Harry Fannin

Created by David Markson

HARRY FANNIN is a walking scar. He has some shrapnel in his left shoulder, an old knife wound in his right shoulder, his nose has been broken twice (that he can remember), and he has an assortment of .32 and .38 caliber bullet holes in other parts of his anatomy. He plies his rough and tumble trade in Beatnik-era Greenwich Village, New York, in two well-written and well-received novels, Epitaph for a Tramp (1959) and Epitaph for a Deadbeat (1961) that have stood up remarkably well. And the original covers by Robert McGinnis ain’t too shabby either. It’s too bad Markson never continued the series.

But I guess he had bigger fish to fry. As it is, the two “Epitaph” novels were just the opening salvo in what proved to be a long and highly regarded career as the author of several postmodern classics that fooled around with narrative, character development and plot, including Springer’s Progress and Reader’s Block. His final book, The Last Novel (2007) was tagged “a real tour de force” by The New York Times. His main claim to fame, however, is the post-modernist novel Witgenstein’s Mistress (1988), written by Markson when he was sixty, after the manuscript had gotten 54 refusals. It was hailed by David Foster Wallace as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” Then again, he also wrote The Ballad of Dingus Magee, which became the film Dirty Dingus Magee starring Frank Sinatra.


  • “There’s a good, hard-boiled feel to this series, some great use of New York City, and it’s well-written to boot. 1959’s Epitath for a Tramp kicks off the series in fine style with Harry’s nymphomaniac wife showing up at the door sporting a knife wound in her chest… nicely boiled private eye stuff, a little more literate than most–a sort of New York City version of Ross Macdonald.
    — Kevin Burton Smith
  • “I just finished the second Harry Fannin book by David Markson, Epitaph for a Dead Beat, and liked it just as much as the first. I can see why people were reminded of Ross Macdonald by these books (Markson even gives a shout out to Macdonald by mentioning in passing that a bartender was reading a book called The Way Some People Die).
    Like Macdonald, the writing is very literate (both books have numerous literary allusions), with a sense of gloom hanging over it all. And childhood and family trauma figure heavily in the first. However, Markson leavens it all with Chandleresque wisecracks.
    The second book features a somewhat demented sense of humor. It is set amidst the Greenwich Village beat scene, circa 1960. Fannin is a clear outsider, but Markson knows his stuff. He throws out hilarious overheard dialog snippets, references to beat writers, even small excerpts of writings. Fannin internalizes all of it to such a degree that he begins to ramble in a stream-of-consciousness flow for almost a third of the book, while sleep deprived and suffering from a concussion, which, being a hard-boiled PI, he treats with booze. The whodunnit of the two books, and the way Fannin discovers it, are very similar, but Markson manages to put an interesting new spin on the same trick in the second.”
    — Mark Sullivan



  • The Harry Fannin Detective Novels (2007) Buy this book
    Collects Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat


Report respectfully submitted by Dale Stoyer, with additional input from Kevin Burton Smith, on a lead from Jan van Heiningen.

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