William Kotzwinkle is funny. His wonderful novel, The Midnight Examiner, is one of the funniest books, certainly the funniest detective novel I’ve read. Why he doesn’t have a wider audience is beyond me.
Mr. Kotzwinkle doesn’t break new ground in his mystery novels: he’s not a pioneer of anything in particular. What he does is springboard off of accepted tropes of the genre, things seen in many other books, into the heights. While he doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, he does it so well, better than we’ve seen in such a long time, that reading him feels like something new. Finding him when I did, especially in The Midnight Examiner, wasn’t like finding the next Raymond Chandler, it was like finding Raymond Chandler funny cousin.
His novel The Game of Thirty features the very Chandleresque detective Jimmy McShane. Formerly with an investigative arm of the military police, McShane left the services to avoid a promotion which would have taken him away from investigating cases and put him behind a desk at the rank of colonel. I liked him from the start.
McShane’s narration includes things like this:
Usually on nights when people try to murder me I drink extra-dry martinis. Now I drink mineral water. This was spiritual progress.
While I love the little gems like that which Mr. Kotzwinkle drops throughout The Game of Thirty. I’m agnostic enough to stick with extra-dry martinis, myself.
The Game of Thirty concerns the murder of a wealthy Manhattan antiquities dealer. His daughter hires McShane to take over the case once the police investigation goes cold. We know, even McShane knows, that she will lead the detective down a rabbit hole of high society scandal before the story ends. And she does.
While the first two thirds of novel are a witty aside laden thrill-ride, the book becomes problematic towards the end. Kotzwinkle is no stranger to the salacious. Since The Midnight Examiner is about the people who work on a national tabloid reporting the most scandalous news available when they are not making it up outright, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when The Game of Thirty entered tabloid territory, or tabloid adjacent territory. But after the investigation exposes a child prostitution ring, the book ceases to be funny. It also ceases to be serious, too, oddly.
When the victim was a very wealthy antiquities dealer, McShane was free to be as acerbically witty as he wanted. The reader is also free to laugh along with the fun. But once the victims become eight-year-olds, neither of us can enjoy the story in the same way. We have to be serious. But Mr. Kotzwinkle strayed too far into the extreme for me to take him seriously. I can accept the notion of a child prostitution ring, but one of the level Mr. Kotzwinkle describes in The Game of Thirty strains credulity. And it really wasn’t necessary, either.
In spite of the problems with where The Game of Thirty ends up, the journey rewards the reader more than enough to make it all worthwhile. Late in the book, one of McShane’s clients, a diamond merchant, looks wistfully out the window towards New Jersey and says, “We’re born, we have a little heartburn, we die. What’s it all about?”
It’s about the moment just before the heartburn begins, my friend. That good pastrami, whether it’s real meat or metaphorical, that we eat for the sheer pleasure we know it brings even when we know we’ll pay a price afterwards. Heartburn isn’t such a high price.
I’ll be back for more William Kotzwinkle. He is one good pastrami sandwich.
Rereading this review, which I first ran on Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012, made me laugh. I hope you also found that bit at the end funny. I was so young an innocent in 2012, so full of hope. We all were, weren’t we?