Zen and the City of Angels
by Elizabeth M. Cosin
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
288 pages, 1999
Five Shots and a Funeral
by Dashiell Loveless
Published by Uglytown Productions
288 pages, 1999
Zen and Ben Again
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Let's face it, these days the private eye genre is so ingrained in American culture, its conventions and traditions so well known, that the challenge for new writers in this field isn't finding an audience, but finding new ways to tell stories to that audience.
It's almost impossible to write in this genre without being terribly conscious of and even intimidated by the awesome weight of the baggage it has accumulated over these last seven or eight decades. Just check the private eye television shows and films of the last few years. They're all really more about the traditions of the genre, and fooling around with our expectations -- with results too often verging on parody -- than they are true examples of what the genre can offer. And while people such as Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky or even Walter Mosley are all good and maybe even important writers, they're not really bringing much that's new to the tradition, in the way Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or even Ross Macdonald did. So far they're just playing with what has already gone before.
Of course, in our oh-so-ironic, self-referential and post-modern times, it's foolhardy to completely ignore the past. But when is a detective story a sly wink and when is it just a bold-faced rip-off? Two recent sophomore efforts -- Elizabeth M. Cosin's Zen and the City of Angels and Five Shots and a Funeral, by Dashiell Loveless -- are both painfully aware of the burden of the past, and yet they carry that weight in very different ways.
At first glance, Elizabeth Cosin's sportswriter-turned-private eye, Zen (actually Zenaria) Moses, owes more to recent history -- notably, the phenomenal success of female gumshoes over the last couple of decades. But Cosin is really an equal-opportunity pillager of P.I. traditions, past and present.
Zen certainly seems decidedly modern. She's got the cute name, she mountain-bikes for fun, she smokes cigars (is that still trendy this week?) and she's been known to quaff a few tasty microbrews at Father's Office, her local hangout in Santa Monica (she's from California, of course). She's got a family life right out of Oprah (hasn't seen her mother in 25 years). She's also suitably tough, cracks wise and packs a Walther. And, of course, Zen's got the by-now-almost-obligatory psycho sidekick, a strong, silent type with the unfortunate moniker of Bobo (the names Hawk, Bubba, Mouse, Joe Pike and Cletus having already been snapped up by other private eye writers).
The character even offers a few original spins. She's missing a lung, thanks to cancer, and she lives near a pet cemetery. And Zen is certainly far more earthy and less well-mannered than, say, V.I. Warshawski or even Kinsey Millhone. She is also, apparently, more sexually adventurous -- inexplicably, she carries rope in her purse. In addition, there's a very nice bit in Zen and the City of Angels that finds our hero involved in one of L.A.'s hottest spectator sports: a high-speed freeway chase, caught live on television.
This latest story starts out simply enough, with Zen doing a pain-in-the-butt favor for a lawyer friend, looking for a missing dog. But the case soon devolves into a complicated snarl of plots, subplots and sub-subplots that twist and turn and, unfortunately, never really go anywhere. Along the way, we're provided with some intriguing complications: a bloody baseball bat, a bludgeoned corpse, an old murder, a long-buried secret, a spunky 10-year-old girl who needs saving, a dog that needs rescuing, a too-powerful TV gossip columnist, a corrupt cop for Zen to expose and another officer for her to flirt with. The P.I. does a lot of stomping around, cusses a bit and acts like she knows what she's doing. And she certainly goes out of her way to prove she can take a licking and keep on ticking. In the course of her latest investigation, Zen is shot, and the bullet finds its way to where her lung used to be. True to tradition, she checks herself out of the hospital against doctor's orders.
Unfortunately, once the various bits and pieces of Zen's life (as well as a lot of edgy attitude) are trotted out, there isn't much left. She never really gels as a character for me, perhaps because she always seems so tentative and unsure. Indeed, much of this book finds Zen reacting to events completely beyond her control, following instead of leading. Despite her protestations, and all her "Look here!" quirks, she's really just another would-be "hard-ass with a gun."
Cosin's frequent mention of "Santa Anas," those hot California desert winds that blow ominously through the pages of this novel, inevitably spark comparisons with Chandler's classic short story, "Red Wind," and only serve to reveal the weaknesses in this latter-day tale. The author mars her story further by indulging in one of the worst and most tiresome clichés of detective fiction: using dreams to reveal important clues. Hey, could we just pull the plug on this practice? Especially when the dreams come from old Indians, as they do here? That City of Angels is poorly edited, with awkward shifts in tense and points of view, doesn't help it, either.
At one point, there's an attempted moment of heavy, existentialist angst that actually reveals that less is going on in this book than Cosin had hoped:
I wondered how much of what I liked about my job was the gamble and what part was the pleasure of helping another human being out of a jam.
Ah, what pithiness.
Of course, there are far greater sins than bowing to formula. When it's done well, with a little humor and a bit of zest, the results can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the derivativeness that carried Ms. Moses so effortlessly through her much-praised debut, Zen and the Art of Murder (1998), starts to snag here. Too often, this gumshoe's view of life seems to have been gleaned from film and television, rather than real life. Hence we get types, not characters. (Most noticeable, perhaps, is the little girl Zen is so intent on saving. With her defiant attitude and smart-ass mouth, the kid could be right out of an episode of TV's Diff'rent Strokes.) And Zen needs to get out more. Or at least out of L.A. During a trip to Minnesota to question a witness, she sneers at "places like this where whole seasons of darkened, drab skies blanket the heavens until it's nearly impossible to separate day from night and hope from despair." Seasons of dark skies? Where does she think she is, the Arctic Circle?
While Cosin has tried to fiddle with literary traditions, upgrade 'em, twirl 'em, spin 'em and (to her credit) give birth to something uniquely her own, Dashiell Loveless, creator of Testacy City, Nevada, private eye Ben Drake, the hero of Five Shots and a Funeral, has no such lofty ambitions. In this short story collection, he doesn't even try to avoid the slings and arrows of a million clichés and stereotypes -- he runs galloping towards them, arms spread to embrace them. His sole ambition seems to be to have fun.
That ambition is immediately obvious from the mock-kitschy covers that adorn this paperback original as well as the first Ben Drake tale, By the Balls (1998). They're right out of the 1940s, full-color imitations of those beloved ol' Dell "keyhole" paperbacks, complete with a crime map of Testacy City on the back. (There are also several funky interior illustrations by Paul Pope.) In that same classic style, the books include oh-so-helpful sorts of lists -- you know: "The persons this mystery is about" and "What this mystery is about" -- on their first few pages. The emulation is so dead-on, in fact, that both books -- actually published by upstart Uglytown Productions -- sport a disclaimer: "This publication is neither sponsored by, endorsed by or affiliated with the Dell Publishing Company, Inc., in any manner." As if...
Five Shots is a sharp-as-a-knife parody and a loving tribute. It's the rare book that works as straight hard-boiled entertainment and as sly and clever satire. This one does both in spades.
There are some serious retro vibes going on here, and Loveless lets his man Drake wallow in them. While Zen and the City of Angels is very much set in the here-and-now of late 1990s Southern California, Five Shots is played out in a wide open Nevada desert town, in what could best be described as sometime before now. Like Zen, Ben has a weakness for cigars and booze (not the yuppie pleasures of Partagas robustos and finely crafted microbrews, but short stogies and Old Grand Dad bourbon). Zen zips around in a spiffy Alfa Romeo, while Ben makes do with a big gas-guzzling Galaxie 500. Zen sports jeans, a leather jacket and a baseball cap ("L.A. practiced casual," she calls it); Ben's a suit-and-tie man who appreciates "a fine Borsalino." And whereas Zen goes it alone, Ben, like Dashiell Hammett's beloved Continental Op, is a company man, a proud employee of the Always Reddy Detective Agency. ("Lord knows," Ben says, "if you want justice in Testacy City, you don't go to the cops.")
Ben Drake doesn't have a psycho sidekick like Zen Moses -- his traditions are a little older than hers. But he does rely on the support and advice of his mentor, Harper "Pappy" Meriwether, "one of the best ops (and certainly the oldest)" in the agency. Pappy is the yardstick by which Ben measures himself. They share the same work ethic and dedication to the job. "Work," Ben observes in one story, "had to come first; after all, [Pappy] and I came from the same mold -- we were detectives through and through." If that sounds Hammett-like, check out this Ben quote:
"It's like this: I don't fight the good fight for some greater glory. I don't chase criminals to impress the woman of my dreams. I certainly don't do it for the tiny paycheck and the long hours. I do what I do because I'm a detective. Plain and simple."
No question, Ben has the pulp fiction patter down to a T. In fact, the entire pulp fiction world of a million paperbacks and pulp magazines and B-films is all right here, lovingly restored for your reading pleasure. The dames in these pages are willing, the hoods are shady, the cops are corrupt (or incompetent), the bartender is all-knowing and gangsters sport nicknames like Trout and Blackie. And a good man, packing a five-shot Smith and Wesson Small Frame Model 637, can make all the difference. Fortunately, Loveless' muscular storytelling and two-fisted approach to characterization keep things moving quickly enough to skip over any bumps or holes in the plots of the five (slyly interlocked) stories collected here. Their titles alone let you know what's in store: "The Silent Ventriloquist," "Death Plays a Foul Game," A Cold-Blooded Kidnapping," "Midnight Train to Nowhere" and "Raspberry Jack."
Ben deals with his share of strange here: a secret society of ventriloquists, a kidnapped reptile, an illegal cockfight, a serial killer, a crime lord or two, a hot-tempered pastry chef, and an overly-ambitious and possibly psychotic cop intent on cleaning up Testacy City his way. And Ben's approach is refreshingly hands-on. He tends to instigate, provoke and try to take charge, in a way that Zen never seems to manage. Of course, it helps if you're sure of yourself, and more than a little cocky, as Ben tends to be. ("Sure, he held a gun on me," he remarks in one tale, "but I'd never had a problem taking care of a pansy.")
Yes, Ben operates in an artificial world. But is it any less real than Zen's? To his credit, Ben at least approaches his job with an assured professionalism that makes Ms. Moses appear, at times, like a dilettante.
According to his "bio," Dashiell Loveless is "a journalist for the Testacy City Herald-Tribune, where his exposés on Testacy City's criminal element have garnered numerous awards." But "Loveless" is actually a joint pseudonym for Jim Pascoe and Tom Fassbender, who own Uglytown, a Los Angeles-based company that "specializes in storytelling and creating written entertainment for a multitude of media." The pair are currently working on The Red Hat, a detailed account of Dashiell Loveless' disappearance, their tongues no doubt jammed firmly in their cheeks.
Elizabeth Cosin, like her character Zen, is a former journalist. She also works in television and was one of the main writers on TV's Buddy Faro, a series from a couple of years ago that featured a private eye (portrayed by Dennis Farina) who had more than a passing acquaintance with the traditions of the private eye genre, himself. Faro was a anachronism, a refugee from the 1950s, early 60s who tried to cling to his hepcat, Rat Pack lifestyle in the been-here-done-that 90s. It was a real hoot for a detective fiction fan like me, a rip on all those old shows like Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip. Sadly, Faro was probably also doomed from the start, being too hip for the room. But it proved that Cosin has the right stuff in her to create fun, memorable private eye stories. Perhaps she just needs to relax a bit and let Zen Moses swing, baby, swing. Buddy would approve. And so would Ben.
So we end up here with two very different approaches to the weight of tradition and expectation in detective fiction. Why does Cosin's earnest, serious and forward-looking approach seem so unsatisfying in her newest outing, barely making it to second base, while a couple of retro wise-ass goofballs, working under a corny pen name, manage to whack one out of the park? With apologies to Charlie, is it because we don't actually want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tastes good? Or, to put it another way, could it be that the dilettante just knows what we need, but Ben knows what we want? | February 2000
KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. And he's got a headful of ideas that are driving him insane.