Monday, September 29, 2014

Review of Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh (1996, Poisoned Pen Press [2012])

Bob Dillon has always been fascinated by bugs.  His all-consuming bug-bear is that mankind’s obsession with killing them using chemicals is making them more and more robust and is poisoning the planet.  He’s working on a chemical-free solution, however; cross-breeding assassin bugs to create hybrids that prey on pests such as cockroaches.  He’s hoping this method will result in his dream of owning his own company truck topped with a fibreglass bug.  Unfortunately, Bob is down on his luck.  He’s just quit his job with a traditional exterminator, his wife has also lost her job and is working as a waitress, and they owe money on their rent and utilities.  To try and convince him of the seriousness of their situation his wife decamps to her mother, taking their daughter, giving him an ultimatum to make his plan work or find another job.  Determined to try and make a success of his new technique, Bob answers an advertisement seeking an exterminator.  Only the advert is really seeking a hitman capable of murdering the head of a Bolivian drug cartel.  When the hit is duly executed, Bob unwittingly becomes a contract killer of international renown and the target of revenge.  What he’d like to be doing is testing his hybrid assassin bugs; instead he’s running for his life pursued by a coterie of the world’s best assassin’s looking to collect the bounty on his head.  It doesn’t look good for the all-natural bug exterminator, but Bob has three things in his favour: the world number-one hitman needs to salve his conscience; the milieu of New York can be a deadly place for those unfamiliar with its terrain; and he’s the owner of some very lethal bugs.

Pest Control is a screwball noir caper set in New York that plays off a confusion of two forms of extermination -- the killing of insect infestations and contract killing by hitman -- with Bob Dillon, the hapless hero of the story working as the former but being confused with the latter.  The setup is very nicely done and Fitzhugh keeps up the lightly comic riff to the final page.  What I liked so much about the story is its warm, upbeat slant despite all the mayhem and madness taking place.  Bob Dillon and his family are a genuinely likeable bunch and the baddies are cartoonish and fun.  Fitzhugh also peppers the text with nice entomological detail about the various bugs that appear.  The plot is nicely constructed and well paced, with a succession of confusions, setups, twists and turns that keep the pages turning.  Sure, it’s a little overly contrived in places, but that’s the nature of screwball noirs.  Overall, one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’ll definitely be tracking other Fitzhugh books down.

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