Friday, October 23, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Freak,”
by Michael Collins

(Editor’s note: This is the 68th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Making today’s selection is Russell Atwood, a former managing editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and the author of two novels featuring New York City private eye Payton Sherwood: East of A (1999) and Losers Live Longer, the latter of which was released just recently by Hard Case Crime and features a fabulous cover by Robert McGinnis.)

The best part of this assignment was that I got to re-read one of my favorite novels of all time. And I don’t just mean “mystery” novels--though Freak is that, full of straightforward detective work, intriguing clues, and several corpses--but one of my favorite novels, period. I had a distinct memory of reading this book for this first time and being blown away by its ending. It completely changed my ideas of what a mystery novel could accomplish, because its final twist has nothing to do with crime and criminals, but instead the way we live our lives in the modern world.

Often, when re-exploring a novel that has had an impact on us years ago, we find the experience a bit of a letdown, perhaps because we’ve already assimilated the knowledge it provided and so it’s not quite as relevant the second time around. I half-expected, half-feared, this would be the case with 1983’s Freak. But no way: all the original thrills were in perfect working order and on top of that, new hidden treasures were discovered. Possibly this is because I’m now closer to the age of the narrator and main protagonist, Dan Fortune, so that what he’s thinking and feeling is no longer an abstract concept, but vital news from the front.

A few words about private eye Dan Fortune then. He began his life as Dan Fortunowski. His policeman father deserted his wife when Dan was still a young boy, leaving her to raise their son alone. As a result, Dan grew up a juvenile delinquent, committing petty crimes, which eventually would’ve developed into bigger, more serious crimes if not for a life-defining moment: he lost his left arm in an accident at age 17, while he and some of his friends were looting the hold of a docked freighter. The experience changed Dan forever, as illustrated by this quote from Freak:
[A] one-armed man learns patience, does most things in two steps not one. It’s made me an unhurried man, careful if not always cautious. With two arms I’d be running all the time, but I don’t have two arms so I walk.

Or I sit and think.
Dan decided to go straight. He served briefly as a merchant marine, but eventually returned to his old stomping grounds of New York City and his old neighborhood, Chelsea. There he set himself up as a private investigator in his own one-man agency, a profession he went on to practice for more than three decades, even after he moved his operation to Southern California.

I don’t know precisely how the author--whose real name was Dennis Lynds (“Michael Collins” was just one of many pseudonyms he employed over his career)--came up with this protagonist, but I do know that Fortune has partial origins in an earlier character Lynds created, a man called Slot Machine Kelly. Kelly began as a pastiche of the hard-boiled private eye, his biggest connection to Fortune being that each had only one arm. But from that broader character developed a very specific person.

Dan Fortune feels real. This is due in large part to his handicap. But while the single arm may have been a gimmick with Slot Machine, it makes Fortune more human, closer to being one of us. He is tough, but also vulnerable. And when he feels fear, we know it isn’t out of cowardice, but because he’s a realist, aware of practical matters. Hell, Fortune’s only got one arm, so he doesn’t even consider taking on two guys at once without some kind of edge in his favor. It serves to heighten all the perils he--and we, the readers--face. But at the same time, the handicap doesn’t define him. His debilitating accident happened so far in the past that he’s almost unconscious of the loss. Only when Fortune meets a new client or interrogates a witness face-to-face for the first time does he become aware of other people’s reactions to his empty sleeve. At times throughout Lynds’ long-running series, Fortune even uses his handicap to his advantage, styling the “story” about how he lost his limb to get the maximum response from whoever he’s questioning. (For instance, if he is seeking information from a war vet, he’ll let the man assume that he lost his arm in combat.) Essentially, Dan Fortune takes a minus and turns it into a plus, a tool of his profession.

The handicap also forces Lynds’ protagonist to rely more on his brains and compassion than on brute strength. “[M]uscles are a lost hope for a one-armed man anyway,” he says. “For any man, really. There is always someone bigger, stronger, faster, or meaner. That’s why weapons were invented.”

Now back to the meat of this novel. One of the biggest mysteries in Freak is the title itself. Why is the book called Freak? It is not set amid a carnival sideshow or a crazy art community; instead, the case involves the president of a computer software firm hiring Dan Fortune to find his missing son and the son’s new bride, who cleaned out their bank accounts and sold the house the father gave them as a wedding present, and then left the small upscale New Jersey town they had settled in. And gone where? That’s the job: just locate the son, nothing else! But Fortune is more intrigued by why the couple has run off, and the only clue to this seems to be a memo pad on which the missing wife had written over and over again the single word: freak. It’s not until the final chapter that this mystery--and the book’s title--is explained, and it hits you like a kick in the stomach. As twists go, it is not what most readers of detective novels will be prepared for, not what we’ve come to expect from a work of mystery fiction. It is a climax that resonates back through the entire book.

One of the hidden treasures I discovered upon my recent re-reading of Freak is the following story, which Dan relates during pillow-talk with his lady friend:
“I knew a man who played in a regular poker game and lost most of the time. Not much, but a little almost every time. He began to feel like a fool playing regularly and losing most of the time. He wondered if he was a pigeon, a sucker. He talked of quitting. But he loved the game, enjoyed it almost more than anything. Then he found an answer. He decided that he simply didn’t take the game as seriously as two of the players. He wasn’t as disciplined as a third. That meant he would always be the fourth best player in the game no matter how well he played. He would always be, over the year, among the losers, if the smallest loser. When he worked that out he was happy. It gave him the justification he needed to lose and still go on playing. He knew why he lost, he knew the truth, therefore he wasn’t a sucker. As long as he knew, understood, it didn’t matter if he won or lost.”
I can’t help but wonder if Dennis Lynds was talking about himself--although, by all accounts, he was an excellent poker player--because here I am recommending what I consider to be his greatest novel, yet you’ll have to seek out a copy of this out-of-print book in order to discover whether I’m just blowing smoke. I believe Lynds acknowledged what he, as a writer and as a human being, was facing--obscurity--and yet he still played on.

I only had one chance to meet author Lynds, who died in 2005. I was fortunate enough to share a book-signing table with him at a Bouchercon, and so I got to tell him how much the Dan Fortune series meant to me. At that time he inscribed a copy of his novel Chasing Eights (1990) with the words, “To Russell, Welcome to the game.” In light of the above passage, those words now strike me as slightly ominous. But they also make me feel hopeful and a little proud that he saw in me a kindred spirit: another loser who nonetheless still enjoys playing the game.

READ MORE:Michael Collins: A Score’s Worth of P.I. Dan Fortune,” by Ed Lynskey (Mystery*File).

1 comment:

Ed Gorman said...

Glad to see Freak remembered. It's one of Dennis' finest books. I always felt close to his books because he wrote well, and sometimes eloquently, about average people in desperate straits. I can't remember the book but there's a scene with Fortune in an restaurant watching a couple at a nearby table. He can't hear what they're saying but their expressions and gestures convey their anger and sorrow. They're obviously breaking up. The scene puts you into the center of their grief even though you have no idea who they are or what has caused them to part. He's another one of those very good writers time has passed by. But in that he has company with John D. MacDonald and, apparently, Ed McBain.