Friday, September 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 233 (9/24) -- Miss Don't Touch Me by Hubert & Kerascoet

Nations have distinctive characters -- we may want to deny that, at times, but those distinctions always bubble back up, and prove us misguided if not totally wrong. Americans proverbially want their greatest stories to be tragedies with happy endings -- to provide the highest catharsis to the audience, and to have heroes that make the ultimate sacrifice, only to be quickly brought back in payment for their goodness. The French, on the other hand, have a darker view of the world -- their deepest stories have a strain of tragedy in the happy ending, a feeling of something irreparably lost, no matter what crimes have been stopped and what wrongs put right. They're also more likely to let sex be at the center -- or close to the center -- of a story that's not purely about titillation, unlike Americans.

Miss Don't Touch Me is a French book, deeply so -- set in Paris during the uneasy 1930s -- and it's a revenge story that's much more ambivalent about justice than the equivalent American book would be, as well as much more realistic about power and privilege than any American popular work can ever afford to be. It's also a graphic novel, but surely we're beyond the point where we're startled when a mere comic shows up at the gates of literature, aren't we?

Young women -- as always, seeking some excitement in a life that's mostly drudgery by day at some menial job and the prospect of years of drudgery as some schlub's husband wife for the foreseeable future -- gather in pavilions out in the suburbs to dance through the night, hoping to meet a dashing man, or at least to have a happy time. But there's a killer lurking -- the Butcher of the Dances -- capturing and hideously murdering those young women, one at a time.

One of the young women who enjoys the dances is Agatha; she lives with her more introverted, timid sister Blanche in the large house of the older woman for whom both of them work as maids. One day, Blanche looks through a new hole in the wall separating their attic bedroom from the next building -- and sees two men at work at the grisly task of disposing of the body of a dead young woman. Blanche is sure this is the work of the Butcher, and runs to find her sister, wanting the two of them to run away immediately. But it doesn't work out that way, and soon Agatha is dead -- in a way the police judge as suicide, but Blanche knows was the work of the Butcher. What's worse, her employer turns her out of the house immediately for the "scandal."

Blanche can't find another job, and wants only to avenge her sister. She learns that the last victim of the Butcher -- the woman she saw dead -- was a high-class prostitute from the Pompadour house, and tries to apply there for a job as a maid. But the madam instead -- with a touch of humor -- hires Blanche as the new "Miss Don't Touch Me," a dominatrix on the style of an English governess, who whips and beats men but never has sex with them. Blanche, with no other options, accepts, and tries to continue her investigations into the Butcher.

She finds friends and enemies at the Pompadour, as in any small group of people of the same sex, and also comes to learn about the true powers of the world, of the crimes that wealth and position and fame can shield and the resulting suffering of the poor and ill-placed and obscure. She does find the Butcher, in the end, and there is some justice -- for some of the people involved. But some are too far above justice, and some people we would call innocent suffer far more -- Miss Don't Touch Me ends on a devastatingly poignant moment of misguided "justice."

So this is a French book -- it has what counts as a happy ending, with the villains routed and their plans foiled, but it also has a deeper sense that some villains are never really routed, only pushed away, so that their next evil acts will be done somewhere else, to someone else. And that may be the best that we can hope for -- that we know why our sister died, and did as much damage to the people responsible for that death as we could. It's a fine, thoughtful, nuanced and unflinchingly clear-eyed book, not least interesting as a story deeply sympathetic to women though it was created by two men.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

3 comments:

Leo said...

as some schlub's husband

Wife, methinks.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Leo: Quite right; I had "schlub of a husband" at some point while writing that sentence, and it didn't get fixed the way it should have.

Thanks for catching it.

Drew said...

Kerascoet is actually a two-person team, one of whom is a woman.

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