on the monkey’s face, a monkey’s mask
In her genre-bending 1994 text, The Monkey’s Mask, Australian poet Dorothy Porter blurs the boundaries between novel and verse, constructing a taut erotic thriller that subverts our expectations of the constituents of noir fiction. Following in the tradition of the lesbian detective genre that emerged in the 1970s, Porter takes a marginalised genre and uses it as a torch against both the sexism inherent in the world of poetry, and masculinist assumptions about the female identity, (Wilkinson 2012, pg. 1). Both praised and criticised for simplifying poetic language, her ability to embrace pop-culture and the mainstream has had the effect of lowering her poetry from the lofty realms of high culture and “inviting readers, rather than excluding,” (Wilkinson 2012, pg. 1). The bare-bones and acerbic language of The Monkey’s Mask is evocative of the terse, action-driven prose of the 1940’s hard-boiled detective novels, which Porter subverts to place female sexuality and identity at the forefront. The text blurs the lines between sex and violence as the story becomes both an erotic exploration as well as the investigation of a crime (Simpson 2009, pg. 11).
Porter’s text is peppered with familiar motifs and allusions to the American tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. The story takes place in the “mean streets” of Sydney, which Porter introduces in a manner that highlights the uniquely female vulnerability of her protagonist in the urban environment:
“The streets coil around me
when they empty
I get scared,” (Porter 1994, pg. 4).
The particular emphasis on the “empty” streets sets the tone for Jill’s isolation throughout the text. The lone, private-eye is the driving force behind the hard-boiled detective novel, championing their individualism in an alienating urban environment. In the context of lesbian detective fiction, this sense of alienation gains a deeper sense of signification as the lesbian detective is marginalised both by her sexuality and the additional pressures imposed by her gender in a male-dominated industry. She speaks briefly of her relationship with her mother, who:
“after three gin and tonics [says]
‘You don’t have to be
we all know what you are,” (Porter 1994, pg. 60)
to which Jill responds with the question, “What am I?”, which highlights both her alienation with her mother, and her sense of struggle with her own identity (Simpson 2009, pg. 11), which is an important focus of lesbian detective fiction, distinguishing the protagonist from the assertive, self-assured hero of the hard-boiled tradition. However, similar to the hard-boiled detective, Jill is similarly characterised by her inability to maintain a romantic relationship. She mentions two years of self-imposed isolation and celibacy in her remote Blue Mountains home after a failed relationship, and “the bars. The scene. All [her] old lovers,” (Porter 1994, pg. 29), implying a series of casual flings. This aligns her with the trope of the lone detective, too committed to their job and their independence to find room for relationships (Simpson 2009, pg. 10).
However, while investigating Mickey’s disappearance, she meets the missing girl’s lecturer, Dr Diana Maitland, cast in the text as the femme fatale. The women are positioned in binary opposition to each other: Jill is butch, introverted and vulnerable, where Diana is feminine, intellectual and irresistibly alluring. Diana’s name is an allusion to the Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon. Jill’s friend remarks that:
“Diana is a Moon name
a witch name…
‘Well,’ [Jill confesses]
‘my Diana sure waxes
and wanes,” (Porter 1994, pg. 77).
Her name is a clue to both her variable, inconstant, two-faced nature, and her predatory sexual power. The novel’s tension hinges upon the familiar trope of the seduction of the detective by the femme fatale, and Jill is ultimately bested by her attraction to Diana, which leads her to cover up her knowledge of her involvement in Mickey’s death. The character of Diana offers a fresh take on the traditional femme fatale, who is often sacrificed by the male hero in his pursuit of honour.
The discovery of Mickey’s body also offers innovation to the tradition of the American hard-boiled detective novel, where the body was found not through detective work but through natural forces, as dogs dug the girl’s body from a shallow grave in a National Park. This reinforces Jill’s impotency as a detective, as she is drawn deeper into the femme fatale’s judgement-clouding web, admitting herself that she:
“…did fuck all
fuck her teacher,” (Porter 1994, pg. 47).
Jill’s focus then shifts from a missing person’s case to a murder investigation, as Mickey’s mother gets “jack of the cops” (pg. 61) and re-enlists Jill’s aid. This rejection of the arm of the law for the lone, private-eye hearkens to a penchant towards anti-authoritarianism that sets a uniquely Australian tone to the hard-boiled detective novel (Knight 1996, pg. 11). The discovery of the girl’s body offers a powerful and violent moment of pause in the middle of the text, uniting The Monkey’s Mask once again with the harsh sensuality of the hard-boiled tradition, as Porter’s cool prose creates a visceral, sensorial image of the dead girl
“chunks out of her arms and legs
from the pack of dogs that found her
her shirt round her neck
her face swollen with rot” (Porter 1994, pg. 52).
The hideousness of this imagery stands in stark contrast to the girl when she was alive: “petite, pretty and only nineteen,” (pg. 52) as Porter reminds us of her youthful innocence and ties together her underpinning theme of sexuality and violence by leaving readers with an uncompromising image of the raped, murdered girl. The Monkey’s Mask brings a fresh voice to the old tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. By transplanting the setting from Chandler’s Los Angeles to the mean streets of Sydney, Porter gives her verse-novel a uniquely Australian and anti-authoritarian edge. The text demonstrates an evolution in the genre, as its categorisation as a work of lesbian detective fiction allows the author to subvert the traditionally male hero and explore the effect of his role on a female protagonist. This works to great effect in her development of the relationship between the lone detective and the femme fatale, which she uses to explore both female sexual identities, and the relationship between sex and violence. Porter leaves the reader with a morally ambiguous ending where it is unclear whether the hero has truly saved the day after all, leaving the redemption of the city in the hands of the divine, who sends rain for “forty days, forty nights” until the memory of the case floats out to sea.