Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review & Giveaway: Killers Are My Meat by Philip Marlowe (4/5)

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog on a semi-regular basis knows that I love a good crime caper.  If it involves private investigators, hardboiled lingo, and lots of supercilious metaphors, all the better.  That’s why I nearly had a brain-gasm when the people at Mysterious Press asked me if I wanted to read Killers Are My Meat by Philip Marlowe.  There's also the "that's what she said"-worthy title thrown into the mix, which makes it even better.  Better still (or more-better, if you prefer the redneck dialect), Mysterious Press is offering up an electronic copy of the book to all you gentle readers, which you can enter to win using the Rafflecopter widget at the bottom of the post.

Never heard of Marlowe?  That’s O.K., neither had I until I started perusing the Mysterious Press book catalog.  He was the author of a multitude of science fiction and mystery novels (59 according to my count) who wrote mostly during the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  His real name was Milton S. Lesser, but he also wrote under other pseudonyms such as Adam Chase, Andrew Frazer, Jason Ridgway, and even Ellery Queen (for one novel in the Ellery Queen series). 

Of all of his fictional creations, though, he is most remembered for his hardboiled Washington D.C. detective Chester Drum.  The Drum novels follow the predictable model of the Chandler-esque private eye.  You know what I’m talking about—the 30-something, single, ex-cop with a one-man agency in a major U.S. city who tells his story in a metaphor-laden first-person narrative.  Some people might say that that means these types of mysteries are trite and stale, but those people can just shut the hell up.  These things are my bread and butter.  I inhale this kind of stuff faster than a dozen hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  Never had a hot Krispy Kreme?  I feel sorry for you.  I swear, those things disappear into a black hole when I’m around.  And don’t even get me started on the “Hot Now” sign.  I don’t care if there are eight lanes of traffic between me and that bad boy.  When I’m driving and I see that beacon of melt-in-your-mouth-deliciosity, you might as well get out my damn way ‘cos I’ma run your ass over if I have to.  Papa needs his fix! 

But, erm… well, that’s a tangent for another day.  And another pants size.  Moving on.

Marlowe managed to set his stories apart from the pack by adding a dash of espionage and whole helluva-lot of international travel.  Indeed, almost all of the books feature Drum traveling to some far-flung country in pursuit of whatever case he happens to be working.  Killers Are My Meat (1957) is the third installment in the series and sees Drum winging off to India to protect a U.S. dignitary from his own self-destructive tendencies.  The story begins with Drum on his way to meet a friend of his in a Maryland tourist town.  His friend Gil Sprayregan—also a private dick—needs Drum’s help.  He’s hiding out from some very nasty folks who want to kill him.  See, Sprayregan decided to cash in on a bit of dirt he dug up and use it to blackmail some foreign dignitary’s wife about the affair she’s being carrying on with a Washington insider.  Turns out foreign politicians don’t take kindly to extortion from two-bit detectives.  Diplomatic immunity makes you ballsy like that. Who knew?

Milton Lesser (a.k.a.
Stephen Marlowe)
It’s not long before the bad guys come looking for Sprayregan, using a car to run down the two of them.  Drum makes it.  Sprayregan doesn’t.  After some time spent recuperating in the hospital, Drum heads back to D.C. to lick his wounds and figure out who killed his old buddy.  In the meantime, Mrs. Stewart Hoffman Varley, Jr. hires him in the middle of the night to drive out to some Maryland road house and rescue her husband, a soul-searching Washington diplomat who does most of his searching at the bottom of a bottle.  Hubby dearest has managed to royally piss off a couple hoods who are waiting outside the roadhouse to bash his skull in.  Drum does a little bashing instead, drives Mr. Varley home, and turns him in to the Mrs.

Somewhere in the mix of all of this, several things become apparent.  1) The guys at the roadhouse are attached to the Indian ambassador at their consulate in Washington, 2) these are the same guys that ran down Sprayregan in their car, and 3) Mr. Varley is the Washington insider who played part one of two in the affair Sprayregan was trying to use as blackmail fodder.  I know, convenient how all of that works out, ain’t it?  But it’s hardboiled detective fiction, so just roll with it.  At the center of the plot is Sumitra Mojindar, wife to the Indian ambassador and the femme fatale for this little yarn.  While the ambassador is a pacifist after Mahatma Ghandi’s own heart, she’s a man-eating bitch-whore if there ever was one.  Drum discovers that she was the philandering wife who Sprayregan was attempting to blackmail, and that she and her party are behind his death.  However, proving all of that is another matter.  Before Drum can bring the slow gears of justice to bear upon the dastardly dame, she and her party scoot back to India to head up something called the Benares Conference, a gathering of Asian countries meant to establish solidarity in the region and shuck involvement from the Western powers.

Original Gold Medal Edition
In the meantime, Stewart Varley (the soul-searching diplomat, remember?) is assigned as a western observer to the conference, and off he goes too.  His wife hires Drum to look after him, who, having that convenient excuse and source of expense money, wings off to distant India as well.  For the rest of the novel (fully half), Drum shadows Varley as the diplomat seeks for meaning among Indian mystics, dogs the trail of Sumitra Mojindar and her stooges, and generally tries to navigate the customs and traditions of the Indian city of the dead.

The narrative that evolves is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s early work (technically proficient with spots of brilliance but without the heady over-indulgence of philosophical musings of later novels) if Raymond Chandler had decided to throw Philip Marlowe into a tale of international espionage (or espionage-lite, if you prefer).  It has all the things you've come to expect from a hardboiled mystery of this era:  the wise-cracking P.I. with a heart of gold, the evil femme fatale, hard-nosed toughs, gun play, lots and lots of alcohol, and a protagonist who repeatedly gets clocked over the head and knocked unconscious without sustaining any lasting damage (Concussions?  What are those?).  But Killers Are My Meat also incorporates a lot of deeper themes, such as the search for meaning in the modern world, colonialism in the far east, and western culture’s impact on emerging independent nations.  True to it’s Noir-ish roots, the book doesn't attempt to answer any questions, but simply poses them as obstacles for its protagonist to overcome. 

While he isn’t as good as the greats of the genre (Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, etc.), Stephen Marlowe and Chester Drum are noteworthy progeny of the glory days of hardboiled detective fiction.  Killers Are My Meat stands on its own despite the half a century since its original publication, and that’s why I give it four out of five stars.  It’s just a shame that the modern literary conscience seems to have forgotten about old Marlowe.  But hopefully, with the help of publishers like Mysterious Press, that will change.

Alright, now for the giveaway stuff.  First, the rules.  The contest is open to residents of the United States only.  One random winner will receive an ebook edition of Killers Are My Meat.  Must be 18 years of age or older to enter.  You get one freebie entry just for stopping by (and being one of the cool kids), and you can gain more entries by doing stuff like following the blog, tweeting about the giveaway, following Mysterious Press on Twitter, what have you.  If you have any questions, give me a shout, and good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Contest entering comment. I'm too pissed off at you to converse.

  2. I was drawn here because of your Godlike aura and want to win your contest. Thank you.

    1. Haven't you heard? Flattery will get you everywhere.