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The Death of the Detective is a quest novel in the tradition of Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Dead Souls. During his frenetic and blood-soaked odyssey, Mark Smith's detective moves through the city on highways, boulevards, side streets, and alleys. He tracks "the death-maker" from a mansion in Lake Forest to the underbelly of the South Side, from a glass high-rise on the Gold Coast to a run-down tavern in the northwestern suburbs, and everywhere in between. In this New York Times best seller and finalist for the 1974 National Book Award, Smith takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go until the last page of his relentless journey into the dark recesses of the American soul.
He has come to Chicago. He has come on foot, in the company of night. He has walked not down roads and sidewalks but first along the railroad tracks, then through back yards and prairies, finally down alleys. When he is hungry he sneaks into a small short-order restaurant run by Greeks, eats a meal of roast lamb and mashed potatoes, with his face in his plate, and steals the steak knife when he leaves. Outside he hangs his head against a wall, and, with the look of a man accustomed to doing things in secret with his hands while his back is turned, inserts the knife like a hatpin through the crown of his hat. He turns north, knows his enemy lives in the north. Emboldened now, he walks upon the streets.
How strange the city seems to him! The beacon on the skyscraper that revolves like clockwork is from a watchtower inside a prison, while the searchlights that promote the openings of shopping centers in the suburbs crisscross on the horizon in search of planes. The red lights of an airliner that go on and off against the sky are the flashing of a secret code. The neon lights from the nightclubs above the rooftops to the east, the aura of a widespread fire. He can sense the fear and danger in the air. A Gothic city with barbarians outside the walls. Or a modern megalopolis so terrified of an air raid that its citizens can hear the drone of engines in the skies and see the silhouettes of bombers flying through the beams.
Later he rests on a park bench inside a city square. Washington Square, the street guides call it. But anyone along the streets would tell him it is Bughouse Square.
Strange weather tonight in Bughouse Square. Both wind and smog, and a man is wind-blown in one spot and smogbound only feet away. A night for ghosts. The ghosts of old inequities, old violence. Socialists, anarchists, immigrants, hobos, madmen, eccentrics-they are everywhere. They haunt the high windows of the library across the street, looking down upon the haunted square. They grumble in the dust and smoke and shreds of newspapers that blow beneath the street lights. They crowd the park benches until they overlap their arms and legs. They lie upon the grass like corpses worked up from the graves. They become a mob that sweeps along the pavement, splintering their clubs upon the wind, breaking bricks against the smog. "Remember the Pullman Strike," they mean to shout but only whisper. "Remember Haymarket Square. Remember-" a good many things.
The man with the knife in his hat keeps a wary eye on the crowd of people gathering in the street outside the square. A small man in an army overcoat from World War Two stands before it on an orange crate, a newspaper tucked under his arm. His hair is curly, dirty, unruly, his glasses taped with soiled adhesive. The coat hangs to the tongues of his laceless shoes. He looks like a prisoner of war, a fifty-year-old private captured while cleaning latrines, about to be hanged. He holds up the newspaper and begins to speak.
"Shut your mouth, queer!"
"Get off that stand, you commy shithead!"
"Hey, loony, go back to Dunning!"
The shouts of bony teen-age boys who wear their hair in crew cuts and ducktails, or pompadours, and are dressed in silver or powder blue jackets that have luminous stripes running down the sleeves.
On the outskirts of the crowd, men tattooed with snakes and daggers and the starch-colored women they have their arms around laugh at the heckling as they might at cripples further distorted by funhouse mirrors; are joined by older men who have that fiery satisfaction in their heavy jowls that better suits them on the barstools of their neighborhood taverns or in their back yards when they watch the burning of a pile of leaves. In the face of this the small man on the orange crate seems neither contemptuous nor afraid, and not even patient or resigned so much as disengaged.
A bald-headed man at the foot of the crate is quick to face the crowd, lifting his muscular arms for silence. He wears a clean but faded polo shirt, loose slacks tied with a string, sandals without socks. Already tan, he looks like an impoverished wrestler who has wintered in Miami Beach. He addresses the crowd in an accent that is Italian, possibly Greek. "Gentlemen, I am Mr. George, the moderator of tonight's meeting. I am not ashamed to tell you that I am a dishwasher, that I have washed dishes in all the great cities of America. What I was before I was a dishwasher, I will let you guess." (His arms akimbo, biceps flexed in the pretense of pulling up his pants.) "This is how I choose to live my life, gentlemen. I go from city to city, I wash dishes and go to these meetings in the cities. I have been doing this for over thirty years-long before some of you were even born. On the platform is our old friend, Mr. Evelyn. It is my duty to see that Mr. Evelyn speaks to us tonight. So, gentlemen, you will quiet down and listen, please. If you do not agree with Mr. Evelyn, I promise you, you will be the next to speak. But anybody who will argue with Mr. Evelyn while it is his turn to speak must argue first with me." Legs apart, he grapples like a wrestler searching for a head. His voice, however, has been conciliatory, almost apologetic, and his face is not entirely free of fear. The boys in the crowd grow silent, intimidated not so much by what the man has said as by his size and physique and his audacity to challenge and embarrass them. The dishwasher folds his arms so that his biceps enlarge, and with feigned contempt turns his back upon the crowd.
"I have in my hand a copy of today's Chicago Tribune," says Mr. Evelyn in a voice that in no way contradicts his size and appearance. "I call your attention to what it says not in the headlines but in the small, italicized print below the masthead. It says-" and he traces the print with his finger and suddenly gives out with what he must feel is a ringing and inflammatory shout- "My country right or wrong!" He pauses for a response; there isn't any. The boys talk among themselves or confront him blankly, waiting for him to say more. The dishwasher nods his head in agreement, or at least in acknowledgment that this statement deserves every man's consideration, and peers uneasily over his shoulder at the crowd.
Mr. Evelyn continues: "We overlook those small words below the masthead. We take them for granted. We see them so often we never see them. We want only today's sensational news, the lurid, brutal, flashy, spoon-fed headlines. But there it is, my friends, that most permanent of headlines: 'My country right or wrong!' In the First World War-my country right or wrong! In the Second World War-my country right or wrong! And yes, my friends, in the Korean War-my country right or wrong!"
At the mention of the Korean War, the climax of the oratory, the audience hoots and boos. A man with a union card pinned to his hat shoulders his way through the crowd, shaking his fist at the speaker. "Get off that stand!" he shouts. "Who the hell gives you the right, you red, to talk about America? Get off of there before I break your neck." He hurls his still burning cigar butt at the orange crate.
"Go back to Russia, you four-eyed queer!"
"I'll pay your way to Russia!"
Quickly Mr. George replaces Mr. Evelyn upon the crate. "Perhaps it is our fault you men don't want to hear us talk," he shouts. "We have been content to listen to ourselves make the same old speeches year after year. We want to hear new arguments, new ideas, different news. One of you must have something he can tell us that is important to him, something he wants the rest of us to know, something we cannot know unless he tells us. Come up here -anyone-don't be shy."
The crowd grows silent, restless, pretends to have interests elsewhere, each man afraid he will be isolated from the safety of his fellows.
"You, there-you, sir!" says the dishwasher with the power of a judge having made his choice. He points not at the embarrassed boy in the high-school jacket, as it first appeared, but at the man behind him in the shadows, the man with the knife in his hat who, lurking on the fringes of the crowd, has been busy talking to himself.
"Yes, you!" the dishwasher shouts, waving him up. "Come up here, you! We want to hear what you have been saying. Don't keep it to yourself."
Knife-in-the-hat grins, the way a dog grins, curling up his upper lip to bare his teeth.
He is cheered on by the crowd, is even shoved forward from behind. In response, he shoves back, cuffs someone on the head and, with his cheeks puffed up with rage, fights his way into the clear.
Alone, inside the darkened square, he paces back and forth, muttering. "I'll open up their throats," he says. "I'll hang them by their necks. I'll put my fists through their bodies. I'll open their skulls like eggshells. I'll collapse their lungs like accordions."
Not far from him, the silhouettes of old men on a bench, coaxing the small crowd around them in accents that sound German, Italian, Greek. "Look, we'll sing whatever you young people want to sing."
"Don't be afraid, you kids, go on and sing."
"Maybe they know 'Home on the Range'?"
"Sure they know 'Home on the Range.' Everybody knows 'Home on the Range."'
"One of you youngsters start up your song. We old duffers will follow."
The palaver of youthful voices that culminates in the languid self-conscious voices of several boys and girls singing "This land is your land, this land is my land." Voices that trail off into hums and coughs as some old men applaud while others complain that they themselves are unfamiliar with the song. Finally one of the old men becomes too lyrical to restrain himself, and his bass voice breaks into song:
O gif me a home Where de buffalo rrroam And de deerrr and de antelope play-
His voice fades; no one has joined him. His companions on the bench are still coaxing the young people to sing.
Farther along the bushes a stubby middle-aged woman dances in the street, an oversized flashlight in her hand. Her hair beneath her red beret hangs in a Dutch cut of dirty straw that swings before her painted face. In a loud contralto she celebrates her search for Jesus along with her discovery of the one and only light. Her dance, a hodgepodge of minuet, cakewalk, jig; her song, of church hymns, Tin Pan Alley, jazz. Boys pursue her down the street, cut her off, form a ring around her. Suddenly she grabs a boy, shines the flashlight in his face, and tries to make him dance, revolving with him arm in arm. In response he belly dances, does the dirty boogie, bumps and grinds, only to escape into the crowd. Alone, she lunges for another boy. But the boys retreat, clapping and laughing, combing their hair. She shines the flashlight on and off their faces. She holds up the hem of her red, pleated cheerleader skirt and does her dance, showing brown nylon stockings rolled up to her knees.
"Jesus is waiting in the bushes, Mary!"
"He'll hop you like a German shepherd, Mary!"
"He'll shine that flashlight up your pussy, Mary!"
"Hallelujah," Mary cries. "Praise the Lord!"
The man with the knife in his hat has been listening to noises coming from the bushes he has been pacing up and down beside. Someone in there all right, someone trying to burn him with his eyes, trying to catch a look at him. He gets down on all fours and creeps between the branches. Listen! The intense, erratic beat of someone's breathing. Moves ahead. The acidic urinary smell of cheap wine, the silage smell of cheap Bourbon. Touches a bottle that rolls beneath his hand, touches the sleeping man before he sees him, curled up between the roots of the tree just beyond the bushes.
"Every man," says the voice beneath him, "entitled to his own opinion." The voice of a drunk. Of the drunken pacifier of a drunken brawl saying what he says drunk, what he has said a hundred times earlier tonight, with his head buried in his arms folded on the bar.
"Shut up," says knife-in-the-hat. "You don't know me. Your kind doesn't know a man like me."
The drunken man grunts, struggles to sit up. In the passing headlights of a car the fat, pockmarked, almost Oriental, almost hairless face, the stye in the eye, the filthy clothes, the unbuttoned pants, the bare pot belly. Then darkness. Then that voice again.
"Every man-his own opinion ..." Curling up, he begins to snore, only to stir when the strange hands reach inside his pockets, saying, "Broke ... not a dime ... in the same boat, me and you, Gunner ..."
"I'm not Gunner."
"... I'm no hero, Gunner, no big time, no big deal ... I give my medal away ... give it away for a beer ... G.I.'s, Gunner, me and you-the best people in the world ..."
Knife-in-the-hat lays his hand upon his chest and shoves him down. "Don't call me Gunner," he warns. "You don't know who I am."
"Every man ... entitled to his own opinion ..." says the drunk, staying down, snoring.
To knife-in-the-hat how helpless the sleeping drunken fellow seems! And how soft, as though he is all underbelly, no bone. You wouldn't have to worry about a man as vulnerable as this. Such a man he can do with as he likes. It has been a long time coming, too, this freedom to do as he likes. He has not understood its power until this moment. Why, he can do anything, can do anything at all! He puts his hands lightly around the drunk man's throat. To test his power, he tells himself.
Just beyond the tree and bushes the heavy, stop-and-go traffic of Clark Street, the whirr of stopping buses, the compressed air sound of bus doors opening, footsteps on the sidewalk, surprisingly coherent bursts of passing conversations. Then from several blocks away the sudden brassy outburst of a large Salvation Army band that comes marching down the street, drawing down upon the square. Drums and brass, and a march that makes the sentiments of army, church, and tavern seem all as one.
Knife-in-the-hat has yet to hear it though. He is too busy kneeling on the drunken sleeping man as though upon a life-size dummy whose stuffed head he pounds against the roots, its limp, jointless arms and legs flailing out to either side. He shakes the man-throttles -strangles him.
Only when the man is dead does he remember the knife he carries in his hat. He removes it and sticks the dead man several times in the thighs and calves, testing the resistance of the flesh. Once he goes as deep as bone. Then he goes through the dead man's front pockets, rolls him over, and goes through the back.
Mr. George still offers the empty orange crate to someone-anyone-in the dwindling crowd along the street.
The old men on the bench have given up persuading their young friends to join them in a song and are singing "Home on the Range" by themselves in the tremulous bassos and heavy accents of their ancient voices. Since it is one of those songs where the chorus is reminiscent of the verses, and the verses of the chorus, its singers sing on and on, switching back and forth from verse to chorus, ignorant as to where the song should end.
Crazy Mary still dances, still sings of Jesus and the light. The boys still pursue her along the bushes, seeing in her madness a license for that outrage they equate with sex.
Then a high note of Mary's hymn slides up an octave, and after threatening at that pitch to become a croak becomes instead a scream. The flashlight focuses on the gaping, bloodless face of the dead man beneath the tree beside the bushes. Boys jump up and down to peer above the heads in front. What an awesome privilege for some, looking upon a human body that houses the forbidden mystery of death. Others are unnerved, challenged, compelled to grin.
"Maybe Mary screwed him to death."
"Look out, Ralph, he's going to get up and get you."
"Go on, Jimmy, touch him."
"Hey, he looks like an Indian."
"Like a Spic."
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF THE DETECTIVE by MARK SMITH
Copyright © 1974 by Mark Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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