Murder,” he said. He repeated it, “Murder.” The word was full of blood. He wanted to lean out the window and broadcast the news throughout the silent, deserted landscape, roam through the great house and shout it up the stairwells. “Murder!” A primeval urge to share the knowledge of this evil, to warn and indict all within the power of his voice.
A professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, Mark Smith began his writing career with the psychological thrillers Toyland(1965) and The Middleman (1967), before penning his most famous work: The Death of the Detective. A nominee for the 1974 National Book Award, it shows up on the occasional must-read list, such as the one in The Reader’s Guide to the Private Eye Novel. Authors like Jonathan Lethem and John Gardner wrote glowing blurbs, as did several newspaper reviews when it was released. But despite that pedigree, Death of the Detective is not a well-known book—its readers often pitch it as a lost classic, one of the most important “lost” books of the genre. Well, it’s lost no more: Brash Books has re-released Death of the Detective in paperback and ebook formats.
I recieved an eARC from the publisher in exchange for this open and honest review.
Detective Arnold Magnuson has retired to his upscale penthouse to live in misery and alcoholism, his life turned hollow after the death of his wife. In his heyday he built the Magnuson Men from the ground up, a powerful force of security guards and ushers by way of the Pinkertons who offer invaluable security to a scarred city. Now, he wallows without direction or course, abandoning some friends he invited to his apartment to play pinochle in favor of hiding in his room. He needs something to latch onto—what he gets is a mysterious call from a dying friend, the millionaire Farquarson, who has something he can discuss only with Magnuson. When he arrives at Farquarson’s estate, he finds the man dead; his nurse and nephew report that a stranger had prowled around the estate, and that the dying man worried about one John Helenowski, an escapee from a state mental institution who believes himself death incarnate. Magnuson determines that this Helenowski must have murdered Farquarson; thus begins his investigation for a mad killer and the reason behind Farquarson’s death, a road that will lead to the death and ruin of many people—all characters bound, whether they know it or not, a crisscrossing patchwork of death and decay.
Death of the Detective has a Dickensian quality to it, a sweeping scale and grandeur that encapsulates the detective story plot: it is a sprawling, ambitious novel, highly stylistic, wealthy beyond measure in characters and atmosphere. It deals with race relations and ethnic identity, something that comes up often due to its 1950s/early 1960s melting-pot megalopolis setting. The prose is literate, adroit, and stylized to the point where one good sentence piles onto another, but the novel never buckles under that weight. Some would call it overwritten or overblown; others would call Smith a “writer’s writer” or a “stylist of the highest caliber.” It can be overwhelming at times, and demanding, given its density—six-hundred pages of rich, stylized prose is not something you ingest in just a day… if only because you want to savor it, swish it over the taste buds like a fine wine. Imagine the bastard love-child of John Gardner and Charles Dickens, imagine that it cut its teeth reading Lew Archer and Carl Sandburg’s hog butcher, and you have a glimpse of this novel’s style and power: one of the most intense, atmospheric detective novels ever written.
I mentioned the novel’s Dickensian quality—an army of supporting characters pulled out of the middle- and lower-classes of the city’s slums. And each character has their own history, from those we only meet briefly on Magnuson’s journey—Two-Gun Washington, a one-legged, retired black cop on the South Side—to the other major point of view characters. John Cavan is Farquarson’s nephew—or is he, as he discovers that he was, in actuality, adopted. Maguson’s search for the killer is mirrored by Cavan’s quest for identity, looking for a lost father he never knew; while Magnuson is mostly content as a Polish American—what else would he be but a Pole? And besides, his surname looks Scandinavian—Cavan embarks on a quest to find his Polish roots. Each of these many characters are impacted by the events of the novel—a city is, after all, many lives entwined, bound together for death and glory.
The City is such a strong element that it’s hard to remove it without removing the book’s soul. It’s not to the point of “The City” as a character, like in an Ed McBain book, describing her loving caress or the gentle curves of her waterfront. No, what we have here Sandburg’s city—Chicago in all her glory, from the South Side slums to the new gentry of the Gold Coast to the glitz and glam of the Loop—Death of the Detective has incredible atmosphere and setting, and they merge and converge to become the same. It conveys the definitive feel of one of America’s most iconic cities, in a time when “the city” was a less-favorable place to live than the suburbs and countryside. Chicago’s postwar boom has been replaced with the smoky rot of urban decay—white flight to the suburbs, poverty in the inter-city slums, racial and ethnic friction, drug abuse and prostitution run rampant, the feeling of the city’s long slide into irrevocable decline. (This ‘death of the city’ theme—and the sheer stylistic fervor I mentioned—give it a distinct 1970s feel. Not that this is a bad thing.)
There are flashes of Chicago’s past greatness—the world Magnuson knew as a younger man, as opposed to the burnt-out urban wilderness he finds himself lost in. And now you see another recurring theme: mirroring the death of the city is the death of the detective, where Magnuson finds himself lost and out of touch with a world that no longer makes any sense, a Don Quixote in his own home. At one point, he heads downtown to his detective agency, only to realize he’s went to the wrong place—the original headquarters in a decaying office building, as opposed to the sturdy new structure of steel and glass built securely within the upscale Loop. This loss of direction and place made me wonder if all is as it seems: Magnuson as the unreliable narrator, making me question the plot, the characters, and their motives. It’s through his action (or inaction) on his Ahab-like quest that leads to many character deaths, events cascading out from Magnuson like ripples in a pond, all because he keeps his discoveries under his hat—John Cavan isn’t helping in his desperate search for his ancestry, when he mis-identifies a murder victim as the father he’s been searching for. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Magnuson leaves ten murders and a pair of suicides on that road in his frantic pursuit.
…and he would have had the disoriented, upsetting sensation of being propelled helplessly in a direction against his will with unseen and therefore dangerous obstacles ahead, of journeying in the wrong way on an adventure that was not his to make, toward a destination that was not his to reach.
Here it is only February and I may have already found my top read of the year: The Death of the Detective is a triumph of style and atmosphere that leaves me impressed. I see why it was a finalist for the National Book Award—an ambitious novel that transcends the detective story yet remains rooted in that genre. Magnuson’s trek through the city to catch an insane killer is a journey in which he becomes the city, lost among its painted women and youth gangs and Mafia gunmen. It’s not a straightforward narrative, careening back and forth across the city, meandering through neighborhoods and characters, the plot lost and found anew in the process. The prose is so stylized and vivid, unlike anything else in the genre, but it’s what makes the novel what it is—a masterpiece. Highly recommended for detective readers, even those who may chafe at the dense style.