Before experimental, avant-garde novelist David Markson (1927-2010) became a highly-regarded Greenwich Village literary figure, he wrote two hardboiled noir paperbacks for Dell starring private investigator Harry Fannin. The novels were “Epitaph for a Tramp” (1959) and “Epitaph for a Dead Beat” (1961). The books have been reprinted several times and even compiled together, but neither have been legally digitized for Kindle as of this writing.
“Epitaph for a Tramp” (also released as “Fannin” for a 1974 Unibook reprint) is narrated by Fannin, a former University of Michigan halfback, former newspaperman, former U.S. Army soldier and current private detective living a sweaty and lonely existence in a Manhattan fleabag apartment with his books. One sleepless night at 3:30 a.m., Fannin is greeted to his door buzzer ringing. The uninvited guest is his estranged ex-wife Cathy, whom he hasn’t seen in a year. Upon arrival, she collapses into his arms and dies moments later from a stab wound in her chest. Client or no client, Fannin now has a murder to solve.
We quickly learn that Cathy was no angel during their marriage. She was, in fact, the kind of tramp you’d mention in a paperback book title. I won’t spoil the details but the flashback chapter detailing the trajectory of the marriage between Fannin and Cathy was a helluva ride unto itself and makes the reader want to know more about this girl. The good news is that Fannin also wants the facts, and the reader is along for the ride.
Fannin is a thinking-man’s hardboiled private eye. He makes with the funny wisecracks (like Shell Scott) and genre tough guy talk (like Mike Hammer), but he’s also smart as hell and drops a lot of literary references along the way - T.S. Elliot and Dashiell Hammett among them. The good news is that none of this gets overly pedantic, nor does it get in the way of a great story.
Some of the characters Fannin encounters are drawn with some rough stereotypes that likely wouldn’t fly today. I always enjoy those moments in classic fiction because they help measure the passage of time and the changes in attitude over the past 60 years. If consumed correctly, books like this can be a valuable time capsule of social norms. However, if you require contemporary politeness to fictional characters in vintage paperbacks, “Epitaph for a Tramp” probably isn’t for you.
It’s also a violent read. A character gets tied to a chair in and burned with a lit cigarette. There are quite a few graphic beatings as Fannin stalks the New York streets in search of the bad decisions that led to Cathy’s fatal stabbing. The author clearly took the template of Mickey Spillane’s successful Mike Hammer series and turned the volume up to 11 with an extra twist at the end. It’s both a mystery and a vendetta story, and it’s one of the finest novels I’ve read this year - a highly recommended, absolute must-read.
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