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Premier crime fiction writer Joseph Wambaugh has written one of his most tension-filled stories yet. In a rollercoaster ride of doublecrosses and murder amidst the drug dealers, sleazemongers and black marketeers of Southern California and Tijuana, a San Diego police detective searches for a deadly killer: a 55-gallon drum of the toxic chemical Guthion.
It was the face of a sociopathic killer. Granite eyes: gray, opaque, remorseless. The killer eyes narrowed, the jaw muscles bunched, the clenched lips whitened.
Fascinated, he watched as the killer began to belt out the sociopath's theme song: "Reee-grets ... I've had a few ... but then again ... too few to mention."
An astonishing performance! Jack Nicholson doing Sinatra. No conscience, no regrets, Cobra Man. Or at least too few to mention.
Then he lifted a throw-away razor, five shaves past throwing, and shaved the killer face, nicking his chin dimple. He flicked the razor into the bathtub where it landed on the crumpled sports page, and he plastered toilet paper on the bloody cleft. He used to do a pretty fair Kirk Douglas impression, using the chin dimple to maximum advantage.
All this because Harbor Nights—a new late-night network melodrama—was shooting in San Diego, and they were casting for a contract-killer role. Daily Variety said that the killer might appear to get killed off in the first episode, but that he'd keep coming back at you, like Henry Kissinger or Elton John. So the job might be good for several episodes if Harbor Nights got a seven-show pickup.
After the shave he tried to summon forth the killer again, determined to at least read for the part. His worthless swine of an agent hadn't even called him about the role and yet there it was in yesterday's trades. That's what happens, he thought, when you have an out-of-town agent who couldn't make it in L.A., when you're an out-of-town actor who'd never even tried it in L.A. And once again he wondered if it could've all been different had he lived in L.A. instead of in this town.
Never believing stories about people being discovered, he believed that people discovered it: the opportunity to get out of your own miserable hateful body and be someone else for a while, without resorting to mind-altering, liver-killing drugs to accomplish the transformation.
For a moment he thought he'd found his man again while pulling on his socks, but when he ran to the mirror it told him he was wrong. Morning eye pouches caused momentary despair so he pressed a hot washcloth to the sockets, stimulating circulation. The contract killer was supposed to be in his thirties, and he'd just turned forty-five years old. Forty-five!
A wry thought: Maybe they could use a middle-aged sociopath. Gazing into the mirror he used an actor's trick and conjured images of middle-aged sociopaths: Fat Tony Salerno, Saddam Hussein, Ted Kennedy. Nothing worked, the killer had boogied.
The only way to catch his worthless swine of an agent was to get him when he came to the office at ten o'clock. That's what he planned to do, and he'd covered himself at his job by claiming he had a morning dental appointment.
The job. Maybe the face in the mirror could tell him the truth about his job, a job he'd wasted himself on for twenty-three years when he should have been acting. Truth? Looking squarely in the mirror at the forty-five-year-old face, he decided there was not a single truth about which he was certain, so maybe he should run for office.
He spoke aloud to the mirror in a theatrical baritone: "Today, a typical day in Southern California, two thousand, three hundred and seventy-five unemployed actors will phone their agents. Three of them will receive callbacks, and I, I shall not be one of them." Then he added, "But maybe I'll catch him and tear the Velcro grin right off that smirky moosh!"
Then after jacking up his agent, he'd have to rush to work and begin the daily brain-slaughtering paper-shuffle that was his life. With a sigh that could blow out a bonfire, he adjusted his tie, brushed off his green-checked sport coat, collected his gun, badge, and handcuffs, and headed for the door. He hoped some junkie would burglarize his goddamn rathole of an apartment so he could make an inflated insurance claim.
It was 10:05 A.M. when he parked his Corvette on the street in North Park at the office of Orson Ellis Talent Unlimited. Orson was a failed talent agent, formerly of Hollywood, U.S.A., now living in San Diego, California, who'd made a "scientific" study of his failure as a Hollywood agent, scientifically concluding that it was the result of his mother not dubbing him Marty, Michael, Mort, or some other name beginning in M.
After locking his Vette, he noticed a passing coach full of elderly tourists, probably going somewhere like La Jolla, where they'd discover that they could spend two months at a time-share at the Lawrence Welk Resort with unlimited golfing for what a simple "frock" would cost in a pricey La Jolla boutique. He knew that most of the seniors would be wearing walking shorts, and would have varicose veins like leeches clinging to their poor old legs. He also realized that the seniors were not that much older than himself. It made him think of polyps. Before entering Orson Ellis Talent Unlimited, he decided that Mother Nature is a pitiless cunt.
The agency was not impressive, but Thirtieth Street and University Avenue was not a trendy address. Orson had decorated the place to make you think you could actually get a job there, until you realized that all the inscribed photos of famous movie stars lining the walls weren't Orson's clients, only people to whom he'd sucked up during his twenty years of failure in Hollywood.
The new secretary was a lip curler, even more hostile than the last one. She wore her blond hair in a retro 1960's Afro, bigger than Danny DeVito. When she reached for the phone he noticed a clump of hair (brown) under her arms, and her toothy grin accentuated by cinnamon-brown lipstick could only be described as iguanalike, but not as warm. There was an X cap on her desk as well as a framed photo of movie director Spike Lee. He'd always had to spar with Orson's guard-dog secretaries, but this one looked like a fight to the death.
"I wanna see Orson," he said. "I don't have an appointment but I'll wait till he's out of his meeting. Or until he comes in through that front door, whichever happens first."
She shot him a look that could've reversed global warming, and said, "Mister Ellis is not in a meeting."
"Really? This must be my lucky day. I'd check my lottery tickets but I already did that three times."
"I'm the Finnegan that calls here twice a week hoping to at least hear Orson say there's no work, except that you shine me every time, and I never hear him say anything at all."
"Finbar. Fin for short. Middle name, Brendan."
"It doesn't fit."
"Neither did General Schwarzkopf's little hat, but he kept that tiny thing perched on his bean anyway. I'd tell my mother you don't approve, but she's dead."
Like an eel this time: "I mean, Fin Finnegan's like John Johnson or Will Williams. Why don't you pick a professional name that fits? And if you're really a serious actor you could consider moving to L.A. where there's more work for older people."
Knowing how openly political and ethnically sensitive show biz was during this presidential campaign, Fin said, "Why don't you move to L.A. where your Afro fad might even last hours now that African American is Hollywood's craze du jour."
A tooth-and-claw counterattack was interrupted when Orson Ellis came panting into the office. He looked like he'd climbed ten flights of stairs, but Fin knew that Orson wouldn't use the staircase if the building was on fire. He wasn't a man to go vertical other than by mechanical means.
"Jew-lye! Jew-lye," Orson Ellis said to his secretary when he closed the door.
"Pardon me, Mister Ellis? Jew what?"
"That putz Ross Perot had to reenter the race!" Orson Ellis said, "Jew-lye. I thought he was making an anti-Semitic crack till I realized he was still apologizing for having withdrawn last July. Jew-lye. The cracker!" Then he noticed his client.
"Fin," Orson said, looking like his spaniel died, "Fin Finnegan. How good to see you, you old schlemiel."
Despite having done a thousand lunch meetings at Nate 'n Al's, Orson never got the Yiddish right. He said kvel when he meant kvetch, schmutz when he meant schvitz and schlemiel for schlemazel. Fin definitely considered himself a schlemazel, not a schlemiel.
"I thought you might call me next week if I started reminding you every night around midnight. I just dropped by to get your home address so I could start the night stalking."
"You been here long?" Orson asked.
"I been here so long her roots grew out," Fin said. Then to the secretary, "Really though, Albert Einstein did very well with that hairdo. I think you should keep it."
"I love this guy," Orson said to the young woman, who was glaring at Fin with a pair of scissors in her hand.
After Fin followed Orson Ellis into his private office, the fat man removed his size 52, double-breasted Armani knockoff, and plopped his bulk into an executive chair done in "blush" leather to complement the "pearl" client chairs, now that "pink" and "gray" had vanished from the designers' vocabulary.
"Want a drink? No, too early. Want an orange juice? Coffee?"
Fin was shocked by Orson Ellis's hair. All the side strands were about three feet long, and looped, swooped, and coiled across his naked skull, with some extra hair woven through it. The top hair was dyed the color of dead leaves, even though the sideburns were still gray.
"My new do," the agent said. "Whaddaya think?"
"Looks like a nest of tarantulas're eating your head. Why don't you just put a little minoxidil on your Froot Loops every morning?"
"Sensitive, that's what cops are," Orson Ellis said to the wallpaper. Then he opened a cold Evian, since Perrier was out. "That's why I took you as a client, your sensitivity and compassion."
"And because I got your sister's kid outta that jam where he tried to punch out a whale trainer at Sea World because Shamu got his Rolex wet. By the bye, is the little prick still at large?"
"He's maturing. I think he'll eventually find himself."
"Yeah, in the gas chamber. Another victim of Doctor Spock."
"What's on your mind, Fin?" It wasn't really a question he wanted answered, and Orson Ellis punctuated it with a wet burp.
"What's on my mind? I haven't worked in fourteen months."
"Fin, you work every day," Orson Ellis reminded him, leaning back and raising his patent loafers to the top of the desk. "You're a cop, remember?"
"I was trained to be a cop," Fin said, "but ..."
"You were born to act." Orson shook his head sadly. "You got it, kid, the addiction. I knew it first time I saw you. When was it? Five years ago?"
"Seven. In which time you got me four one-day jobs on that shitty private eye show, three one-line jobs on those movies they shot in Balboa Park that nobody but my sisters saw, and two dinner theater gigs. I got the real stage jobs on my own."
"How about the little theaters, Fin? Not to mention the one-act plays at the Gaslamp Quarter and the Sixth Avenue Playhouse and ..."
"Nobody saw me there either. I need a good job. The last time you got me a good job that twinkle on your pinkie ring was still coal."
"It's a shame you ever got involved in that amateur theater group. Look how acting's made you dissatisfied with your real-life job. You got a good job. Civil service. With a pension and everything. You're a police detective, for chrissake!"
"I hate my job."
"I know, you wanna be a movie star. You're ready to quit the police force, move to Hollywood, right?"
"I'm not asking you to get me in something so hot you can only see it on cable, am I? This is just a crappy late night network melodrama!"
"Don't you ever read the trades? Harbor Nights!"
"Oh, that melodrama."
"I'll bet even your new secretary knows about it and she doesn't have enough brains to churn butter. Do you hire them with an attitude or do you help them cultivate it, like slime mold?"
"But those tits'd raise Dracula outta his coffin at high noon, right?"
"Sure. And she's lugging enough silicone to raise the Kitty Hawk clear outta the water. You could lose your wristwatch in her cellulite and either she's doing a feminist armpit thing or that's a swarm of caterpillars under her arms."
"She's hot, Fin."
"You could find hotter ham in a meat locker."
"Bitter and cynical," the agent said sadly, "is what you are. Just because you got a chin dimple and a Cary Grant haircut that I told you to get, you ain't got what's in between. You got a pleasant Irish mug, but that's about it."
"Then get me a role playing Father O'Malley where I get to yell faith 'n begorrah and rescue street people."
"The camera looks for hope, not bitterness, Fin. Vulnerability, not cynicism. Haircuts don't matter."
"I shoulda kept my old hairdo and my Nehru coat. Everything comes around. Just ask your secretary."
"There was only one Elvis, Fin," the fat man informed him. "It wouldn'ta worked for you."
"I been thinking, maybe I should change my name. Fin Finnegan might not work for me. My old man's name was Timothy but everybody called him 'Fin,' so my mother decided that if they were gonna call me 'Fin' no matter what, it'd be because it was my Christian name, not my surname. But I been thinking, maybe it's too much like John Johnson or Ed Edwards?"
"Your name's not the problem, but I have noticed that your hair's receding. These days, your haircut looks more Clint Eastwood than Cary Grant. Have you considered a weave?"
"I don't need sensitivity or a haircut to play a contract killer. To get homicidal I only gotta think of shoulder pads Hillary picking out bad scarves and federal judges. You gonna help me or not?"
"What's an agent for? I'll make a call today. Is that acceptable?"
"As acceptable as a drive-by shooting. Get me the job."
"You think it's easy to book local actors in anything decent? This town's as avant-garde as your average Thursday night bowling league. I mean, around here a cultured person is one that don't drink dago red from a jar. Why do you think the San Diego Symphony's got more debt than Lithuania? You think I don't try? I can't even find anything to eat around here that don't look like a coroner's exhibit. A maggot in Musso and Frank's Hollywood garbage can eats better than the mayor of this burg. I'm malnourished, even!"
"Malnourished? Orson, Dennis Connor and his entire crew could sail you in the next America's Cup. Now listen, Variety said they're gonna use this contract killer in the episode they're prepping right now. Surely you can get me in to read this week."
"What age they looking for?"
"I'm barely forty."
"You look suspiciously older."
"So do Filipino Little Leaguers but they get to play, god-damnit!"
"Okay, okay, I'll do what I can. Now go crush crime, for chrissake. Catch some crooks. Do what you do best."
"I act. That's what I do best. I'm only a cop by training. I was ..."
"Born to act."
"No, I was born to sell my organs and live under bridges like a bum or wino—pardon me, now they're called the homeless—but I happened to take a police exam twenty-three years ago and here I am and now I hate police work and I hate cops above the rank of me which is just about everybody and I hate three ex-police wives, mine. And I got to do the fucking job five more years till I'm fifty years old or I won't get my pension and ..."
"You're forty-five then," the agent said ruefully. "I thought so."
"... and I wish I could be immature irresponsible rich pampered spoiled and stupid with no hope of growing up or having a single sensible opinion. In short, I'd love to be a movie star. I'd even register Democrat and stop puking in my popcorn during Oliver Stone movies if I thought you could get me in the cultural elite. But I'll settle for a one-day bit as a contract killer in that chickenshit TV show before it gets canceled! Okay?"
"Okay okay, kid. Calm down," Orson said. "I'll get to work on it right away. I know who's casting that show. They'll like the idea, a real live San Diego cop playing a contract killer. Now I want you to do something for me, okay?"
"I got a lawyer-pal. He's got a client. He wants to know what the DEA has on his client and ..."
"Forget it. I still have five years to do. I'm not risking my pension."
Excerpted from Finnegan's Week by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright © 1993 Wambaugh Family Trust. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 24, 2014
I have simply never been so upset at myself for finishing a book before in my life. This was literally the worst example of dialogue I have ever read. Joseph Wambaugh, who has written books I've enjoyed, delivers such a goofy, unrealistic display of how people speak. Every line was a bad local comedy club line....at best. No one speaks the way the writer makes them out to. It was tragically bad. Then, added to that, op culture and topical references always make a book seem dated at this is a perfect example of that. Ross Perot quips for the sake of nothing. Just bad. The plot was pedestrian and predictable but the severe reason to avoid this is the dialogue. Unbelievable.
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