FEBRUARY 19, 2015
THE SILVER-AND-BLACK foil cover of Avon’s 1975 paperback edition of The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith perfectly captures the intent of the novel around which it is wrapped. The author’s name and the book’s title are rendered in a right-justified stack of text, but the cover’s focal point is a close-up of half a man’s nose and his blankly staring eye, from the corner of which runs a serpentine trickle of scarlet. Study the front and back covers simultaneously, and you’ll see the minimalist portrait completed by additional black smudges. The subject’s gaze, however, is inscrutable. Rueful? Menacing? Melancholy? Like a Rorschach blot, it’s impossible to discern its ultimate meaning.
Published by Knopf in 1974, the original hardcover edition of The Death of the Detective featured an off-putting cover, a Boschian street scene rendered in stark, dense pen and ink. It was too brutal and on-the-nose, with no hint of the book’s mysteriousness. Much better was the cover for Northwestern University Press’s 2007 reprint, with its front-and-center illustration of a dapper figure outfitted with a suit and a jaunty hat, his face scribbled out in frantic pen or pencil. The digital cover for the ebook recently released by Brash Books works well enough, but its half face looks too distractingly like actor Tom Wilkinson.
No, it is the Avon paperback, with its red-edged pages, that still rules.
I was 15 years old when that edition was published, and I can still see it shining at me from a display at New Hampshire’s Newington Mall. Mark Smith was then a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. His proximity to the store assured his book prime positioning among mass-market soft-covers by the likes of James Michener, Leon Uris, and Erica Jong. At 636 densely packed pages, The Death of the Detective looked substantial and important. Its abbreviated blurbs — “The Head-Cracking Bestseller,” “The Nightmare Novel” — seemed to promise a singularly thrilling reading experience. And there was the local celebrity factor, tantalizing for a kid like me, fascinated by the possibility that someone just a few miles down the road could be an actual, published author.
Captivated yet unsure, I ultimately chose not to spend $2.25 from my allowance on Smith’s book. It was a wise decision. My adolescent brain would have been in no way equipped to handle this novel. It would have, indeed, cracked my head.
The Death of the Detective starts conventionally enough. The first chapter is set in Chicago’s Washington Square Park, a.k.a. Bughouse Square, where anyone is free to stand up and pontificate upon any subject as long as they don’t mind being heckled unmercifully in return. A nameless man finds an intoxicated derelict trying to sleep beneath some bushes. For no good reason, he strangles the drunk to death, then stabs him with a purloined steak knife. Task accomplished, the murderer calls himself “the death-maker,” rifles through his victim’s wallet, then impersonates one “Alvin Raincloud.”
Although its present-tense omniscient narration is a little more avant-garde than the first-person past-tense scheme favored by writers of hard-boiled mysteries or even the close third-person past chosen by the majority of popular novelists, the first chapter of The Death of the Detective feels familiar and unexceptional. Many thrillers begin with a prologue that introduces the antagonist in his first homicidal act. It isn’t until the focus shifts away from the madman that the novel fully begins to exhibit its unorthodox agenda.
The second chapter introduces the reader to the Lake Forest household of Frazer Farquarson, a business magnate dying of cancer. For reasons not entirely clear, Farquarson fears that an escaped mental patient named Joseph Helenowski is coming to finish him off early. As a precaution, he calls for his maid and dictates to her a letter to be opened in the event that he meets with foul play. The reader is told the missive is an account of “insanity, imprisonment, adultery, abortion, rape, venereal disease, illegitimacy, threats of murder, along with less definable actions of inhumanity, sacrilege, perversion.” In the morning, Farquarson resolves to call his former associate Arnold Magnuson, the titular detective.
Retired from the Chicago police force, Magnuson is now the head of a private security firm. He is introduced sulking at his own pinochle game, annoyed that one of his friends brought an uninvited guest to his Gold Coast apartment. A recent widower, Magnuson is financially well-off but emotionally isolated. His son bums around Europe and communicates via postcards, his daughter is employed in Africa by the US Information Service, and his best friend, a liquor store chain owner named Scarponi, is a reputed gangster.
Magnuson is not the classic, dependable detective, who, in the words of Raymond Chandler, is “neither tarnished nor afraid.” In fact, he proves to be such an ineffectual sleuth that his actions are by turns horrifying and hilarious. When he eventually arrives at Farquarson’s mansion, he discovers the millionaire either dead or just barely hanging on to life, and somehow never manages to make a final determination. Without any thought toward forensic evidence or even the ethics of the situation, he blunders around the crime scene before ultimately deciding neither to alert the police nor call for an ambulance. Instead, he drives off in his vintage Duesenberg to track down Albert Wenzel of Wauconda, Illinois, the recipient of the deathbed confession dictated to Farquarson’s maid.
From there, The Death of the Detective chronicles Magnuson’s doomed quest to capture the killer and redeem himself for past sins. He veers from one end of Chicagoland to another, from swanky neighborhoods to Skid Row to the shores of the Great Lakes, asking the wrong questions and receiving the answers he doesn’t want. The corpses pile up alarmingly — Farquarson’s mistress, her husband, a beer salesman, with more to come. Despite his growing urgency and agitation, Magnuson is always a step behind the serial killer and may, in fact, be contributing to the body count:
Why, Magnuson has only to wish to interrogate or save a person for that person to be discovered dead. As if he alone is the lethal force behind their doom, as if his compulsion to solve the crimes is the motive that compels the murderer to commit them, his compulsion to save the people the murderer’s compulsion to make certain they are dead.
The investigator who gazes into the abyss and is surprised when it gazes back had not yet become such a reliable trope in crime fiction. Magnuson’s ramblings as he careens from one killing to the next are jarring in their self-disgust and misanthropy. He’s not quite as despairing as Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in HBO’s True Detective, but — as the novel’s title suggests — he comes to a worse end.
The Death of the Detective was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1975, up against novels by Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and Grace Paley, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov and Toni Morrison. Thomas Williams and Robert Stone shared the top prize for The Hair of Harold Roux and Dog Soldiers, respectively.
George Stade opined in The New York Times that “[the novel] reads as though it were written by a resurrected Charles Dickens, one chilled by a hundred years of graveyard brooding.”
The Avon paperback edition of The Death of the Detective became a New York Times bestseller and led to shiny-covered reprint editions of his first two books, Toyland and The Middleman, a pair of interconnected novels about child abductions, with motifs taken from thrillers and from fairy tales.
Despite the novel’s initial critical success, the word that seems most often applied to The Death of the Detective is “neglected.” It was out of print for a quarter of a century. The few readers who comment about it online tend to call it either a masterpiece or unreadable. It’s held to be the inspiration for the Neglected Books website. Jonathan Lethem calls the novel one of his
very favorite “lost” 20th-century American classics, an encyclopedic urban crime panorama that embraces both vernacular and highbrow dialects, tragedy, melodrama and farce, putting it in the very exclusive company of Thomas Berger, Thomas Pynchon, and The Wire.
It’s easy to see how it got lost. Serial killers weren’t a mystery novel staple in 1974. In 1973, Lawrence Sanders’s The First Deadly Sin, which featured a New York detective hunting down a rock hammer–wielding murderer, had hit the bestsellers list, but Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which introduced Hannibal Lecter as a supporting character and inaugurated the boom in books about serial killers, wouldn’t arrive until 1981. And Peter Straub’s Blue Rose Trilogy, which may come closest to Smith’s Midwestern Gothic vision, didn’t begin until 1988.
Viewed from the perspective of forty years on, The Death of the Detective still stands as a curious anomaly among crime novels. While composing the book, Smith reacquainted himself with the work of Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Rex Stout, but you wouldn’t know it from the finished product. There’s no wisecracking, no spectacular acts of deductive reasoning, no killer twists, no climatic scene in which the suspects are gathered and justice delivered. Rather, Smith chooses to give his imagination free rein, focusing on minor characters in chapters that are frequently tedious in their detail but somehow still compelling in their offbeat and unpredictable tone. He dares to be darkly funny, too, having Murphy’s Law apply to every situation and letting no good deed go unpunished.
In addition to Magnuson’s story, the book spends many pages following the exploits of John Cavan, Farquarson’s callow, would-be-anthropologist nephew. Unearthed family secrets send him on a course of self-discovery that mirrors Magnuson’s, but with at least a glimmer of hope.
There are also the gang war chapters, which have only the most tangential connection to the main proceedings. These scenes are energetic and lucid in the ways they play out, a sharp contrast to other aspects of the herky-jerky plot. Smith has written that the Scarponi subplot has been praised for its accuracy by alleged Mafiosi and their offspring. He claims to have picked up on the subtleties of gangster life while working as a busboy at a nightclub owned by a former Capone associate and frequented by various underworld figures.
It’s hard not to wonder whether Sopranos creator David Chase could have been inspired by at least two scenes in Smith’s novel. The first comes when a 400-pound don accidentally squashes to death a beloved small dog. (Remember Adriana’s ill-fated canine companion, Cosette?) The second arrives when the Pomeranian-smothering don is executed and chopped into easily disposable pieces at Santiago & Sons, a local butcher shop (as happened to Richie Aprile at Satriale’s in Season Two).
Smith now says he regrets having removed two narrative strands when he cut the original text by twenty percent prior to its publication. One offered an indictment of mind-numbing film and television violence. The other involved a new and deadly sexually transmitted disease on the order of AIDS. One can only imagine how Smith would have deployed those alarmingly prophetic themes in an already overburdened narrative.
The Death of the Detective is a disturbing, challenging, sometimes demented novel, but it is a gloriously ambitious one. It won’t be to every taste, but it clearly doesn’t expect to be.
Pete Pfister, a failed poet and an acquaintance of Farquarson’s nephew, at one point asks, “After all, what original literary form has America given the world up to now except the detective novel?” The answer to that question lies at the dark heart of The Death of the Detective.