Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Just the facts, man: Homicide by Leslie T. White

I came to Leslie White's Homicide by way of the Black Lizard Book of Pulps, or as I like to call it, "the Bible of Awesome." White's short story "The City of Hell" was...well, it was like a caper/heist flick mixed with Red Harvest and written on an ultimately wholesome bender. Sure, some yeggs get new buttonholes in their coats, and there is much talk of rats devouring certain characters' faces, but our heroes don't drink that much and won't let the family men in the group take the real risks. I quickly flipped to the little author blurb to discover that Mr. White also wrote novels, Homicide and Harness Bull (the basis for the film Vice Squad, in which Edward G. Robinson plays the cop for a change) among them. He also wrote Me, Detective in which he presents his own take on the Doheny murder case, having worked it as an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

Me, Detective was clearly the book I had to read for this week's Zombie Summer Reading.

Well, sometimes you brain the zombies and sometimes the zombies eat you. Me, Detective only made it through the first edition and is thus a little pricey if you can find a copy, and the reference copy at the library was A.W.O.L.

Homicide nevertheless made a dandy substitute: burglary cop Steve Muttersbach is detailed into a murder investigation when a nightclub owner/lady of ill-repute is found strangled in her coupe, shortly after he investigates a break-in at her apartment.

Sure, it's a little hacky. The prose is nothing to write home about, the plot is a parlor mystery in hardboiled clothing, and it lacks the inspired lunacy of "The City of Hell."

But what it lacks in style it makes up for in concept: the chapters are a series of letters and telegrams from our clearly-out-of-his-depth hero to a retired Homicide Detective buddy, with interview transcripts, police reports, and newspaper clippings attached. (Someday, somewhere, a graduate student will use the novel as evidence that postmodernism was blossoming in the pulps before it ever hit the academic presses.)

And there's something charming about Muttersbach, a cop whose chance to step up to the show came a few years too late but who nevertheless dives into the investigation like a catcher with bad knees and one last shot at the pennant.* The comic subplots involving a flirty tabloid reporter, Muttersbach's increasingly estranged relationship with his wife, and the indignities visited upon our hapless flatfoot by his superiors when he roughs up a politically connected suspect, also liven up the proceedings considerably.

All in all, Homicide reads like the source material for what could have been an excellent Warner Brothers B-picture, which I guess is kind of what it is. It's not a lost classic by any means, but it reminds me of a number of records by local bands that never really went anywhere: the production isn't so great, the songs aren't all quite there yet, and they should never have let the bass player sing on that one track. But it's quirky and odd, and clearly a labor of love by a talented amateur, and - despite what Harlan Ellison thinks - it's evidence that "not very good" can be worthwhile in its own right, if it's done with care.

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* Why yes, I did enjoy Major League when I was a kid.

8 comments:

Carolyn said...

I bought a copy of Me, Detective 6 or 7 years ago for maybe $5; I had no idea how lucky I was. I think White is best at nonfiction -- eventually he turned adventure/pirate stories, much less fun than crime. Anyway, Me, Detective has great stories of his time working in LA -- and photos, even. Totally worth tracking down a library copy (LA has to have one left someplace).

Brady said...

Wowsers. That is a good catch. I'm pretty sure they have one at (heh) the Doheny Library at USC.

Cressandra said...

I would love to purchase "Me, Detective" if anyone has a copy to sell.

nw5052001 said...

res0v7gx@verizon.net

nw5052001 said...

i have a copy of the book of course it is a first edition. from what i understand it didnt make it past that. the term used was it was a "flop"
so it might bring a nice price at auction, whats it worth?
it seems very hard to find,

mary_m said...

From the asking prices I've seen over the past few years, I believe you can reasonably expect a copy to sell for between $75 and $100.

Cressandra said...

if you're in LA call me at 310 880-3907. I'd love to buy your copy of "Me, detective," for $40 - $60 depending on the shape of the book.

talk soon,
Cressandra

C. M. Albrecht said...

"Me, Detective" appears to be available on Amazon.com and I don't think it costs anything like $50 or more.
If I remember from the book, having read it as a teenager, Mr. White knew Erle Stanley Gardener "Perry Mason", who encouraged him to try his hand at writing. This was in the heyday of good old Pulp Fiction where so many famous writers got their start.