by Roger L. Simon
Published by Pocket Books
256 pages, 2003
Has Anybody Here Seen My Old Friend Moses?
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
You know, I usually get a real kick out of Roger L. Simon's Moses Wine books (eight so far), featuring the adventures of that former radical and aging left-wing "hippie dick," whose social, cultural and political contortions over the years have made for such enjoyable reading. But Director's Cut, the latest installment in the ongoing saga of this detective's journey through life, just isn't much fun at all.
Moses' career has been one long, strange trip, indeed. He started out, in The Big Fix (1973), as a rather free-spirited, pot-smoking and recently divorced "people's detective," immersed in radical politics left over from the 1960s. Since then, he's become a single parent trying to rear two sons; has worked (irony of ironies) corporate security for big business; and now finds himself once more hanging out his own shingle, in association with his much younger second wife, Samantha, a former FBI agent (the two met in The Lost Coast, 1997), with whom he's happily expecting a child.
Yet the strangest trip of all begins with the opening line of Director's Cut:
"I knew I was in trouble when I was starting to agree with John Ashcroft ..."
Time was, you could count on Moses to poke fun at the excesses on all sides of the political spectrum, particularly his own, and America's current mindset seems particularly ripe for Moses' brand of irreverence. But, in that curious and now seemingly long-ago period between the tragedies of September 11, 2001 and the continuing "war on terror," Wine has somehow fallen for the gambit that everything and everybody has changed. As he remarks in Director's Cut:
Of course I wasn't the only one. Nearly everyone I knew had done a political about-face as sharp as a class of prize plebes at a West Point graduation ceremony.
Patriotic zeal aside, it's this notion of a wholesale seismic shift in thinking after 9/11 that is the real trouble here. Sure, the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., caused considerable upheaval in U.S. political consciousness, and there's no question that they made Americans uneasy and readier to embrace (or at least temporarily accept) the sometimes-questionable defensive measures promoted by their nation's present regime. However, only someone blind or incredibly naïve -- two things Moses never was before -- would believe that many people don't harbor severe reservations about these changes, and don't have some hard questions they'd like answered. Moses' response to what's happened in his country, though, is a disappointing intellectual shrug. "It was a symptom of the times in which we lived ... Nobody could explain," he concludes.
That's too bad, because we used to count on Simon's sleuth to ask these sort of difficult questions. Instead, the author wimps out in Director's Cut, sidestepping issues involving civil rights and conservative extremism (and his own amazing political about-face), and coughs out a shaggy-dog tale that mostly lampoons Hollywood (yawn), and takes pretty broad swipes at the very real threat of Islamic terrorism, painting it as the work of mostly clueless, apolitical and racist yahoos -- a sort of international gang that can't shoot straight.
OK, maybe Moses' take on the venality and egotism of the film industry is neither fresh nor original, but it could still have been a good peg to hang this story on. And Cut begins promisingly enough, when Moses receives an apparently pointless summons to FBI headquarters in Los Angeles -- an incident that, unfortunately, falls by the wayside, never to be fully explained, except as maybe the result of a computer glitch.
Then the call comes: It seems that an American film crew, working in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, has been fielding hate messages (both on the set and in their hotel rooms), and they want Moses to find out who's trying to shut down production of Prague Autumn.
Soon enough, Moses (trailed shortly afterward by Samantha) wings off to Europe, so he can act as a sort of undercover security guard for the moviemakers. It seems that everyone -- from the CIA and Al Qaeda to the Grand Rabbi of Prague (yet another aspiring screenwriter!) and some mad bomber who dresses like the Michelin Man -- has an interest in this low-budget flick about the legacy of the 20th-century Holocaust. Then, in a fortuitous (if not entirely plausible) twist, the director of Prague Autumn is disabled, and Moses agrees to take over directing the film.
And from that point on, terrorism, Attorney General Ashcroft, the Holocaust -- it's all mere lip service, for the most part. What seems to matter most to Roger Simon (who's worked as a filmmaker and screenwriter himself) is having a lot of yucks at the movie industry's expense, and cracking a few lame late-night talk-show jokes about Arab extremists. Oh, sure, beyond becoming an auteur, Moses does occasionally do his part to fight international terrorism and save the world (and his film), but these two plot lines really don't mesh well. And what the hell does Moses think he's doing playing Rambo with an increasingly pregnant Samantha in tow?
Yes, there are still a few sparks of the classic Moses wit. When asked, for instance, to convince the film's female lead, Donna Gold, to consent to a nude scene, the P.I. retorts:
"So forgiveness for the Holocaust comes down to Donna Gold's tits?"
But bitingly skeptical, in-your-face moments like that are, sadly, few and far between. Instead, the old wisecracking Moses keeps his head down, and his tongue firmly in check. Oh, sure, he occasionally acknowledges the inherent contradictions of his new stance, muttering about "sleeping with the enemy." Yet his barbs aren't exactly sharp this time around. Wine's once-blistering cynicism is replaced with gratuitous pokes at such easy targets as the Bush administration's color-coded terror-alert system. The old Moses who spoke with the "rude wit" that Raymond Chandler exalted is sadly missing. Instead, we find a scared, middle-aged man playing film director and, periodically, detective, indulging in what he himself admits is "low-profile racial profiling." At least Moses can acknowledge being a little embarrassed by his behavior, but then he lamely justifies it by saying, "those were the times in which we live."
Got it? It's the way it is because it's the way it is. Not exactly insightful.
And the fun just keeps on comin'. That old laugh-horse, the Holocaust, is trotted out far too often in these pages -- and is there anything that can suck the joy out of a novel faster than the seemingly casual mention of the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews? Yet Simon uses that horrific event to justify almost everything -- uses it like a sledgehammer to drive in every point, making it the simple, one-sided, black-and-white justification for every act. All of the villains here are anti-Jewish, and of course, they're all portrayed as misguided and politically ignorant, when they're not being cast as plainly incompetent.
Those villains, though, stretch credibility in other ways. Yes, obviously, Islamic terrorists hate Jews and Jewish terrorists hate Arabs (facts that Simon already addressed, far more convincingly, in a previous Wine novel, 1988's Raising the Dead). But Holocaust-denying Islamic fundamentalists? That's a new one on me. Such a philosophy seems more likely to be shared by mouth-breathing white supremacists hiding out in the American boondocks, than by an international cabal of terrorists working in Prague.
Still more troubling is the assumption here that anyone who's tired of hearing about the Holocaust, no matter how sympathetic they may be to its victims and survivors, is somehow a racist. It's just such a charge that Moses uses to blackmail a Sundance Film Festival judge, in order to ensure that Prague Autumn isn't passed over for inclusion in that annual international event. The idea of Moses playing the race card like this (and for such a petty, selfish reason) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And it should leave one in yours, too.
Then again, maybe I'm letting my own politics get in the way of enjoying these latest evolutionary steps for the ever-metamorphosing Moses (who would now be 62 years old, were it not for the youth-preserving wonders of fiction). And maybe I expected too much from Simon's latest novel.
Because, really, if you can ignore the detective's wildly careening political turnaround and yahoo bravado, Director's Cut offers much of interest to longtime fans of this series -- even a bleeding-heart crank like myself.
For example, the fact that the former radical gumshoe and Rolling Stone poster boy is now married to an ex-FBI agent is delicious irony, indeed. Even better, Moses -- once on the cutting edge, it seemed, of everything, is now something of a bewildered cyber-Luddite -- he's only just getting around to establishing his own Web site. And the author derives some fun from the autobiographical similarities between himself and his acclaimed protagonist. Simon and his current, much younger wife, Sheryl Longin, actually co-wrote a screenplay titled Prague Duet (guess where it was filmed?), and when Moses protests at one point in this new book, "Don't worry about it. I'm a detective, not a screenwriter" -- well, you have to imagine the grin on Simon's face as he typed that line.
It's only when Wine wanders out onto the minefield of politics that he seems on such shaky ground. Moses is a lot more interesting when he picks at dogma, rather than trying to peddle it, as he does here. Imagine what fun the old Moses might have had with such satire-inviting subjects as the USA PATRIOT Act (may we see your library card?), the Dixie Chicks pseudo-hysteria or the ludicrous now-you-see-'em, now-you-don't weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, at this rate, by the next book Moses may be just another Republican apologist on Fox-TV, applying administration-approved spin to every snafu and scandal.
Unlike John Shannon's recent powerful and heartfelt novel, City of Strangers, which also deals with Islamic terrorism, and which left me with new insights into and sympathies for all parties involved in today's terrorist tensions, I came away from the comparatively lightweight Director's Cut feeling depressed and more than a little afraid. Angry, even. Because if men of good will, such as Moses, are so easily and willingly led astray by ancient hostilities and political boosterism, what hope is there for any of us?
Moses, at least this time out, seems to be saying, "not much." | August 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently in the Los Angeles area, trying to keep his mouth shut -- and not succeeding very well.