Thursday, October 28, 2010


Markson, David. Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007.

(The first of these novels was published in 1959. The second in 1961.)

I hope with this choice I have redeemed myself for my last choice for the Connecticut mystery book club. This go round, I went with these two "The Harry Fannin Detective Novels," as the wonderful, retro cover announces. I recently emailed a friend of mine, "If you want to read something fun(ny), buy this. Now." I loved both of these short novels.

Poor old David Markson (who looks like such a jolly fellow in his author photo), though. Yet again, I approached him skeptically. That's because the back cover copy tells us that "...the suspenseful Harry Fannin novels have been called 'the best since Chandler.'" First of all, having read one of Markson's experimental novels, I didn't think he could possibly be compared to Chandler. Secondly, there is that little problem of my old boyfriend Ross Macdonald, who was writing books at the same time ("since Chandler"). Nobody could be better than Macdonald.

I should have known he would surprise me, the way he did when I read Vanishing Point. No, he wasn't better than Macdonald; he was different. He knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote these two hard-boiled detective novels. He had definitely familiarized himself with the genre, and he did it with his own flair. We got all the elements one expects from the genre circa 1960: a sleazy underworld full of despicable people (this time in NYC); a tough, handsome, p.i.; such an abundance of simile and metaphor that certain sorts of critics and the creative writers they produce would be likely to commit murder themselves if they were to read it; sexism and sex; clever plot twists; racism; homophobia; a red herring or two; and men getting beat up so badly they ought to have wound up in the hospital for days, but instead, are capable of either committing or solving murder (broken ribs, faces smashed to smithereens, and all). He also peppered both works liberally with literary, artistic, and musical references (sound familiar?).

Harry Fannin is an odd bird but not too different from other well-known gumshoes. As smart as he is, he keeps falling for the wrong women. In the first novel, he marries the "tramp" of the title. They've been divorced for a year when she winds up at his apartment door bleeding from a stab wound. In the second novel, almost every attractive woman he meets winds up dead. Naturally, every woman he finds attractive (oh, and also every woman he doesn't) wants to sleep with him and lets him know it.

What is different about these stories is how erudite Harry Fannin is. He claims just to have gone to college out in Michigan to play football, not to have paid much attention to his coursework. However, he drops literary references all over the place. And, unlike Marlowe, he can sometimes find himself at a loss for words, although never dumbfounded, as you can see when he has thoughts such as this one:

A mighty fortress is our God, said Martin Luther. It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, said Emiliano Zapata. Work out your salvation with diligence, said Gautama Buddha. Everyone had something right on the tip of his tongue except Fannin. (p. 8)
In fact, he is never at a loss for funny thoughts. I particularly liked this one,

I sat down on the kid's rumpled bed and took a cigarette. I would have been happier with a cyanide inhaler, but I'd left it in my other suit. (p. 94)
I could quote all day from both these books, so I'll stop here. You'll just have to trust me that Markson's sense of humor shines through the suspense, in fact, shines more brightly than the suspense. Not that the books weren't suspenseful. I definitely wanted to know what was going to happen next as I read them, but I wouldn't say this was the main draw.

The second book is funnier than the first, a real send up of Greenwich Village's beatniks. I couldn't decide if Markson had really despised them all as posers and losers or if he had been somewhat fond of them, the way he might have thought a much younger sibling was silly and absurd but still loved him or her. When you consider the fact that the era was all about experimentation and that Markson eventually embraced experiment in his own writing, it's tempting to think the latter. Yet he's so mocking. Maybe he's the older sibling who picks mercilessly on the younger one but who beats to a pulp anyone else who does (yes, yes. Puns intended. Sorry! Secretly, though, I bet Markson would have appreciated them).

In much the same way, I also wondered whether or not Markson was seriously embracing this genre or merely making fun of it the whole time. Yes, he knew what he was doing, but, at times, he seemed a bit self-conscious and over the top. What do you think? When a detective steps on gum that clings to the sole of his shoe and comments on it, is that a bit much, or is someone being cleverly over the top?

Those of us who have read any of Markson's other works all know that he was clever. In fact, that's where I caught glimpses of the "future" Markson in these two books. I also realized some other similarities between his "epitaphs" and Vanishing Point. The latter was, surprisingly, a real page-turner, just like a good mystery (in fact, it was a lot like a mystery, as I tried to piece the fragments together to figure out where the connections were and what was happening). Literary, artistic, and musical allusions make up Vanishing Point, but Markson's love of them is certainly evident in these two early works of his. I also realized something else I'd never really given much thought, which is that hard-boiled detective novels are written in a sort of fragmentary style (read that first quote again. Leave off the last sentence, and it could easily have come from Vanishing Point). All of which is to say that reading these two books by this author was like looking at paintings by a painter who started out embracing classicism and then turned to cubism, never looking back. You might be amazed that he used to paint that way, that he even could paint that way, but if you look closely, you will see that he has always drawn his lines just so, has always favored certain colors.

What could be more fun than all that? I have surprised myself in 2010 by becoming a huge David Markson fan.


Stefanie said...

These sound like great fun and I love the cover! I never would have thought you would turn into a Markson fan :) Looks like my public library has it/them. Now to figure out how to fit them in to my reading plans.

litlove said...

I was interested in these books when you first mentioned them, and now reading your review, I think they sound great! I will have to see if I can get hold of them over here. Hope so!

Rebecca H. said...

I really loved these books too, and so did Hobgoblin. Other reactions were a bit more mixed, although generally people in the group responded well. Some didn't like the sexism and the portrayal of homosexuals and others thought the plots could have been more carefully constructed. But for me, the wittiness and the intelligence won out.

Emily Barton said...

Stef, yet more books that read quickly, so you should be able to sneak them in somewhere in one of the tiny cracks of your plan.

Litlove, fingers crossed you can find them. If not, let me know, and I'll get them for you. I think, having read one of his experimental works, you'll really like these (just ignore the sexism, etc. and chalk them up to place and time).

Dorr, the whole time I was reading them, I was thinking "Hobs could write this." Glad you enjoyed them as much as I did.