Friday, May 09, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “The Lunatic Fringe,” by William L. DeAndrea

(Editor’s note: A couple of Fridays ago, blogger Patti Abbott introduced what, in her words, “I optimistically hope will become Friday recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years. I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. ... I also asked each of them to tag someone to recommend a book for next Friday. I’m worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next.” Last week, I was tagged for this assignment by The Rap Sheet’s Ali Karim. Im only too happy to add my two cents.)

My pick: The Lunatic Fringe, by William L. DeAndrea.

In 1980, the year this book came out and the same year in which I bought a copy, I was living in Portland, Oregon, working at my first newspaper job for peanuts, and endeavoring to make those peanuts buy something more than white rice for dinner. Whatever possessed me to plunk down my cash for a brand-new hardcover copy of The Lunatic Fringe ... well, I can only imagine now. It was probably because I’d read and enjoyed DeAndrea’s two previous novels, the Edgar Award-winning Killed in the Ratings (1978) and The Hog Murders (1979), and just couldn’t wait to dive into the third. This novel’s cover alone would’ve caught my eye, with its old-fashioned typography and its suggestion of historical intrigue. Together with journalism, I had studied history in college, and even back then knew that if I were to ever write fiction, it would have some historical backdrop.

Likely, The Lunatic Fringe’s flap copy closed the deal for me:
THE TIME: August, 1896, during the McKinley-Bryan presidential campaign

THE PLACE: New York City

THE STORY: Renowned political cartoonist Evan Crandall, sometimes known as “E. Noon,” becomes a pawn in the newspaper circulation war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. At the same time, a plan to assassinate William Jennings Bryan is being undertaken by a pair of villainous anarchists. On a quiet Saturday evening, Officer Dennis Patrick Francis-Xavier Muldoon finds Evan Crandall murdered in his apartment and a beautiful naked lady tied to Crandall’s bed. He goes to find help, and when he returns the mysterious lady, known as the Pink Angel, is gone.

Enter Captain Ozias Herkimer, who believes no part of Muldoon’s story and furthermore doesn’t want any strange goings-on in his district. He promptly dismisses Muldoon from the force. Never one to be discouraged or to shirk his duties, Muldoon enlists the aid of firebrand Police Commission Theodore Roosevelt. Together they set out to find the Pink Angel, who has disappeared into the night wearing nothing, it seems, but Muldoon’s revolver.
Political and criminal conspiracies. Theodore Roosevelt, about whom I’d read much already. A richly embellished look back at 1890s Gotham. Oh, and of course the presence in that adventure of a young seductress--a naked young seductress, to boot. Hmm. Now that I think about it, I’m surprised I bought only one copy of The Lunatic Fringe, expensive (at $10.95) though it may have been at the time. It had the very sort of ingredients that have attracted me to historical mysteries ever since. Furthermore, it crackled with good humor, in its dialogue as well as its plot turns, many of which concerned Officer Muldoon’s family and foibles. And it boasted a fine, action-packed dénouement in which Muldoon and Roosevelt are both called upon to exercise their wits and energies.

This was the first crime novel I read with old New York City as a setting. But it would certainly not be my last. I credit The Lunatic Fringe with leading me on to Robert J. Randisi’s Bat Masterson novel, The Ham Reporter (1986), William Marshall’s distinguished pair of Virgil Tillman tales, The New York Detective (1989) and Faces in the Crowd (1991), Caleb Carr’s two historical novels, The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997), E.L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks (1994), the pseudonymous J.D. Christilian’s Scarlet Women (1996), Andrew Bergman’s private eye Jack Levine novels, including Tender Is Levine (2001), and Suspension (2000), Richard E. Crabbe’s brilliant story of chicanery centered around the 1880s construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, The Lunatic Fringe is the one of those I recall most vividly. Perhaps because I went on to read it two more times, after relishing it so on the first run-through.

I tried to keep up with William DeAndrea’s many works over the years. Glancing across my bookshelves, I spot Five O’clock Lightning (1982), his story of a baseball fan’s murder at Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, and Written in Fire (1995), the first of two novels he wrote about wheelchair-bound lawman/newspaper publisher Lobo Blacke and his “legman,” writer Quinn Booker, set in turn-of-the-last-century Wyoming. (It was followed by 1997’s The Fatal Elixir.) He penned intricately plotted, character-rich stories that I found hard to pass by. But DeAndrea was also quite prolific, so I did miss reading a few of his books along the way. Which is particularly sad, because he died early--at age 44, in 1996, after winning a third Edgar for his reference work Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994), which is also on my shelves. He was married to Jane Haddam, who continues to make her name in crime-writing circles.

After The Lunatic Fringe, I hoped the author would one day return to Dennis Patrick Francis-Xavier Muldoon, the Pink Lady, and their horse-flop-infested Manhattan. Although he never did, I can go back there anytime, just by picking up this novel and flipping through its dry, slightly age-fragranced pages. Buying it when I had so little else might have been the best thing I could’ve done with that $10.95.

Click here for links to this week’s other forgotten books.

And since the cost of contributing to this series is that I’m supposed to tag some other blogger to write about a similarly shuffled-to-the-backstacks book for next week, I shall gladly pass the baton on to ... Kevin Burton Smith. I hope you have as much fun with this assignment as I did.

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