Why novelist David Markson put a bullet in the head of his excellent but truncated (just two books) Harry Fannin detective series in order to write experimental fiction is a mystery and, as a hipper-than-thou character might say in one of these novels--which you really need to read--a real drag. May Markson (1927-2010) rest in peace, and may his vaunted later literary work be appreciated and remain available forever; however, he had a talent for the detective genre which he laid to rest way before its time, leaving an appreciative audience hanging. His skill at observing and endowing the dull with sparkle is equal to Raymond Chandler’s. His plots are intriguing enough to hold interest, but not so convoluted as to send the reader off chasing his or her tail--something the great Chandler admitted to doing, though he seemed helpless to stop himself. Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961) is a well-plotted private-eye novel, a sharp parody of the Beat Generation, and the last in Markson’s series. Somewhere I just know there is a coffeehouse where detective-story aficionados are snapping their fingers in pleasure that both of these novels (Epitaph for a Dead Beat and 1959 predecessor, Epitaph for a Tramp) are still in print.
Wry and brainy and much-wounded, the underemployed narrator, Harry Fannin, is a regular guy. He drives a Chevy and lives on the outskirts of the hippest neighborhood around, New York City’s Greenwich Village. Fannin sticks out like a sore thumb, making him the nonconformist, but no one is able to put down their copy of Howl long enough to see it. The beatniks are insecure, insular, and insolent, as one confronts Fannin hissing, “I might have known you’d be a square. The complacent, scoffing masses--dear God, a religious revelation could appear on their television screens and they’d phone for the repairman.” Although the neighborhood teems with artists and posers, literary types real and affected, Fannin is the most literate character in this novel. He tosses off allusions, wordplay, and insight--making it new, as Ezra Pound admonished, in a manner in which few of this book’s actors do, so stiff is the adherence of those humorless hipsters to the draconian code of serious art which, in their minds at least, separates the doers from the schmoozers, and which saps the joy from the act of creating.
As this murder mystery and missing-person tale begins, Fannin wanders into a Village bar, “a bleak, untinseled cavern as long as a throw from first to second base.” There, flailing poet Ephraim Turk confronts and slaps femme fatale Fern Hoerner, after accusing her of corrupting his girlfriend, Josie Welch. With a “laugh like cashmere,” Fern knows how to turn on the femininity and is the obvious Miss Wonderly to Fannin’s Sam Spade. No pushover, she can hang with the men and turn the louche into lady as easily as changing her earrings.
She was drinking beer from a bottle, lifting her head and tilting her chair against the wall like a man might do. The way she did it would’ve made it acceptable at a DAR meeting.Fern is cool and possessed in the face of Turk’s aggressive haranguing, but Fannin sees the flint beneath her skin.
I looked back at the girl. Whatever it was, she wasn’t buying. She wasn’t even in the shop. She lifted the bottle deliberately, gazing at him the way she might gaze at a rain she knew she did not have to go out into.When Fannin acts chivalrously, escorting Fern home--only to find roommate Josie dead--the classic cat-and-mouse game of a P.I. trying to solve a case on the word of self-motivated corroborators, with the police on the other side trying to crack it, begins. As he wades into the affair, Fannin finds no real surprises, just confirmation that beatniks are not as beatific as they claim and that the dollar is still the holiest thing in town.
In time Fannin pieces together a solution to the crime. But there are plenty of pieces and players involved, including a dead novelist and a calculating ex-wife who’s taken possession of his groundbreaking manuscript to claim it as her own; two sisters who try blackmailing that ex-wife, only to have their efforts backfire with their deaths; and the sisters’ wealthy father, who dies merely because he unwittingly got in the way. The noirish sideshow of Fannin’s old college football teammate, who’s now a high-class pimp, makes for a diverting red herring, but above all else there is Fannin’s humanity and realism, revealed quietly and sometimes puckishly, as when he finds the second extorting sister dead. With no clues and a mounting body count, curiosity prompts him to consider opening the locket around her neck, but he stops, thinking “There would be a picture of Philo Vance inside, sticking his tongue at me. I looked at the knife instead.”
Markson has the types down pat, from the cop with “a face which had already seen everything twice, and had been bored the first time,” to the dippy beatniks who come off sounding like a couple of Borscht Belt veterans playing to a younger crowd in the Poconos.
Behind me two others were raving. “--Hitchhiked all the way? Well, man, I hope you read On the Road.--“Beneath the catch-the-crook hustle, P.I. novels can be either intense looks into human character or mirrors of their times. Epitaph for a Dead Beat is both. It’s a slap in the face of an artistic movement perverted into a pretentious social phenomenon. The hubris needed to take one step further into the shadows to see how much truth is hidden there is what makes gumshoes tick, and Harry Fannin possesses that with none of the heavy-handed moralizing of so many fictional P.I.s. That makes him all the more real, and all the more missed.
“Now how could I read when I’m on the road? I mean, I’ve got my duffle in one hand and I’m using the other to thumb with, so how could I read a book?”
READ MORE: “An Interview with David Markson,” by Joey Rubin (Bookslut); “David Markson, R.I.P.,” by Sarah Weinman (Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind).