If Andrew Bergman had only written The In-Laws, one of the funniest movies ever made (“Serpentine!”), he’d be enshrined in my personal pantheon. His original screenplay Tex X spawned Blazing Saddles, he adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch, and as writer/director he’s responsible for the crackpot genius that is The Freshman.
The Jack LeVine books quickly shed the label of Raymond Chandler pastiche because the protagonist takes on a quirky life of his own. Note that capital V, for starters. No tarnished knight is our LeVine. He doesn’t have the time for such airs. LeVine is a big, bald Jew living in Sunnyside (Queens again!) whose idea of a good time is a can of Blatz and a ball game on the radio while he soaks in the tub. He regularly lapses into the third person to mock his latest failing, his lowly status or his love of simple pleasures.
The books are funny but not comic; Bergman has too much respect for the detective novel to lampoon the form. LeVine falls for a woman in each, but he has uncommonly good taste to match Bergman’s flair for creating smart, believable female foils. The budding romance and the frequently earthy sex scenes are among the highlights in each outing, to the extent that I wish Bergman had tried sustaining a relationship past a single entry.
Bergman took leave to become a Hollywood A-lister himself, then returned to the character some 25 years later. Tender is LeVine (2001) is both the strongest and weakest link in the trilogy, beautifully recreating a time when orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini could be one of the most famous men in America but spinning around the Maestro a convoluted plot involving Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
The books are available individually or in an omnibus edition that I picked up for a song on Black Monday. I devoured all three titles in succession, and now can’t help wishing LeVine would take another case.