Watch Me Die, by Lee Goldberg
Sometimes you just plain need something fun to read. When I want a break from more serious reading, I turn to crime. Crime fiction that is. I might also turn to actual crime, but if I do I’m not admitting it on a publicly posted blog.
I heard about Lee Goldberg’s Watch Me Die from reading Guy Savage’s review, here. Guy reveals that the novel’s original title was The Man with the Iron-On Badge, which is a much better title than Watch Me Die and a vastly better fit to the tone of the book.
Harvey Mapes is a 29 year old security guard who sits nights in a little booth at the entrance to a gated community. I’d call him underachieving, but that would imply he’d achieved something sometime. As it is Harvey spends his time reading and watching private detective stories and fantasising about being the hero of one. His sex life consists of occasional encounters with one of his neighbours, when she’s feeling particularly desperate. His social life is drinking on the sofa with the same woman and sitting alone watching TV.
Then, one night, one of the residents drives up to the booth and stops.
Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.
Parkus wants his wife followed, and he wants Harvey to do the following. Out of nowhere Harvey’s getting to be exactly what he always wanted to be, and if it comes with some ugly deaths, brutal beatings, and secrets that would have been much better left buried then that’s all to be expected.
Someone finally needs Harvey, and as he reflects:
It’s nice to be needed, especially at one hundred fifty dollars a day plus expenses.
I loved this. The plot is absolutely standard detective novel stuff. It has to be, because that’s Harvey’s dream. What makes it work then isn’t what happens, it’s about seeing Harvey finally get his chance. As a general rule I couldn’t care less whether the characters in a novel are sympathetic or not. What makes this book work though is that as it went on I really did start wanting things to turn out ok for Harvey.
A huge part of why Harvey makes for a good character is that while he may not have done anything with his life, he’s not an idiot. The book is full of his dryly astute observations on his dingy world of cheap diners and lousy motels, and the mismatch between these and the glamorous lives of the detectives who inspire him. Here’s a couple of examples:
I live in the Caribbean. I love saying that, and I knew that I would, which is the only reason why I chose to live in that stucco box instead of the Manor, the Palms, or the Meadows. All the buildings in that area charged the same rent for a one-bedroom with a “kitchenette,” which is French for a crappy Formica counter and a strip of linoleum on the floor.
There were also plug-in air fresheners in every electrical outlet, which made the whole apartment smell so strongly of pine sap, I felt like I was visiting an upscale tree house.
I could open near any page at random though, and find a usable quote for this review.
Goldberg apparently wrote the Monk series, which I’ve not seen but on the strength of this might start watching. He knows his genre, he knows how silly it can be and he’s fine with that. This is satire, but deeply affectionate satire born out of love, not disdain. It reminded me a bit of Donald Westlake’s wonderful Somebody Owes Me Money, and as I think Goldberg would know being compared to Westlake is high praise. As Westlake’s protagonist says “… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.” This is Harvey’s chance to be Robert Mitchum.
I’ll end on one final quote, from this hugely quotable book. Here Harvey finds the trail has led him to Seattle:
I discovered I could tell the tourists from the locals pretty easily. The tourists were the ones hiding from the drizzle under umbrellas. The locals were the ones who only needed a lid for their espressos. Just about everybody, except the obvious tourists, seemed to have a cup of coffee in one hand and a novel in the other. Apparently, there was a city ordinance that required everybody to join Oprah’s book club and declare a favorite coffee blend. Even the bums were sipping Starbucks and reading Barbara Kingsolver.