Thursday, April 23, 2020

Wade Miller's Kitten with a Whip

Kitten with a Whip is a 1959 crime thriller by Wade Miller. The excellent 1964 film adaptation (with Ann-Margret) is probably better remembered these days than the novel. Wade Miller was actually Robert Wade and Bill Miller, childhood friends who formed a successful and prolific writing team.

Kitten with a Whip starts on an ordinary hot day in southern California suburbia. A very hot day. David Patton is a regular guy with a good job (he’s a stress engineer and he likes his job) and he’s married with a five-year-old daughter. His wife Virginia and daughter are out of town at the moment (Virginia is visiting her sick mother). For some guys this would be an opportunity to get up to all sorts of no good - gambling, booze, women, etc. But not David Patton. He’s genuinely happily married.

So he wakes up in the morning and hears a sound from his daughter’s bedroom. He’s really pleased. Virginia and Katie (the daughter) must be back early. He bursts into the bedroom to welcome Katie home and instead of his five-year-old he finds a very attractive seventeen-year-old girl dressed in a nightgown. This is a surprise, to say the least.

The girl is named Jody and she explains that she’s not a burglar or anything, she just needed somewhere to sleep and since she found the front door open she let herself in. Well, the front door wasn’t exactly open but the window was. Or at least it was open after she’d prised it open. She’s escaped from a reformatory but really none of it was her fault, she only stole a bottle of booze for her father and he’d have whipped her if she hadn’t.

Now you or I might view this girl’s story with just a tiny bit of suspicion but David Patton is used to the safety and security of 1950s suburbia. He has never seen the seamy side of life. To him this is just a poor innocent young girl in trouble. Somebody should do something to help her. He should do something to help her. That would be the right thing to do. The fact that she happens to be a remarkable pretty seventeen-year-old girl has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. And at her age she probably doesn’t know anything about sex anyway. Even if she does make a point of letting him know that she’s not wearing any underwear beneath her nightgown.

Thus begins David Patton’s nightmare. At first it doesn’t seem too bad. After all if she causes any trouble all he has to do is pick up the ’phone and the cops will pick her up and take her back to the reformatory. The thought comforts David, until Jody explains that if he does that she’ll tell the cops that he tried to rape her. Would the cops believe David’s explanation that he’s just an innocent victim? Would the neighbours? Would his boss? Would his wife? The answer to all of these questions is no, none of them would believe him. Even though of course he really is quite innocent, he was just trying to help a girl in trouble. Although perhaps having sex with Jody wasn’t such a smart move. But she really does have a rather luscious body and he had had a few drinks and he didn’t really know what he was doing.

Now Jody is the one with the whip.

David is obviously shockingly naïve. These sorts of things don’t happen to respectable married men in suburbia. However there’s more to it than that. David was happy before Jody came along, but there was something missing. He half-wanted some adventure and some excitement even if he’s totally unprepared for the consequences. He convinces himself he’s horribly unlucky to be in such a mess but he ignores all the warning signs. Right at the start he is aware that he is noticing Jody’s shapely legs and the way her nightgown clings to her breasts. He is aware that he is wondering what she looks like naked. He convinces himself that of course nothing will happen. He could turn her in right away but he doesn’t. He has everything under control. And it is rather exciting, especially when Jody slips off her nightgown in the car to try on the new underwear and dress he’s bought for her. Of course he doesn’t peek while she’s undressing, well just a little peek but there’s no harm in that.

Jody is a pretty terrifying character. She’s frightening because she’s manipulative and ruthless but in some ways she really is innocent. She doesn’t understand consequences. Most she is terrifying because she truly belongs to another world. It is the world of the young and rootless, petty criminals, drugs and prostitution, of instant gratification, a world that knows nothing of the rules that govern David Patton’s safe suburban world. It is a world beyond David’s comprehension. And his world is beyond her comprehension.

David finds it hard to hate Jody. He fears her and he fears that she will destroy his secure existence but hating her would be like hating a wild animal for being a wild animal. Jody simply has no idea how much damage she can do to him.

And Jody doesn’t really hate David. She just doesn’t understand him. Why can’t he live for the moment the way she does? And he obviously wants her sexually and she’s happy to give herself to him so why can’t he just enjoy it instead of getting all weird just because they had sex?

It is a clash of worlds, a clash of cultures.

This is in some ways classic noir fiction. David Patton is really a pretty good guy but he has weaknesses he isn’t aware of and he makes one error of judgment and now his life has become a nightmare. He makes mistakes but he’s hardly the only man who would have been tempted if a gorgeous young female suddenly threw herself at him.

Jody is a classic femme fatale, maybe not actively evil but a femme fatale doesn’t have to be actively evil to be very very dangerous. The tone of the book is light and amusing and rather satirical. David’s misadventures with Jody are somewhat comical but with tragic potential. It’s almost like a literary cross between two film genres, film noir and screwball comedy. David gets himself in deeper and deeper and the reader is left to decide whether to pity him, to despise him for his naïvete or to be amused by his predicament.

Of course the mood grows darker as David is drawn into Jody’s world. And the plot starts to twist and turn.

Kitten with a Whip is a fine thriller with a humorous side and a serious side as well. Jody’s world and David’s world should never have come into contact with each other. Highly recommended.

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