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A Murder Born Every Minute Monday

What I've Finished Reading

“It sounds like my son,” she'd always say. “But he wouldn't have the nerve to call if he was still a private detective. He just wouldn't have the nerve. He still has some respect left.”

Eventually, I got to like Dreaming of Babylon, a lot, even. C. Card meets a “knockout blonde” who offers him a thousand dollars to steal a corpse out of the morgue. Will this be the break he needs? C. Card doesn't ask for much, just enough money to go on daydreaming in relative comfort. In his imaginary Babylon he's a famous chef, a baseball player, a detective battling a mad scientist's army of shadow robots. In real life, he gets distracted easily, thinking up names for his hard-boiled Babylonian alter egos. The dead body deal goes south in a dreamlike way and he winds up exactly where he started, only with a corpse in his refrigerator. The reality is as nonsensical a mishmash as the dream, but the dream is a lot more comfortable.

”I know you're sorry, son, but why are you a detective? I hate those magazines and books. They're so seamy. I don't like the long black shadows those people have on the covers. They frighten me.”

“Those aren't the real thing, Mom,” I'd always say, and she'd answer, “Then why do they sell them at the newsstand for everyone in the world to see and buy? Answer that one if you can, Smart Guy. Come on and answer it, Mr. Private Eye. I dare you. Come on! Come on! This is your mother!”

I couldn't answer.

I couldn't tell my mother that people want to read stories about people who had long black ominous shadows. She just wouldn't have understood. Her thinking didn't run along those lines.

What I'm Reading Now

The Headless Lady by Clayton Rawson. I promised to post a picture of the cover, so here it is:

[Murder, Magic, and the Great Merlini!]
The Headless Lady

It's neither as good nor as bad as the cover suggests. There seems to be a collaboration between a magician/amateur detective and a detective novelist to produce novels (i.e., the true adventures of the Great Merlini) for money. The novelist shows up at the magician's magic shop, trying to get him to look at some proofs or something, and a woman shows up, desperate to buy the Headless Lady illusion and take it home. How suspicious! Eventually they go to the circus to investigate, and find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery, like we always knew they would.

The biggest draw of this book is its infodumping: Merlini is an insider who keeps helpfully explaining carny slang to the narrator-novelist. Since popular slang is always a little behind the underworld, the profusion of circus/grifter jargon has an interesting effect: the book (published in 1940) often "feels" about twenty years later than it is, at least to me, the casual temporal outsider. There's also an interesting digression on hobo signs -- apparently the proofreader's mark for "add a period here" is the same as the 1930s hobo mark for "this town will arrest you for vagrancy." Other than being fonts of information, Merlini and the novelist are not overwhelmingly interesting characters, or possibly I'm just tired.

What I Plan to Read Next

Tana French! Maybe also The Mystery of the Blue Train.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 19th, 2016 02:12 pm (UTC)

I'm glad at least the infodumps are interesting. It's hard to go wrong with carny slang!
Dec. 20th, 2016 01:52 am (UTC)
The cover is not terribly inaccurate either, it turns out. The elephants and the Headless Lady illusion play pretty central roles. The weirdest detail is that rabbit - we are told there's a stuffed rabbit in the window of Merlini's shop, which is probably where the illustrator got the idea. Merlini is not, however, an anthropomorphic evil rabbit, nor are any of the named characters (so far).

Loads of great slang, symbols, and trade secrets, including older slang that isn't used anymore (circa 1940) because it's already been popularized. It's a hard job being an underworld subculture after the invention of the printing press. Every time some Daniel Defoe wannabe writes another broadside about you, the rubes eat up that colorful secret lingo like it's two-for-one meat pies and then you have to change everything again. Probably this was the case even before the invention of the printing press.
Dec. 19th, 2016 04:10 pm (UTC)
Yay for cover!

It's nice to learn new terms without it feeling that the author has cut and paste Wikipedia or it's 40s equivalent in the book. Descriptions of places tend to be the worst for that.
Dec. 20th, 2016 02:02 am (UTC)

It's a tiny bit cut-and-pastey (Merlini's role as interpreter between the narrator and the circus/grifter crew is a perfectly good excuse for some hot glossary action, but also a very transparent one) but that doesn't hurt it too much.

A little OT, but I remember being very entertained by an account of a romance novelist who was caught plagiarizing a lot of her nature descriptions, including some lengthy passages about black-footed ferrets from a book about ferrets. It was very much the sort of thing that would raise a warning flag in someone's freshman essay: abrupt and unexplained shifts between ordinary mass-market romance prose and 10 Cool Facts About Ferrets For Boys and Girls. Sometimes the c&p is literal!
Dec. 20th, 2016 03:39 pm (UTC)
Lol, sounds a different kind of romance!
Dec. 19th, 2016 04:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, my, that is a cover!

There seems to be a collaboration between a magician/amateur detective and a detective novelist to produce novels (i.e., the true adventures of the Great Merlini) for money.

This almost sounds like Jonathan Creek and Maddy Magellan, if they were writing novels instead of true crime. Could it have been inspiration? Heh. :-)
Dec. 20th, 2016 02:09 am (UTC)
It could easily be inspiration for Jonathan Creek and Maddy Magellan (which is still something I need to watch, SOMEDAY)! I'd never heard of it, but it's been around for a long time. I think the idea of a magician-sleuth is pretty intrinsically appealing.
Dec. 20th, 2016 09:58 am (UTC)
I desperately want someone to write the novel that is worthy of that cover.
Dec. 22nd, 2016 04:12 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, I don't think this novel is quite the one. But somewhere, someone must be capable of it!
Dec. 21st, 2016 12:23 am (UTC)
OMg, I love your description of Dreaming of Babylon!

Dec. 22nd, 2016 04:14 am (UTC)
It's a pretty interesting, funny book. You might like it! Short chapters and a quick read, too.
Dec. 22nd, 2016 04:32 am (UTC)
I'll have to put it on my list, then. :D You are never wrong about the fiction I would love!

Dec. 21st, 2016 01:16 am (UTC)
What an amazing cover! It would draw the eye, certainly.
Dec. 22nd, 2016 04:16 am (UTC)
It delivers an experience! I haven't decided yet whether the book lives up to it or not.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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