Created by John Swartzwelder
“I’ll explain the dog costume in a minute.”
— Burly Go Home
Once upon a time, the roundest peg in a world of square holes, John Swartzwelder, was the go-to guy when it came to writing for The Simpsons, the animated pop culture juggernaut that’s been rumbling through this promised land for over thirty years (and counting).
And Swartzwelder didn’t just write some episodes–he wrote (as we’re constantly reminded) fifty-nine of the suckers, more than any other writer. Ever.
And not just fifty-nine, but fifty-nine of the most beloved and arguably most pivotal episodes ever, according to some fans, which lead to the coining of the word “Swartzweldian,” meaning a joke that seemingly comes out of nowhere, that no one else could have written and sounds almost as if it were never written, as if it’s always existed.”
After leaving the show, in 2003, the notoriously reclusive Swartzwelder decided to write and self-publish a series of fast, funny comedy/sci-fi novels featuring none-too-swift, gadget-loving private eye FRANK BURLY of Central City which, it seems, might be just north-south west-east of Springfield.
But wherever the hell Central City is, thematically, it’s definitely Springfield-adjacent. In Detective Made Easy (2013), for example, Frank decides to buy a bunch of high-tech gizmos to help him with his work, but is forced to leave town when a robotic gumshoe takes all of his work.
And so it goes. The whole string of short, punchy novels (most top out at 160 or so pages, although plenty are even shorter) are crammed full of quips, puns, bad jokes, good jokes, groaners and moaners, blunders, pratfalls and narrative U-turns so ridiculous you have to wonder if the author is okay (or if Homer ghost wrote them). There’s time travel, alien invaders, maniacal robots, cut-rate virtual vacations in “Mexifo,” an awful lot of malfunctioning technology, and plot holes so deep you could bungee jump in them. And they’re still a shitload of fun.
STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH
ALL TAKEN FROM THE MIKE SACKS INTERVIEW
- ON HARD BOILED DETECTIVES
“Hardboiled detectives are great characters. They never know what’s going on, they try to solve mysteries with their fists, they blunder into all the wrong places, mouth off to people with guns, and get knocked all over the lot by everybody. In the end, the only way to get them to find the answer to a mystery is to practically rub their hardboiled faces in it. I wondered if there was a way for me to create a hardboiled detective who knew even less about what was going on, and who got knocked around even more. And I think I have.”
- ON OPENING LINES
“Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.”
- ON SELF-PUBLISHING
“It’s easier, faster, and there are no arguments, because all the decisions are yours. If you want to write your book with multiple misspellings, badly misplaced commas, and juvenile bodily-function jokes, your publisher (that’s you!) is with you a hundred per cent on that. He’ll back you up all the way. It’s the kind of control writers dream of having. Of course, a traditional publisher can arrange book tours for you, which I don’t want to go on anyway, and get your book displayed prominently in bookstores, which don’t exist anymore, and, theoretically, at least, make you more money, which I hate, but those, I think, are sacrifices worth making to have that control.”
MY BIGGEST GRIPE (BUT I DIGRESS…)
- My biggest gripe? I love Swartzwelder’s little blasts of surreality, but those covers? UGH!
After working so long in the brightly coloured and vividly detailed trenches of The Simpsons, it’s disappointing beyond belief to see the painfully generic, bland-on-bland monochromatic covers Swartzwelder chose for the series. They look like he did them himself–possibly while using his other hand to whatever.
Like, doesn’t he know anyone who can draw?
My suggestion for the covers? Feature something like that jasper to the left. Homer Simpson never became a private eye himself (an almost miraculous oversight!), but the gent over there is Dexter Colt, an honest-to-goodness Springfield shamus, who appeared in the Simpsons episode “The Dad Who Knew Too Little” (2003), in which he’s hired by Homer to spy on Lisa so Homer can at least pretend to know something about his daughter’s life.
- “My name is Frank Burly. Okay, it’s not.”
— opening lines to The Time Machine Did It
- “I was sleeping like a baby—waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants.”
— The Time Machine Did It
- “Hey, stop all that praying back there!… Cant’ you see I’m trying to drive?”
— Frank commandeers a city bus while pursuing a bad guy in How I Conquered Your Planet
- “I can’t afford a vacation and a bathing suit. It’s one or the other.”
— Earth vs. Everybody
- “Well, they found Amelia Earhart. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, they found her in the trunk of my car.”
— Dead Men Scare Me Stupid
- “This book is really, really, really, funny. The only problem with it is that it is just slightly longer than this review.”
— Duran Valdez (Amazon)
- The Time Machine Did It (2004) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- How I Conquered Your Planet (2006) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Exploding Detective (2007) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dead Men Scare Me Stupid (2008) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Earth vs. Everybody (2009) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Last Detective Alive (2010) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Fifty Foot Detective (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Million Dollar Policeman (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Detective Made Easy (2013) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Burly Go Home (2017) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Spy with No Pants (2020) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- John Swartzwelder: Sage of the Simpsons
Mike Sacks, a true fan, interviews–briefly–Swartzwelder. (May 2021, The New Yorker)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, following a hot lead from Chris Gumprich.