what is lamented is the transition to the new detective-heavy Signet avatar of the Carter Brown Mystery Series, which will be marked inter alia by the loss of the ‘Peter’ (of Peter Carter Brown) that is still present on the inside cover of Last Note for a Lovely. Certainly, Carter Brown is a writing machine, but while the Carl Vospers of the oeuvre can still win the day, there is some art in that machine. That the artist-in-the-machine is Alan Yates is suggested by the genre-bending reply that Carl gives to Melody when she asks how he learned to talk like a detective: ‘Next to the crime movies, I like the cowboys best. So c’mon, partner! Let’s hightail it for the wide open spaces!’ (111). This appeal is to another of Yates’s pseudonyms, Todd Conway, under whose alias he wrote several western novels.

The wide open space into which he rides is, at first, one that he alone can enter, for it is the space of the detective qua detective. Getting close to a solution to the murders, Carl goes to Van Bilton’s house, where he grabs Sandra by the arm. It transpires that he is looking for needle marks (124). He finds no obvious signs of drug use, however. Yet, Sandra must have been taking drugs, Carl remarks, because she has just changed personality entirely. The irony here is that this novel is all about complete changes of personality and masquerades. Arguably, it is the generic requirement of the great reveal – the genre that Carl has finally begun to embody – rather than any material evidence (facts again) that makes his reading of the case the ‘true’ one. His solution therefore crowns his conversion to detective but is informed by the improvisation of the jazz-merchant. Sandra’s reply – that Carl always says ‘such intriguing things’ (124) – makes this clear. As a framing device, Carl’s great reveal also marks his debut as a detective; it is, in other words, the moment when he steps on to the stage. Unlike Toots’s performance, which marks the start of Carl’s investigation, this performance is real: ‘I was getting into my stride now. The words came quickly, fluently as I warmed to the subject that left me cold’ (125). The subject may not simply leave him cold, however, because it is the work of a detective and the hallmark of the generic. In the absence of marks on Sandra’s arm, he has little proof to go on. The great reveal is pure performance therefore, and one in which Sandra and her father play their appointed parts. This is perhaps Carter Brown at his most reflexive: when it is time for the truth, and the masks come off, out of the shadow of Carter Brown steps . . . Carter Brown. The performance of detectival truth carries the signature of the jazz critic, just as Melody Lane’s true music comes from her as opposed to Agnes Meldew, who is her biological point of origin.

If the hero is just a detective, and the solution is true because all the facts line up, then the Carter Brown novel will be pure formula. The artistic pulse of Last Note for a Lovely, what makes it the ‘whole life’ of Carter Brown, lies in its eschewing of truth, of a fixed essence beneath the performance. This goes some way to explaining the novel’s wilfully incomprehensible conclusion, in light of which the detective’s great reveal is an imperfect cadence, a penultimate production of truth. With the investigation closed, Carl and Melody head off for the wide open spaces of marriage. Their honeymoon – the final word, or last note, of the story – is couched both in the past and the present. News of the couple is published as a piece in Offbeat:

Bearded and blissful, our eminent jazz critic . . . Carl Vosper returned from Southport’s starting Jazz Festival this year, three weeks later than everyone else. Reasons for this late arrival as advanced by Carl were that he had to write the inside story on the macabre killings of the Festival, and his new wife, a striking redhead, better known as Melody Lane, was composing a new trumpet solo entitled, ‘Honeymoon In New Orleans.’ Asked how they enjoyed their honeymoon, the newlyweds replied that they hoped to find out shortly in their three weeks in New Orleans which starts next Tuesday.

(Editor’s note: It doesn’t make sense to me, either!) (130)

As a title en abyme, Honeymoon In New Orleans stands in for Last Note for a Lovely. The couple are left writing their own destiny in an atemporal space that defies explanation. The bliss that it brings signals readerly pleasure of an active, critical kind. And importantly, Carl is still suitably bearded. Hesitating between past and present, truth and improvisation, authorial voice and imposture (the pseudonymic signature), Last Note for a Lovely showcases Carter Brown in full swing: ‘halfway between intellectual and piratical’. But it also showcases the need for a double reading of Alan Yates. This reading must be a close one, for if Last Note for a Lovely has so many things to say, what might other texts reveal? And it must be a distant one, to uncover the truth behind the Alan Yates corpus. So we ourselves, as researchers trying to understand Alan Yates’s literary career, and his relationship to Carter Brown and all his other alter egos, also find ourselves in this predicament: halfway between the intellectual and, if not exactly the piratical, then at least the exploratory.

Acknowledgements

This research project has been made possible by the invaluable help of Dr Rachel Franks of the State Library of New South Wales. Our heartfelt thanks go to her and her team.

Footnotes

  1. The Al Wheeler novels are now available in the form of three-novel omnibus editions published by Stark House Press. Our comment here refers to the difficulty of finding first editions of the texts, which have long been collectors’ items. Furthermore, copies of novels like Last Note for a Lovely, which do not feature one of Carter Brown’s more famous detectives, are almost impossible to purchase, whereas the novel in French translation, for example, is readily available.

  2. Our own title, with its focus on ‘the reflexive Carter Brown’, stands as a tribute to Johnson-Woods’s pioneering research. Her titles promote, variously, ‘the promiscuous Carter Brown’ and ‘the mysterious case of Carter Brown’.

  3. In an interview for Andrew Nette’s ‘Pulp Curry’ blog, she states: ‘I have read nearly all of [the Carter Brown Novels]. There are a few that I haven’t been able to track down – about a dozen. And yep, I have read them. I wonder if there’s a Guinness Book record in that?’ For the full interview, see Nette.

  4. As Johnson-Woods reminds us, in the context of Australian 1950s pulp publishing, ‘writers signed away their overseas rights, and Australian companies organised reprinting with overseas publishers’, who could then impose rules on the novels’ content and length, and when the rights to the Carter Brown name were negotiated, it was not with Alan Yates, but rather with Horwitz Publishing (Toni Johnson-Woods, ‘Australian’). Consequently, the Signet acquisition in America would impose the rigid requirements of crime fiction serialisation on the Carter Brown novels, which would also be the case when they were imported into the French literary market in crime fiction series like the Série Noire from 1959 onwards.

  5. Some scholars argue that the term ‘hardboiled’, although a catch-all phrase generally used in opposition to the whodunit, sits uneasily with Carter Brown. In an interview conducted with Yates in London in 1974, Stephen Knight points out the literary debt owed by Carter Brown to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett but argues that his novels are less violent than those of James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane (17–18). The debt to Chandler is a taxonomical point indicating simply that Carter Brown novels are not whodunits. To argue that they are not hardboiled is to deny the enormous variety of his work. Typically, an Al Wheeler novel is more recognisably hardboiled than a Mavis Seidlitz one, for example. In Carl Vosper’s case, his character arc stretches from the effete to the hardboiled, with the result that Last Note for a Lovely appeals to that genre while also resisting it, in other words, critiquing it. Johnson-Woods (‘Australian’) offers a neat compromise term in the form of ‘par-boiled’. It should also be noted that in France all the authors mentioned by Knight were published in the Série Noire, which is synonymous with the hardboiled in that country (see Rolls et al.).

  6. Such ‘1939’ editions often celebrate the success of the novel by claiming to be, for example, the 500,000th edition. The first edition must be something of a collector’s item. No public library in Australia appears to have a copy.

  7. The line referred to here is: ‘I walk down the lane with a happy refrain’.

  8. These figures are based on bibliographical details published online: http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/carter-brown.htm, and complemented by archival work conducted at the State Library of NSW. The figures up to 1955 do not tally precisely with Johnson-Woods’s previously cited figures, which, to some extent, confirms her point, that is, that the precise details of the Carter Brown corpus are difficult to establish.

Published 28 October 2021 in Volume 36 No. 3. Subjects: Australian literature - Overseas publishing, Australian publishers, Detective fiction, Identity, Narrative voice, Popular culture, Culture wars, Carter Brown, Jazz critic, Doubling, French translation.

Cite as: Rolls, Alistair and Clara Sitbon. ‘The Reflexive Carter Brown, or the Prescience of Last Note for a Lovely.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.9fd4ba4892.