"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hardboiled detective strictly softheaded
Drop Dead My Lovely?
By Ellis Weiner
New American Library
277 pp, $23.95
By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

After falling off a ladder and under several boxes of books while searching for a Ross MacDonald novel, Peter Ingalls, mild-mannered recluse and bookstore clerk, wakes up a new man. He pockets a handsome insurance settlement, rents himself an office and puts this ad in the newspaper:
“Gumshoe…Dick…Shamus…Flatfoot – Put them all together, they spell Peter Ingalls, P.I.”
Thus begins Ellis Weiners’s Drop Dead My Lovely, a marvelous satirical homage to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and all their literary descendents in the hardboiled detective genre.
Speaking and dressing like Humphrey Bogart in the “The Maltese Falcon”, Ingalls can certainly talk the talk: All the “dames” he meets are addressed as “doll” or “angel” while the men are “soldier” or “chief” and the first person narration is straight out of cinema noir. Ingalls constant asides about “the code” and the importance of remaining loyal to his client are off-the-rack standard issue in hardboiled private eye fiction, but are presented here with a cockeyed touch certain to amuse anyone who has ever skimmed a Robert B. Parker novel. Like most of the people he meets, Ingalls secretary isn’t sure what to think of him.
There it was. That “um.” I’d been hearing it all my life. The party of the second part was about to pop some frequently asked questions. “What? You’re on the air, kid.”
“Seriously. What’s up with you?”
“Come again, doll?”
“That. The way you talk. With all these ‘dolls’ and ‘angels.’ And these zoot-suity clothes. And the hat. This whole hardboiled thing. Are you serious or what?”
“Yeah, people ask me that all the time.”
“So? What do you say?”
“I say I’m just a guy trying to stay clean in a dirty world. I’m a professional, and wear what the professionals wear. Anybody who doesn’t like it can send an email to their congressman.”
Stephanie suddenly looked sly. She said, one con artist to another, “Come on, Pete. You can tell me. This is a put-on, right?”
“Lady,” I said, “you’re looking at a man who doesn’t do put-ons. Why? In self-defense. Because life as we know it is a put-on. The more you learn about the world, the more they change it into something else while you’re in bed reading The New Yorker. The more convinced you are that you know the score the bigger the pie they’re baking to hit you in the face with out on the street. All a mug can do in a world like this is be as deliberate as possible. In everything. Which brings us to the present conversation.”
She widened her eyes and recoiled a bit, and I thought, Well, well, Ingalls. Maybe you touched a nerve. Maybe this slice of the boss’s worldview hit home. Then she said, “Wow. You’re even more f----- up than I am.””
While Ingalls has the patter down, as a detective he is strictly softboiled, all fedora and no .45. He doesn’t seem to like he could detect water if he fell out of a boat – he constantly takes no for an answer, getting the brush-off from almost everyone he tries to question. He gets beaten to a pulp by a timid publishing executive and doesn’t recognize clues when he steps in them, thinking a pool of dried blood is brown paint. He consistently put two and two together and comes up with 22.
Fortunately for Ingalls, the aforementioned secretary, aspiring actress Stephanie Constantino, is a natural snoop and all-around busybody with investigative instincts worthy of Phillip Marlowe and a streak of Brooklyn toughness and foulmouthed vulgarity thrown in for good measure.
While much of Drop Dead My Lovely is given over to poking fun at the conventions of the hardboiled genre, it is also a clever murder mystery that hinges on Ingalls apparent cluelessness. All the standard Chandleresque plot elements - - greed, infidelity, seduction and betrayal – rear their heads as Ingalls stalks the mean streets of Manhattan, never quite getting it right.
Weiner has an obvious affection for the genre, and manages to remain respectful of its strengths while lampooning it. His knack for creating memorable supporting characters – loutish homicide cop Henry David Thoreau, television ranter Darius Flonger, his neglected manic-depressive wife Catherine and her man-eating friends – serves him well and prevents the book from becoming a one note joke along the lines of Steve Martin’s noir tribute “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” The mystery genre is home to many successful series and Weiner set himself up for a sequel at the end. With luck, Peter Ingalls next case will be as entertaining, ironic and sharp as his debut.

From the Daily Yomiuri, Nov. 14, 2004

No comments: