One of the great things about writing for the Arts section of Smile Politely is that, from time to time, one gets the opportunity to read and report on a book written by a local author. Regardless of the outcome (or success) of the literary endeavor, it is always satisfying to see the hard work, thought, and creativity that go into a novel. One of the great things about being the editor of said section is that, when I feel like it, I can pass this spiritually satisfying work on to a member of the Arts staff. But there are other times when I see something I cannot help keeping for myself.
You see, I am an unabashed fan of the mystery genre. From Arthur Conan Doyle to Dashiell Hammett, from Robert B. Parker to Jeffery Deaver — I love a good mystery. As a reader and as a writer, I have great admiration for Holmes, Spade, Spenser, Lincoln Rhyme, Alex Delaware, Kurt Wallander, Hieronymus Bosch, and so many other literary investigators. I also know, as an avid reader of the genre, how difficult it must be to create a new character who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these mythic figures, not just on the bookshop shelf, but in readers’ minds.
So, after hearing a little through the grapevine about a new mystery novel penned by local author (and University of Illinois law professor) Paul J. Heald (pictured, left), I plunked down cash for my own copy and set to work reading Death in Eden.
The synopsis of Death in Eden, provided on the book’s back jacket, goes like this:
Desperate to complete the last chapter of his law thesis on workplace dynamics for women to secure his tenure, Professor Stanley Hopkins stumbles on an old close college friend, Donald Johansson, who has plenty of female employees. The problem is that Donald is a porn video king. Taking his wife to California’s seedy city of Burbank to help with taping interviews (and to protect his reputation with the university, not to mention his marriage), Stanley realizes he is in way over his head the moment a leading porn star is brutally killed in Donald’s office during a party.
Donald is arrested and pleads with Stanley to play legal detective. Stanley’s problems are compounded, as playing detective for a porn king puts him on thin ice with the university trustees, gets him in hot water with the police, dangles temptation in front of him, and puts his marriage at serious risk. As he solicits the help of eager porn stars and scrabbles for clues to help defend his old friend, Stanley feels the walls closing in on him more and more each minute.
At the outset, I found all of this pretty interesting. After all, setting a murder within the adult film industry is pretty intriguing, and adding the fish-out-of-water element of a detective who is technically not a detective is a nice touch. Mix that with the local touch of a professor from a big university in Illinois (wink), and it’s certainly enough to merit a look. Right?
I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that the other famous detectives who crowd into my memory are those daring, smartly-dressed crime solvers of 1980s primetime television. I’ll see your Sam Spade and raise you a Thomas Magnum; I’ll see your Holmes & Watson and raise you Simon & Simon. I’m not always proud of my pop culture tether to the 80s, but it certainly came in handy reading Death in Eden.
Why do I mention this? It’s because I want you to understand my full meaning (and tone of, occasionally, respect) when I say that Death in Eden reads like a TV movie-of-the-week that might have aired in 1983, maybe on Sunday night, right after Hardcastle and McCormick.
Ah, 1983. It was a simpler time then. There were only three major networks, and they were chockablock with action-adventure series pairing both unlikely partners and married couples in quests for justice. Check out the primetime schedule from the ’83-’84 season for a quick hit of nostalgia. Are you comfortably seated in your Way Back Machine now? Or your Cody Coyote? Radical. Let’s get reading.
On the front cover of the novel, above the title, is this spicy tag-line:
WHEN THE PROFESSOR MEETS THE KING OF PORN, IT MEANS MURDER.
Now, I can’t be the only one for whom this screams “Hart to Hart opening credits,” can I? Surely not. Or maybe that’s just how my mind works. Whatever. The important thing, here, is that the characters in Heald’s genuinely intriguing work would fit right into the plot of a mystery written (or aired) in the early 1980s. Most especially, I’m talking about their views on gender, sexuality, and relationships, but I’ll get to that.
More than anything, the thing about this book that screams 80s — to me, at least — is the premise. I can buy that a porn mogul is accused of murder and enlists the help of an old friend to clear his name. It’s shaky, but OK. It’s been done before, and I can suspend my disbelief with the best of ’em. Like they say: buy the premise, buy the bit. But the idea that Johansson (who speaks of himself like he’s the porn equivalent of Oskar Schindler) has just brokered a deal to get his magnum opus X-rated film (titled Toys in Babeland) played on mainstream cineplex screens in an age when filmmakers have a hard time getting an audience for Hollywood blockbusters is really pushing it.
OK, OK. Buy the premise, buy the bit. And keep thinking 80s, baby.
We have our (probably) wrongly accused man in Johansson, so let’s move on to our “hero.” With apologies to the author: I do not like our protagonist, Stanley Hopkins, one bit. And that’s a tough obstacle to overcome for me, as a reader. At the outset, Stanley is indeed working up a series of interviews with porn industry actresses in hopes of finishing his sociological study of workplace something or other. I have no problem with his stated purpose (and the interview scenes that start the book are pretty deftly written), but Stanley’s intentions and actions are seriously suspect. This isn’t just due to his lack of experience as an investigator or his outsider status with both the porn stars and police. Mostly, it’s due to his extremely murky moral compass.
He’s in over his head, which is a great place to start, but he’s also arrogant and condescending — both to his wife and to the police, who actually seem to know what they’re doing. His attempts at typical “tough guy” behavior are seriously laughable, which would be fine if the point were simply that he’s a brain with no brawn, but we’re repeatedly told how muscular and good-looking he is. His two big moves in the book are pushing over a stack of papers (I kid you not), and nearly crushing a man by tipping a motorcycle over on him. (So, if you cross this guy, and you’re near anything that can be tipped over, watch the fuck out.)
Almost immediately, and although he has no practical experience as an investigator, he sees the police detective in charge of the case as an enemy to be thwarted, and he takes enormous pride in every minor point he makes. Basically, he comes off like a fraud who gets lucky, then rubs it in your face.
In addition to this, Stanley is an academic. (I will not, however, refer to him as “The Professor,” as he has seemingly little interest in teaching and nothing but contempt for his school. The work he has come to do is a means to a tenured end — tenure, by the way, that he doesn’t even want.) From an academic, one might expect a certain intellectual distance — a cool, detached objectivity to his interview subjects, their chosen profession, and even the investigation of a crime. Instead, Stanley really is something of a lecher. He is in a constant state of fluster and titillation as he speaks with and of women described (from his POV) as busty goddesses with pillowy lips.
His “academic” gaze is constantly falling on the cleavage and hemlines of the women he is studying, while he simultaneously reassures his wife that it’s all for the job. It should be stated that wife Angela is along on this adventure because, obviously, if she left him alone with them, these sick-minded nymphomaniacs would have no choice but to ravage her attractive, manly slab of husbandcake. This decision is made after Stanley and Angela take turns “outfoxing” each other with their arguments about the merits of his study.
I’m going to go ahead and say that this is possibly the worst married couple ever. Edward Albee bad. I fully expected them to split up by the end of the book, and I would have been happy for both of them. He patronizes her and pouts when she doesn’t trust him (in spite of the fact that he ogles every perfect, leggy female form in sight); she is sure that he is ready to bed down the first woman he sees but hopes to trick him into impregnating her so she won’t be lonely. (Also, in this book, if you don’t use a condom you will definitely — definitely — get pregnant. Just like they told you in junior high Health class.) But they have their fun, too, sometimes… mostly while coming up with gross puns.
Stanley is, throughout the book, led around by his dick. He doesn’t commit outright adultery, but he is entirely susceptible to attractive women. Whenever the book takes on his point-of-view, everything is seen through his Vaseline-smeared lens of hot women and provocative attire. Again, the 80s concept appeals to me. If he were attempting to be a “manly man” in a less evolved or informed decade, this might be understandable. Not acceptable, by any means, but understandable.
A note, here, on Point of View. I know there are something like seven different kinds of narrative voice, from First Person to Limited Omniscient to Unreliable Narrator. In this case, the narrative point of view jumps around so much that I’m tempted to declare the discovery of a brand-new species: the Spastic Omniscient. We do get a glimpse inside the heads of several of the characters as the story goes on, and that makes a certain amount of sense, but the abrupt shifts between POVs can be jarring — especially when they happen within a single paragraph or snatch of dialogue. There is also a very curious tendency in this book to forego such phrases as “she said” and instead attach spoken dialogue to an action. For instance:
“They sure kept you long enough,” she put a concerned hand on his shoulder once they were in the car. “What the heck did they want?”
While I’m at it, I might as well mention that there was a serious missed opportunity here for someone in the proofreading field. There are punctuation errors aplenty, misspellings, incorrect verb tenses, a handful of spellcheck screw-ups, and OH HOLY JESUS MY KINGDOM FOR AN OXFORD COMMA. Also, at one juncture, the author mistakenly messes up the name of the book’s porn centerpiece, calling it Babes in Toyland.
All that aside, I must tell you that Heald does have a way with words. When he gives a character (usually Stanley or Johansson) the chance to extrapolate a bit, the outcome is generally compelling. Whenever Stanley explains some element of the law, for instance, I can’t help thinking that Heald’s own lectures must be a great deal of fun. He certainly does know how to speak passionately about things, including psychology and theology. When porn king Don first tells Stanley about his motives for getting into the skin trade, I have to admit that it’s thought-provoking.
“And if anything that brings me closer to God is religious, then anything that moves me further away is sinful. That’s the compelling part about this understanding of religion; it provides a very nice definition for sin. Sinful activity cannot be captured in some sort of laundry list of condemned acts. Rather, every act must be scrutinized in terms of how it affects our relationship with God.”
But such lofty ideals do get bogged down in the muck of outdated, sometimes cliche characterizations. Take, for example, the legitimate police detective assigned to the murder case. When Stuart McCaffrey is introduced, it is on the red carpet of the Toys in Babeland premiere party, where he flicks his cigar butt at a reporter. Really? He couldn’t have just worn a fedora or done a Columbo impression? He goes on to exhibit similarly grouchy behavior throughout, and, until very near the end, serves mostly as someone for Stanley to one-up.
[Editor’s note: spoilers ahead.]
One of the better-drawn characters the book is Janet Stephens, an adult film actress (under the name Layla DiBona) who volunteers to assist Stanley in navigating the troubled waters of her industry in order to exonerate Johansson. In her, Heald creates his most fully-realized character. She is a keen observer with wit and charm, and she’s fully aware of her “shelf-life” in her line of work. Her presence does offer the opportunity for some haphazard sexual hijinks and lots of leering by Stanley, but that’s to be expected when most of the book’s chapter titles are porn puns like “A Day of Probing.” Janet is one of the anachronistic book’s few links to the 21st century (she maintains her own internet empire), and her investigative skills are somewhat better than Stanley’s despite a similar lack of training. She makes a competent foil for Stanley, and her presence even creates a decent red herring along the way.
It is this sub-plot (the possibility that Janet wanted a rival actress dead), however, that brings us to one of the most frustrating moments in the book—one that reeks of 80s mentality and which I found personally upsetting.
When McCaffrey rattles Stanley with the suggestion that Janet might have had both motive and opportunity to frame Johansson for murder, Stanley decides to snoop in her closet and find clothing fibers to compare to some found on the window of Johansson’s office. If he can successfully pull this off, he will either rule Janet out as a suspect or confirm that he has been working alongside the real killer. (This is a great idea, by the way, and the plot of the book was really clicking along by now. Just saying.) But when Stanley is interrupted in his invasion of Janet’s privacy (and sweaters), what is his quick-witted explanation for his actions? Why, that he’s a cross-dresser, of course! (Here I half-expected a sitcom chorus of “Ooooohs” to come up off the page.)
He aimed for apologetic rather than totally ashamed. “I’m so sorry! I should have asked you before looking in here, but I just knew that this was going to be fabulous.” As he spoke, he gestured expansively with both hands, “and I was totally right. This is amazing!”
It’s that staple of 80s action and comedy, folks. When the studly protagonist is in a jam, he turns on the fey voice and the jazz hands. It’s such a weak device to use (and is dropped almost immediately in the story, when Janet learns the truth), that I couldn’t stop myself from writing, in the margin, “Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?” The lazy cliche aside, the real frustration comes on the next page, when our narrator explains:
Stanley had learned long ago in the middle school playground facing bullies, that making himself ridiculous threw people off guard and derailed their anger. Sure, now a beautiful porn star wearing only her panties and a tight sweater thought he was a transvestite, but she had no clue as to the real reason for his intrusion and when she finally had time to think it over, she probably wouldn’t stay all that pissed off at a minor league pervert who merely longed to check out her dress collection.
This was the only time while reading the book that I really wanted it to be 1983. Because, if it was really 1983, I would probably find this situation funny. I wouldn’t know, for instance, that calling a transvestite “ridiculous” was wrong. I wouldn’t understand that it is offensive to call someone with such inclinations a “pervert.” Of course, this is because in 1983 I would also be eight years old.
Moments like the one described above make me wonder if the audience for this novel isn’t necessarily the mainstream lit thriller crowd. And of course I say that knowing that there are about 47 subgenres of mystery, including murder investigations that take place almost exclusively in tea shops or with the detective’s cat assisting on the case. Is it possible that this was written primarily for those folks who might share the narrow, seemingly conservative view of the Hopkinses? There is a sliver of conservative “morality” running right alongside the descriptions of blowjobs and cum shots, which allows the author to be as saucy as he pleases with the details of his sinful setting while making it clear that decent, “normal” folks find naked pictures to be degrading and that married people who have babies are ultimately rewarded.
I include in this “moral montage” the rather hilarious fact that Angela (the feminist wife) flies back to Illinois in a huff and almost immediately finds herself propositioned for a threesome. She is so sickened by this that she suddenly understands the enormous pressure Stanley has been under. (No pun intended.) Later, she flies back to LA to follow and spy on Stanley…y’know, for the good of the marriage. What she sees when she peeps through a window at Stanley and Janet would be the ultimate spoiler, so I’ll keep mum, but I really and truly in my heart of hearts hope that Heald intended for this particular tableau (as well as the book’s ending) to be a statement on the ridiculous narratives of adult films and not serious plot points.
I can imagine various scenarios in which Stanley Hopkins might return. Perhaps he will have a campus-related mystery to solve. Or maybe some other “celebrity” will seek him out because they “recognize him from TV.” It’s hard to say. There are some pretty enthusiastic responses to the book on Amazon, so who knows?
I can say, having appreciated Heald’s ability to talk about the law—and because the book really started to cook around page 200—that I would probably give Hopkins (and Heald) another try. I mean, anyone who knows their 80s TV (I’m sticking with this concept, kids; it’s in my soul) knows that the pilot episode is always a little clunky as it strives to introduce the characters. You don’t see what the detective can really do until the obligatory Christmas episode or May Sweeps.
Plus, as a lover of mysteries (and the 80s), I know that less plausible things have certainly happened….