From The Wrong Hands and Other Stories
There has been a great deal of talk in book media of late about the sexism and misbehaviour of men, especially those who use their success as cover for mistreatment of women. The resurgence and ongoing re-evaluation of Philip Roth in the context of a biography written by a man now credibly accused of multiple instances of grooming and sexual assault is but the latest example. (The biography’s publisher, W.W. Norton, put the book out of print after the allegations came to light.) Such accounts were not as prevalent in the zeitgeist as recently as 2004, when Peter Robinson published his first collection of short fiction, Not Safe After Dark and Other Stories, which includes “Fan Mail.” That story, now reprinted in an omnibus edition that also includes Robinson’s sophomore collection, 2009’s The Price of Love and Other Stories, could easily constitute a shot across the bow – a story about a writer who gets hoist on the petard of his own chauvinism and duplicity. A persuasive alternate title for the piece might be “A Misogynist’s Comeuppance.” (Spoilers follow, etc.)
“Fan Mail” focuses on Dennis Quilley, a man who at first blush shares a number of salient qualities with his creator. He lives in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, he is a noted mystery writer, and he fancies music and a pint. But Quilley is not some heroic Rothian alter-ego; he is, in most respects, a reprehensible man. This is especially true as regards his attitude toward women, whom he finds “troublesome” intrusions on his solitude and his writing. “He had never had much use for women,” Robinson writes, employing an increasingly uncomfortable close third-person narration for Quilley, “except for occasional sex in his younger days. Even that had become sordid, and now he stayed away from them as much as possible.”
If his libido has calmed down in his middle years, Quilley’s vanity is still fully functioning. His author’s photo is out of date and “had been retouched in any case.” Despite this, and despite his cheeks having filled out and his hair having thinned, he still considers himself “a handsome man for fifty: handsome, clever, and successful.” Ripe, in other words, for a fall.
The instrument of Quilley’s undoing is Frank Peplow, who sends the author a fan letter with a remarkable request attached:
For the past twenty years, my wife has been making my life a misery. I put up with her for the sake of the children, but now they have all gone to live their own lives. I have asked her for a divorce, but she just laughed in my face. I have decided, finally, that the only way out is to kill her and that is why I am seeking your advice.
Peplow feels that Quilley, having immersed himself in the mechanics of murder for his fiction, would be well positioned to plan the perfect crime in real life. A milquetoast with a bad heart, Peplow lacks the imagination to devise a murder plot on his own, and so turns to the mystery novelist for “advice.” (The two meet first at the rooftop bar of the Park Plaza hotel, then later at the Madison Pub: the Toronto setting of the late 1980s, when the story was first composed, is specific and recognizable.)
Quilley spends some time asking himself why he would agree even to meet Peplow, let alone participate in dreaming up the blueprint for a killing, eventually deciding it amounts to “a game, a cerebral puzzle, just like thinking up a plot for a book.“ What he does not admit to himself is that he sees in Peplow a reflection of his own misogynistic feelings toward women. Peplow describes his wife as “cruel and selfish,” “messy,” and “[t]oo busy watching those damn soap operas on television day and night.” He suggests that his wife “cares about nothing but her own comfort”; at no time does Quilley clue in to the fact that something similar might be said of him.
The author agrees to help Peplow, who claims poverty and bemoans the fact that he has nothing with which to pay his murderous Cyrano. What he does have is a large collection of rare first editions, including an almost completely forgotten volume called Signed in Blood by one X.J. Trotton.
There is a social phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect,” which Wikipedia defines as “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information has the unintended consequence of further publicizing that information.” By requesting such an obscure and arcane volume in payment, Quilley at once seals his fate and falls victim to his own literary version of the Streisand effect.
Because it is not Peplow’s wife, but Peplow himself, who ends up getting murdered. The culprit – who is, of course, Gloria Peplow, the intended victim — has discovered that the reason Quilley wanted to retrieve one of the few remaining volumes of Trotton’s only book was to destroy it, thereby erasing extant evidence that he plagiarized the book for his own first novel. Gloria’s discovery allows her to turn the tables on Quilley, blackmailing him in a highly ironic manner.
“Fan Mail” has elements of Patricia Highsmith in it, not least the misanthropic tone. There are no good people here, merely characters who display varying degrees of venality and cupidity. What Robinson’s mousetrap construction does is allow Quilley to fall prey to his own machinations in a way that highlights both his misogyny and his falsified CV. “Thirteen solid police procedurals,” Quilley thinks, ”twelve of them all his own work, but the first, yes, a deliberate adaptation of a piece of ephemeral trash.”
Ultimately, it is Gloria who has the final word. Gloria triumphs over both men because she proves smarter than either of them, craftier than either of them, and, in the most significant case, more ruthless than either of them. Gloria is entirely willing to commit murder – albeit a killing that is somewhat more justified than the unprovoked crime her husband had been planning – and willing to use her knowledge of Quilley’s literary history to entrap him for her own ends. “Fan Mail” might in one respect be considered feminist noir: a reworking of the genre in which the femme fatale gets the last laugh, and the hapless men get what they deserve.