Back in 1995, my notes tell me, Mickey Spillane was the guest of honor at a Mystery Writers of America banquet. In his acceptance speech he said that after he wrote his huge best seller, I, the Jury, “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘How could Mike Hammer possibly have shot that beautiful naked blonde in the navel with a forty-five?’
“Simple,” I always told them. “He missed.”
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups, very simple,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “They had the worst cover-up ever. Where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint, when they thought about it. Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble."
I was on Trump’s case back in 1994 when one of my Tom Bethany mysteries, Strangle Hold, was published. Unfortunately it was fiction. The excerpt below describes a bit of improvisational theater. For the full literary experience, go here.
“A sperm bank! Who said that.” Ned pointed me out, making sure everyone would know where the idea had come from. “Let me just say, sir, that you have a genuinely sick mind.” Three or four other suggestions came from the audience, and then the players huddled off to one side as if they were discussing which one to build on. Then a frizzy-haired blonde left the huddle with a chair in hand, and sat down facing us. From rehearsals, I knew her name was Audrey Herman. Audrey made as if she were working at an imaginary desk, while the actor named Harvey came through an imaginary door and stood in front of her. It was all going according to the script:
DONOR: This the First National Sperm Bank?
NURSE: You the ten o’clock? (Looking down at schedule) The Donald?
DONOR nods. NURSE drains the last of an imaginary coffee cup and hands it to him.
NURSE: Fill ’er up.
DONOR: Right here?
NURSE: Go ahead and whip it out. I’m a nurse.
DONOR starts to do so, when ROBBER bursts in and grabs him around the neck while threatening the NURSE with an imaginary gun.
ROBBER: Hand it over!
NURSE and DONOR obey, although the DONOR is in obvious distress from the strangle hold the ROBBER has on him. As the other two speak, he fights silently for breath and his hands lower slowly to his sides.
NURSE: Are you crazy? This is the First National Sperm Bank!
ROBBER: I don’t give a rat’s ass what you call it, sister. Hand the dough over in unmarked tens and twenties or this guy gets it. (Presses gun to DONOR’S head.)
NURSE: You can’t kill that man!
ROBBER: Why not?
NURSE: He’s already dead.
ROBBER notices this is so, and lets DONOR fall to the floor.
ROBBER: Shit, what am I supposed to do for a hostage?
NURSE: You idiot! You’ve killed the most brilliant businessman in America. His sperm was worth a fortune.
ROBBER: Huh? Who is he?
NURSE: Donald Trump. He used to get two million bucks a wad.
ROBBER: Jeez, what kind of broad would pay that kind of money for somebody else’s sperm?
NURSE: Women married to rich morons. Speak of the devil, here comes Mrs. Quayle now.
MARILYN: Hi. I’ve come to pick up my order of Trump sperm. Wait a minute. Isn’t that the Donald on the floor?
ROBBER: He’s just resting. (Aside to NURSE) Keep your mouth shut, sister, and I’ll split with you fifty-fifty. (Back to MARILYN) If you could just step into the other room with my nurse for a minute, give Mr. Trump a little privacy—
MARILYN: Of course. (They turn their backs while the ROBBER retrieves the fallen coffee cup from the floor, turns away from the audience, and goes to work.)
ROBBER: Okay, ladies. All set. (They turn around again.)
MARILYN: Sorry to interrupt your nap, Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump?
ROBBER: He went right back to sleep, I’m afraid. It took a lot out of him.
MARILYN: (Looking into the cup the ROBBER has handed her.) Doesn’t look like much to me.
NURSE: Hey, you know what they say about the Donald, don’t you?
MARILYN: No, what?
NURSE: (Breaking into the old Brylcreem song—) Trumpcreem, a little dab’ll do ya. Trumpcreem, a little dabbledo—
ROBBER: Yeah, I know it don’t look like much, but there’s millions of them little suckers in there. So if you’ll just hand over the dough—
MARILYN: Not so fast. I’ve got to check it first.
ROBBER: (Looking into the cup) Looks okay to me.
MARILYN: (Shoving an imaginary purse protectively under her arm.) Yeah, well, you’re not getting my wad till I’m sure this is the Donald’s wad. I’m taking it to the Cambridge police for a DNA test.
ROBBER: Okay, lady, have it your own way.
(He shoots MARILYN dead and grabs her purse as she crumples, then shoots the NURSE dead, then shakes the purse upside down. Empty. He shoots himself dead.)
And that was the end of our skit. All four players popped back up to their feet, bowed, and exited to applause that did my producer’s heart good.
From the New York Times:
After years as a sleepy federal backwater, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission became one of Wall Street’s most aggressive watchdogs during the Barack Obama administration.
Now the agency — which is responsible for policing a broad swath of markets and financial machinery, from trading in commodities to digital currencies to the complex derivatives that helped torpedo the financial system in 2008 — is shifting its law enforcement strategy: It will increasingly look to banks and other financial institutions to come clean on their own about misconduct and problems in the market.
The commission’s director of enforcement, James McDonald, plans to unveil the new framework in a speech Monday night at New York University. It is premised on the idea that large financial institutions, given the right incentives, have the potential to be invaluable partners for law enforcement.
“We start with the shared understanding that the vast majority of businesses want to comply with the law,” Mr. McDonald will say Monday, according to a draft of the speech reviewed by The New York Times.
Going through old files just now, I came across one called “Jokes.” Why did I keep them? Did I think they might come in handy some day? When, though? Oh, what the hell, why not? Here’s a couple:
Eva Peron mocked by hecklers at some public event, they calling out, “Prostitute, prostitute.” An elderly man on the platform comforts her: “Don’t let them bother you, my dear. I retired from the army seventeen years ago, and people still call me general.”
Mickey Spillane, at Mystery Writers of America Edgar banquet, April of 1995, being honored as a grand master, says after he wrote, I, the Jury, people kept coming up to him and saying, “How could Mike Hammer possibly have shot that beautiful naked blonde in the navel with a forty-five?” “Simple,” I’d say. “He missed.”
From the Oxford Dictionary, “dead letter”: A law or treaty that has not been repealed but is ineffectual or defunct in practice.
From the U.S. Code,Title 18, Section 960:
“Whoever, within the United States, knowingly begins or sets on foot or provides or prepares a means for or furnishes the money for, or takes part in, any military or naval expedition to be carried on from thence against the territory or domination of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district or people with whom the United States is at peace, shall be fined not more than $3,000 or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”
One of the dangers of growing old is that your networks tend to be created less through happenstance and more through past contact. As a result it’s easy to find oneself continually in a state of loss. Though minor in a larger context, a significant loss to me happened last Thursday, June 18, with the death of Phil Austin of the seminal comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose name the New York Times is unable to spell correctly even a single time throughout a rather extensive article on Austin and the group. I suppose consistently spelling it the same wrong way at least proves the text was copy-edited, but apparently no one even noticed that the group’s website to which the Times article links spells it “Theatre”, not “Theater”, in the very URL they used in the link. This is neither an infrequent nor an obscure spelling, and the Times shows a certain disrespect for Mr. Austin by printing his obituary but misspelling the name of his most familiar accomplishment. So thanks, Times, for some classy coverage.
Firesign Theatre was not readily described. Their comedy was very social and media-savvy in the environment of the late 60s and early 70s, yet in the midst of the war on Vietnam and the Nixon presidency the Theatre skits were not overtly political. They loved to skewer the ridiculous aspects of life wherever they found them. Check out the pitch from Ralph Spoilsport at Ralph Spoilsport Motors (Austin is in the lower middle in the picture):
These four guys from Berkeley (all as it happened astrologically fire signs) in the midst of political and social turmoil imagined both the current world and possible future ones from what was then a radical point of view, one in which the government and the powerful could not be trusted in the manner to which Americans had been accustomed during World War II and its aftermath. Without mentioning Nixon or the war the Theatre could explicitly and occasionally viciously eviscerate the viewpoints and behavioral tendencies of the supporters of both, and this at a time when everyone was forced to side one way or the other; no one was neutral about the American presence in Vietnam. Yet the name of that country never came up in their work as far as I know, though I admit to not being familiar with all of their work from the most recent few years.
Still, somehow they told us truths that helped guide us through murky and dangerous times. How can you be in two places at once, they quite legitimately wondered, when you’re not anywhere at all? Physicists are still working on that one. Everything you know is wrong! Quite right, and it’s proven every day. We’re all bozos on this bus? Look at the results.
This is why it took me a while to warm up to Monty Python, whose comedy at the time avoided any social commentary whatsoever and focused entirely on individuals and their silly situations and actions. Hilarious, certainly, but not as deep, I thought; but that idea too evolved, as Python developed over the years.
Anyway, Regnad Kcin, also known as Nick Danger when the name is read from the front of the door rather than behind, was a noir-style detective in LA whose antics Theatre fans lapped up. Austin voiced Nick, so I’ll sign this off with that signature performance. But seriously, check out the Youtube videos for the group, they remain pretty damn funny.
RIP, Phil, you gave us a lot of laughs and insight to boot. You were the real deal.
Friendly old Microsoft, as I learned over the weekend, has made it not quite impossible but inexcusably difficult to open a 1995 Word document. While I was messing around with this I came across a short story which I will now rescue from oblivion because why not. I have no recollection at all of having written the piece or why, or what if anything became of it. Tom Bethany is the protagonist of the six mysteries I wrote back in the Not So Gay Nineties; Hope Edwards is his married lover. Anyway, here goes:
They were rowing a double scull on the Potomac just after dawn, the water flat and smooth as paint in a can. Both women moving up the slide to the catch, then drive, finish, release, and then all over again, two bodies with one brain. So Hope Edwards in the stern knew something was wrong even before Julie Holcomb in the bow began to cry.
The water strider tracks they had been making on the river, two perfect lines of neat puddles disappearing behind them, weren’t so perfect anymore. The blades of Julie’s oars weren’t slipping up out of the water quite so quietly on the release. At the catch, Hope could hear the tiny back splashes Julie was making, and feel the barely perceptible they made in the boat’s forward passage. There was a change in the deep rhythm of Julie’s breathing, just a hitch at first and then a small sound forced out of her as she drove into the stroke. A sob? A sob.
Hope Edwards eased off, and so Julie eased off behind her, too, and the boat whispered along through the water on its own momentum. “Julie?” Hope said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Julie said.
The racing shell ran along until its momentum gave out, and then drifted.
“Go ahead,” Hope said. “Tell me.”
When Julie was finished, Hope said, “A friend of mine named Tom Bethany happens to be coming down from Cambridge tomorrow. This is just the kind of problem he loves.”
“One of your friends from law school?”
“Actually no. Tom’s sort of the opposite of a lawyer.”
“The thing is we row so well together that normally we go along in kind of a trance.” Hope was telling me the next evening. “You and the oars and the boat and the river, it all comes together and there’s nothing else. So when there was something else breaking in, I knew it had to be serious. Did you ever hear of this Richard Pennington, Tom? Is he really one of the baseball players out on strike? Or a player at all?”
“I never heard of him, no,” I said. “But I don’t know anything about baseball. I’d rather watch miniature golf.”
“I guess it doesn’t make any difference what he really does,” Hope said. “The point is, can we do anything about him?”
“Maybe, if I can find the guy. At least Julie knows where he used to live.”
“Shall we go look?”
“Hey, I just got in. Wouldn’t tomorrow do?”
We were eating where I was staying, at the Tabard Inn. We hadn’t seen each other for too long, so after dinner Hope and I went upstairs to my room to say hello to each other properly. Later we were lying in bed watching the TV with the sound off. An elephant was swimming toward a raft in the ocean, trying to sell us some type of artificially sweetened water. It was too baffling even to think about.
“Among other things,” Hope said, looking at the apparently sexless elephant, “Julie told me this Richard Pennington person was a very impressive specimen.”
“Big guy, you mean? Tall? Strong? Like that?”
“No, not like that.”
“Oh, yeah? More impressive than me?”
“You? Tom Bethany, the big-shot champion wrestler? Didn’t you ever look around at the other guys in the showers and wonder about yourself?”
“How about pretty, then? I bet I’ve got him on pretty.”
“Pretty doesn’t really enter into it. The truth is you men all look like some internal organ got left outside of the body by mistake. At least other animals keep it decently tucked away inside.”
“I can take a hint, but you’ve got to give me a few more minutes. I’m not some sixteen-year-old kid.”
“He moved out,” a woman’s voice said. I could see a section of her face in the crack of a partly-opened door down the hall.
“Oh, yeah? When was that?”
“Day before yesterday. He’s only been here a couple of months.”
“Know where I could find him?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Maybe the movers could tell me. Remember which company?”
“He rented furnished from the owners. They’re overseas, foreign service people. All he had was suitcases and some boxes full of trash which he very thoughtfully left in the hall so my husband had to take them down to the basement.”
“Sounds like Richard,” I said. Which it did, what little I knew of him.
I took the elevator to the basement, hoping pickup day hadn’t come yet. Four cardboard boxes were piled next to the lineup of green plastic trash cans. I carried the boxes outside and left them by the basement steps while I brought my car around.
There was a supermarket not far away, so I pulled into the lot to see whether Pennington’s trash had been worth stealing. Mostly not. Just routine, anonymous debris like old toothpaste tubes, newspapers and ad flyers, occupant mail, empty cans and TV dinner packages. He was a Ben & Jerry’s man, Cherry Garcia flavor. I never knew anybody actually ate Cherry Garcia. I always figured it was an old family recipe and they ran off a few token pints now and then just to keep Jerry’s granny happy.
Among all this junk, though, I found a crumpled ball of paper that turned out to be a Visa receipt for thirty-some bucks. The name on it was Richard Harrigan, not Richard Pennington. It was from a saloon called Eddie’s Irish Rose, which was in the Adams-Morgan area of D.C., not far from 16th and Columbia. Pennington/Harrigan’s abandoned apartment was all the way across the Potomac in Arlington. It was a long way to go for a drink.
“You’re an investigator, are you, Mr. Bethany?” Detective Weintraub of the Fraud Squad said when Hope introduced me. “Is your background in law enforcement, may I ask?”
“You could say so,” I said. “Government work overseas.”
“Where was that?”
“Laos, mostly. During the war.”
“Laos, huh? I see.”
That meant he figured I was CIA, which I wasn’t. I had been an enlisted man in the army attaché’s office, but I let Weintraub jump to his conclusion.
When Hope told the detective we were interested in a certain Richard Harrington, he said, “Did this individual claim by any chance to be a professional athlete?”
“You know him, then?” Hope said.
“We’ve had prior contacts with Slick Richie.”
“Slick Richie?” Julie said.
“This is the nickname we give to Richard Harrigan among ourselves in the squad. Because our experience with this individual dates from a long time.”
Weintraub walked Julie through her story with a series of leading questions that showed he already knew what the answers would be. At the end Julie Holcolmb said, “Then the only true thing he told me was his first name, wasn’t it? The rest of it was all lies.”
“I’m afraid so, Miss Holcomb,” Weintraub said. “He told you a baseball player out on strike. Sometimes he says hockey player, or tennis, or auto racing. Whatever is out of season and the victim doesn’t have any particular knowledge of the sport. Probably he determined at a given point that you were unfamiliar with baseball, am I right?”
“Well, now that you mention it.”
“That’s the way he does. The only thing unfamiliar in your story as regards to his mode of operation, what we call his M.O., is that he took you to his place of residence. In the previous cases he was evasive about where he lived. He always visited the victim at her own domicile.”
“I live with my parents.”
“Very wise,” Weintraub said. “This sort of thing wouldn’t happen so much if more young ladies lived at home.”
The young lady in this instance was a thirty-five-year-old cardiologist at George Washington University Hospital. I looked at Hope, who would normally have taken advantage of the occasion to give Weintraub a little lesson in applied feminism. But under the circumstances she limited herself to rolling her eyes for my benefit.
Julie was close to six feet tall, with a homely, friendly face. She had stroked the Radcliffe heavyweight eight, and gone back to rowing after her residency was over. She and Hope were practicing for the Nationals, in the masters division. “Living at home didn’t help me much,” she said. “It still happened.”
“Don’t feel too bad, because he’s an expert at this,” Weintraub said. “This guy isn’t just a swindler, he’s frankly a phenomenon from what previous victims have informed us. What they call one of those sexual athletes.”
Dr. Holcomb’s face flushed, and she looked down.
“How many other women has he swindled?” Hope asked.
Harrigan had pillaged the credit cards and bank accounts of nine women that they knew of, the detective said, always on the promise of marriage. In one case the invitations had actually gone out. When the time came to dump his fiancée he didn’t just walk out like a man. He told her face-to-face, and then he raped her at knife point. After he disappeared she would find out that her bank accounts and credit cards were empty.
“Is this type of armed sexual assault similar to what occurred to yourself, Miss Holcomb, pardon me for asking?” Weintraub said. He didn’t call her doctor because she hadn’t told him she was one. Nor had she mentioned rape. But she answered his question by flushing again, avoiding our eyes, and nodding her head.
“A knife?” the detective said.
She nodded again. “He didn’t use it,” she said. “He just took it out and put it on the table.”
“As far as the law is concerned,” Weintraub said, “threatening with a weapon for the purpose of rape is as much of a felony as actually employing the weapon. Are you willing to bring charges and testify against him in court?”
Again Julie Holcomb avoided our eyes, but this time she shook her head.
“That’s the whole trouble we’re facing here,” the detective said. “Ten women by now, and nobody willing to help us get the guy off the streets. I know it’s rough, but if you want to stop him, somebody’s got to put themselves through it.”
Julie just sat there, looking down at her lap in dumb, guilty anguish.
Harrigan was too far away for me to hear what he was saying, but he was making the other darts players laugh and seemed to be popular. I watched him for a few minutes and then slipped out of the place, leaving most of my pint of bitters behind. Harrigan might be settling in for a long evening, and I didn’t want too much fluid aboard while I waited for him in my ’89 Subaru wagon.
The Subaru was closing in on 150,000 miles, and was about as inconspicuous as a car could get. But I might as well have used James Bond’s 4.5-liter Bentley. Harrigan never even looked around when he left the saloon just after one o’clock. He headed off down the street in the kind of self-consciously casual walk that I remembered from my own drinking days. You try for loose and easy, and you’re sloshed enough to think you’re pulling it off.
I had no way of knowing whether Harrigan had come on foot or whether he was heading for his car, so I gave him a little lead and pulled out from the curb to follow. I kept a block or so behind him till 16th Street, where he veered off onto a side street called Argonne Terrace. On the right was a huge apartment building that took up most of the block. As he came up on the entrance he started to fish something out of his pocket, presumably his keys, so I drove by him and pulled over. I caught up to Harrigan as he was swiping his key past some sort of electronic recognition device. When the door clicked and he went in I was right behind him.
“Thanks,” I said, pretending to put my own key back in my pocket. He smiled absently. The elevator was way down the hall, and I followed him to it. He was cool. Real men don’t panic when somebody their own size gets into the elevator with them. He punched four and I punched six. He looked straight ahead, pretending I wasn’t there till I grabbed his right arm in a come-along hold that put him up on his tip-toes. The keys were in his other hand.
“First sound and I break your elbow,” I said. The doors slid open when we got to four, and he started to say something. Not shouting, but just trying to say something. I jacked him up just short of popping the joint, and he gasped from the pain. “I told you shut up,” I said. This time he paid attention. “We’re going to your apartment.” Once he had let us in, I turned his arm loose and attached the door chain to slow him down if he decided to run off.
“You’re welcome to anything I have,” he said. “Really, I mean it. I’ve been tapped out, too, and I know what you’re up against. Hey, what the hell, it’s all insured anyway.”
“Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” I said. He kept talking away about what pals we could be, and how he totally understood where I was coming from, and how he admired guys like me that had the balls to live on the edge, and this bullshit and that. Meanwhile I went around collecting every piece of paper in the place. It wasn’t much. Checkbooks, bills, an address book, the kitchen calendar, notes stuck to the refrigerator with little magnets. It all went into a grocery bag from the kitchen.
I rummaged through his bureau drawers and turned out the pockets of the clothes in his closet, but didn’t come up with anything more than what I had already shoved into the bag. All the while I was working out a plan, based on the fact that I had a spare key to Hope’s country place down in Virginia’s hunt country. I didn’t want Harrigan to know where he was, so I shoved his bathrobe into the bag, too. My idea was to tie his bathrobe over his head with its belt while I drove him to Hope’s isolated house in Rappahannock County. That was as far as my plan went.
Once I was done with the apartment, I set the bag to one side and unhitched the chain on the front door. “Let’s get it over with,” I said. “Take your best shot at getting past me, so we don’t have to go through the whole thing later.”
He was built well enough to pass for a professional athlete, but he just stood there. So I slapped him hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, and even then he didn’t do anything. I stuck out my own face, hands at my side. “Go ahead and take a shot,” I said, “you fucking pussy.”
I wanted an excuse to hurt him because of something Detective Weintraub had told me in private, after showing Hope and Julie out. I didn’t want Julie to hear me, but I wanted to know why Harrigan used the knife. Why wouldn’t Julie and the other victims welcome a chance to go to bed with him again? Wouldn’t it mean he still loved them? That he might come back?
“The purpose of the knife,” Weintraub said, “was to force the individual to participate in some type of activity that Richie knew this particular individual considered highly unpleasant or disgusting.”
So now I wanted to force this particular Harrigan individual to participate in a type of activity he would consider highly unpleasant. Getting, for instance, his ass whipped.
“You’re a lover, not a fighter?” I said to Harrigan as he stood there, confused and scared and drunk. “Is that it?”
I shot suddenly for his legs, dumped him on the floor, and wrapped him up with one of the dozens of holds that any trained wrestler can use to make any non-wrestler feel—and be—totally helpless. In this case it was a keylock on his right arm. A moment or two with the pressure on isn’t just agonizing. It leaves an individual’s arm temporarily paralyzed.
“Okay,” I said once our little lesson was over and his arm was dangling uselessly. “Let’s move out.”
In ten minutes his arm would be working again, but it would never occur to him to use it against me during our trip to Castleton. Tying up a person’s mind works better than tying up his hands.
“Hey, Richie,” I said. “You are an animal.”
Hope’s huge old Newfoundland had finally died a few years before, but his heavy chain had still been out in the garage. Now it was padlocked around Harrigan’s neck. The other end was padlocked to an eight-by-four oak beam under the roof. The chain was long enough to let him lie down, but not much longer. I had moved all the attic junk outside his reach, leaving him with an old plastic bucket as his only toy.
“You can’t just leave me here with no food or water, for God’s sake,” Harrigan said.
“I doubt if God gives a shit. I know I don’t.”
I went downstairs and got some sleep until Harrigan woke me up just before noon, shouting for somebody to come help him, he was dying of thirst. Probably he was, since the sun on the tin roof would have turned the attic into a sweat box by now. I ran a glass of hot water and climbed the attic stairs.
“It’s hot,” he said when I handed him the plastic glass.
“I thought it might be. That’s what it said on the tap.”
“What do you want, for God’s sake?”
“God doesn’t come into it, I told you already. This is between you and all the women you fucked over.”
“You tell me. I want the name of every woman you raped and stole from.”
“You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else. Do I look like somebody that would have to rape women?”
“That’s exactly what you look like.”
“Who are you, anyway.”
“Maybe an older brother or a real fiancé. Maybe an uncle or a father. Doesn’t matter. The point is you’re going to sit here and melt till you give up the names.”
“Listen, has some woman been telling you crazy things about me? We can straighten this out. What’s her name?”
“You tell me. Just give up all the names, loverboy, and one of them’s bound to be hers.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Grow up. Didn’t you know this was bound to happen sooner or later?”
“What? Honestly, you must have the wrong person.”
“Think it over for the next couple of days, shithead. And keep the noise down. You see this? This is a rag I found behind one of the toilets. It gets taped into your mouth if I hear another sound out of you.”
“Why don’t you, then?” Julie said. “My God, did I just say that? I work for the ACLU.”
“I’ve already got him tied up under a hot tin roof with nothing but a loaf of Wonder bread and a plastic jug of warm Kool-Aid,” I said. “I don’t feel comfortable going any further than that.”
We were having lunch in the cafeteria of George Washington University Hospital, where Julie Holcomb worked. I had come up to the city so I could make the rounds of various ATM machines without leaving a paper trail pointing to Rappahannock County, or even so much as to Virginia. I had already maxed out Harrigan’s cards, using the PIN number in had found among the papers from his apartment. But he evidently didn’t have too much of a credit line, since I had only scored a total of $1100 on three cards.
“He must have put his real money somewhere,” I said. “But so far he keeps insisting he hasn’t got any bank accounts.”
“Repayment isn’t really the point, you know,” Julie had said when I told my plans to split Harrington’s assets among his victims.
“I know, but at least it’s something. Which is more than the police can do.”
Without a complainant, as I could have added but didn’t. Doctors live on dignity, and she wouldn’t have much left after Harrigan’s lawyers got through with her.
“I just wish there were some way to make he never does it to anybody else,” Julie said.
“Well, maybe he won’t,” I said.
“What’s going to stop him?”
“I found him once without even knowing his name, and he’s got to figure I could do it again. Which I probably could, now that I’ve gone through his papers. I know his parents’ name and address, his Social Security number, his date and place of birth, his driver’s license number, everything. Well, everything but his bank account numbers. I couldn’t find any bank records, so maybe he’s telling the truth about not having any accounts.”
“He probably ran through it all,” said Julie, whose morale seemed marginally better now that I had caught her tormentor. “Why not? He can always get more from some other idiot.”
She fell silent, while Hope and I tried out various ideas on each other, none of which seemed likely to keep Richard Harrigan out of the boudoir business for very long.
“Where are you keeping him?” Julie asked at last.
“Hope’s place in Rappahannock,” I said.
“Can’t he charge you with kidnapping?”
“Sure, but he’ll have a tough time proving it once I turn him loose. He doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t know who I am.”
A couple of frighteningly young interns in white coats came by, one of them a blond tall enough to play pro basketball. He had huge hands and shoulders wider than a lot of doors.
“Hey, Big Sis,” he said to Julie. She nodded as he passed.
“He’s supposed to call you doctor,” I said. “That’s what they do on ER.”
“It’s a special case,” Julie said. “I’m his big sister.”
“He row, too? He’s built for it.”
“He was on the first boat at Brown.”
“I’ll have to turn the son of a bitch loose. Unless you’ve got a better idea.”
From the ACLU office I walked over to Capitol Hill, where they put on the best free shows in town. There I reinforced my faith in human nature by watching Republican serial violators of the campaign finance law as they beat up on Democrats for violating the campaign finance laws.
It was still well before sunset when I arrived at Hope’s house in Castleton house to bundle up Harrington and dump him somewhere far away. It was a simple, old-fashioned lock. My key wouldn’t turn in the door. Either the mechanism was jammed or the bolt had already been opened. I stood still and listened hard. Nothing. I turned the knob and pushed against the door, and it gave slightly. So somebody had unlocked it. I backed down the steps and walked carefully around the house, keeping in close to stay out of sight as much I could.
A pane was broken in one of the kitchen windows.
Back at the front door, I let myself in silently and went from room to room on the ground floor and the second floor. I didn’t find anyone and I didn’t expect to. There wasn’t any car around, and whoever had broken in the back of the house had apparently let himself out the front door. Still, I was careful going up the stairs to the attic.
Richard Harrigan was right where I left him, with his plastic bucket and his Kool-Aid jug and his Wonder Bread beside him. But he had no line of bullshit for me this time. He was pulled as far away from me as the chain would let him, like a dog afraid of being whipped.
“What’s wrong, loverboy?” I said.
“For God’s sake, you never even gave me a chance to tell you before you let him do it.”
I took it slow, till I could figure out what was going on.
“Let who do what?” I asked.
“Huh? Don’t you know?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t know. I said tell me who exactly who did what. Unless you want him to come back.”
“I don’t know what he did. Not exactly. I don’t dare take the dressing off and look. Jesus, it hurts enough without pulling the bandage off of it.”
He made a little motion with one hand toward his groin.
“You’re telling me your equipment is bandaged and you don’t know what happened to it?”
“I don’t remember anything. He gave me a shot of something.”
“I don’t know. All I could see was the flashlight. The one that gave me the shot stayed out of the light and went around behind me. Big, huge guy. You could tell from his hands. I figured the other guy was you, the one holding the light.”
“Why? The guy sound like me?”
“The only one who said anything was the big guy. All he said was shut up and keep still. Why couldn’t he have asked me before he did it? I would have told him whatever he wanted to know.”
“Well, you can tell me now, unless you want him to come back and work on you some more. Unzip and let’s see what kind of a job he did.”
I was expecting the worst, but it wasn’t so bad. Just a neat dressing around Harrigan’s penis, about halfway up. Whatever had been done to him, there wasn’t any blood visible on the bandage or on his underpants.
When Harrigan had zipped up I started in asking him questions again, the same questions as before. But this time he erupted with answers. Words spilling over each other in his haste to tell me anything I wanted to know, anything at all. At the end I had the names of not ten but twenty-four women, in cities from Washington to Seattle. He gave me names and places of employment and addresses. He gave me exact amounts of money swindled from each one, and he told me how much of it he had spent, and on what.
“There’s still almost thirty thousand in the apartment in cash,” he said. “Take it, it’s yours. It’s hidden inside the kitchen ceiling. You know that kind of ceiling where the tiles just sit loose on this like grid? In the corner by the stove. Look, I’ll just give the money to you and disappear. You’ll never see me again.”
“You’ll give me shit, loverboy. I’ll go get it for myself, and if it’s not there, I won’t come back for you. My two friends will.”
I was back to the country house by midnight. I took a flashlight up to the attic instead of just switching the light on, which was no doubt a rotten thing to do. But I have to say I enjoyed seeing the gigolo/rapist cowering and whimpering until I spoke up and he figured out it was just me behind the light and not his two mysterious friends. I unlocked the chain around his neck and gave him his bathrobe back. “Tie this around your head, loverboy,” I said. “We’re out of here.”
On the way out to the paved county road, an annoying stream of talk kept coming out of the bathrobe. “You have to realize you’ve only heard one side of it,” he was saying at one point. “These are women who haven’t had much love in their lives. They were grateful for it. I don’t know what kind of lies your friend told you, but most of these women would take me back in a New York minute. They needed good loving and I gave it to them when nobody else would, and where’s the harm in that? I gave them memories they’ll cherish forever, and they wouldn’t have them without me. I was doing those poor dogs a favor.”
I pulled the car over, braking so hard he had to throw up his arms to keep from hitting the windshield. As he lowered them, I grabbed one and put it in a wristlock.
“Ow,” he said. “That hurts, for Christ’s sake.”
“Not yet it doesn’t. You’ll learn what hurt is if you don’t shut the fuck up right now. What you are, Harrigan, is the lowest form of human life. You’re a whore that pimps himself out. You’re a coward and a bully and a rapist and a pathetic little dick-peddler and I’m sorry those guys didn’t rip your dick off. Let me hear the first goddamned word out of you for the rest of this trip, just one single word, and I’m going to grab this wrist again and I’m going to break it slow, and then I’m going to break it the other way, and you’ll have nothing but a useless fucking piece of meat hanging off the end of your arm for the rest of your life. Nod if you want your hand back, loverboy.”
He nodded and I let him loose. We drove in silence for the rest of the way. I shoved him out of the car around the corner from his apartment building and drove off before he could get the bathrobe off his head. I kept his wallet and his keys. Let him figure out how to get in.
Next morning I got up obscenely early and drove to the Potomac Boat Club to fill Hope in on developments when she came back from her morning row. It was a pleasant wait, checking out the techniques of the occasional scullers who passed on the river. I had been learning to row myself, back home in Cambridge. I wasn’t much good yet, but I had got to where I believed I could tell a good oarsman from a poor one. Everybody’s a critic.
When Hope came in sight, she turned out to be in a double with Julie Holcomb. I excused myself to Julie and took Hope over to the other end of the dock. “So I guess the big question is,” I said when I had told her about Richard’s midnight visitors, “does Julie know where your summer house is?”
“Yes, and her brother is six-six, with huge hands. He was captain of crew at Brown.”
“And he’s a medical student.”
“And she’s a doctor,” Hope said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s all circumstantial. I don’t believe they did it any more than I believe O.J. killed his wife.”
“Yeah. I wonder exactly what they didn’t do, though.”
“Let’s find out.”
So we went over to Julie, who looked guilty as hell. But she didn’t fool me.
“Julie,” I said, “we’ve been going over the evidence and we’ve decided you and your brother weren’t anywhere near Rappanannock County night before last.”
“Look—” she began.
“Nope, it looks like we’ll never get to the bottom of it, Julie.”
“Look, we didn’t mean—”
“It’s like Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, Julie. Nobody’s ever going to crack this one. Harrigan’s loose again, running around with this really professional-looking bandage on, but he doesn’t have the slightest idea where he was or who did whatever happened to him. In fact I don’t know what happened to him, either.”
“Hold it, Julie. Hold it right there. Let’s keep this thing theoretical, shall we?”
At last she smiled a little. She could see where I was going, and the fright was starting to go away.
“Let’s just suppose you’re working in the emergency room and some guy comes in all taped up like a leaky hose, okay? Speaking as a professional physician, Dr. Holcomb, what would your diagnosis be in a theoretical case like that?”
“In a theoretical case like that—” she was definitely smiling now— “my diagnosis would be an acquired chordee.”
“Which is what?”
“A chordee is a pronounced bend in the penis, usually upward. Normally it’s congenital and poses no particular problem. But sometimes we run across a case where trauma has produced an acquired chordee that causes the erect penis to bend at right angles to one side or the other, depending.”
“Depending on what?”
“The location of the permanent and irreversible scarring that might be produced in the tunica of the corporal body by, for instance, a battery-powered cautery.”
“Burns, you mean?”
“Deep burns, yes.”
“Jesus, it hurts even thinking about it.”
“Well, of course you’d want to administer an anesthetic if you were doing a procedure like that. Possibly a mixture of Midazolam and morphine.”
“There wouldn’t be any real danger, though? Blood poisoning or something?”
“Not with wounds that were already cauterized, no. Not if they were dressed with Bacitracin ointment and properly bandaged.”
“And when the bandages came off the guy’d look ridiculous the rest of his life?”
“Not the entire rest of his life, no. When the organ was flaccid it would look relatively normal except for the scars. But in a state of sexual arousal, erection would produce a right-angle bend in the organ. I suppose you could call that ridiculous. Along with everything else.”
“Well, erection would result in a certain amount of discomfort for the patient. Quite a bit of discomfort, actually. Agony, actually.”
“Gee, that would really be tough luck. Could it be corrected surgically?”
“Generally not. The patient would just have to learn to avoid stimulating situations. You might call it a form of aversion therapy.”
Spotty blogging because I’m involved just now in moving 42 years of detritus into a smaller house. So forget about Kiev and Rick Perry’s pseudo-intellectual glasses, and on to a recipe from a book called A Taste of Murder, subtitled “Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers” —
The hero of my Tom Bethany series lives alone in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He mainly eats stew, which he makes on Sundays and freezes. I used to do the same thing when I lived alone in a Cambridge apartment. My favorite and therefore his:
Dump three pounds of lamb, bones and all, into a pot with a teaspoon of peppercorns and nine cups of water. Neck bones are best, but shank or breast will do. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer. Don’t bother to strain the scum unless you’re the kind of person who won’t eat a piece of candy after it’s fallen on the floor. In fact if you’re that kind of person, forget this whole recipe. And get a life.
Once the meat has simmered for one and a half hours, fish it out and set it aside in a bowl to cool. Skim the fat from the broth or don’t. Whatever. Whack up two carrots and three onions. Scrape the carrots first if you feel like it, but the fact is we’re about to sterilize them anyway. Better peel the onions, though, because the papery stuff gets stuck in your teeth. Toss it all in the pot, add a cup of uncooked barley, and start simmering again. Keep going until the onions have pretty much disappeared, the carrots are soft, and the barley is too. Now pick the meat off the bones and toss it back in, minus the fat.
Chop up one of those 10- or 12-ounce boxes of mushrooms, using the same cleaning method you applied or didn't apply to the carrots, bearing in mind that mushrooms grow in horse manure. Dump in the mushrooms, along with as much thyme, cumin, and chopped garlic as you want. Cook just long enough for the mushrooms to soften up, then add a half-stick of butter and a cup of cream. Once the butter melts, you’re done. It may look a little soupy, but it will thicken up as it cools.
For immediate eating, rip a hole in one corner of a bag of frozen peas and pour a handful of them into your bowl. Close up the bag with a twist tie and put it back in the freezer. Now ladle lots of stew on top of the peas, stir, and eat. Trust me on this business with the peas. Just do it the way I say.
Once the remaining stew has cooled, portion it out for freezing into those beautifully designed and incredibly expensive refrigerator containers from Williams-Sonoma or into old yogurt cups. Up to you, but Tom Bethany uses the pint-sized containers that Stoneyfield yogurt comes in. They hold up under repeated microwaving.
This recipe has no salt, because both Tom and I are health and fitness fanatics who regard our bodies as temples. The rest of you may salt to taste.
From the New York Times:
As with many aspects of Mr. Read’s life, his own accounts differ on the source of the nickname Chopper. At various times he said that it was the name of a cartoon character he liked, that he had earned it as a gang enforcer, and that he acquired it in prison after having his ears chopped off by a fellow inmate to gain a transfer from maximum security to a hospital ward. Whatever, Mr. Read had no ears…
A believer in God, Mr. Read was asked in an interview what he expected would happen when he finally met his maker. “I think, if anything, I’m owed an apology,” he said. “I don’t think he was very fair with me.”
One of the half-dozen or so blogs I read every day is Robert Paul Wolff’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Last month he confessed to a weakness for schlock novels, and so I sent him one of mine called Body Scissors. He responded handsomely on his blog. Here’s an excerpt, which I pass along on the theory that he who tooteth not his own horn, that horn shall not get tooted:
The book arrived in the mail yesterday, at about 1:30 p.m. I opened the first page to see what it was like. At 8:23 p.m., with time out to prepare and eat dinner, I turned the last page, put out my light, and went to sleep. I think it is accurate to say that I could not put it down…
It is a great tale, but what really captivated me [aside from the Harvard Square scenes, rendered with delicious and unillusioned irony], is the progressive sensibility that infuses the narrative. It does not actually play a role in the plot as such, but it is present, nonetheless, and it made me aware how much of the time, in the sorts of things I had been reading, I simply had to bracket my political sensibilities in order to get through the book. Just the opposite is true in Body Scissors.
I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s The Fifties to see what I missed during the decade. One thing I didn’t was Mickey Spillane, the mega-best-selling author whose alter ego in a series of blood-and-guts books was a psychopath called Mike Hammer.
In the first, I, the Jury, the killer turns out to be Hammer’s own squeeze, Charlotte. As the book ends, the one-man jury sentences her to death by .45-caliber automatic. Hoping to change his mind, she strips naked and leans forward to kiss him. Good luck with that, Charlotte:
“Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in. A thin trickle of blood welled out.”
Some years ago I listened to Spillane give a speech at the annual awards banquet of the Mystery Writers of America. I don’t remember the speech, but I remember his answer during the Q&A to a lady author who wanted to know why Mike Hammer had shot Charlotte in the belly.
Said Spillane, “He missed.”
Just a suggestion for all you book lovers, from The Guardian. Where should we re-shelve Karl Rove’s new book, Courage and Consequence? And it’s not too early to start thinking about Bush’s and Cheney’s forthcoming somebodyelsedunnits. Under True Crime? Self Help?
Blair’s nomination is not the first time that his autobiography has been classified as fiction, as bookshops have reported customers with anti-war sympathies repeatedly reshelving the book into the crime section, following a Facebook-led campaign.
From McClatchy Newspapers:
WASHINGTON — An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network.
The Pentagon-sponsored study, scheduled for release later this week, did confirm that Saddam's regime provided some support to other terrorist groups, particularly in the Middle East, U.S. officials told McClatchy. However, his security services were directed primarily against Iraqi exiles, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and others he considered enemies of his regime…
From Max Carrados, Detective, by Ernest Bramah, Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1924:
“Elsie wishes my advice with regard to her next-door neighbour. He is an elderly man of retiring disposition and he makes a practice of throwing kidneys over into her garden.”
“Kittens! Throwing kittens?”
“No, no, Max. Kidneys. Stewed k-i-d-n-e-y-s. It is a little difficult to explain plausibly over a badly vibrating telephone, I admit, but that is what Elsie’s letter assured me, and she adds that she is in despair.”
“At all events, it makes the lady quite independent of the butcher, Louis!”
“I have no further particulars, Max. It may be a solitary diurnal offering, or the sky may at times appear to rain kidneys. If it is a mania the symptoms may even have become more pronounced and the man is possibly showering beef-steaks across by this time. I will make full inquiry and let you know.”
Rara-avis is my Yahoo list for keeping up with what’s worth reading in noir and hard-boiled crime fiction. Periodically, personal definitions of noir and hard-boiled are reargued, and occasionally current events take us off on a tangent. In bringing such a diversion soundly back to the topic of the list, my esteemed colleague Kerry Schooley produced an analysis that I believe deserves a wider audience:
I think it an oversight that we’ve ignored the dark side of Barney Fife in this latest thread of noir character roles played by recently deceased actors.
It’s true that in his nineteen motion pictures, his own television variety series and several specials, Knotts was known best for his comedy roles, but Barney was forever scheming for permission to put bullets into his gun, to what nefarious purposes we may only speculate. How eagerly Fife wanted to lock up everyone in Mayberry, and have his way with them. What greater example exists in the history of American television entertainment of the bald exercise of corrupt power? In hindsight, it was really only Griffith’s comic reaction, as the long-suffering and overly patient Sheriff Taylor, who brought out what humour there was in the existence of the loser Fife.
I’d also like to ask who could forget the darkly sinister, sexually obsessive Ralph Furley, as assayed by Knotts on Three’s Company, but apparently everyone has.
Always on the lookout for left-leaning crime fiction, I’ve read a bunch since I last reported. I’ve got the seventh of John Shannon’s Jack Liffey, finder of lost children in California, books on order via slow boat or pony express, I’m not sure which, but it’s been a wait.
The first three episodes each had a widespread catastrophe of some sort, which led me to speculate about #4. California doesn’t get hurricanes as far as I know, so I guessed a tsunami. But I was wrong, and the second trilogy focused on SoCal ethnicities: in order, Vietnamese, blacks, and Iranians. There are painfully bleak glimpses into splinters of contemporary society and, here and there, rays of hope. And Jack’s lady friend dumps him for a fundamentalist who shares her interests. So I’m waiting for #7 and hoping that the reviewer who compared it to the tediously suspense-free Mystic River was wrong.
I also read “Ray Shannon’s” two books recently. The first, Man Eater, starts with a babe of a movie producer pretty much accidentally beating up a thug in a downscale bar, an incident that comes to involve a pizza-delivering ex-con who writes screenplays, drug dealers who don’t want to pay for their pizza, Brad Pitt’s movie role choices, a hitman, Hollywood, a shark of a coworker, and a lot of money. It’s a fast, gritty, funny story, plus a case study of how to weave many disparate characters and plot lines without any loose ends.
The wannabe screenwriter, a good solid man with an albatross of a past around his neck, would have been the best continuing character, in my opinion, for the second book, Firecracker, but it’s got a whole new cast of characters: a broke and successful pro football player, his mom-accountant, a PR flack who shared a fling with him, a Superbowl betting slip that might be worth a million, the star’s posse, Las Vegas, a worried sports agent, and the PI he hires, disguised as a ghostwriter for the star’s autobiography. Much of the pleasure in these books is being sure such a complex plot and set of characters will collapse into a tangled mess and then being wrong, as every aspect connects and unfolds. The hardboiled guilty pleasures of very funny gruesome mishaps are not for everybody, but then I don’t care for musical comedies either.
I’m hoping that Aenas, Firecracker’s detective, will have his own series, but the book’s been out two years with no sign of a sequel. And there’s also no sign of a sequel for Gar Anthony Haywood’s (real name of “Ray Shannon”) long out-of-print Aaron Gunner series, wondrous hardboiled PI books with big hearts. Get them while there are still battered used copies available.
Yes, I’ve been reading crime fiction by authors not named Shannon, but more about them later.
How I wish Jon Swift reviewed crime fiction. What an amazing style! For example, consider his book review of Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth by Ben Shapiro:
I have not actually read this book but I do agree that education is bad for young people. Schools fill their heads with dangerous ideas. Have you ever noticed that while most schools teach “liberal arts” there is not a single one that teaches “conservative arts”? I think that should tell you something.
Or consider his trenchant analysis of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman:
I have not actually read this book but I want to point out that there is one very big mistake right on the cover: The world is not flat; it is, in fact, round. Even though I am a conservative like Mr. Friedman and I appreciate his support of President Bush and the War in Iraq, I think conservatives like us have to be very careful about being perceived as unscientific because of our opposition to Evolution and I think a book like this which has a scientific error right on the cover is not very helpful.
I think I’ll take his approach the next time I’m asked about Patricia Cornwell’s latest!
Nearly all of Rex Stout’s crime fiction had portly Montenegrin Nero Wolfe sending secretary-legman Archie Goodwin to gather some facts, after which the armchair detective pondered at length and then summoned the concerned parties to his office, where he disclosed the murderer.
In The Doorbell Rang (1965), however, Stout had had enough of the FBI surveillance that had produced a thick file on him and his commie behavior (like supporting the UN), and in this book, instead of being retained to out a murderer, Wolfe is hired by a wealthy matron to get the FBI off her back for her anti-J. Edgar actions.
In its time, this book shocked its many cozy readers with its departure from the popular series format and with its portrayal of a powerful and vengeful domestic spying organization, a history we have mostly forgotten since the Church Committee and the departure of Hoover.
Now that lawless law-and-order is back with us big time, more intrusive and expansive than ever before, it’s reassuring to know this book is still in print.
It being that time of the year between Christmas and New Years when hardly anyone does much of anything, nor are they expected to — unless you count the requirement that we must go shop till we drop — allow me to reflect upon the late Gershon Legman — more on Legman here — , so valiantly defended here by our Master of Ceremonies in two almost forgotten blog posts.
Now I must admit that Gershon Legman qualifies as one of those souls best described as a mystery wrapped in an enigma with a strong distaste for the Riddler. In that regard, while researching the dear departed, I ran across a blog run by a Dr. Fredric Wertham, MD, who has a strong penchant for quoting the irascible Mr. Legman. Therefore, in the spirit of the season, or in spite of it, allow me to offer what must surely be a heretofore unknown quote by Mr. Legman, sometimes affectionately remembered as Roger-Maxe de la Glannege. After all, we must offer up something at this time of the year and Dr. Wertham’s transcription of Mr.Legman’s expository prose seems quite appropriate for the season:
MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT: THE MURDER-MYSTERY READER IS A LYNCHER. A solid citizen by day, by night he rides hooded to watch human beings die. He may, certainly does, think of himself as a mere, harmless literary escapist. He may actually believe that his nightly passion to murder the murderer of his own creating adds up to nothing more than pleasant, law-abiding, purely, meaningless recreation — light entertainment, and all that. He may imagine that the mental torture, the anxiety, the pounding heart and terror (jargonicé, ‘suspense’), the desperate twistings & turnings, and the final, ingeniously contrived humiliation and death of the murderer — three hundred violent and excited pages of it — all these, he may imagine, are no part of his interest.
Yet remove from the murder-mystery this element of sadism — of manhunt and lynch — and what is left? A flabby mouth of greed, mistaken identity, or vernacular chit-chat. Wholly without attraction for nine in every ten readers, the non-lethal mystery does not sell well, is not read, and is now therefor seldom encountered. The ‘mystery’ is the murder-mystery. And the murder-mystery reader wants blood, death, and lynching. But not the blood of the ‘victim,’ whose unwept death — presumably the whole justification for the protracted lynch that follows — is lackadaisically presented on page one as a fait accompli, an utterly routine knock-down-&-drag-out bit of ritual. The murder-mystery reader wants the murderer’s blood.
And again, where is the difference? The murderer may have killed from the noblest of motives. His ‘victim’ may have been a blackmailer, a drug-peddler (of anything but alcohol), a sadist (sic), a human ghoul. It may all even have been a mistake. But what are the reader's motives? He has none. He is quite calm. His interest in law & order is infinitesimal — so much so, that he enthroned the murder-book as our prime literary fare (one third of all fiction printed) in the midst of the illegal, nation-wide whiskey-jag of the 1920’s. The murders that he avenges are written to order for him. Wholly synthetic, they would not exist at all but for his endless thirst for blood. He picks up his nightly ‘mystery,’ prepared to lynch down whatever miserable murderer his author chooses to present. He is unprejudiced. He has no personal grudge. He will kill anybody. He kills for pleasure.
On behalf of BadAttitudes people who miss Tom Bethany, I’ve been on a quest to find a substitute. In the last episode, I recommended the Jack Liffey books as good reading but not replacements, discovered that their author, John Shannon, is a real person, and said I’d test a Dennis Lynds next.
I have actually sort of met Dennis Lynds. When he was a guest on rara-avis, a crime fiction e-list, I commented that he should have left Dan Fortune in the gritty milieu of New York City, instead of moving him to California. Before I got around to thanking him for his work, he’d died at 81.
He was working on new books and stories at the time, some of which will no doubt be published in the near future, along with reprints, but the last piece of his that I know of proves he belongs here on BadAttitudes: Dan Fortune’s State of the Union Address.
For more than 50 years, Dennis Lynds wrote crime fiction as William Arden, John Crowe, Carl Dekker, and Mark Sadler, as well as Charlie Chans, poetry, Slot Machine Kelly stories, and literary fiction. Some of his series have rather buttoned-down protagonists, but Tom Bethany fans look for heroes, so for this occasion I read a Dan Fortune book written as Michael Collins. (Yes, it’s probably intentional; his tutor in the Irish Republican Brotherhood was Denis Lyons.)
Minnesota Strip is about 11 books into the series, 1987, and, like Shannon’s Orange Curtain, it deals with the American results of Vietnam, here a young woman who comes to Levittownish Pine Dunes so eager to get rich and famous that she has no time to learn English or a trade and whose death by bullet in a red light district alley puts the plot in motion, a family still wondering just how their soldier son died in the last days of Saigon, a rich and corrupt Vietnamese who became a rich and corrupt Californian, a flashback-demented vet the police are gentle with, a college student obsessed with injustice, and two good women obsessed with him.
The book is exceptional in the roundness of the characters. A dull hausfrau who could have been written contemptuously is understood as doing her meager best with what she has left. A whorehouse owner wants to provide his family with a proper suburban lifestyle. Even the mangiest of hired killers is beyond evil, a man playing the cards of a lousy hand. We’re left, in the end, with melancholy for the human condition and a rage against the system. And that’s how Dennis Lynds left, in the end, too. In lieu of flowers for his funeral, he suggested contributions to:
Yes, do read a book in this series if Dan Fortune, a one-armed former-streetkid private detective with a passion for social justice, appeals to you. I’ll be rooting through my Dan Fortunes in hopes of finding another one I haven’t read or read so long ago that for all practical purposes I haven’t read. Maybe I’ll try Peter’s Vincent Calvino suggestion (but can I take yet another Southeast Asia book?). The Repairman Jacks look like they'd require belief suspended beyond where mine goes, which isn’t very far. (I still can’t believe we elected Ronald Reagan president.)
We crime fiction readers on this blog have an immense problem. Jerry Doolittle has told us not to expect any more Tom Bethany books in the near future, and we are jonesing.
So I’ve taken on the responsibility of finding us a substitute while we wait. It has to be crime fiction with a hero, it has to be “liberal,” and it has to be good.
My first thought was John Shannon’s Jack Liffey series, in which a laid-off California tech writer, having lost his own daughter when his wife decamps and he can’t keep up with his child support, re-creates himself as a finder of lost children. In the first three books I read a couple of years ago, The Concrete River, The Cracked Earth, and The Poison Sky, he lives in a shabby condo sometimes shielded by the friendly neighborhood gang, and he drives a beater that couldn’t possibly pass inspection. Everything he sees around him shrieks of corporate corruption, government malfeasance, and the sad state of the human condition.
So for research (a good excuse for somebody who already has more books than some library branches) I bought the next in the series, The Orange Curtain. In it, Jack Liffey ventures beyond Los Angeles to Orange County and encounters acculturated and unacculturated Vietnamese, the effects of a Rom palmist, vested interests in what becomes of El Toro Marine Base, and sorrow.
Yes, it fits the criteria I set up, but no, it isn’t an adequate replacement, in my mind mainly because of active-versus-passive and togetherness-versus-mess factors. Tom Bethany is so controlled that nearly nobody knows his identity, and he moves sure-footedly toward any problem, whereas Jack Liffey shambles into trouble and gets beat up a lot, and his clients don’t fare all that well. I want the possibility of a champion galloping to the rescue, and Jack Liffey wears that mantle uneasily, too much like I would.
So next I’m going to look at Dennis Lynds’s Dan Fortune. Any other suggestions?