Friday, August 12, 2016

Utterly Bonkers: The Crime Fiction of William L. Marshall

In 1992, my mom brought home a mystery set in 1880's New York City. Called Faces in the Crowd by William L. Marshall, its cover featured two tough looking characters. Still a newcomer to reading mysteries and the like, barely extending my attention to anyone other than James Ellroy, the setting made me give it a go.

From the very first page, the very first paragraph even, I was confused. Who were these strange characters, what was going on? Who was the Despondent Man and did he really have a vial of nitroglycerine? Who were the Germans working in Grammelspacher's Shooting Gallery?  Slowly, the lights came on and the situation was illuminated, if not completely untangled. And I was ensnared.

With no help from the rest of the department, Detective Virgil Tillman and Patrolman Ned Muldoon uncover and face off against a vast, murderous conspiracy. They visit the mansions of the wealthy and, quarantine islands, and madhouses. New technology only empowers the already powerful, strengthening their throttling grip on the masses around them.

The book is by turns madcap, insane, and completely ludicrous. Unlike Caleb Carr's more realistic, and duller The Alienist, Faces in the Crowd is a depiction of moral and criminal corruption in 19th century New York as Dickens at his angriest might have written or Bosch at his most disturbing would have painted. Realism takes a distant second-place to a dark, impressionistic version of the city and the worms that gnaw its heart away. New York is a place of casual racism, utter contempt toward the poor by the high and mighty, exploitation of the legions of immigrants flooding the city, and terrible crimes committed by both the rich and the poor.

It's also insanely funny. Absurd humor flecks the pages of Faces in the Crowd, even at its most bleakly serious moments. When Tillman needs the help of a pair of explosive experts, he allows them to wreak vengeance on a brutal and unprincipled beat cop who crippled one of their family members. Dressed in a rabbit suit, they douse him in alcohol and cheap perfume before they attack him so no one will believe him. Then they blow a hole in the street to gain access to the disused Beach Pneumatic Transit tunnel.

Every place, every street, every character is draped in wonderful prose. On the very first page readers are treated to a crazy catalogue of noises, people, and lots of alliteration. 

In Grammlespacher's Shooting Gallery, 234 The Bowery at 10:08 P.M. Sunday, April 13th, 1884, there were a lot of guns shooting. Through the smoke and fumes, flashes and flames, there were a lot of people shooting them. In Grammelspacher's, on the noisiest street in the world, with the steam engines of the Elevated running on both tracks north and south outside thirty feet above the sidewalk every two minutes, there were clerks in tight suits shooting .25 Stevens at mechanical Indians that went "Ugh!" when hit in the heart, country boys firing Flobert Five Millimeters at flashy farfarooms that flew to fragments, wanton women and their wastrels whamming Winchesters at whirring windmills, diving ducks being powdered to pumice by Peacemakers, and, at every second booth along the walls of the gaslit place, S&W .32 Number Twos being shot and shooting things to shards by anyone who could get their hands around them two at a time. Everything moved, spun, turned, ducked--everything ran by steam. The excess pressure ran a small calliope in the corner that shuddered and shook as it blasted out patriotic airs full volume a penny a time.

I wonder if Marshall felt the only way he could properly explore the horror at the center of his story, and those that ravaged 19th century New York City was with surrealism and absurdism. Whatever his motivations, his madness-wreathed vision of the great metropolis, built of gilded mansions, dark slums, writhing with spiritual degeneracy, feels more real than any more "realistic" historical view of the city that I've read. This idea can be applied to his other series as well. In each, it's the poor and working-class that suffer the most from crime, which too often has its roots in the greed of the privileged and wealthy. Only by coming at it from off-kilter perspectives can the severity of the injustice and misery in the world as it actually is than could be conveyed in a more naturalistic crime novel.

Faces in the Crowd is a book I absolutely love and have read several times. There's an earlier book in the series, New York Detective, that centers around the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. It's good, but lacks the operatic plot of Faces. While Marshall wrote more books after Faces, he never returned to the characters.

The Hong Bay district of Hong Kong is fictitious, as are the people who, for one reason or another, inhabit it.

Of the twenty-four novels written by Willam Marshall, sixteen belong to the Yellowthread Street series. Built like a standard police procedural, each book follows the same pattern: Det. Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer investigates an ominous, major case, Senior Inspector Christopher O'Yee investigates an odd, lesser case, and none-too-bright Inspectors Auden and Spencer get caught up in a third, wacky case. Usually, all three strands come together in unexpected ways, with the various investigators not realizing they're operating in parallel until nearly the end.

Despite this cookie-cutter sounding approach, the plot of each novel is so strange, they never feel repetitive and reading several back to back does not get boring. The first novel, Yellowthread Street (1975), features a vengeful madame, Hot Time Alice Ping and her leg-breaker, Osaka the Disemboweler, hunting for the finger-chopping extortionist called the Mongolian. That's probably the most realistic, normal crime I can recall in the entire series. 

The setting of the sixth book, Sci-fi (1981), is the annual All-Asia Science Fiction and Horror Movie Festival. While examining a spaceship made of old tea chests, and what seems to be a robotic spaceman, two street cleaners encounter fiery destruction. 

(The first sweeper) turned his attention to The Spaceman. "Is he supposed to be an Earthman?" The first sweeper said, "He hasn't got anything written on his suit so he isn't supposed to be Chinese." He thought about it for a moment, "If he was supposed to be a Chinese spaceman he'd have a red star or something on his chest, wouldn't he? Unless he's supposed to be a Hong Kong spaceman?"
The second sweeper said, "Hong Kong hasn't got any spacemen. That's only the Americans and the Russians."
The click came again from the ray gun, and then slowly, inexorably The Spaceman's arm moved and the gun came up, swivelled slightly and trained itself on the flying saucer.
The first sweeper said, "That's good. How do they do that?"
The second sweeper said, "It's a machine."
The second sweeper said, "Just so long as they don't make a mess, that's all I care about. You see one of these science fiction movies and they blow down half the city -- but do you ever see the poor sods of sweepers cleaning up after them? Nah." There was a hissing sound coming from the muzzle of the ray gun and the, a fraction of a second later, a fine mist of something filled the air and made the second sweeper gag. The second sweeper said, "What the hell is---"
The Spaceman, his hand firmly on the butt of the ray gun, turned slightly and place himself in direct line with the flying saucer. He pressed the trigger.
The flying saucer disappeared into a single ball of roaring, blossoming flame.
There were forty five million dollars involved, minimum. The Spaceman, oblivious to the shouts and protest of the street sweepers, moved on to Stage Two in order to get it.
Raising the ray gun for the second time, he swung it past the blazing, collapsing saucer and, centring the nozzle squarely on the chest of the second sweeper, pressed the trigger and, in a raging stream of pulsing yellow fire, cremated him where he stood.

In War Machine (1982) (which my mom also brought home from the library) it looks like Japanese soldiers have emerged from four decades of hiding in a secret bunker to wage war on Hong Kong. A gang of criminals begin taking out municipal fixtures with high explosives for some unknown motive in Roadshow (1985). Headless corpses float in on the tide, a crook uses a vial of Durian juice to rob banks, and in the final novel, To the End (1998), Feiffer and company must come to grips with the impending Chinese takeover in 1997.

The emphasis in each book is on the plots, which are unhinged, complex things, with Marshall spinning several plates on sticks all at once. And still, he manages to breath some life into his four series regulars, so you look forward to seeing them again. Feiffer and O'Yee have the most flesh on their fictional bones. The cases they investigate usually force them to confront some part of themselves or weigh duty versus justice, giving Marshall time and room to plumb the characters' depths. Spencer and Auden are thinner, but consistently funny. They fill the stock role of would-be men of action and daring, who instead fall prey to fits of slapstick and comic misunderstanding.

I haven't read any of these in several years, but with the recent advent of the first four Yellowthread Street books as e-books, I'm going dive to back in. 

Marshall wrote one more mystery series, a duology set in the Philippines. The first is Manila Bay (1986), and the second, Whisper (1988). I haven't reread it in many years, but for a while, Whisper was one of my favorite books. The Kirkus review of it condemns it for being "grotesque but not fanciful, cartoonish but not funny, overwrought instead of buoyant." I'll have to give it a go, but I recall it being creepy and disturbing, as someone seems to be killing the poor of Manila for their skeletons.

When I saw that Marshall's books were finally appearing as e-books, I was excited.  After 1998's To The End, he seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. In 2009, I wrote Otto Penzler, Marshall's US publisher, to ask if he knew what had happened to him. Penzler told me he had no idea, having heard nothing from him in years, but suspected he had gone back to Australia for good. 

The other night, I bought the e-book of Yellowthread Street for a whopping .99 - and discovered William Marshall's been dead since 2003. That means, when I wrote to Penzler, Marshall had already been gone for six years and even his publisher didn't know it. 

I didn't know the man, and I know nothing about him other than a few scraps of career background (playwright, journalist, proofreader, morgue attendant, teacher in an Irish prison). What I do know, is that he wrote a stack of books that have given me hours of delight as I gamely followed along into the demented mysteries he set his joyfully original characters loose on, and savored every line of loopy dialogue and paragraph of outlandish description. In a just world, his work would be better known. Thank you, Mr. Marshall.

No comments:

Post a Comment