Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Gravetapping: Reading Ed Gorman

"The Autumn Dead, with its depth, its heartbreak, and its melancholy hope, is
a new and important kind of American mystery."
Dorothy B. Hughes

Ben Boulden:
This is an introduction I wrote for the Stark House omnibus edition of Ed Gorman’s fine novels, The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers, published in December 2014. The Autumn Dead features private eye Jack Dwyer and The Night Remembers features private eye Jack Walsh. The Stark House edition is still available, and all of the novels—both Jack Dwyer and Jack Walsh—are available as bargain priced ebooks. There are links to each novels Amazon page at the bottom of this essay.  

Ed Gorman is an unheralded writer of uncommon ability. He is a writer with a conscience—his characters reflect the world and he has an uncanny ability to make them sympathetic—but he is also an immensely entertaining storyteller. Mr. Gorman’s work has ranged wide, but he is particularly good at the first person detective story and two of his best are collected in this omnibus: The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers.

In 1985 Ed Gorman, in his second published novel, introduced his first private detective, Jack Dwyer. Dwyer is a former cop who got the acting bug after being cast in a local public safety commercial. He started acting lessons, quit his job, applied for his private investigator’s license, and took a security job to keep the wolves away. Jack Dwyer appeared in five novels and The Autumn Dead is the fourth.

The Autumn Dead is the definitive Jack Dwyer novel. It fulfills the potential and promise of both Dwyer as a character and Ed Gorman as a writer. It is a richly detailed detective novel strong on story and scored with a thought provoking working class commentary. Jack Dwyer is the principal instigator of the novel’s action, but he is also a spectator of the melancholy and hard world he inhabits. He is not a saint, and is unable to right many, if any, wrongs, but he notices the humanity around him. More importantly, he understands humanity in all its beauty, frailty and brutality. In an early scene from The Autumn Dead,Dwyer describes a housing development built in the 1950’s.

“They’d built the houses in the mid-fifties and though they weren’t much bigger than garages, the contractors had been smart enough to paint them in pastels—yellow and lime and pink and puce, the colors of impossible flowers, the colors of high hard national hope—and they were where you strived to live in 1956 if you worked in a factory and wanted the good life promised by the Democrats and practiced by the Republicans.”    

It is a neighborhood forgotten by time and left to crumble and tarnish new generations with a hard scrabble existence. It is a place where dreams die, girls become hard and old before they reach maturity, and a place where the lowest rung of humanity struggles to survive. In the novel this hopelessness and poverty is juxtaposed with the comparatively well off.  The professional classes and the downright wealthy. Dwyer is unable to claim membership in either class—he was raised in one and has never been able to fully gain access to the other. The conflict of class is personified by an old classmate and friend named Karen Lane.

Karen seemingly escaped her childhood poverty, but she gave herself away in the attempt. She is described much like Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly. She is a woman-girl desperately trying to erase her own bitter world with her sex, and while her surroundings changed, for a time at least, she was never able to completely overcome the poverty of her childhood. A passage describing Karen’s borrowed room in the home of a friend captures the rub between the dream of something more and reality.

“The clothes—fawns and pinks and soft blues and yellows, silk and linen and organza and lame and velvet—did not belong in the chill rough basement of a working-class family. There was a sense of violation here, a beast holding trapped a fragile beauty.”           

There is a bitter melancholy in much of Ed Gorman’s work and The Autumn Dead is no different. It is a narrative of loss and disappointment; the loss of time, the slow crawl to death, and the disappointment of failure.

“‘You know what his problem is?’


“‘He isn’t a boy anymore.’”   

In 1991, Ed Gorman introduced his second private eye, Jack Walsh, in The Night Remembers. Jack appeared in only one novel, and while he would have made a wonderful serial character, his story is seemingly complete in a single volume. Jack is 62, a World War II veteran who fought at Salerno, a retired cop—Linn County Sheriff’s Department headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—and a live-in manager of a rundown apartment building in a decaying neighborhood. Jack operates a one man private investigation shop, smokes six cigarettes a day and has an on again off again relationship with a woman nearly half his age named Faith Hallahan.

Faith is a major player in both the novel and Jack’s life. She is the mother of an 18-month old boy named Hoyt—she claims Jack is the father—and Faith is nearly certain she has breast cancer. Faith, like many of Mr. Gorman’s female characters, has a gentle sadness, an almost broken quality, about her. She is described with an intimate fondness.

“[R]egal, imposing, and, even at times such as these, a little arrogant. The hell of it is—for her sake anyway—she’d had one of those terrible childhoods that robbed her of any self-confidence her looks might have given her. ‘I’m only beautiful on the outside,’ she’s fond of saying in her dramatic way.”

Amazingly Jack takes Faith’s indecision about their relationship in stride. He truly loves Faith and Hoyt. There are several tender scenes between the three, which develops a visceral intimacy. Jack has an indistinct role in Faith’s life. He is a mixture of father, priest and lover, which summarily describes his outsider role in society.

Jack’s personal strife is a backdrop to the mystery, but it is an important and rewarding element because it focuses an understanding of his viewpoint, and it is Jack’s view of the world that shimmers in the narrative. It is offhand references to real world people like Lyndon LaRouche, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter—“…Carter I never could stand. Maybe it was that psychotic smile.”—and the sympathetic brush Mr. Gorman paints his characters with that pushes the novel beyond. He is particularly good at capturing a mood, a sorrow, an ill, in a few simple, sparse sentences.

“The little girl watched me as I started down the stairs. She looked sadder than any child her age ever should.”

In another scene, a rambling bigot who justifies his hate with religion, is described with a keen sense of understanding—or maybe pity—without allowing for credibility or justification of the hate.            

“In his plaid work shirt and baggy jeans and house slippers, he looked like the sort of melancholy psychotic you saw roaming the halls of state mental institutions just after electroshock treatment, the pain and sorrow only briefly dulled by riding the lightning.”

Jack, like Dwyer, is an observer of a world he doesn’t quite understand, but a world he has a wistful empathy for. A world filled with desperate, scared people behaving in ugly and malicious ways, but allowances are nearly always provided. Small understandings, if not always completely satisfactory, are conveyed in the narrative explaining the ugliness.   

“She enjoyed making you despise her. I suppose she hoped that somebody would despise her almost as much as she despised herself.”  

The Night Remembers and The Autumn Dead are similar—first person narrative with a sentimental, intelligent, and watchman-like protagonist—but beneath the surface both are very different novels. The Night Remembers is a wistful, sentimental novel filled with betrayal and an exhausted weariness while The Autumn Dead is very near angry. The novels are both dark, but there is humor. Jack Dwyer is a self-deprecating wise-ass. There is a Jim Rockford moment in The Autumn Dead when a bartender wants five dollars to tell Dwyer where he can find a man.

“‘It worth five bucks to you?’

“‘That’s only in the movies. Just call Chuck.’

“‘I need some grease to do it because I got to walk all the way down the basement stairs. The intercom is on the blink.’”

Jack Walsh is less smart-alecky than Dwyer, but the humor pops up unexpectedly—the reference to Jimmy Carter’s “psychotic smile” and an exchange between Walsh and the owner of the building he manages. A man he refers to as “young Mr. Banister.” His description of Banister is one of the highlights.

“He was approximately thirty-five with a short earnest haircut, black earnest horn-rim glasses, an earnest white button-down shirt, an earnest blue five-button cardigan sweater, and a pair of earnest chinos that complemented his very earnest black and white saddle shoes. It was the wrong sissy touch, those shoes on a man his age, and told me more than I wanted to know about young Mr. Banister.”

Jack Walsh also appeared in the 1990 short story “Friends,” but he was disguised under the name Parnell. The primary backup players were there—Faith and Hoyt—and the story is worth finding. Jack Dwyer appeared in five novels, New, Improved Murder (1985),Murder in the Wings (1986)Murder Straight Up (1986)The Autumn Dead (1987)and A Cry of Shadows (1990), and three short stories, “Failed Prayers” (1987), “The Reason Why” (1988), which is the basis of The Autumn Dead, and “Eye of the Beholder” (1996).

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

Exceptionally fine reviews of two exceptionally fine novels by an exceptionally fine gentleman.