Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review of Head Games by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books, 2007)

Hector Lassiter is a pulp novelist and Hollywood scriptwriter turned cultural icon, a writer whose life is more dramatic than the characters in his books. He was one of Pershing’s raiders into Mexico in 1913, chasing General Francisco Villa, he served in the Europe in the First World War, took active role as a spy/gun-runner in the second, and amongst his close personal friends are Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Marlene Deitrich. It is 1957 and Lassiter’s young daughter and his third wife are dead. Lassiter has travelled into Mexico with Bud Fiske, a young poet, who has been commissioned by True magazine to write a profile of the writer. In a bar they are cut into a deal involving the fabled head of Villa, long stolen from a grave. The head is being sought by Yale’s Skull and Bones Society for their private collection for a large fee. It is also reputed to contain a treasure map to Villa’s missing fortune. Before the deal is concluded they are attacked. Lassiter and Fiske escape with the head, dashing to the border. Several parties of headhunters though are on their trail, including the US intelligence services. Over the next couple of weeks, the two of them, along with the beautiful Alicia, try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers as they try to convert the head into cash.

This was a book of two halves for me. The first half was a dark, screwball noir, with a strong plot and a suite of interesting characters, both fictional and real. Indeed, the book contains a number of real characters and is rooted in the real myths surrounding Villa’s missing head. McDonald provides a rich and colourful back story for Lassiter, with a good degree of depth and complexity to his personality. The story has a good sense of place, historical context, and the right kind of feel as a literary pulp noir story as Lassiter would have written it. It hummed along like a well tuned engine. The second half of the book, however, seemed to run out of pace and ideas, with the last quarter in particular becoming bitty, with a faltering pace and staccato story line. If the second half could have kept the same pace and feel of the first half, this would have unquestionably been a five star read. The unevenness, however, pulled it back into the pack. More than enough here though for me to seek out other McDonald books.

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