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DONALD McNUTT DOUGLASS. Rebecca’s Pride (1956).

15 Aug

In Bolivar Manchenil, a black man of gargantuan size, a figure of high cunning yet sentimental temper who leads the forces of law on one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Douglass has created both an engaging hero and an agreeable narrator. As Manchenil describes how he solved the murder of Fordyce Wales, an empire-building mainlander whom many on the island had wished to see dead, he incidentally evokes the easy-going yet somewhat off-kilter spirit of his not quite post-colonial homeland—its mix of sun-drenched openheartedness and dark savagery, of egalitarian laws and hierarchical habits, of lazy equanimity and simmering resentment. RebeccasPride.jpgDouglass, for a white man writing in the mid-1950s, demonstrates admirable skill and sensitivity in fashioning his tale around a detective of color who’s as acutely perceptive and as variously capable as Manchenil.

If only the same were true of the author’s outlook on women, which is nothing less than shocking. The worst display of this benighted attitude comes in the book’s final paragraph, but it retrospectively taints the entire story. Estralita, the Cuban-born wife of a Dutch planter, has a history of cuckolding him. According to the implicit logic of the novel, it was her scandalous behavior that let loose much of the evil that has afflicted Manchenil’s island. Now, as the narrator observes (and as the novel’s first paperback edition luridly shows), she receives what is supposedly her due: “Willem had beaten her, with a bull whip, and rubbed salt in her wounds. She walked beside him, not painfully, for the wounds had healed as well as they ever would, leaning on his arm as a wife should. But he had done a careful, scientific job. She would never tempt again.” On it goes for several sentences, adding nothing to the main narrative and undermining the authorial implication that all has been set right in the end.

Something else is left out of joint when the novel ends: Douglass alludes to a major clue that would tie together at least two strands of the murder plot, but he never fully explains that clue. Even as pure detection, therefore, Rebecca’s Pride falls short of its promise and ill serves the sharp, likable sleuth who stars in it.

[ADDENDUM: There appears to be nary a trace of substantive online commentary about this book—notwithstanding its status as a winner of the Edgar award for best first novel. If you Google the book title, you’ll find plenty of listings that pertain to the cover image featured here. The cover depicts the ugly scene that I cited in my review, and of course it’s a very arresting image. Information on Douglass is also hard to come by. Curiously, though, the German edition of Wikipedia has an entry on him.]

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5 Comments

Posted by on August 15, 2013 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

5 responses to “DONALD McNUTT DOUGLASS. Rebecca’s Pride (1956).

  1. John

    August 16, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    Is the writer trying to show how the islanders treat women? Why should these scenes be tied directly to Douglass as his personal worldview? It doesn’t have to be his “outlook on women” it coudl be he is using these extreme examples of misogynistic behavior to underscore the mistreatment of women and not including them as salacious entertainment. Perhaps its meant to be a iroinc coda; the murder is solved, the culprit is caught and presumably punished, but there is still an evil that goes unseen and unpunished. There are a variety of readings, I think. I’m sure the Edgar award judges recognized this as well otherwise why would they reward a misogynistic book with a prize? I have read reviews of people who shame writers for creating characters who use bigoted racial epithets and then go on to bewail the writer for being a bigot when it should be clear that it is the character who is the bigot.

     
    • Kelly

      August 16, 2013 at 6:08 PM

      I’m a big fan of old pulp books, and it’s tricky sometimes as a woman to read some of the archaic views. Yes, I wince sometimes, but I try to look at it as a “look how far we’ve come” kind of thing.

       
    • Mike

      August 18, 2013 at 7:03 PM

      Hi, John. It was many years ago that I read this book, so I can’t say for certain that my reading of it is the right one. One point in favor of your suggested reading is that the book is narrated by the hero-sleuth (Manchenil)—a figure who has a particular, and in some ways rather naive, voice. Clearly, there isn’t a one-to-one match between what he writes and what the author thinks. But I went back and read the last several pages of the novel, and what I saw this time around was just as disturbing as it was when I jotted down this review. Manchenil, whom we’re obviously meant to admire, uses the final paragraph of his narrative to celebrate the beating of a woman. I don’t know what members of the Edgar committee in 1957 were thinking, but I doubt that any such committee today would give an award to a novel that ended that way.

      Golden Age writing, of course, is rife with material that offends present-day liberal sensibilities (including my own)—random bits of racism and anti-Semitism in Agatha Christie, say, or homophobic slurs and stereotypes in Hammett and Chandler. None of that undermines my ability to enjoy such work. So-called serious fiction, meanwhile, often features unreliable and indeed unlikable narrators whose accounts require complex, ironic reading. (Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” also published in the mid-1950s, is a now-classic example of that trope.) But the concluding scene of “Rebecca’s Pride” is something else entirely.

       
      • Gert Wijlage

        July 21, 2014 at 5:22 AM

        Hello Mike,
        Happy endings are fine with me, but not a musthave. I agree with John that because of the fictioncode, preferably and in principle, not to equate fictioncharacters to authors presumed characteraspects. Especially boiled fiction, the detective genre, is almost designed to portrait  and incorporate the less sunny sides of society and obscure everyday life.
        Also, McNutt Douglass does not ‘celebrate’ the beating of Estralita, instead he prefigures the aversion by stating on the last page:”And it may seem barbaric to off-islanders that everyone had heard about it and no one, then, had done anything about it, or ever would.” Mark too this shading in “then”.
        Repeatedly is also his warning of the violent history of the Von Schooksfamily in which the other woman Rachel plays a far more explicit and stunning role of ‘queen mother’, ‘grave, majestic and beautiful, full of years of joy and of sorrow, (…) wise and good”.
        I read the Avon Classic edition of 1970, PN321, with a totally different cover of a threepiece calypso-band. It makes me curious to read the other two novels with Manchenil. His phraseology is remarkeble.

         
  2. Mike

    August 18, 2013 at 7:15 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Kelly. I read old books in part because I think that in some ways “things were better back then” (the main thing being the quality of detective story writing). But some very important things have improved immensely in just the past few decades.

     

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