The widely acclaimed, Edgar Award finalist hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best novels of the year.
Artie Deemer lives off his dog Jellyroll, the most famous canine in the country, star of movies, TV, and dog-food advertising. Artie hangs around the apartment, smoking a little pot, listening to jazz, trying to keep the world away. But then his ex-lover, Billie Burke, is murdered and he receives a note from her: “I’m dead, darling. Get out of your chair and look in the ice tray.” And so begins the wild, unpredictable ride. Artie becomes a reluctant sleuth, dodging hoods, blackmailers, killers, and crazy combat pilots as he struggles to uncover Billie’s murderer—without joining her in the morgue.
“Lover Man is a first novel of unusual skill with amazing characters... the writing is flip and sophisticated." New York Times
"Lover Man is a bouncy, quirky, funny mystery with racy dialog. The story line makes more twists and turns than a New York cabdriver running up the meter." Washington Post
“Artie Deemer is a true original – the frantic, antic humor carries along the characterization and narration like twin, runaway trains.” Chicago Sun-Times
About the Author
Dallas Murphy is the author of the acclaimed three-book series Lover Man, Lush Life, and Don't Explain, about the reluctant sleuth Artie Deemer, who lives off his dog Jellyroll, star of screen, TV, and dog-food boxes; and the stand-alone crime novel set in Florida, Apparent Wind. Lover Man was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel and named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Murphy has also written nonfiction books about the ocean, including Rounding the Horn, To Follow the Water, Plain Sailing, and, most recently, To the Denmark Strait. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
By Dallas Murphy
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 2014 Dallas Murphy
All rights reserved.
More than most anything else, I liked to do nothing. Peace to me was to pull my Morris chair over to the western window, prop my heels on the sill and, entranced, listen to several hours of selected jazz while I watched the tugboats, masthead lights of red and green, maneuver on the Hudson. I'd smoke a thin bone for concentration and soar with giants out over the black river. King, Count, Duke, Prez, Major, Fats (both), Chu, Trane, Diz, Chick, Sonny, Bird, Bud, Cootie, and their colleagues — I've flown with them all. My dog Jellyroll shares my enthusiasm. When the wattage kicks in, he curls up on his Adirondack Spruce Bough Dog Bed and licks his parts with contentment. My taste in jazz is eclectic, but I believe Jellyroll digs bop best of all.
That's what we were doing when they pounded on my door with evil news, and contentment vanished for a long, long time. I peeped out the view hole. Two men, one huge and bullnecked, stood in the hall. The shoulders of their coats were rain-darkened, and water dripped from their hat brims.
"Arthur Deemer," demanded the huge one.
That's what I thought. If these two showed up at your Halloween party, you wouldn't wonder what they were supposed to be. The giant flashed his shield at the peephole and said, "We want to ask you some questions."
Questions? What kind of questions? Surely hard-bitten types like these didn't waste taxpayer dollars busting indolents like me for smoking a bone over "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things."
"Are you going to open up or what?"
Surely. I opened up.
"Detective Cobb," the giant said about himself, "and this is Detective Loccatuchi," a sensibly sized man who nodded at me, a gesture that, when compared to the look on Cobb's face, seemed warm and giving. I nodded back at him. Then they sniffed the guilty air. It seemed to hit them like a felonious assault.
"I, uh, was just listening to some music. Jazz. You know, very American. John Coltrane. Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on —
"You wanna turn it down," Cobb shouted over a soaring tenor solo.
"Down?" I shouted. "Sure. Absolutely."
I don't keep a lot of furniture in the living room. Just my Morris chair. I like to keep the acoustics clean. Jellyroll sniffed the arresting officers' shoes while the officers looked with unmasked suspicion at my bereft living room.
"You gonna turn it down or not?"
"Oh. Absolutely." I hopped to it.
"Hey, Dave," said Loccatuchi, "check this dog. He looks just like the R-r-ruff Dog."
"The R-r-ruff Dog. From TV."
"That is the R-r-ruff Dog," I said helpfully.
"None," I swore.
It's best I make this clear up front: I live off my dog. I'm not the breadwinner here. Jellyroll is. Jellyroll is the exclusive spokes-dog for R-r-ruff Dog Food, his happy face printed on millions of boxes distributed nationwide, not to mention the TV commercials in which Jellyroll says, "R-r-ruff! The full-flavor food!" He's also an actor. He played the title dog in Blinky's on the Case, a Disney rip-off that drew them in by the droves. We'll continue to pull down big bucks from that one for years to come. It was just sold to cable television. Jellyroll smiles, that's what makes him commercial. We pass a toddler and his mom on the street and the kid will say, "Look, Mommy, that dog's smiling." That smiling face has made us financially untroubled, but sometimes I suspect that Jellyroll doesn't entirely respect me.
"Wait till the wife hears about this. She loves the R-r-ruff Dog," said Loccatuchi, now down on his knees to ruffle Jellyroll's ears.
Cobb clearly didn't like dogs any better than he liked jazz. "We're from homicide, Mr. Deemer. Manhattan South Homicide."
"A Miss Billie Burke was murdered tonight." Just like that he said it, no color, no attitude one way or the other, routine. "I believe you knew her."
I sagged into the Morris chair. My knees just packed up on me.
"Did you know her?"
I heard his question, but it came from a long way off, like an FM radio station fifty miles down the road.
"You were lovers, right?"
"Do you know her residence to be 47 Sullivan Street?"
"Yes. Is that where it happened?"
"Looks like it. A neighbor called when he observed water running under Miss Burke's front door. We entered and found her tied hand and foot, you know, like hog-tied. She was drowned in her bathtub. Tell me, Mr. Deemer, did she have strange sexual habits?"
"The neighbors say there was a lot of loud talk in her apartment . A lot of people coming and going on the stairs tonight. Was she a professional?"
"Of course not."
"What about drugs?"
"Where were you tonight?"
"Come on, you don't think —"
"It's just routine," said Loccatuchi in a voice that had some feelings to it.
"I was here."
"You sat around all night and blew dope by yourself, that it?"
I began to cry. Jellyroll came over and set his chin on my knee to ask what the matter was. Dogs have emotional lives far more complex than calluses like Cobb could ever envisage. He stood there in his raincoat and watched me cry as if I were just another of life's annoying little delays, like crosstown traffic.
"You were lovers, you and her?"
"Yes. I just said so."
"About three years, but she left a year ago."
"You lived together?"
"Why'd she leave?"
"She got sick of being with me." That wasn't exactly true, but it was all I could manage.
"So you're saying you haven't seen her in a year?"
"No, I've seen her. We have lunch." I looked forward each week to those lunches, but often Billie had to cancel because of commitments. I seldom had any commitments.
"We found your picture on her dresser."
"Does that surprise you?"
"Why did you pay her the sum of" — he consulted a black leather notebook — "of $2,158.68 each month?"
"This dog. Jellyroll."
"Is that his name?" asked Loccatuchi. "Jellyroll? That's cute."
"He used to be Billie's dog."
"That's a lot of money for a dog."
"This dog makes a lot of money."
"You mean on TV?"
"And movies," said Loccatuchi. "Blinky."
"So how'd you arrive at the sum of $2,158.68?"
"That's what Billie wanted. I think it was a kind of a joke."
"I don't get it."
"Because it's not a round number."
"So how long have you been paying her that figure?"
"Since she left?"
"That adds up to real money as the time goes by."
I saw what he was driving at, the bastard. "No, it doesn't," I said. "Jellyroll makes more than that most every week."
"Wow," said Loccatuchi.
"Who was Miss Burke seeing over the last year?"
"I don't know."
"Do you know anyone with reason to kill her?"
"A neighbor told us she had a father in Hollywood, works in the movie business. That right?"
"Yes. She went out there to visit him several times."
"What's his name?"
"Burke, I guess."
"You ever meet him?"
"Her mother died when Billie was a little girl. Have you told her father?"
"We're trying. You sure Miss Burke didn't have weird sexual tastes?"
"Mr. Deemer, we need someone to identify the body," said Loccatuchi.
"Huh? You mean you're not sure it's her?"
"It's just a legal formality. It's much better for everybody when we have a positive ID."
God, I didn't want to see Billie dead. "When?" I asked.
"How 'bout now?"
"Unless you're too busy."
In a dying Buick we splashed east across the park on the Ninety-sixth Street transverse. Water stood axle-deep under the bridges after ten consecutive days of rain, and the traffic slowed to a cautious crawl to keep the engines dry. Loccatuchi drove and Cobb rode shotgun, me in the back alone. Cobb eyed the city and its movements with malice. Even if I couldn't see his face reflected in the streaked side window, I would have felt the malice convected from the back of his neck.
We turned south on Second Avenue. The Buick's spent shocks set up a nasty swaying motion, like a boat rolling in a seaway. We'd hit a pothole and the car would reverberate for the next two blocks. I was getting sick. Raindrops on the window glass smeared the city lights like tears in the eyes. I adored Billie, and almost every day I'd wondered why a woman like her wanted to be with me. The windshield wiper on Cobb's side had no rubber thing. A metal arm scratched back and forth, scarring the glass deeper with each swipe. We were south of Fifty-seventh Street before anyone spoke.
"So what've we got?" Cobb asked the broken wiper. "A simple sex killing? You say she wasn't weird sexually, but maybe you're wrong. Maybe you're lying for reasons I don't know yet."
I didn't say anything. I had this heavily buttered welder's glove lodged in my gullet.
"Maybe she took the wrong guy home to play tie-up. No sense to it, no purpose. We'll never catch a guy like that unless he does it again and fucks up. But maybe it was something else. What'd she do for a living?"
"Photographer," I mumbled. I was getting sicker with each pothole.
"What kinda photographer?"
"Bums," I said.
"Bums You know, homeless."
"Bums don't come back and kill you, they don't like their portrait."
"I'm gonna throw up."
"Huh?" He spun around to look at me. "Sal, pull over! The guy's gonna hoop! Open the door, buddy! Don't blow in the car!"
We jerked to a stop, double-parked. I opened the door and immediately threw up near the tire of a Volkswagen. Pedestrians stopped. I could see their legs hesitate and then hurry on after they realized what they were watching. Cobb never turned around. I wouldn't have either. I hoisted myself up by the window handle and sat back limply. Only then did Cobb look into my face. Would I or would I not blow in his car?
"He's okay, Sal. Let's go." We did.
A staticky woman's voice on the radio said that a robbery was in progress at 108th and Broadway, my neighborhood, but Cobb switched it off. I curled into my corner and rested my head. I remembered the tiny mark, like a fleck of gold ore, in the iris of Billie's left eye, and the thought of it, milky and gray now, made me want to slam my fist into the back of Cobb's neck.
"How do you make a living photographin' bums?"
"So what'd she live off of? The two grand from you each month?"
"You lived with her, right? She have any other income then?"
"Was she naked?"
"Was she naked?"
"No. Fully clothed." He stared at me. "I find out you know things you ain't saying, then I'm on your ass like a cheap suit. You hear?"
"Sal, did he just say fuck you?"
"Sounded like it, yeah."
"They all do. Sooner or later."
Bellevue. I should have known that's where it would be. The house of mirth. We turned onto Twenty-fourth Street, turned again between two festering green dumpsters and down a short, steep incline that ended at a closed garage door. Loccatuchi stuck a card between the jaws of a security device, and the door rose with a clatter. We drove into a sooty concrete parking garage.
Loccatuchi pulled up in front of an open elevator large enough to drive into. Cobb got out, opened my door and led me into the elevator. Was this the way the dead entered? Dented aluminum doors closed in front of us when Cobb pushed the button. We lurched up one floor, and the doors opened onto a long two-tone green hallway. The walls were puckered and peeling from generations of steam leaks like deep, infected wounds. We turned into other hallways, turned about six times through several sets of swinging metal doors, passed exhausted interns with aged eyes, bored cops who seemed to be nursing grudges, and nurses angry at the human condition. We paused while Cobb flashed his badge at a paunchy guard with a drinker's face who showed no sign of seeing Cobb, me, or the badge, and moved on down the hall. Then, abruptly, wordlessly, Cobb stopped. He shouldered open a green metal door. We had arrived.
It was a kind of anteroom built as an afterthought into the large room beyond. The bottom half of the anteroom wall was made of plywood and painted battleship gray; the upper half was glass reinforced with chicken wire. I tried not to look into the big room beyond, but I did. I saw three autopsy tables. What else could they be? Tools hung neatly on racks within easy reach of the tables, their purposes all too imaginable. When I conjured Billie naked on that table, men about to demolish her with those shiny tools, I jerked my eyes away.
A black guy about twenty and a bloated white guy about thirty-five years older sat across from each other at a wooden table and played double solitaire. Cigarette butts floated in a half-dozen different styrofoam coffee cups. Nobody said anything. Cobb filled out a blue form like a library call slip and handed it to the black guy. The fat white guy didn't move, just sat there with his hands folded over his obscene gut and stared at the cards. My knees quivered. I couldn't keep them locked. This was impossible. I couldn't do this thing. I couldn't walk back there, look into Billie's dead face and say yes, that's her; that's the woman I still loved.
The black guy murmured the number, or whatever Cobb had written on the slip, got up, and led us through the door at the rear of the anteroom and into the morgue. The smell hit me hard. At first it seemed a hospital smell of alcohol and soapy disinfectants, but I hadn't smelled anything yet.
The black guy led us around a corner. There they were two full walls of aluminum drawers. Our heels made clicking metallic sounds approaching.
The black guy found Billie's drawer and heaved it open. This was no hospital smell. This was the sort of stench that permeates the tissues of the lungs so deeply that for days you can smell it on each exhalation. When I was a kid, I was given a pet turtle in a plastic terrarium. He soon grew big enough to climb over the walls of his home. One night he did so and vanished. A week later we could smell him under the couch, but this was merely a miniature version of the stench that hit me when I rolled aside the couch and found my turtle dead in a dry puddle of his own fluids. Turtle or woman, they smell pretty much the same dead.
I hung back. It wasn't too late to bolt. Cobb looked into the drawer. "Christ, buddy," he said, "this ain't her. Shape the fuck up!" He slammed the drawer himself. Even Cobb seemed a little shaken by what he had seen in there. I was glad I'd hung back.
The black guy re-consulted the call slip and marched off down the row of drawers. Cobb followed, and I took a few tentative steps in that direction, careful to keep my eyes on the floor. Observe as few details as possible. It's the details that forever haunt. He pulled open another drawer and looked in. I knew what he was doing. He was matching the call slip to a tag wired onto Billie's big toe, but I watched that floor. Having got it right, the black guy stepped aside.
Billie's drawer was about chest high, with three more below her and one above. Cobb looked in, pulled back a green sheet that must have covered her face. Then he glanced at me with a surprised look on his face that said what the fuck are you standing way over there for?
It still wasn't too late to bolt. I thought about it. I knew I'd never forget what I was about to see. I knew that years from now the sight of it, on a sunny, happy day, perhaps at the beach, would come flashing back at me. But I didn't bolt. I approached.
She had no color at all. Even her lips, slightly parted but utterly neutral of expression, were chalky white. Her short black hair, still wet, curled in scallops and wisps on her white forehead, the contrast was shattering. I stood staring at her face. I saw that these weren't drawers at all; they were merely racks with no sides. Inside the dead lay unseparated in their common stink. I remembered her laugh, how the skin around her eyes wrinkled and danced as if she were squinting into the sun. Her laughter, particularly when I could cause it, always made me glad to be near. Her right eye was half open, but only the white showed, the pupil rolled back forever. The other one, the eye with the fleck of gold, was closed. Cobb didn't need to ask if I knew her or not.
"What was her real name?"
"Billie Burke. That wasn't her real name, was it?"
Excerpted from Lover Man by Dallas Murphy. Copyright © 2014 Dallas Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Engaging characters. An odd array of them. Fascinating plot full of surprises. And best of all, well wrtten. Germane