We will discuss The Death of a Detective by Mark Smith
on Wednesday, November 9
Detective Arnold Magnuson has retired to his upscale penthouse to live in misery and alcoholism, his life turned hollow after the death of his wife. In his heyday he built the Magnuson Men from the ground up, a powerful force of security guards and ushers by way of the Pinkertons who offer invaluable security to a scarred city. Now, he wallows without direction or course, abandoning some friends he invited to his apartment to play pinochle in favor of hiding in his room. He needs something to latch onto—what he gets is a mysterious call from a dying friend, the millionaire Farquarson, who has something he can discuss only with Magnuson. When he arrives at Farquarson’s estate, he finds the man dead; his nurse and nephew report that a stranger had prowled around the estate, and that the dying man worried about one John Helenowski, an escapee from a state mental institution who believes himself death incarnate. Magnuson determines that this Helenowski must have murdered Farquarson; thus begins his investigation for a mad killer and the reason behind Farquarson’s death, a road that will lead to the death and ruin of many people—all characters bound, whether they know it or not, a crisscrossing patchwork of death and decay.
Death of the Detective has a Dickensian quality to it, a sweeping scale and grandeur that encapsulates the detective story plot: it is a sprawling, ambitious novel, highly stylistic, wealthy beyond measure in characters and atmosphere. It deals with race relations and ethnic identity, something that comes up often due to its 1950s/early 1960s melting-pot megalopolis setting. The prose is literate, adroit, and stylized to the point where one good sentence piles onto another, but the novel never buckles under that weight. Some would call it overwritten or overblown; others would call Smith a “writer’s writer” or a “stylist of the highest caliber.” It can be overwhelming at times, and demanding, given its density—six-hundred pages of rich, stylized prose is not something you ingest in just a day… if only because you want to savor it, swish it over the taste buds like a fine wine. Imagine the bastard love-child of John Gardner and Charles Dickens, imagine that it cut its teeth reading Lew Archer and Carl Sandburg’s hog butcher, and you have a glimpse of this novel’s style and power: one of the most intense, atmospheric detective novels ever written.
- From Yellow and Creased