Friday, October 20, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Big Fix,” by Roger L. Simon

(Editor’s note: This is the 153rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
From the get-go, Roger L. Simon’s The Big Fix (1973) is not your father’s private-eye novel; nor is Moses Wine—a 30-year-old, down-at-the-heels Los Angeles gumshoe—anyone’s idea of a leading man. It’s the early 1970s. Wine, divorced with two young boys, his ex-wife shacked-up with a California love guru, drives a 1947 Buick in which he lugs around the corpses of 1960s idealism and his youth. A generation or two removed from the masters—Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald—The Big Fix is a book worth noting. No mash-up of tropes, in The Big Fix Simon had the chutzpah to ditch the fedora fetish many neo-noir writers employed, but which only kept the genre embalmed, and instead updated the field with subtlety and wit, making it relevant to a time when the P.I. is a character who’s in flux as much as the era in which he lives. As one character remarks to Wine:
“You don’t look like my idea of a private detective,” he said. “But then nobody looks like anybody’s idea of anything anymore …”
Wine is smoking dope and playing Clue by himself late one night when there’s a knock on his door. Nothing good ever comes of these kinds of entrances, but he answers the summons anyway. Impatiently waiting on his threshold is Lila Shea, “a barefoot Grace Kelly” who’d “moved through the sixties like a wine taster, sampling each vintage and moving on.” The last time Wine saw Lila was in 1967, when they were in flagrante delicto in the back of his hearse during a protest turned violent at Berkley. Now, though, she’s campaigning for Democratic presidential contender Miles Hawthorne, and she needs more than Wine’s vote.

It seems that Howard Eppis is causing trouble. The leader of the Free Amerika Party and author of Rip It Off, Eppis is a thinly disguised version of ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman. To everyone’s consternation, he’s planted the kiss of death on Senator Hawthorne’s political aspirations by endorsing him. Sam Sebastian, Hawthorne’s L.A. County campaign manager, wants Eppis found and silenced. But Eppis has gone to ground and no one can locate him, except maybe the “People’s Detective,” Wine. Our hero starts out well enough; however, before he can earn his fee of $300 a week plus expenses, pretty blonde Lila Shea and her car sail over a cliff near Wine’s home. Suddenly the task of tracking Eppis seems to be the least of this P.I.’s problems, as he goes all in to find Lila’s killer—if only to save his own skin.

Simon’s plot components exhibit all the weirdness Southern California has to offer, and are as entwined as pythons around their prey, beginning with the dysfunctional family of Oscar Procari Sr. After the wealthy Procari pulls the plug on a devil-worship church fronting his gambling joints, his son is found dead and Eppis really goes missing; yet their presences are still felt, keeping the reader confounded as to whether they are MIA, DOA—or perhaps living under assumed identities. Procari stays in the gambling business, and bets heavily when he changes the game to politics.

The loose acquaintanceships that introduce new characters in this tale bedevil any linear path to crime solving, keep readers on their toes, and put Wine’s patience and sleuthing to the test. Wine does uncover plenty in the course of his investigation—except the whereabouts of Eppis. And things turn deadly when Eppis announces his plan to blow up a Los Angeles freeway in the name of candidate Hawthorne. Now that his actions appear more like sabotage than support, Eppis’ very existence comes into question.

Hawthorne’s Democratic primary opponent, California Governor Arthur Dillworthy, is supernumerary, and never makes an appearance in the book. However, Simon knows when not to leave well-enough alone and describes the hapless pol with a vividness that is spectacular, calling him a man who “looked like an interior decorator from a smallish Midwestern city whose clients were beginning to desert him.” Timidity and desperation were never combined with such clarity and imagination, and this portrayal would likely turn any noir writer, whether dead or alive, green with envy.

With 10 novels to his credit—eight of which have starred Moses Wine—as well as two non-fiction works and a handful of screenplays (including one for the 1978 film adaptation of The Big Fix, starring Richard Dreyfuss), Simon is a deservedly acclaimed contributor to the modern detective-fiction genre. He’s also a Hollywood insider who knows the territory, and those who might inhabit it, such as the notorious Procaris. Wine, we learn, was sent on a fool’s errand in The Big Fix. It’s not until well into this yarn, after the P.I.’s Buick dies suddenly and he abandons it in California’s Mojave Desert, along with its cargo of memories, that clues finally start to add up for Wine in this oft-neglected, yet still-fresh gem of a novel.

READ MORE:Moses Gets Moll’d,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet); “Has Anyone Here Seen My Old Friend Moses?” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).


Mathew Paust said...

The movie seems familiar, meaning I just might have seen it. I am unfamiliar with Roger Simon and his work (I believe), but if I have read anything by him his name didn't stick, so thanks--either for the reminder or the intro!

R. K. Robinson said...

I'd forgotten about this book, and how much I enjoyed it. It's been a long time. Thanks for the reminder of the Moses Wine books.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I read them all as they came out, and saw the Dreyfuss movie.

Todd Mason said...

This one being as good as it was, and mildly iconoclastic, it's a pity how bogged down the later novels became.