This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here. We're still travelling the world this week, in the company of #11, Wade Miller's Branded Woman.
Branded Woman was originally published in 1952. The author, Wade Miller, is actually a writing duo - Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller. The two met as children and wound up collaborating for most of their adult lives, writing over thirty novels under various pen names, including Touch of Evil and the Max Thursday mysteries (also the delightfully named Kitten with a Whip).
Branded Woman features Cay Morgan, a beautiful smuggler on a secret mission. The book opens with Morgan touching down at Mazatlan airport and it quickly establishes the book's tension: she's both huntress and hunted, beautiful and vain, villainess and victim. Her pursuers find her immediately - she's attacked in the airport itself and, were it not for her own henchman (a private eye named George Hodd), Branded Woman would be a very short book.
Still, Hodd is very much a henchman, not a white knight. He's the muscle, obeying Morgan's (often confusing) orders. Hodd's only reticence is the potential illegality of it all. He's a working stiff, after all, and whatever Morgan is after, it seems a bit dodgy.
We soon learn that although Morgan is a dashing thief, she's not in Mexico on business. Five years ago she crossed another smuggler - the mysterious figure known as the Trader. As punishment, the Trader kidnapped her and "branded" her - carving a "T" in her forehead. Morgan's spent the time since then trying to find where he is, for "he had done worse to her than kill her", and she wants revenge (24).
Morgan and Hodd track a slim lead all the way to Mazatlan and follow the thread through a series of bizarre places and vague clues: a rural bullfighting ring, a few frames of film, a private island, a British soap trader... Morgan and Hodd encounter others on the Trader's trail as well, not particularly trustworthy allies, but partners none the less.
Cay Morgan is a brave - foolishly so - heroine. When she spies any opportunity, she flings herself at it, often shedding her own 'backup' in the process. There's a sort of desperate method to her madness: she knows this is her best, and possibly only, opportunity to find the Trader, and her desire for revenge makes her reckless. Even when there are more positive distractions - the opportunity make a lot of money, for example, or a foxy love interest - she still remains single-minded in her pursuit of the Trader. Her resourcefulness, dedication and willingness to use anyone/anything on her mission are hallmarks of the genre, and it is good to see these traits (flaws and all) in a female protagonist.
Of course, Wade Miller leaves no doubt that Cay Morgan is a woman. And a beautiful one. Her every outfit is described in lavish detail, and, more often than not, she's advancing her schemes by showing some cleavage. In many ways, this is a noir tale from the point of view of the femme fatale - a beautiful, utterly self-centred figure that uses her body as a weapon.
Still, as much as the author's gaze loves to linger on Morgan's body, she never loses her agency. When, Walt, the inevitable love interest, arrives, he claims her with the full force of 1950's possessive machismo, she never commits. "I've taken you over," he boasts. And truly, Cay feels herself "melting into his reservoir of male power" (152). But... Cay never actually melts. In an inversion of the typical private eye / femme fatale relationship, she's tempted - she even indulges herself - but she never gives in. Her quest remains paramount. (It is worth noting, however, that the quest was essentially dictated to her by a man.)
This is all a vast improvement on, Wade Miller's Mad Baxter (1953), where the macho hero slappenfuks his lady-love into becoming a meek possession. Certainly Branded Woman is problematic, but, as much as her life is influenced by men, Morgan is at least the hero of her own story.
There's also no question that Branded Woman is about sexual violence, with the "brand" a fairly heavy-handed metaphor. Certainly on one level, a brand is 'just' a brand - and it is horrific: she's been marked as a slave or possession, she's been made 'ugly', etc. But, ultimately, Morgan's brand is an unsubtle rape. Morgan also meets someone else with the brand. D'Hureau, another smuggler, also foiled the Trader at a point in the past, and was given an identical 'brand' as punishment: "see how the Trader wished me to live and remember, rather than die and forget!" (114). There is a great deal of interesting discussion going on about the portrayal of sexual violence in genre fiction. Here we have a rare scenario in genre wherein both male and female characters assaulted.
Morgan falls prey to the Trader on a second occasion, and this time with less metaphoric subtlety: he lures her into having sex with him under false pretenses. This adds to the tension of their final showdown. The dramatic tradition of the genre and era points Morgan firmly down one particular path: that of forgiveness and a rather unbelievable romantic entanglement. But, to give Miller credit, Morgan also has the clear choice of sticking to her guns, and behaving more, for lack of a better word, believably. Sadly, the tension (and payoff) of her final choice is immediately diminished by a silly denounement.
There's no question that Branded Woman is a problematic book - rife with the sexism and hard-headed machismo of the era - but, in many ways, it is also surprisingly progressive. Cay Morgan is a sort of prototype Modesty Blaise - a female character that's given agency, power and authenticity... while also being licked by the the author's male gaze. Still, remarkably, Branded Woman also addresses sexual violence with a surprising equality. At its best, which is also its broadest, this is a book about power and possession. It is unfortunate that the authors did not break the mold on a more granular scale as well.
Branded Woman has a cracking cover by Glen Orbit, whose painting of Morgan fits Wade Miller's description perfectly (down to the all-important fringe). The original Gold Medal cover seems to be showing the 'moment of branding', which is an interesting editorial decision. This is not only a scene not in the book, but it portrays as Morgan as a victim before the reader even opens the book. Orbik's version makes Morgan the centrepiece, and firmly shows her in control of the situation.
Mystery File has a fantastic resource on "the authors that were Wade Miller", with a bibliography, covers and even an interview with Robert Wade.