Doing the Right Thing: Frederick Ramsay's DROWNING BARBIE
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Apr 13 2014, 5:20 PM
              Doing the Right Thing: Frederick Ramsay’s DROWNING BARBIE
     At the Left Coast Crime 2014 convention, Frederick Ramsay was on a panel of authors whose novels are set in distant places and distant times: “Mysteries Far Afield.” He discussed his Jerusalem mysteries, which take place during the life of Jesus, but at one point brought up his Ike Schwartz series, the most recent of which is Drowning Barbie.  Ike is a sheriff in Picketsville, Virginia, a likable man who has a strong commitment to law and justice, and when the two conflict, law prevails. He does not sanction vigilantism, although Drowning Barbie has important things to say about it. In fact, it would be interesting to take quotations from James Lee Burke and Robert Crais and create a pseudo-debate between Ike on one side and Clete Purcell and Joe Pike on the other.  In describing the ethic according to which Ike lives, Ramsay hesitated for a second and then offered, Ike tries to do the right thing. 
     Putting aside any quibble about “doing the right thing” resembling “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” Ike’s ethic is a difficult one, not because of potential challenges about subjectivity but rather because of how difficult it is to live by. Existentialists have claimed Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ambiguous and enigmatic Grand Inquisitor as their own because the Inquisitor argues that the worst thing one can offer humankind is freedom—and Christ has given just that.  If Christ came down to earth again, he would for that reason be crucified again. Doing the right thing involves making choices and taking responsibility for them.  It is easier to live according to a specified religious creed. Ike is a non-observant Jew and he neither calls on nor repudiates Jewish beliefs.
      Among his many career paths, Frederick Ramsay was ordained an Episcopal priest and as the information supplied by Left Coast Crime says, he “served in several parishes until his retirement.”  It is fair to say, therefore, that Ramsay is far more knowledgeable than most on the subject of theodicy, explaining the existence of evil in a universe created and ruled over by an all good and all powerful God. He would know the history of the grounds on which people at least in theory define their moral obligations to others. It is fair to say, because Ramsay is highly educated and has said in an interview that although he was a science major, he took in college every comparative literature course he could,, that he is probably familiar with Doestoevsky’s Inquisitor and the uncertainties about how the story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov (which, it is worth noting is a murder mystery) has been read.
     A good example of an ethic cut loose from religious beliefs can also be found in another novel, Albert Camus’ The Plague (La Peste) although it is not being argued here that there is any direct influence by Camus on Ramsay. The novel depicts the Algerian city of Oran under quarantine because of the outbreak of the bubonic plague, and follows several characters to see how they react to their isolation and to detail how they fight the plague.  The novel has been read as an allegory of resistance to the Nazis in World War II, but it is far richer to think that it is an allegory of evil in general, including Ike Schwartz’s concern for the rising crime rate in his community and throughout the United States. From the perspective of Camus’ narrator, the physician Bernard Rieux, the plague is a fact and insofar as it exists, it must be fought and lives must if possible be saved, although not many in this novel are. And why should one fight, according to Rieux?  For the sake of common decency (l’honnêté), fighting the plague and facing together that which concerned them all.  Optimistically, Rieux thinks there are “are more things to admire in men than to despise and that the evils in the world help people to ‘rise above themselves’—although one would be mad to pretend that the plagues that test human virtue are therefore in some way desirable.”   Like Ramsay, Camus is familiar with more traditional views of evil and how it is to be fought, and perhaps more importantly, how it is to be understood, and his character Father Paneloux, a Catholic priest, represents an earlier and more conventional view than the author who created him.
     To invoke still another work of literature, one that Ramsay is probably familiar with, Robert Bolt says in the Preface to A Man for All Seasons that for Thomas More the choice to defy Henry VIII was simple but not easy—an interesting distinction. More based his decision on strong religious beliefs.  To live by doing the right thing or according to common decency is neither simple nor easy—or is only deceptively simple.  Ramsay, moreover, has a different view of why doing the right thing is essential if evil is to be fought. For his Ike Schwartz, unless people do the right thing, there will cease to be a society which makes it possible to make the choice to do so. Right and wrong would lose their meanings. What Thomas Hobbes called a war of all against all would prevail.
      Before this discussion continues it is important to stress that Drowning Barbie is an entertaining mystery, not a treatise on ethics.  Ike Schwartz is handsome and sexy; indeed he likes sex a great deal and when his long-time lover and now wife, Ruth, asks him how long he could remain celibate, he decides after thinking, some three or so days.  Ike is also a complex character and facing  wedded life worries about whether he and Ruth are not making a mistake.  Can a committed lark remain happily wedded to a confirmed night owl? There are, of course, other significant reasons why marriage might strain their relationship. Ike is also kind but firm, and his back story is a sad one.  Once a CIA agent, he had to live through the killing of his wife and the grief that followed.  He has in a sense escaped to Picketsville.  His strict ethics, in short, does not make him a rigid moralist who is likely to put off readers with what might seem as inflexibility. Additionally, Drowning Barbie is written by an author who can be droll or witty.  Anyone who has a coffee machine that dispenses one cup at a time will enjoy the scene in which Ike replaces his office’s antiquated coffee machine and explains to his dispatcher Essie,
           “It’s a very tired old urn.  It is going because I am no longer willing to risk life,
           limb, and tooth enamel on the stuff that pours out of its spout.  I am replacing
           it with modern technology.”
           “Like what?”
           “Whose cups?”
Later in the book the noises made by the coffee machine will be familiar to anyone who has one: Ike allowed the K-Cup machine to do its angry crocodile sounds.”
    To summarize Drowning Barbie without spoilers, a woman recently murdered is found buried in the woods.  In removing her body from her impromptu grave, another body is discovered, a man who it will turn out had been killed a decade earlier.  The connection between these deaths is one of the mysteries Ike must with the help of his investigative team discover. (The novel belongs to the genre known as a police procedural.)  Meanwhile, the murdered woman, Ethyl Smut (the name is revelatory) is hardly mourned by those who knew or knew of her.  She was both loathed and loathsome. A methamphetamine addict, she would do anything to get money for her next fix, including making sexually available to pedophiles her young daughter, Darla, who has been so seriously injured by repeated rapes from the age of nine that her reproductive organs have been irremediably damaged. Ethyl had in fact already damaged her daughter before the baby’s birth, for her own addiction affected the as yet unborn child, who would suffer from the equivalent of fetal alcohol syndrome (the spelling of Ethyl's name suggesting such a connection), her mind already hurt as badly as her body would later be. Also, to keep Darla compliant when she was being sexually abused, the child was fed addictive drugs that added to the mental damage already done. Many in the town know what was happening to the child but did not do the right thing and put a stop to it.  Now they will not talk about it, and Ike has difficulty learning what he has to know if he is to find the girl, who is now missing.
     Having endured a living hell for most of her life, Darla is, despite the care of a foster parent who promises to keep her safe, hopeless about her life and distrustful of anyone who might want to help her, including Ike and his team and a very principled clergyman to whom she has told her story. Reverend Blake Fisher is bound by the seal of the confessional and hampered by what he cannot divulge to the police—which brings him into potential conflict with Ike.  From Darla’s point of view, no one had prevented the cruelty she had been subject to when only a child, so why should she expect rescue now.  But she is also dangerous to some in the community, including a man recently released from jail who is not alone in wanting to prevent his victim from testifying about her experiences and those who had abused her. He is as loathed and loathsome as her mother but he is alive and the tension in the mystery concerns not only the solving of past murders but finding the runaway girl before she is found by those who have good reason to kill her.
     The murderous criminals in Drowning Barbie are those whom any community would want to be rid of and would hope would meet their just deserts.  But the justice system-- they know only too well--does not always serve the end of justice.  According to the law, the man released from jail is both justifiably free but also so vicious and dangerous that getting him incarcerated again is a necessity.  But how?  Aside from lawfully proving him guilty of new felonies, what could be done? One of the at-risk characters in the book has a brother-in-law who is a Navy Seal and who follows the criminal to see where he goes, tempted to just take him out, as the expression goes.  He decides not to but keeps this option open.  Ike, on the other hand, rejects this possibility although it occurs to him.  Law enforcement officers can manufacture a situation that ends in the death of a sociopathic killer but is deemed justifiable more easily than ordinary citizens acting in the same way. No one, moreover, would be interested in investigating the incident too closely.
     When Ike describes what the girl has endured without her mother’s intervention—indeed with her “connivance” --he blurts out to Ruth, his long-term lover and now his wife, that he has encountered in his work many horrible things but he “could have killed the lady” himself.  To which Ruth responds that had she known what he now knows, she “would have happily killed the lady” herself.  But Ike insists that “murder is murder and the people who kill bad guys go to jail just like the ones who kill good guys.” When Ruth retorts that they shouldn’t have to, he replies, “To do otherwise creates much too great a risk for the rest of us, believe me.” Ruth ironically notes that she is aware of the arguments against vigilantism but that this time she would be in favor of “looking the other way.”
     That would not for Ike be doing the right thing.  And in Drowning Barbie, there is another episode that focuses on self-interest versus the right thing and also reveals the serious flaws in law enforcement that unfortunately engenders distrust of those whom people should trust to protect them. Karl Hedrick’s lifelong dream was to become an FBI agent.  When the murdered man discovered under Ethyl's body first unearthed in the woods is identified, it turns out that he is someone who the FBI said had died in the sea, a mobster killed by other mobsters.  To have their error come to light now would be egg on their face and they make it clear to Karl in a not-so-subtle fashion that he is in some way to come up with evidence that the recent identification is incorrect.  Now Karl’s own career is on the line, for if he does the right thing and it turns out that that the FBI had erred a decade earlier, his career could come to an end.  For Ike doing the right thing while a seeming matter of choice is in the end not so. But Karl is facing such a decision for the first time. His character, he realizes, is as at risk as his job.  Would he lie to preserve what he had longed for and now achieved? Ike hopes not. He tells Karl that “good or bad, inconvenient, or uncomfortable, in the end, speaking the truth is the only thing that keeps us civilized.  It’s not a virtue much in evidence in the public sector anymore, but it is still the standard. The system has to work, warts and all, or it’s chaos—for ordinary people and for us who have to maintain some sort of order.”
     Ramsay’s readers will undoubtedly start to wonder before Karl does that if the FBI is so capable of subterfuge and deceit, his dream itself could be called into question.  Karl’s story forms a subplot in Drowning Barbie and it parallels and reinforces the mystery’s  themes. And makes doing the right thing even more problematic as an ethic to live by and justify, to oneself or to others. Ike—or perhaps Ramsay—recognizes the temptation to revert in some cases to lying or to vigilante justice. There is no ethic so strong and absolute that diverging from it is never tempting. Ike has made his choice but that he understands why others might make other choices humanizes him and saves him from a rigidity that could alienate readers of Ramsay’s book.
     It has already been noted that in Drowning Barbie  the world in which Ike lives is more Hobbesian than Existentialist, even if Ike’s ethic resembles Camus’ more than Hobbes’s. And Ike is certainly not arguing for the absolute power of government to enforce the laws engendered by a social contract in which individuals surrender freedom for their own safety. Still, without the strict administration of law, society would revert to what Hobbes describes as a war of all against all.  Human beings would revert to a state of nature in which they would also become what Hobbes describes as nasty and brutish, punished by having their lives cut short as they cut short others’ lives.  That is why Ike tells Ruth that vigilante justice is a risk to all, including them.
     There is irony in the name of Picketsville, in which Ike is serving his second elected term as sheriff.  The name conjures up a pastoral scene in which country houses are encircled with pristine white picket fences, ones low enough to encourage community rather than exclusion.  The irony is reinforced by the name of Charley Picket, an African American on Ike’s team who still suffers from the Jim Crow laws he once had to obey, and who hesitates to enter a restaurant from which he would have once been excluded.  But Picketsville no longer represents such a pastoral ideal. Again, as its population shrinks, its crime rate seems to increase.  The war of all against all is almost exemplified by Ethyl’s exploitation of her daughter.  The criminals seem more than ever to be nasty and brutish, essentially sociopathic. And the only way to defeat them seems to be to become equally nasty and brutish.  In one of Robert Crais’s books, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike have had ruthlessly to kill the bad guys in a book in which a child’s life is in danger. Among the congratulatory letters they receive is one that angrily asserts that their method of defending right is only to sink to the level of those who are supposedly in the wrong.  And although Dave Robicheaux will often join Clete Purcell in his vigilantism, he is rarely comfortable with doing so.  This creates one of the major dialectics in the later books in Burke’s series.
     In many ways, Frederick Ramsay has written an old-fashioned mystery.  The bad guys (and women) get theirs and no killer remains triumphantly standing.  Mystery readers who are satisfied that in the book right has triumphed and order has been restored will not be entirely wrong, although some will find the world of Picketsville disconcertingly ominous, too close to life as it is emerging in American small towns.  But what is consoling even to those who recognize that Ramsay hasn’t quite offered the assurance many readers seek in the mysteries they read, he has nonetheless achieved something very close. Ramsay has adhered to what was once known as the Horatian Ideal, the responsibility of a writer to teach as well as please. That is, to improve the moral outlook of readers. One way writers achieved this was to create heroes who were models to emulate.  They might have flaws, but if these had been serious at one time, they were no longer so as such heroes matured and came to see the light.  Ike Schwartz is committed to doing the right thing, and other characters in the book who are tempted to take the vigilante road similarly restrain themselves and resist what they decide is too easy a way out.  With such persons to serve as models, especially if they represent law and order, perhaps not all is lost.

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