By Jim Feast
Bernard Meisler’s new detective novel, There’s Never Been a Better Time to Buy Die, centers on a flawed character who acts as a sleuth. If we look over some of the classical gumshoes, from Phillip Marlowe to Travis McGee, going back to Sherlock or, for that matter, Hercule Poirot, all of them, while differing in lifestyle, methods of investigation and personal involvement in the cases, are basically decent human beings. In radical contrast, in Meisler’s novel the sleuth, real estate salesman Rick Davies, is a petty chiseler, failed business investor, over drinker, and all-around skunk, who sets out to investigate some crimes in Mill Valley, a tony community north of San Francisco,
And it’s this a-bit-unsavory narrator who gives the book its irrepressible zing. For one, while our larger-than-life protagonist, always on the lookout for the main chance, spends his time trying to find the truth behind a murder linked to some illegal drugs he found in an old house he was prepping for sale, he accompanies this with a running, scathing commentary on his fellow, equally flawed but generally much richer, neighbors and suspects. For instance, in labeling the different suburban lifestyles, he mentions: “Let’s not forget the trustafarians. Their grandfather invented Velcro or Sterno or whatever. They dress like bums, torn t-shirts and ripped jeans or else eccentrically, sporting Victorian gear and top hats, killing time, waiting till the sun goes down so they can get loaded again.” In another classical skewering, he watches a rich yuppie getting out of her car with her kids. “Her kids popped out of the SUV like maggots out of a dead rat’s eyes, the girl in a ballerina outfit, the boy in a baseball uniform, still carrying his little bat. It could have been the cover of White Privilege magazine. ‘Zooey! Hunter! Let’s go.’”
Indeed, while detecting these motes in other’s eyes, he is also amusingly aware of the beam in his own. He characterizes himself, “People [in the area] like to hike and commune with nature but me, I’m a dedicated indoorsman.” And, to go back to the earlier comment on trustafarians, he ends his diatribe with this, “Believe you me, it might sound like I resent them but I don’t. I want me some of that fuck-you money too so I could smoke weed all day, drink all night and sleep till noon.”
But let’s be clear – and this is one of the gutsy moves of the book – the funny patter doesn’t make our protagonist a loveable bad boy, he can be a real shit.
The second strength of the book is that while trying to solve the crime, Davies must also keep trying to earn a living as a real estate broker, and in doing so he lays bare the scamming and over-hyping that are standard practice in a field, which, like a con game, depends on the cupidity and vanity of the clients to keep the money rolling.
He explains, for instance, that what the realtor wants is a quick sale, not the highest price. He says, rhetorically, “Do you think I’d rather sell your house in the first week for $900,000, or take 3 months of work to sell it for $1,000,000? That a $100k difference for you but not for me. See, I can make $13,500 in a week or $15,000 in 3 months. Which do you think I prefer?” Not that he lets the seller find that out. He goes on, “Meanwhile the suckers – I mean my cherished clients – think I’m out to get them top dollar. They think I’m their friend. Who am I to disillusion them?’
I appreciate learning the (often nefarious) workings of this business as well as the way Meisler keeps the pot boiling, that is, keeps the clues popping up and the mystery unfolding. But most of all how he puts center-stage a narrator with two major “character defects,” using my special meaning of the term. I am taking it to mean not the personality-based shortcoming of the character in a story; but to defects which hit at the character’s functional role in the narrative.
Perhaps from what I’ve said already you can see what I’m getting at. A basic innovation in Meisler’s approach is in giving the story over to a lead character who violates two conventions. Davies is a detective who lacks the traditional good sportsmanship and decency of the Chandler type P.I. And, along this same line, he does not even have the charm and saving grace of the bad boy scamp, such as Hammer (as played in Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, for instance), who may have gotten drunk too often or let his partner get killed. No, Davies is not so lovable. For god’s sakes, when he sees he can get away with it, he even steals money from an old lady.
Add to that a second violation. He breaks with one regularly honored convention of satire. Like Juvenal, he “lashes the rogues,” treating those who deserve contempt with contempt, but he refuses to make this judgment from a lofty place, looking down at the lowlifes. Davies admits to sharing similar vanities and cupidity with those he condemns, shares them without having the strength to grow out of them
So if you want a book that, in the process of delivering a good mystery, on multiple fronts challenges the accepted way of doing things, in that case, while there may be a better time to buy, they’ll never be a better time to read this book.
You can find the book here: https://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/books/theres-never-been-a-better-time-to-die-bernard-meisler/
Jim Feast is the author of the poetry book Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive, Fly by Night Press, and the novel Long Day Counting Tomorrow, from Autonomedia.)