L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 223, May 11, 2003
Review: The Case of the Cockamamie Killer
Special to TLE
This 100-mile-an-hour novel succeeds in entertaining and may even succeed as art. I thought at first that it might be very bad. But every succeeding page took me further and further from that hypothesis. And around 2:30 in the morning and page 135 or so I was sure it must be very good.
The Case of the Cockamamie Killer is, ostensibly, a murder mystery in the hardboiled-detective tradition (a la Marlowe and Spade). But the hard-boil is enlisted in the service of a whiplash comic sensibility, sometimes blunt, sometimes sly and subtle. In one respect the whole book is nothing but a complex set-up for a minor punch line. To say there's melodrama here would be understatement. But it soon emerges that the rhodopsin purple of some passages is viewpoint-character manifestation of an idiosyncratic sensibility that evolves over time. The voice of the narrative changes to reflect the changing psyche of the protagonist. So, initial appearances to the contrary, we do not have here a parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, although there are elements of parody.
What's it about? The first thing to report, to this audience, is the libertarian theme. The bad guy is an IRS agent. He is conniving to do something to screw taxpayers. Our hero, Chak Charon, must thwart him. It's man-versus-the-state.
The story begins with the murder of a lawyer named Jeff Jagglin. We're not actually shown who the killer is in Blade's deceptively workmanlike opening scene, but the killer's identity emerges soon enough.
The hero, Chak Charon, is a temporary employee in the word processing department of the same law firm that the murder victim worked for. Charon also happens to be a private detective. Even before he hears about the murder, he's grilling Jagglin's addled, hapless secretary about a bungled work order. He is over-the-top in this scene and even somewhat unlikablethough, to be fair, he is dealing with a bit of a ditz. In any case, Charon soon learns of the crime and throws himself into one full-tilt confrontation after another: with a cop on the murder scene, with a messenger who delivered a package to the victim's office, with a department supervisor, with a taxi driver, with a mysterious female visitor to his apartment. (This last episode offering clues that our hero might not like girls in quite the way Sam Spade does.)
Computers and software have a lot to do with the story, so the numbered scenes are grouped into uber-chapters labeled like keys on a computer keyboard: "ENTER," "CONTROL," "ESCAPE," "INSERT," etc., the double meanings of which are pretty transparent. The story hurtles along with few speed bumps (as you can see for yourself at [this link], where the novel is excerpted online). Things slow down for a while when Charon recuperates from various assaults at an improbable Chinatown boardinghouse, where he plans his next move and engages in revelatory political dialogue with his fellow boarders. But the respite is short-lived. No rest for the wearybut don't worry, those two hundred pages will be over before you know it, fast.
Perhaps too fast. While there is something to be said for putting a literary gun to the reader's head, the danger is that he might miss a relevant resonance or two. This novel is not so lightweight as it may seem, and on a second reading I noticed certain things that in the first narrative rush had skimmed past me, at least on a conscious level.
For instance, the thematic mechanics. A big subject of the story is, obviously, power. But not just in the political sense of government force squashing the innocent. It's more broadly about the power to get other people to do what you wantwhether coercion is deployed or not. There can be legitimate and illegitimate exercises of such power. The villain strives to bully and crush everyone in his path, and we see whom he can manipulate and whom he can't manipulate; the threat of coercive power is virtually his only method of persuasion. We also see how Charon persuades or fails to persuade others to do his bidding. To some extent, the two adversaries serve as funhouse-mirror distortions of each other.
The clashes and accommodations in the household on Grubgeous Street further illustrate the theme. We all know how vexing it can be to argue politics with interlocutors of an opposing world view, especially when the discussion is marred by lack of mutual forbearance; and if you don't know, well, come to dinner at the Dowbenshire household on Grubgeous Street. Also touched on in is the relationship between the individual and society and how even the most self-contained individual needs the society of his fellows, so long as not coercively imposeda need treated in part via the paradoxically banal prattling of the landlady (which will be followed by the not-so-banal prattling of the bad guy, who also places a great deal of stress on the importance on society). And then there is the issue of whether a fast-food clerk should fill your order with something approaching alacritycheerful obedience. The story almost pivots around three scenes involving fast-food service. Many scenes echo or mirror each other, and no incident seems purely incidental.
There's more here. Sex. Inside jokes. And other stuff that I can't quite identify, but that has something to do with style. I don't know whether Blade's novel is Literature with a capital L. I do know that it is very nicely done. And fun.