The Trojan Hearse
NEL, London, 1967
For Tina, who is not a duerf
dedication: For Tina, who is not a duerf
The blurb on the back:
Johnny Troy - America's top pop singer - was dead. Resting peacefully six foot under.
I’m not much of a one for detective fiction, so I might as well admit upfront that – despite the cover claim that over 40 million Shell Scott books have been sold (up to 1964) – this is the first and only one I’ve ever read. And I did so simply on the promise that it was about a pop singer. Which is the kind of thing I like.
Forgive me therefore if I’m telling you things that you – and everyone else – already know: it’s new to me. So, Shell Scott is a hard-boiled LA private dick whose main characteristic, apart from shooting at anyone who pisses him off and eying up dames, seems to be ruing the decline and fall of western civilization. This is set in the near-future, in the immediate lead-up to the Presidential elections of 1968, which are being contested by Horatio M Humble, ‘the glib, handsome, sincere advocate of federal solutions to virtually all problems’ (p.13) and his opponent, David Emerson. You’ll guess from the names alone which side of the fence our narrator is on: this is not to be seen as a battle between the liberal and the reactionary, but as one between the commie and the American. There is in fact a surprising amount of political comment going on here: Humble argues ‘for unilateral disarmament, and for trusting the Soviet Union,’ leading Scott to comment: ‘I figured he didn’t advocate suicide or surrender except every time he opened his mouth.’ And on taxation we discover that ‘the steeply progressive income tax was straight out of the Communist Manifesto.’ (p.27) Inevitably the media are totally on Humble’s side in this election, as is the criminal underworld: hell, it’s a commie conspiracy to destroy America.
And outside politics, things aren’t going much better. Newscasters are smarmy, soulless propagandists, acclaimed novelists are decadent, unreadable poseurs, and the visual arts are dominated by the likes of ‘one artist currently much in the news and lauded by top critics whose “thrilling…witty…transcendental” technique was to swallow the paint and then throw up on the canvas.’ (p.20) At least the cult of Freudianism - whose ‘baseless ugliness was embraced by tens of thousands of otherwise rational individuals’ (p.31) – has by now been debunked, but unfortunately it’s been supplanted only by an even more absurd inverted caricature, called Duerfism (it’s Freud backwards, see) which sees the human mind as being divided into the di, the oge and the ogerepus, while individuals find themselves suffering from a Supideo Complex. Okay, so it’s all a pretty heavy-handed satire, but quite fun in its own way, surely?
Shell Scott (artist's impression)
And indeed, yes, it is. It’s great fun. More than that though, as a tirade against the new orthodoxies of the 1960s, it’s really quite instructive: the modern consensus would have you believe that experimental, liberal, progressive ideologies swept all before them in the Sixties, but when you look at the stuff that people actually read at the time – and this must have outsold the likes of, say, William Burroughs by a huge, huge margin – you realize just how shallow was the penetration of fashionable thought into the heartlands of America. (Or Britain, come to that.) It’s worth remembering that the real Presidential election of 1968 saw victory for the arch-conservative Richard M Nixon. As the book moves along, the commentary on the betrayal of the nation fades away a little, so we can get on with the story, but it’s always there, providing a context for the tale of skulduggery in the world of popular music.
Ah yes, pop music. I knew there was a reason why we were here. Johnny Troy is the biggest star of them all, and this time even the curmudgeonly Shell Scott can approve: ‘I could listen for hours to the golden notes, the sweet sad sound, the richly magnificent tone and phrasing of the voice of Johnny Troy.’ (p.6) Such enthusiasm is rare in the modern world, and particularly coming from such an old cynic. Which means it can only end in tears. To be honest, there’s not a great deal about the industry of human happiness here, but what there is works well enough. This is, after all, Los Angeles, where manufactured pop always was the order of the day. You won’t be surprised to find that it’s all part of the corrupt con trick being perpetrated on a naïve and decent population.
Just so you don’t misunderstand: I enjoyed this greatly. I think its politics are well screwed-up, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a good ‘un.
original US edition
(courtesy Richard S Prather website)
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5
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