Created by Don Leissner
“I’ve had a ton of shit shovelled in my face. The shit they gave me when I went off to war. And when I came home… And lame excuses and empty promises from guys on their knees, trying to stop me from doing my job. Trying to wriggle out of a beating or a bullet. I knew what shit smelled like. I could smell it on my hands afterwards.”
I‘ve always been a sucker for a good retro private eye story. Max Collins’ Nate Heller, Andrew Bergman’s Jack Levine, Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peter series, Gaylord Dold’s Mitch Roberts–all series that look to the ghosts of private eyes past, and found something new and possibly even enlightening to say.
And then there’s that similarly nostalgia-marinated standalone from a few years ago, The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel Winter that just knocked my socks off, both for its ambitions and its audacity. There’s something about a well-told tale set in the past but told from a more modern perspective that can electrify a time and place in ways just not available in the stories actually written then. And sometimes it just a no-hold-barred wallow of fun.
But not all tales set in the past are well-told, and therein lies the rub.
Because often, especially in these days of instant gratification, as the past behind us grows larger and the amount of effort many “writers” want to put into actual writing shrinks, setting a crime story in the past often feels like a cheat. And a lazy one at that. These quickie writers, obsessed with Amazon five-star reviews and social media likes and dislikes, don’t know life, so they write some reheated version of the pre-digested past that they have no insight into. Or real interest in. And it shows.
They offer glib pastiches that treat the past as an amusement park—they take the rides, eat some junk food, maybe try to win a Kewpie doll or something by dropping some pop culture references, and go home. Like their entire understanding of the genre was gleaned from television, instead of, you know, going out there and living a life. And worse are those “edgy” ones who use the past as an excuse to indulge in some good old-fashioned ignorance, racism, homophobia and misogyny.
Like we don’t have any of that now?
But I digress…
Which is why I’m kinda jazzed about The Big Farewell (2021) by Dan Leissner. He’s not just pandering to nostalgia, or trying to comment on our present malaise by using yesterday’s props–he just has a ripping good yarn to tell; a crazy, ballsy story to tell that shouldn’t work.
Except that it does (well, almost).
It’s the Roaring Twenties and the Big Apple is bopping. The hemlines are rising, the kids are going crazy, the country’s officially gone dry, and the booze is flowing in faster than a nation of drunks can lap it up. The gangs and the gangsters, and a good deal of the politicians and police are all raking it in.
Our “hero” is an unnamed freelance enforcer from New York City, hired muscle who seems to be up for almost anything, from tracking down stray kids out on the town to breaking kneecaps and even murder. He isn’t a private investigator, per se, but in the novel, he does undertake a “private investigation” of a sort–as the author insists, before adding that–“the story is a prequel to him embarking on a career as a PI.”
But the nameless thug isn’t just another pretty boy flirting with flappers and swigging bathtub gin. The author’s ambitions run much deeper than that. His protagonist is nobody’s shape in a drape–he’s a disfigured veteran of the Great War, who left half his mug and an eye back in Europe, and is forced to wear a prosthetic over the “ghastly crater” that is now his face. He’s bitter and cynical and veritably throbbing with anger, while dispassionately dishing out violent and brutal punishment for hire, for anyone who will pay his fee: lawyers, mobsters, even “respectable” citizens.
His wrecked visage might actually be a plus in his line of work, he concedes. “That’s monster’s face was my meal ticket, along with my hulking frame. And my big fists with scarred knuckles that I cracked to intimidate.” A Colt .38 and a Louisville Slugger, it should be noted, also come in handy.
And then he’s sent to find a wealthy man’s “dancing daughter,” scare away any would-be suitors, and bring her home. He soon finds her, wearing some flimsy outfit, partying hard at a night club, totally “zozzled on bootleg booze, and making a bawdy and loud spectacle of herself. He confronts her, she flirts, demands that he tell her he loves her, shows him a cigarette trick, and comments on his face. Yet somehow they have a brief but surprisingly tender moment (“She got to me,” he admits). Then he dumps her in a cab and sends her home.
We never learn her name, either, although at various times she’s referred to as “Jazz Baby” or “Flaming Youth.” But soon after, a beachcomber finds her body on the beach over on Long Island, an apparent victim of drowning. Suicide is the verdict. She was a “good girl,” the stepfather insists. Never drinks. Never goes out. But she was “troubled.”
Old nameless shrugs it off, as just more shit.
Until she shows up–despite having achieved permanent room temperature–and we’re off to the races. She wants him to solve her murder.
Right about then, I was about to chuck the book against the wall. But I was hooked. Something about the author’s style, his deft handling of a time and a place, the surprising empathy between the dead girl and the hired goon and their rat-a-tat-tat dialogue kept me reading. This was Beauty and the Beast, or maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but channeled through a noirish, hard-boiled sensibility that Leissner, writing his first crime novel, just absolutely nails.
It may be a ghost story, but she’s one hell of a ghost. She’s an ephemeral shade, she’s flesh and blood. She flirts, she jokes, she sleeps and has sex with our big bruiser, she feeds him clues (including the hiding place of her secret diaries). She disappears and reappears, with no apparent reason or warning, often with a different outfit on. There are plenty of unexplained questions about the dead girl here, like “Why can’t anybody else see her?” “Doesn’t she know who killed her?” and “Where is she getting all those snazzy outfits?”
The big lug may wonder, but he doesn’t ask–he’s too in love with her and he feels fine. And so he works the case, unearthing whole continents of pain in a world of hurt.
The Big Farewell is a real treat, a fascinating and enjoyably complex read.
Unfortunately, it’s also marred by some regrettable typographical decisions. The action, mostly narrated in impressively taut and tough first person patter, is also studded with flashbacks, diary entries and multiple point-of-view switcheroos, usually differentiated only by a minuscule change in font size, making it an engaging but confusing effort.
Like, hello? Italics? Indents? Subtitles? A different typeface?
I had difficulty keeping track of it myself, and the author’s reluctance to reveal several major character’s names further complicated matters.
As one Amazon “reviewer” put it, “The problem for me was the scene hopping without warning and the oddly disjointed way the story was told. I couldn’t keep track of who was speaking to whom about what. Although I wanted to know the outcome, this so frustrated me I quit reading.”
Hopefully, the situation will be corrected in future editions–this book deserves it.
Even better is the news that the author intends to continue the series, with Nameless getting a investigators license…
May I suggest giving him a name, as well?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Leissner is an American ex-pat, born in New York, who’s lived in the U.K. since 1966, graduating from Leicester University in 1976 with a B.A. in Combined Arts. He’s working on documentary films and other projects with West Midlands Arts, as a gardener/groundsman at what was then Kingston Polytechnic.studied aw and attained an LL.B. at Kingston Law School, worked as an Editor in Law publishing, and freelance as a copy editor and proof-reader. He is the author of Tuesday’s Child: The Life and Death of Imogen Hassall, the biography of the British actress and “Face” of the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as the “pulp fiction” novels Cool Cat, Hell On Route 666: Cool Cat 2, Born To Be Bad: Cool Cat 3 and Drums Of The Lost Gods, all homages to the cult movies of the 1970’s and the vintage pulps of the 1930’s. He calls The Big Farewell his first serious work of fiction.
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- August 8, 2021
THE BOTTOM LINE: A bitter, disfigured WWI vet is haunted by a dead flapper in Jazz Age New York, who wants him to solve her murder. Don’t dismiss this–this is so much more than you think.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.