“There’s no reason to spend more than thirty bucks a night for a mattress, a toilet, and a sink, especially for a hardened, professional private eye on assignment.”
I needed to read something distracting–something light, something funny, and so I picked by Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg. Yes, I know the title doesn’t seem to imply the qualities I sought, but this very entertaining crime book made me laugh out loud upon occasion, and it proved to be a great distraction from the darker side of life. Most of the novel’s strength can be found in its protagonist, 29-year-old Harvey Mapes–an underemployed security guard who’s addicted to crime novels:
I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds,” are always very grateful that he does this for them.
To me that’s a perfect world.
I wanted his life.
This is the story of what I did to get it.
If that quote appeals to you, then you’re going to enjoy the book.
Harvey’s job is boring, so it’s really no surprise that he ends up trying to live the fantasy life of his crime heroes:
My job is to sit in a little, Mediterrean-style stucco shack from midnight until eight A.M. six days a week, outside the fountains and gates of Bel Vista Estates, a private community of million dollar plus homes in the Spanish Hills of Camarillo, California.
Harvey’s job is to sit there, monitor the security cameras, and wave residents through. Once in a while, he writes what is called a ”courtesy ticket” to residents who ignore the stop sign. He doesn’t “have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.” Of course, at best he’s ignored and at worst, he’s treated rather badly, and since he sits there all night long alone, it’s no wonder that he reads crime novels and begins fantasizing about a different sort of life. Then one night a resident, Jag driving (“the one with a forest of wood and a herd’s worth of leather,”) Cyril Parkus makes him an offer. Here’s Harvey’s take on Parkus:
Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look at 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.
Harvey agrees to meet Parkus at Denny’s the next morning. Parkus thinks his wife, Lauren, is up to something, and it’s Harvey’s job to follow her and find out what that ‘something’ is.
“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”
I knew he’d say that.
I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.
I was now that guy.
So Harvey’s dream comes true–he’s a daylighting PI working on $150 a day plus those ever-important expenses.
As the novel continues, pepto-bismal popping Harvey bluffs his low-rent way through various dangerous scenarios relying largely on the scenes he’s read in his favourite detective novels. Things turn deadly, however, as the case intensifies and the body count rises. Laid-back Harvey makes a wonderful narrator as he makes his way through the 2-star motels, the cheap diners, and the tacky trailer parks that are part of his investigation. Every page is full of his low-key humour which is accompanied by wry observations, and he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself:
I had no self-defense skills at all, unless you include running and hiding.
Author Lee Goldberg is also a screenwriter and producer. He’s written the Monk series, the Dead Man series, and a couple of Charlie Willis books. Watch Me Die was originally called The Man with the Iron-On Badge, and I prefer that title as it matches the novel’s tone and low-rent feel. And I prefer the original cover too.