Kill Me Tender

by Daniel Klein

227 pages, 2000

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur


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Blue Suede Sleuth

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

 

Crime fiction writers have resurrected cultural icons from Benjamin Franklin (Murder in the Hellfire Club) to Groucho Marx (Groucho Marx, Private Eye) to star as fictional detectives, but no one before Daniel Klein has attempted to place singer Elvis Presley in the role of a gumshoe. And for good reason.

Franklin, a philosopher and newspaperman, and Groucho, a wisecracking talk-show host, were in the business of posing tough questions and coming up with snappy answers. Elvis, known for his gyrating hips, soulful baritone and (at least in the early days of his career) superb musical taste, spent most of his career being manipulated by his manager and held virtual prisoner by his redneck entourage and pill-prescribing physicians. This is a man who possessed all the reclusive and gourmandizing tendencies of Nero Wolfe but little of Wolfe's intellectual discipline.

Despite this unpromising material, Klein, the author of several medical thrillers (among them Beauty Sleep, 1990), has written a surprisingly engaging and -- despite its burlesque moments -- affecting detective story.

Kill Me Tender presents Elvis in his artistic prime -- his mid 20s. The year is 1960. "The King" has just finished a stint in the U.S. Army and returned to Memphis, Tennessee, and his beloved Graceland estate to follow what will turn out to be the downhill trajectory of his career. "Blue Suede Shoes," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock" have already been recorded. "Blue Hawaii" and travesties of that sort are yet to come.

The book opens with Elvis learning from one of his flunkies that the teenage president of a small-town Elvis fan club has died. When Elvis goes to pay his respects, he discovers after the church service (held in the local black community, where Elvis' early gospel-tinged music was popular) that the cause of 14-year-old Lucybeth Watkins' death -- sudden cardiac arrest -- was somewhat suspicious. When he finds out that a second fan club leader, this one a white girl from Chattanooga, has succumbed in a similar manner, Elvis feels obligated to get involved. With the aid of Dr. Billy Jackson, a former army medic who runs a threadbare clinic for the black community just outside of Memphis, he discovers that a rare plant poison is associated with the deaths and concludes that a serial killer is at work. By now, Elvis is receiving threatening demo records -- cruel parodies of his hit songs on which an uncanny imitation of his voice croons lyrics such as "Kill me tender, kill me sweet/Never let me live." Soon, a third fan club president, the wife of a flamboyant Elvis impersonator, is found dead. When police are slow to see the connections between these fatalities, Elvis phones Dr. Rebecca Silver, a New York psychiatrist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind, for help. After overcoming her initial suspicions about her caller's identity ("How long have you been Elvis?" she inquires with clinical concern) Silver suggests that the killer may be staging these slayings to provoke a deadly showdown with Elvis.

Elvis, Billy and Selma du Pres, Billy's beautiful nurse, join forces to track down the murderer, with Klein giving the fictional Elvis the chance to live out many of what were apparently among the real singer's fantasies: a world of racial harmony (with the possibility of interracial romance), a life away from his increasingly oppressive entourage and a career in law enforcement. The fictionalized Elvis revels in Kill Me Tender's twists:

Elvis knew he should be feeling nervous, or at least hyped up. What they were heading for could be nothing less than the Moment of Truth he'd been looking for. Maybe even a confession, if things played out the way Dr. Silver seemed to think they could. In that case, the plan was to phone the state police immediately so they could come right by and take it down officially. But the fact was Elvis did not feel particularly excited at all; he felt totally enveloped in this comfortable calm that always came over him when he was with Selma du Pres.

Klein enlivens his book with a rich supporting cast of bad guys. There is Floyd, an angry black man who resents Elvis' intrusion at Lucybeth's funeral; Larry, a former Graceland chauffeur who was fired for nagging Elvis to record one of his lousy compositions; Brett Davis, the bitter ex-boyfriend of Penny Woodruff, a conniving steel magnolia who has secretly penned a tabloid-style exposé of her alleged high school relationship with Elvis; and Rufus Johanssen, a redneck who was forced to become an Elvis impersonator in order to retain the affections of his Elvis-obsessed wife. Kill Me Tender has more suspects than there are fleas on a hound dog and anyone rereading the book will marvel at how masterfully Klein keeps the killer in sight, yet hidden, throughout. There's a substantive mystery plot here and Klein is careful to keep the humorous elements of his story out of its way.

Unfortunately, this is a tough book to get into. Elvis, even at this early age, comes across as unattractively neurotic. And while Klein avoids obvious errors in handling the idiom and manners of the pre-integration South, his dialogue often lacks conviction, fading in and out of focus like a remote bluegrass station on a car radio. (Would Elvis really have called his black cook "ma'am?") What Klein does capture, right from the opening scene, is the tremendous conflict that arises when Elvis' passionate good nature is increasingly restrained by his work as the figurehead of a commercial enterprise. This moral tension makes Elvis a surprisingly good fit for the classic American role of the troubled private eye. Kill Me Tender may well be the most graceful Elvis tribute ever performed. | August 2000

 

Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.