I read a couple of mystery novels recently that I quite enjoyed, featuring a pair of private investigators who couldn’t be more different.
The Little Sleep
The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay, features Mark Genevich, a private investigator looking into the case of a young songstress who has lost the fingers on one of her hands and has had substitutes stitched on in their place. Or at least that’s what he thinks he’s investigating. See, Genevich has narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes the sufferer to fall asleep without warning. One of the side-effects is hypnagogic hallucinations that have a tendency of skewing reality and making it extremely difficult for Genevich to tell what’s real and what’s not. It’s the sort of thing that makes being a private investigator that much more difficult… and entertaining.
While The Little Sleep is light at times, sometimes humourous, and the concept of a narcoleptic detective may seem ripe for hilarity, I wouldn’t call the book a satire, or even a dark comedy. It’s a thriller of the first order with a few comical scenes that seem designed to make the suspense elements that much more potent. For example, Genevich has a mother who taxis him around because it’s too dangerous for a narcoleptic to drive a car. It might seem kind of funny at first, but there’s a part when Genevich has no choice but to get behind the wheel, and it’s a very tense little scene.
With The Little Sleep, Tremblay has turned crime noir on its head — or maybe it would be more accurate to say he pushes it down flat on its face, considering the number of times this happens to Genevich throughout the book. Either way, he has written an excellent book and created a whole new sub-genre: narcoleptic noir.
The Time Machine Did It
On the opposite end of the private-eye spectrum, we have The Time Machine Did It, by John Swartzwelder.
If you’re a Simpsons geek like me, then you may recognize the author’s name. John Swartzwelder worked on The Simpsons for a number of years, and has written more episodes than any other writer on the show. He’s also the authors of a series of comical mystery novels that are actually marketed as “by the writer of 59 episodes of The Simpsons.”
The Time Machine Did It introduces us to a private investigator named Frank Burly. It’s a pseudonym, he tells us at the beginning of the book, because he figures potential clients are looking for a detective who is both frank and burly. You can’t really argue with that, and it sets the tone for the story that follows.
Frank is not a very good detective, and part of his charm is that he knows this. But he’s persistent. His very first case came as a result of the mail-order detective course he sent away for in order to become a detective in the first place. The course turned out to be a fraud, and Frank ended up tracking down the scam artist. He got back his three bucks and discovered he actually had a knack for the work of detecting.
Frank’s office is in a building with a number of other, better private eyes, so he figures the people who come to his door must really be desperate, and they are. In The Time Machine Did It, Frank is tasked with retrieving a statue for a man who claims to have been a millionaire but is now a bum with a junkie for a personal secretary. He tries to convince Frank that he was the most important person in the city, something Frank isn’t inclined to believe until he comes across a series of crimes perpetrated by criminals with access to a time machine.
The story is a parody of both detective and time-travel stories, and it’s clearly written by someone who used to work for The Simpsons. I feel I can say that much and sell you on it without telling you more of the plot, which would ruin it.
For years, Simpsons fans have debated the existence of Swartzwelder, convinced that his name was merely an amalgam of several staff writers. I’m happy to report that John Swartzwelder is indeed a real person and he’s written one very funny book. Disco Stu says check it out.