Monday, November 21, 2011
The Bonded Dead by M. E. Chaber (2/5)
The titular character of the series is a freelance insurance investigator named (what else?) Milo March. But don't let his profession fool you. He's not a pencil-necked, paper pushing insurance man solving insurance fraud through clever analysis of paper trails and phone records. True to the hardboiled archetype, he's a hard-drinking (this one prefers martinis), womanizing smartass with a heart of gold. Sound familiar? Of course not! Well, besides all your other archetypal PIs that have come and gone over the years (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Rick Holman, Travis McGee, Mike Shayne, and countless other less-memorable names). The only thing of substance that changes most of the time seems be their poison of choice--and even that's not very much of substance. But that's why we like them, isn't it? We know what to expect, and even though the names and places change, we like it because the characters and the motives and the plots are familiar. It doesn't challenge and it always entertains. But as usual, I digress.
The Bonded Dead is one of the later installments of the Milo March series (there were 23 in total), and was published in 1971. The plot goes a little something like this: March is hired by one of his client insurance agencies to track down a pair of young (and predictably voluptuous) bank employees who recently blew town with several million dollars in bearer bonds. One of them turns up dead in the swamps outside Miami, and March is dispatched to track down the clues to her murder and the disappearance of the bonds. While there he sets up shop in a South Beach hotel, makes contact with some police cronies, locks horns with the local mafia thugs, and picks up a girlie or two for some extracurricular activities. After stirring up a hornet's nest of activity, he mostly sits around the bar drinking and waits for the answer to the mystery to fall in his lap. It does so in the form of a lonely gal at the bar who—after wining, dining, and screwing—he finds out is the second thieving dame he was sent to find in the first place. Things proceed predictably after that. He saves the girl (who was tricked into the duplicitous scheme, of course), foils the bad guys, and sets everything right.
Sounds like a decent enough plot, doesn't it? Other than the fact that it smacks a little too much of Travis McGee (the "finder of lost things" who heals damaged women with his sexual prowess). I'd be willing to forgive the plot's lack of imagination if it was executed well, but it's not. The dialogue is stilted, the imagery is bland, and the characters are about as deep as my cereal bowl (and not nearly as satisfying, thankyouverymuch!). Milo is also constantly overstepping his bounds, ignoring police requests, and in general sticking his nose in places they don't belong. Typical P.I. behavior right? Well sure—but that's not what ticks me off. It's the police reaction to all that tomfoolery, which is to say, there isn't any. Milo's police buddy remains friendly, acquiesces to requests, absorbs all his lies good naturedly, and even lets Milo go off to confront the big bad by himself while the police arrive just in time to mop up all the blood.
With that being said, I have to get something off my chest. Is it all right if I take a moment real quick? Now seems as good a time as any, so here goes.
The one thing I hate more than anything in a hardboiled P.I. novel is when the detective is all buddy-buddy with the police. Number one, it would never happen in reality. I mean really, you think a homicide detective is going to be friendly with some two bit P.I. stepping all over his territory, mishandling evidence, talking to witnesses, implying that said detective isn't that good at his job? Not all cops are shallow small-minded pricks, but having someone second-guessing them every step of the way and muddying up the evidence only makes their job harder, and no professional wants his job to be harder. But more than that, part of what makes hardboiled detective fiction so damn fun is the tension and conflict. The detective butts heads with just about everyone around him--the bad guys, the police, even his own client sometimes. But through sheer intellectual ability and force of will (and some times a little bit of skull-cracking or love-making, whichever the situation calls for) he overcomes these obstacles, solves the murder, and catches bad guys. By making him friendly with the police you take away part of the external conflict that is essential to maintaining the suspense of the story. If you do that then you have to replace it with some other sort of conflict like internal conflict or familial conflict or something equally sappy, and then it's not hard boiled, now is it? A little P.I./police cooperation can be O.K. if handled correctly and if the proper motivations are present, but when cooperation bleeds into cronyism the story is ruined for me.
So that's the story on The Bonded Dead. When I first found this book I allowed myself to think that perhaps I'd rediscovered an old classic of the genre, that I'd found a diamond in the rough which I could then present to the masses and laud as a long forgotten masterpiece. What I found was an anemic reproduction of what had come before. Joke's on me, I guess.
I'm not saying that the book was horrible or that it was unreadable. It just wasn't good. I can't speak to the earlier installments in the Milo March series either. Maybe they're a lot better, and Crossen was just phoning in the later installments for the sake of a paycheck. It's entirely possible, but I can't say for sure. All I can say is that The Bonded Dead deserves the place it's found in our collective literary memory. Sometimes a book forgotten by history deserve to be forgotten.