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Story Review: The Whore of Mensa by Woody Allen

The Whore of Mensa

Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview that “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” which I only mention because a game or something to that effect is what may have apparently inspired Woody Allen to write ‘The Whore of Mensa’, a  parody of hard-boiled detective fiction that were famous back in the 1930s up until the 1950s. Now, I have read enough of crime fiction and watched my fair share of noir films that I was able to recognize most of the tropes used by Allen in his short story. I must admit that I enjoy Woody Allen’s absurd humor and this made me enjoy the story even if it didn’t offer anything beyond the parody, the “game”, that Woody Allen intended.

“Thanks, honey.”

“There’s plenty more where that came from.”

“What are you trying to say?” I had piqued her curiosity. She sat down again.

“Suppose I wanted to have a party?” I said.

“Like, what kind of a party?”

“Suppose I wanted Noam Chomsky explained to me by two girls?”

“Oh, wow.”

“If you’d rather forget it…”

“You’d have to speak with Flossie,” she said. “It’s cost you.” Now was the time to tighten the screws. I flashed my private- investigator’s badge and informed her it was a bust.

“What!”

“I’m fuzz, sugar, and discussing Melville for money is an 802. You can do time.”

“You louse!”

The story follows the quintessential detective, Kaiser Lupowitz. Like all private investigators made famous by crime writers, he is a man of few words with a hint of alcoholism. He is approached by a guy being blackmailed by a sort-of intellectual prostitute, someone who, instead of selling sex for money, sells intellectual stimulation instead. Afterwards, like all hard-boiled fiction, the case isn’t what it seems to be because what is seemingly a minor case of blackmail turned out to be connected to an extensive network of intellectual prostitution whose ringleader is a WH Auden lookalike with the voice of Mary McCarthy.

“I devised a complicated scheme to take over The New York Review of Books, but it meant I had to pass for Lionel Trilling. I went to Mexico for an operation. There’s a doctor in Juarez who gives people Trilling’s features – for a price. Something went wrong. I came out looking like Auden, with Mary McCarthy’s voice. That’s when I started working the other side of the law.”

 The whole short story relies on one particular oddity which is a woman selling herself for her brains and not her body. In one of the funniest scenes in the story, our protagonist goes undercover and hires the woman who is trying to blackmail Lupowitz’s client. They start off by discussing Melville’s Billy Budd then correlates it with Milton’s Paradise Lost. At the end of the night, Lupowitz asks the girl if it would be possible to have a “threesome” and by “threesome” he means two girls explaining Noam Chomsky to him. When the girl gives up more details, Lupowitz finally reveals himself to be a private detective and threatens pressing charges against the girl (an 802 which is police code for discussing Melville in exchange for cash) unless she spills the beans against her boss, Flossie (the man who looks like WH Auden but with the voice of McCarthy).

I didn’t know if Woody Allen meant anything more with the story aside from being funny. Was he commenting on our culture’s fear of intelligence by writing a hyperbolic story where intellectual discussions can now be considered a crime? Or does he consider pretentious intellectual mumbo-jumbo to be a criminal act? If Woody Allen ever did have an intention beyond writing a funny story, it was lost to the reader and this disconnect between the writer and the reader is, I think, The Whore of Mensa’s biggest flaw.

Yes, Allen did create a funny story that parodies a particular literary genre but, beyond that, the story offers nothing else. Add the fact that humor is relative and that what may be funny for me may be unfunny for others. The Whore of Mensa gave me a chuckle and nothing more.

Rating: 3/5

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