Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Books: The Jack LeVine Trilogy

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.

Before going Hollywood, Bergman – a fellow proud son of Queens – studied Hollywood, penning a study of Depression era films. He also wrote a series of period detective novels that Mysterious Press has reissued as ebooks. I’d heard about them. I had no idea I was missing them.

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.

LeVine rubs shoulders and butts heads with real-world figures throughout the series, Bergman deploying these personages in unexpected ways. In LeVine’s debut, The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (1974), he’s hired by a Broadway actress to deal with a blackmailer who possesses her early stag films. Soon the shamus is caught up in the Presidential election, the pragmatically apolitical LeVine aiding challenger Thomas Dewey with FDR or at least his operatives shown in an unflattering light. 1975’s Hollywood and LeVine opens with a strong chapter in which LeVine has an awkward lunch with Walter Adrian, a former City College classmate turned successful screenwriter. “There was no rift, nothing that dramatic, just the inevitable drifting apart of friends living completely different kinds of lives.” Walter’s career is in jeopardy thanks to the coming Red Scare. Before his old school chum can clear his not-yet-smeared name, Walter dies in a highly suspect suicide. LeVine’s investigation leads to a Richard Nixon almost preternaturally inept when it comes to social cues, but the show business Communists come in for almost as much scorn. Humphrey Bogart doesn’t have a cameo so much as a featured role.

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.