Welcome to the fifth installment of Sonia Mullett's column on out-of-print books, the serendipitous treasures that she finds on secondhand bookshop shelves. She provides an in-depth look at a different book each issue. This column examines Rosel George Brown's books about eponymous Louisiana detective Sibyl Sue Blue: Sibyl Sue Blue and The Waters of Centaurus.

sibylsueblue

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Rendezvous with Rare Books:

Rosel George Brown

 

By Sonia Mullett

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Sergeant Sibyl Sue Blue, the eponymous heroine of Rosel George Brown’s curtailed space-cop series, is a single mother in Hammond, near New Orleans, who likes sex almost as much as a well-mixed gin-and-’gin. Relationships are trickier. Most of Sibyl’s lovers either wind up dead – usually despatched by Sibyl herself – or find themselves up a Louisiana creek in need of rescue… by Sibyl. The pressures of work don’t help. You’re not liable to meet nice people (human or alien) in the world’s only spaceport if, like Sibyl, you spend most of your time investigating a string of grisly suicides linked to a seedy interstellar narcotics ring. But, despite the odd grand passion with maniacal sociopaths, and angsty reflections on her missing (presumed dead) husband Kenneth, single Sibyl Sue is having a ball.

 

Writing in the 1960s George Brown sets the action 30 years hence, in a university city where forty-something Sibyl lives with her daughter Missy. A frustrated Greek scholar (George Brown majored in Greek), Sibyl abandoned her studies and took up police work full time to pay the bills after Kenneth disappeared on a trip to the mysterious planet Radix. Streetwise Sibyl, who packs a mean rabbit punch, loves her job but still finds time to soak in a foam-float bath with her well-thumbed Thucydides and a fat cigar. As a good liberal, she lectures her less enlightened colleagues on their prejudice towards the immigrants from Alpha Centauri who have been settling on Earth. The Centaurians have brought with them Benzale, an illegal marijuana-like substance, which is all the rage with Terran teens. But when kids start showing up in the morgue with major self-inflicted wounds and previously peaceable Centaurians turn violent, Sibyl is drawn into an investigation that takes her way beyond her small-time beat and into a truly galactic conspiracy.

 

Brown’s tough female protagonist made waves when the first book was published by Doubleday in 1966. The pacy visceral opening, evocative of an action movie, is a graphic illustration of someone in total command.

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Rare Books:

A View of the Island

by Sonia Mullett

Sibyl Sue Blue didn’t stop to think. She slung her handbag like a sledge and knocked the gun out of his hand. She kneed him where it hurt the most and then rabbit-punched him. It’s the same place for Centaurians as it is for humans.

Always on the lookout for hip new science fiction, the influential anthologist Judith Merril positively glowed in a review for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: “You have never read a science fiction novel anything like this before … Sibyl Sue is the swingingest mama since – well, since…. In the right light she can pass as her daughter’s classmate, but her sex habits are definitely not teen-age.” Sadly Rosel George Brown died young and, despite the posthumous publication of a sequel, The Waters of Centaurus, her punchy character subsequently sank from view. The internet is hardly awash with references to Sibyl Sue Blue or The Waters of Centaurus, but those that have reviewed the books find them enjoyably trashy if a little facile. Merril’s own enthusiasm lies in the shock of finding a liberated woman at the centre of a conventional noir. That Sibyl Sue Blue’s originality now appears shop-soiled is probably down to the fact that a sexually desiring (as well as desired) middle-aged woman is no longer such a pop-culture rarity.

 

There is a problem though in the way George Brown’s romantic plots threaten to sap the life from her brilliant creation. In each novel, this hard-boiled policewoman falls for the absolute villain of the piece. In the first it’s Stuart Grant, the millionaire playboy with his own fleet of space ships (guess who’s importing the impure Benzale?). Stuart is your standard-issue misogynist. For him women are either crazy sluts or of no interest at all. “‘It’s a funny thing,’ he said, ‘but the women who look like they’re going to be the most interesting always turn out to be the most neurotic.’” In The Waters of Centaurus Sibyl is transfixed by the petulant Gide Girais, king of the ocean-dwelling Krilanrians who live on Centaurus. Both men are supposed to be extremely sexy – with a hackneyed emphasis on their mysterious good looks – and George Brown expects the resulting frisson to be pyrotechnic. Trouble is, it’s not. When Sibyl falls in love she is muted, absorbed.

Socially Amoral [Sibyl thought of Grant], but she didn’t say it. She didn’t even think it for very long. Because this man she loved was immune to ordinary laws. That was one of the things that was so wonderful about him.

We miss the old Sibyl because, by any standards, the character is more interesting than the plot. Rosel George Brown has inserted a traditional male-centred storyline into a work that for a time looked like it could be something radical.

 

These love interests are not just dull, they are also never convincing. From Charlotte Brontë to E.L. James women have written popular sexual fantasies about abusive shits. But Sibyl is no plain Jane Eyre and, unfortunately for the romantic direction in which George Brown wants to push her character, Sergeant Blue is actually far sexier than either of the two-dimensional hunks she melts over. Sibyl quoting from “The Ballard of Reading Gaol” and weeping as she knifes her power-hungry fish-boyfriend in The Waters of Centaurus is not a high point; George Brown attempts to reinforce a passion that was never quite believable in the first place. The Waters of Centaurus is more deeply flawed than Sibyl Sue Blue. In a particularly nasty episode Sibyl laughs off the rape of a Terran woman by an adolescent Centaurian. The insinuation is that the victim, a vampish gold-digger, was not only asking for it, but is doubly culpable because of her failure, in contrast to Sibyl, to protect herself. No doubt Rosel George Brown is reproducing some of the retrogressive attitudes of her time, trotting out malicious myths about sexual violence which, unhappily, persist today.  

 

Of the two books Sibyl Sue Blue is by far the better read, a SF detective novel that descends into schlock horror. It would play well on screen. But perhaps the most representative image of George Brown’s ambivalent sexual politics comes from The Waters of Centaurus. Exploring Gide’s underwater kingdom, Sibyl is almost killed in the teeth of a giant clam – a vagina dentata writ large. Pursued by her enemies and running out of air she later returns to the dangerous creature for shelter. It saves her life.  

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Rare Books:

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by Sonia Mullett

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