Sunday, July 11, 2010

A View to a Bad Pun

About two years ago, my uncle presented me with a large cardboard box full of books, mostly mysteries and thrillers. Prominent among these books was the complete six-book run of Simon Quinn's "The Inquisitor" series, about Francis Xavier Killy, the Vatican secret agent/assassin who serves fifteen days' penance in a Roman catacomb each time he kills a man. Despite the out-there concept, the kitschy cover art, and my uncle's recommendation, I didn't read any of the books until this week. The Devil in Kansas was a fine entertainment; I regret there are only five more books in the series.

Given the series' absurd premise, I was glad to find that Quinn doesn't strive too hard for plausibility. In less than two hundred pages, F.X. Killy manages a number of feats that would defeat a lesser pulp hero. Let us consider what The Devil in Kansas offers us: There's the motorcycle jump off the enemy tank, the skate chase through the trees, the improbably-piloted drone, and the sabotage of the Chinese rocket, not to mention the Moscow burglary, the two treacherous women, and the foiled plot to assassinate the Pope. What Mr. Killy's adventures lack in plausibility they make up in incident.

Thanks to Tarantino, Rodriguez, et al. today we expect our pulp entertainment to be sexy, violent, crass, and ironic. The Devil in Kansas delivers the blood and sex, but mostly avoids the postmodern trappings of modern pseudo-pulp. The initial premise, it's true, is absurd and perverse, but Quinn's primary audience isn't reading for arch chuckles and raised eyebrows. Quinn plays the numerous sex scenes for titillation, and Killy never does stop to consider the unlikeliness of his various scrapes with death. Characterization doesn't extend very far: Killy is from Boston, dislikes killing, likes women and Jesuits. Yet Killy, suggestive name aside, doesn't murder terribly frequently; in the later stages of the book, his avoidance of violence seems less a moral stance than an obsessive tic. He doesn't mind when his allies gun down Commies and killers, but he scruples to pull the trigger himself. It comes across a bit limp-wristed; one almost imagines our ultra-masculine hero vigorously washing his hands after each regrettable act of murder.

As far as I can tell, the Inquisitor books were never much of a success. There were six books in two years, and then F.X. Killy vanished. Simon Quinn disappeared too, but he's had a better luck than his creation; he was actually Martin Cruz Smith, who went on to fame as the author of Gorky Park, which sold millions of copies and became a major film. One sees a few hints of Smith's later work in The Devil in Kansas; the book's most lively and convincing chapters have Russian locales, and Killy has one of his near-death experiences in Gorky Park.

I'm not going to label The Devil in Kansas a forgotten classic, a pulp masterpiece, or the best thriller of 1974. It's none of these things, which isn't to say that it deserves its obscurity. It has its passages of unfortunate writing – never before have I seen a small group of trees compared to pubic hair, much less read such a description in an action scene – and plausibility has only the smallest of walk-on roles. But it's a hell of a lot of fun and the concept is to die for. I'm looking forward to the sequels. Surely one cannot go wrong with His Eminence, Death or The Last Time I Saw Hell? The first page of each book provides a list of "The Questions" that the following pages will answer. I don't think there's a better way to close this review than an excerpt from these Questions in Last Rites for the Vulture, Killy's final adventure: "Why did the ferociously sexy granddaughter of a would-be saint make love to the Inquisitor in a submerged, shark-infested Cadillac?"

Why the hell not?

No comments: