Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Excerpt: THE LAMMISTERS by Edward ‘Bugs’ Dooley

In which our tale begins according to the immortal Scott’s precept regarding the privilege of tale-tellers, i.e., that a story should open in an inn, which free rendezvous allows each traveller to display his humour without ceremony or restraint, a good example of same being the chorus doll Adele Fitzhalligon bruiting forth an ill-conceived declaration of the old incurable.

There being few inns, hostelries or speakeasies in the annals of history to rival Hollywoodland’s Brown Derby in the matter of allowing a traveller display his or her humour without ceremony or restraint, we commence our tale on a humid April afternoon on the terrace of same, whereupon we discover the spruce chevalier Sir Archibald l’Estrange-B’stard, who is currently three snifters to the good and musing aloud on the three most beautiful words in the English language, or any other.
  At which point his companion at table, the chorus doll Adele Fitzhalligon, breaks in upon Archie’s reverie with a spirited ‘O Archie! I love you too!’
  ‘Ah,’ quoth Archie. ‘Bartleby?’
  ‘Sir?’ quoth Bartley, who, being Sir Archie’s gentleman’s gentleman, was generally to be discovered at a discreet remove from the fray.
  ‘Ms Fitzhalligon appears to be in some confusion as to the three most beautiful words in the English language, Bartleby.’
  ‘Very good, sir. It is my sad duty to inform you, madam,’ quoth Bartley, now addressing Adele, ‘that your declaration of the old incurable is both untimely and ill-conceived, it being the case that Sir Archibald is a devotee of the noble Scottish art, and thus of the opinion that the three most beautiful words in the English language are tap-in birdie.’
  ‘O me!’ quoth Adele, experiencing the giddy sensation of her hopes plunging down in wild career.
  ‘Further,’ quoth Bartley, ‘Sir Archibald’s persiflage is for the most part composed of bawdy anecdotes, which, being a true beau sabreur, he is reluctant to bruit abroad in the company of the delicately nurtured, e’en if said beazle plies her trade as a chorus doll. In consequence,’ quoth Bartley, who took his duties as Sir Archie’s personal scrivener so seriously as to occasionally lapse into audible exposition – ‘I say, in consequence, madam, your tête-à-tête, having begun in sprightly fashion and promising much by way of penetrating insight into the human condition, is now run aground, and currently consists of naught but a pitifully umbraged chorus doll goggling mutely at an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who is currently fiddling with a cocktail menu and gazing around and about lest he catch said chorus doll’s eye.’
  ‘O my,’ quoth Adele. ‘Say it ain’t so, Archie.’
  ‘Alas, old daffodil, it’s as true as any trivet,’ quoth Archie, albeit in kindly register, Archie being possessed of a heart as tender as his liver was cast-iron. ‘Bartleby? Might you be kind enough to clarify for Ms Fitzhalligon my reasons for not wishing to catch her eye at this emotionally charged juncture?’
  ‘Of course, sir. Sir Archibald,’ quoth Bartley, addressing Adele, ‘being a true gallant, as might be observed from his currently sporting suede shoes, white flannel bags and a coat of blue superfine, with his hair brushed into the Brutus style made fashionable by Mr Brummell – I say, Sir Archibald, being a true flower of the chivalry of an ancient race, lives in mortal terror of garnering a reputation akin to Cervantes’ innkeeper, who boasted of a career spent largely in doing wrongs in abundance, soliciting widows, undoing damsels and bubbling young heirs. Such being the case, Sir Archibald fears that a single instance of encountering your stricken gaze might find him instinctively responding to a declaration of the old incurable by humming Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, thus causing you to believe that he trembles on the very brink of pledging his heart-troth when said shot is not, in fact, on the board.’
  ‘Do you say?’ quoth Adele.
  ‘Said I not so?’ quoth Bartley.
  ‘You did,’ quoth Adele with no little dignity, it being the case that Adele is currently experiencing an uncouth pain tormenting her grievèd soul (cf. Marlowe), a rather gloomy state of affairs not markedly improved upon when Archie, glancing around and about as per memo, claps peepers on Vanessa Hopgood as she sashays onto the Brown Derby terrace and subsequently delivers himself of the observation that that – i.e., Vanessa – was precisely the kind of stuff of which it would take an awful lot to kill a man.
  ‘Who zat?’ he enquired breathily of Adele Fitzhalligon, which, if we are to be kind to Archie and interpret his words as a well-intentioned gambit designed to restore some espièglerie to the badinage left languishing since his fateful deployment of the three most beautiful words in the English language, is nevertheless to be regarded, at best, as gaucherie suggestive of an unpardonable absence of couth.
  At which point, as the reader will easily conceive, Adele Fitzhalligon had heard enough to choke a horse.
  To understand why, we must drift, wraithlike, back in time to the night before and the moment when Adele stumbled out of the chorus line, pirouetted off the stage and toppled rump-first into Sir Archie’s lap where he sat in the front row, which near-miraculous escape from harm was attributed by Adele to her rigorous training with the Royal Moscow Ballet and by her fellow dolls in the line to the fact that said improbable triumph over physics was the third Adele had contrived in the past fortnight.
  Adele, whose greatest trial in life had always been the petty jealousies of those less ambitious than herself, had risen above the vicious raillery of said canty dames with a dignified wrinkle of her delightfully freckled snub nose, instead noting with interest the small but intriguing bruise on her right thigh caused by the collision between Adele’s taut flesh and the no less firmly bulging wallet on Archie’s hip.
  What followed at the Beverly Hills Motel in Beverly Hills in the early hours of April 29th, 1923, was as debauched a carnal coupling as might have plunged Caligula into a post-season funk, across which your humble narrator draws a veil lest the reader be given wrong impression of Archie and Adele, neither of whose mentis was entirely compos after wrapping themselves around the best part of a Balthazar of the old fizzy shampoo.
  Now, Adele’s ability to match Archie posset for posset should have alerted our spruce chevalier to her competitive nature; alas, Archie, being a good three snifters below par, was so beguiled by la Hopgood that his instinct for self-preservation had wafted off into the ether and was currently hovering about three parasangs north of common sense, as the reader will easily conceive from the following dialogue:
  Archie: ‘Bartleby?’
  Bartley: ‘Sir?’
  Archie: ‘Yon shimmering vision is a goddess worthy of the immortal Wootton’s description of Elizabeth of Bohemia as th’ Eclypse and Glory of her Kind, is she not?’
  Bartley: ‘Indubitably, sir.’
  At which point Adele, realising that Archie had in common with the Chevalier O’Keefe an enormous susceptibility to all sorts and conditions of women, gave a snort that wrinkled her snub nose in a most becoming fashion.
  ‘Who, that tramp?’ quoth she.
  Archie being the chivalrous sort, but only on occasion, and as a rule only to elderly aunts, wasn’t at all surprised to find himself intrigued. ‘A tramp, what?’
  ‘Notorious for it.’
  ‘Spare no detail, madam, however salacious. Have on.’
  ‘She’s already on the hook,’ quoth Adele, perceiving herself in imminent peril of being trampled underfoot if she didn’t head Archie off at the pass. ‘To Samuel L. Silverstein. The head,’ she added, ‘of Silverstein Studios.’
  Here Adele, being the very oracle of all Hollywoodland knowledge and wisdom, if by such your n. might be understood to mean gossip, rumour and scuttlebutt, to the extent that Adele had been awarded the codename Blavatsky by the editors of Hollywoodland’s blats for what appeared to be her paranormal facility for winkling out scandal, calumny and slanderous tidings – I say, Adele proceeded to confirm that Samuel J. Silverstein wasn’t merely the owner and head of Silverstein Studios, but the most enthusiastic trampoline artist of every casting couch therein, hence Vanessa Hopgood’s recent and scarcely plausible elevation to superstar of the silver screen. ‘A girl can hardly open a magazine these days,’ quoth she, ‘without that cross-eyed witch glaring out draped in furs and pearls.’
  Having put a fourth snifter where it would do the most good whilst Adele was waxing lyrical, Archie was feeling a tad cross-eyed himself as he pictured the goddess on the other side of the terrace clad only in pearls and furs.
  Now, Adele was an unusually perceptive young woman in affairs of the heart, as chorus dolls tend to be, but especially when she sensed that the old mazooma might be about to rear up on its hind legs and stalk across a terrace in the direction of a rival. Having winkled a few personal details out of Archie in those rare moments when their heads shared the same pillow, the most pertinent of which for the purpose of our narrative was the time-honoured l’Estrange-B’stard antipathy to all things Iberian (more of which anon), Adele now laid a ranger across Archie’s bow.
  ‘Don’t be fooled by the blonde hair. She’s Mex.’ Observing Archie’s reaction, or, being strictly accurate, the complete absence of same, and realising that the old gustibus didn’t appear to be up for disputandum, Adele went all in. ‘A Mexican,’ quoth she, ‘of Spanish origin.’
  No dice. Even Archie, who was at this point cross-eyed, hungover and sniftered up the wazoo, could see that Vanessa Hopgood was no Spaniard.
  ‘Bartleby?’ quoth Archie.
  ‘Yes, sir?’
  ‘Take a memo.’
  ‘Yes, sir.’
  Here Bartley McGuffin draws a writing pad from his inner pocket and diligently jots down Archie’s declaration of goodly woo, o’er which your humble n. draws a discreet veil, it being the case that said declaration is of a heliotropic hue such as might raise modesty’s blush on the immortal Cleland’s cheek.
  ‘Got all that?’ quoth Archie.
  ‘Yes, sir.’
  ‘Good man. Now cheese on over and deliver the mantra.’
  ‘Directly, sir,’ quoth Bartley, and away he trots briskly to make Vanessa Hopgood sensible of Sir Archie’s little necessities, his departure precipitating a quietude unconducive to the badinage, repartee and persiflage that generally persuades the attentive reader that a narrative is proceeding in sprightly fashion.
  Our tale thus discovering itself wallowing in something of a longueur, your humble n. here avails himself of the opportunity to confirm that Adele offers the emotionally intelligent reader a poignant variation on the immortal Austen’s universally acknowledged truth, Adele being a veteran chorus doll in dire need of a single man in possession of a good fortune and thus in want of a wife, albeit that Adele is as a rule happy to turn the Tiresian eye to said man’s marital status, Adele being something of a revolutionary, by the immortal Austen’s standards, in her bracingly modern interpretation of moral flexibility.
  Moreo’er, it must further be acknowledged that a veteran chorus doll in recent receipt of a good rummage will likely find herself in want of reassurance that said rummaging will not be of the night-blooming cereus variety, and specifically the Selenicereus grandiflorus, which blooms only once a year, and for one night only, and that the rummager – i.e., Sir Archibald l’Estrange-B’stard – won’t scratch the fixture and have it on his toes as soon as the rummagee – i.e., Adele Fitzhalligon – wanders off to powder her delightfully freckled snub nose.
  O Adele!
  Having thus established the salient pettifog vis-à-vis Adele Fitzhalligon, we now turn our gaze upon Sir Archibald l’Estrange-B’stard, noting that the bulging wallet which caused the small but intriguing bruise on Adele’s taut right thigh represented only the tiniest fraction of Sir Archie’s wealth. Indeed, were Archie to contrive to lose his wallet, a possibility which had vaulted to the very top of Adele’s exceedingly long list of ambitions in the immediate wake of their collision, Archie would on discovery of his loss very likely respond with a ‘Tut-tut!’, or perhaps a more vigorous ‘Blow!’, before requiring his man Bartley McGuffin to trundle on out to find him a new wallet and a horse-choking wad of the old folding to cram inside. For Archie – as the knowledgeable student of history may already have begun to suspect – is a scion of the famed l’Estrange-B’stard dynasty of Knockfluck in the County Donegal in the Free State of Ireland, the fourth and youngest son of Sir Augustus ‘Baffy’ l’Estrange-B’stard III, and thus the sole heir to a fine family fortune which requires the unstinting efforts of four separate Swiss accountancy firms, operating from eyries high in the Alps, just to keep tabs on the compound interest.
  That Archie was the sole heir was a matter of deep sorrow to the l’Estrange-B’stard firm. Percival, the eldest son, had struck his colours on the Somme. Sylvain IX, the next in line and a pilot of rare promise, went down in a blaze of glory above the very same poppy-strewn meadows, his place in history secured as the ninth victim of that most dastardly of Hun, the Red Baron. Finally, long after peace had broken out all o’er, Caliban had succumbed to the Spanish ’Flu, a tragedy that only cemented the long-held l’Estrange-B’stard antipathy to all things Iberian (more of which anon).
  A painful litany, as the reader will no doubt agree, although Archie was by no means the runt the litter. A magnificent specimen of manhood, he gave on first meeting the impression that he wanted only for an iron band confining his upper torso to perfect the image of oaken barrel bursting its seams. On his shoulders sat the proud round l’Estrange-B’stard head, and when he moved with intent, to dance, or blast a wayward drive out of knotty rough, or deliver a brawny ham-fist to the jaw of the latest citizen to cast aspersions on his aptitude for anything more cerebral than mangling flappers’ toes and scything fairway-adjacent heather – I say, grown men were moved to remark in tremulous voice on Archie’s uncanny similarity to a man-o’-war backing and filling, sails full and fairly humming with lethal menace. Indeed, Archie might have been considered the very sine qua non of heirs to ancient dynasties were it not that his abilities in the realm of mathematics – crucial, alas, in a man of high finance – began and ended with the revolutionary new scoring system Dr. Stableford had devised for the noble Scottish art.
  In a nutshell, then: Archibald l’Estrange-B’stard was a healthy male specimen of the genus homo sapien in possession of a considerable fortune who, as a consequence of his mother’s lifelong devotion to the immortal Austen, was considered in want of a wife, said admirable maternal instinct being in large part responsible for Archie’s recent absconding from Knockfluck in the County Donegal for the bright lights and chorus dolls of Hollywoodland. Which is why, adhering to the intelligent reader’s demand for swiftly delivered narrative, we now return to the terrace of the Brown Derby, where we discover that Adele, initially nonplussed by Archie’s pledging of troth elsewhere, has now recovered a quantity of pluss sufficient to enable her to make a late rally.
  ‘Archie?’ quoth she.
  ‘Eh?’ quoth Archie, whose eyes were lifted to the farthest horizon of the Brown Derby’s terrace.
  ‘It’s just …’ Here Adele paused to quiver. ‘Oh Archie!’ she sang out, ‘my high-kick extension is on the fritz!’
  ‘I was wondering what that might be,’ quoth Archie, who had over the previous hour or so experienced frequent foot-shaped incursions into his loinal environs, a not unpleasant sensation given that said foot was encased in sheer silk. ‘Was that fritz or frisk?’
  The quivering being a complete wash-out, Adele now attempted a tender sniffle of her delightful snub nose. ‘Fritz,’ confirmed she, before confiding that, while she had been destined for the stage ’ere she was knee-high to a footlight, the crepuscular veil has been drawing in upon said destiny for some time now, destinies being obliged to obey the very same rules laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics as apply to all narratives, poetic or otherwise, and thus by definition comprise a beginning, a middle and – most pertinently for the purpose of Adele’s plight – an end. Which is to say that Adele, previously Hollywoodland’s undisputed chorus doll queen, is now, being on the shady side of thirty, considered the chorus line’s dowager countess. In point of fact, Adele had only two nights previously been in receipt of a second warning as to her high-kick extension and the rapidly deteriorating angle thereof, 90˚N being considered the ideal and anything less than 70˚NW a cause for instant dismissal.
  ‘Alas,’ quoth she with a heartrending twitch of that delightfully freckled snub nose, ‘I am currently operating at a maximum of 85 degrees NW, due to a combination of recurrent vapours and a touch of sciatica.’
  ‘Ah,’ said Archie. ‘Under the weather, are we?’
  ‘My career hangs by a Damoclean hair!’
  ‘Completely dished, eh?’
  ‘O Archie!’ quoth Adele by way of yelpage reminiscent of the immortal Burnet’s great Ocean rowling in the Air without bounds or banks, ‘I am so desolate as to quite roll in ashes!’
  It is to Archie’s eternal credit that he immediately went to the assistance of the distraught Adele Fitzhalligon, although, your humble n. here vowing to palter not with the truth, we are obliged to note that Archie didn’t so much go to Adele’s assistance as discover himself in receipt of said doll, as Adele, lashed unto the utmost verge of desperation, pirouetted yet again into his lap, and that it was their piercing volume, rather than Adele’s words, that caused Archie to start like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons.
  ‘Ah, well, now,’ said Archie, fumbling for his pocket-square with the vague intention of poking said item between Adele’s lips, from which was issuing a heartrending wail that might well precipitate false alarums in, and thus excursions from, every fire station within a ten-mile radius. ‘There, there,’ quoth he, patting Adele’s back. ‘There, ah, there.’
  Alas, here we are obliged to take our leave of Archie and Adele at what might well prove a crucial juncture in their burgeoning romance, not from any want of sympathy on the part of your humble n., nor to falsely create the illusion of narrative suspense by inserting a chapter-ending cliffhanger, but in order that the reader is provided with a quantity of salient garniture before Bartley McGuffin arrives at Vanessa Hopgood’s table on the far side of the Brown Derby’s terrace, much of which is concerned with Vanessa’s tempestuous relationship with Samuel L. Silverstein, which pettifog, being vital in terms of the reader’s understanding our tale’s philosophical proposition – i.e., that the world might be a better place if only everyone would make a little more effort to get along – will be revealed in Chapter Two.

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