Many an older novel has used the idea of "white slavery" as a plot or a subplot, although these books read today as fluffy, improbable, or even outright ridiculous. But what if I were to tell you that there's a novel out there which not only uses the idea of white slavery to good effect, but it even has something meaningful to say about prostitution, sexual freedom, sexual exploitation, and the laws that states - and the State - enact in attempts to speak to these concerns?
Will you sleep a little easier tonight when you learn that this novel not only exists, but it's by crime author extraordinaire Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct novels? Friends, I speak the truth. That novel is out there. And it's great.
Now an almost hilariously bizarre concern, the idea of white slavery was the source of major social anxiety in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As opposed to "traditional" forms of slavery, whereby (non-white) folk are kidnapped or bought by other (often white) people, transported to a foreign location, and forced into appalling labor and living conditions without remuneration, white slavery is generally understood to occur when (white) girls are kidnapped or bought by (often, non-white) people and forced into prostitution. By modern standards, the concerns about white slavery appear weird at best, and incomprehensibly hysterical at worst - but dig a little deeper and legitimate worries about underage prostitution, sexual exploitation, and even the ugly face of imperialist policies begin to manifest.
In an effort to address these concerns, the US Congress codified the White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, in 1910. Although meant to tackle the problem of underage prostitution, authorities almost immediately began to use the Mann Act as a means by which to prosecute consenting adults for sexual activity deemed immoral. By 1958, when Vanishing Ladies hit the shelves, the Mann Act had successfully been used to prosecute ordinary, non-prostituting, consenting adults who had engaged in sexual activity in states other than those in which they were residents. It sounds incredible, but it's true.
You don't have to know any of this history to understand and enjoy Vanishing Ladies, but the context is like a dash of salt across an otherwise perfect t-bone: a flavor-enhancer.
Phil Colby is an inner-city cop looking forward to a short holiday with his fianceé, Ann. Right off the bat, Phil reassures us they haven't slept together. "Everyone thinks we're crazy for waiting," he explains, "but that's what we're doing - waiting. Which, when you think of what happened at Sullivan's Point... well, it might not have happened." Phil borrows a car from another cop, reassures Ann's father that he'll take care of her and, it's implied, not sleep with her, and they head out into the countryside. The countryside of a neighboring state.
Things quickly spiral out of control. Phil gets pulled over for speeding by an unfriendly trooper. When Phil can't find the car's registration, the trooper commands they accompany him to the home of the local justice of the peace. Phil and Ann are forced to spend the afternoon and evening there, until someone can call to confirm both that the car isn't stolen and that Ann isn't a prostitute. It's 1 am by the time the JP sets them loose, and the couple don't have a reservation anywhere. They continue on to their destination, a tiny resort town called Sullivan's Point, only to find that all of the local motels are still closed for the season.
All but one, that is.
While Ann sleeps on the bucket-seat of their car, Phil makes arrangements for two separate cabins. The motel's proprietor, an ugly man named Mike Barter, leers at pretty Ann, noting that she's unusually tall and shapely, and has ink-black hair. As she's asleep, Barter suggest that Phil only sign himself into the guest register - Ann can sign in the morning, after she's had a good night's rest. Phil agrees, and carries the sleeping woman into her cabin. He undresses her and puts her clothes away, kisses her goodnight, and heads for the (separate) shower.
Phil's in for a surprise, however. Upon his return to his own cabin he finds a red-headed, seventeen-year-old prostitute lounging on his bed. It's late and he's tired and uninterested, but he can't seem to get rid of her. As he becomes increasingly irritated, she becomes increasingly desperate to stay with him, going so far as to offer her services gratis. The harder he tries to shake her, the harder she tries to bed him. And then he catches sight of blood leaking through the wall of his cabin.
As the confusion mounts, Phil rushes to Ann's cabin to get the two of them away as fast as possible. What he finds, though, is an empty cabin. Worse still, not only does no one know where she is... no one remembers her at all. Not the proprietor, not the prostitute, not the state trooper, and not the justice of the peace.
If Phil and Ann had been sleeping together, if they'd only rented a single cabin to share... maybe then she'd have been safe. But, of course, so doing would have suggested a violation of the Mann Act - crossing state lines for the purpose of debauchery - bringing with it another set of problems.
Vanishing Ladies is a terse thriller, written with McBain's typical wit and economy of style. It's a short novel - my copy is only 144 pages - and there's not a single wasted word or unnecessary scene. As it's written in the first person, roughly as depositions, the novel has both an air of personal immediacy and personal emphasis. Being inside the heads of the two cops who investigate the mystery allows us insight into their relations with their own sexuality and the sexuality of the people around them, as well as how insight into how those relations manifest. We feel their desire and their arousal as well as their apathy and their disgust.
McBain is a city-rat at heart. The city may be hard and fast and gross and dirty, but its mysteries are penetrable. In perhaps the novel's only truly lyrical passage, McBain writes of the compelling attraction of the city, its beauties as well as its horrors. The country, for McBain, represents the secret heart of man: the concealed, unknowable place where we hide our ugliest desires and our basest instincts, from each other and from ourselves. It's only appropriate, then, that McBain's heart of darkness be an isolated motel on a spit of land in the middle of nowhere.
You loved the city because the city had been part of you since the day you looked up from your carriage and saw the buildings reaching for the sky. You could go to the country for picnics, but the city always called you back, and you heard her keening song in the strangest of places - on gangway watch in the yards at Boston, on the fantail of a destroyer on a quiet moonlit night with the Pacific as still as a sleeping babe, behind the heaving smoking barrels of a 40 mm. gun trained on an enemy plane, the pom-pom, pom-pom bursting your ear-drums, the acrid stench of cordite powerful in your nostrils. You didn't forget the song of the city. You couldn't forget it because you helped write it.