Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Big Enchilada

The Big Enchilada, by L.A. Morse
February, 1982  Avon Books

Mike Hammer lampooned to an absurd degree, Sam Hunter is a loudmouthed, arrogant, violent steamroller of a private eye. Unfortunately he’s also our protagonist and narrator. The Big Enchilada was the first of two novels L.A. Morse published about Hunter, and it drove a sharp divide among the critics, most of whom complained about the utter excess of it all, others who figured it was all a parody. Me, I fell in the middle – I enjoyed the over the top tone, but felt that it got old quick…pretty damning when you consider the novel’s undue length of 224 pages of small print.

Hunter is a P.I. in Los Angeles, and Morse does a good job bringing to life the city’s sleazier aspects. Hunter hates everyone and everything, and each chapter is a private eye novel spoof in miniature; each chapter opens with a hate-filled diatribe about L.A., after which Hunter will either get in a fight, track down a lead, or have sex, and then finishes up with another condemnation of the city. As I say, while it’s funny at first it gets to be a drag after a while, each chapter following this same repetitive format, and thus the novel becomes a bit of a slog.

The book opens with a bang, though. Hunter’s sitting at his desk, contemplating a vacation to Mexico with his sexy (and available) secretary, Maria, when a muscle-bound dude busts in, tears up Hunter’s office, tosses Hunter around, and warns him to stay away from “Domingo.” After this guy (who we eventually learn is a wrestler named Mountain) leaves, a crying Maria rushes in to check on Hunter, and Hunter does what any other guy would do in a situation like this – he pulls off her skirt, pushes her against the wall, and screws her! After which he zips up and heads out for a bite to eat…! This is just our first indicator of the kind of “hero” we’re in for. And as I say, while I found it all enjoyable and funny, it just lost its spark after a while.

And speaking of food, Hunter appears to be a gastronome (annoyingly referred to as a “foodie” these days…seriously, if you’re going to be snobbish about food, then describe yourself with a snobbish word, not something as fucking lame as “foodie!!”), so we get many scenes throughout the book where various meals are described, sometimes mouth-wateringly so. The only problem is, these segments are at odds with the otherwise-blunt tone of the novel itself; Hunter does not come off like the kind of guy who could write so eloquently about his meals.

Rather than being scared away, Hunter determines to figure out who Domingo is and why the ruffian was sent to threaten him. Hunter’s only working on a few cases, so he follows up on them. In the first he’s working for a wealthy Beverly Hills woman who has hired Hunter to figure out what’s going on with her husband (turns out the guy has a sadomasochistic streak and has an apartment where he whips hookers). In the second of many sex scenes, Hunter ends up getting lucky with the lady, and Morse gives the sex scenes nearly as much detail as he does Hunter’s meals.

Hunter’s also trying to track down a missing teenaged girl, and another case or two, and all of them seem to dovetail with a mysterious L.A. club called the Black Knight. Eventually Hunter discovers that this is a nasty place that serves to a sick clientele of society elite, involved in everything from child prostitution to snuff films. However the place is just one of the many money-making schemes of Domingo, who turns out to be an obese lecher who was famous a decade or so ago playing a TV detective, “Domingo” being the name of his character. The “big enchilada” of the title, Domingo is the bastard who sent Mountain after Hunter, and who proceeds to further throw Hunter’s life into chaos.

Hunter also runs afoul of the cops, mostly due to a crooked Vice cop who works with Domingo and tries to set Hunter up. True to genre form, the people in Hunter’s life suffer more than he himself does, from an old P.I. pal to a friendly cop on the force to most unfortunately Maria, who is raped, mutilated, and murdered by Mountain, Hunter discovering her mauled corpse in his office. These scenes however lack much resonance because Hunter is presented as so inhuman; for example after a sentence or two bemoaning Maria’s fate, Hunter is already eating at yet another diner, with the meal once again described in full.

There are a few action scenes, most of them featuring Hunter beating people up. One memorable sequence has him fighting a group of drug-addled punks in the back of a bar. Hunter carries a Magnum revolver that he doesn’t use all that much, though at the end he loads it with dum-dum shells for the final confronation with Domingo and Mountain. And speaking of which the climatic fight with Mountain is well done and gory, taking place in Domingo’s opulent home, and humorously enough making memorable use of Domingo’s just-introduced glass cage of poisonous snakes.

As for investigative work, there isn’t much: Hunter basically calls people on the phone and then bullies them in person, either with fists or threats. The sleaze level is sometimes through the roof (Sleaze being the title of the followup novel, by the way), with Hunter blithely recounting the whips-and-chains sex shows he witnesses in various bars to even the snuff films he watches. All of this stuff would no doubt be shocking in the world of regular private eye novels, but having read so much trash I was moreso like, “meh.” At any rate Hunter’s cynical, smart-ass tone robs the majority of these scenes of any emotional impact.

As for the cover of The Big Enchilada, I have to say Hunter looks a little like Armand Assante. What’s weird is that the year The Big Enchilada was published, the obscure and controversial movie I, The Jury also came out (big thanks to Marty McKee for introducing me to that one!!), based on Mickey Spillane’s novel and starring Assante as Mike Hammer. For that matter, the brunette on the bottom right of the cover sort of looks like Barbara Carrera, who was also in that film. So I wonder if the cover used for The Big Enchilada was a rejected cover for an I, The Jury reprint? (Signet Books did reprint the novel that year, but they used a photo of Assante for the cover.)


Grant said...

Obscure or not, that's the only version of I, The Jury that I know at all.

I've heard more than once that snuff films are a kind of "urban legend" because it's never been proven that there really ARE any. Which would be a good thing, and it really wouldn't affect reading a book like this one way or the other.

Rayo Casablanca said...

Have this one and SLEAZE and have been meaning to read.

L.A. also wrote the brilliant and very funny VIDEO TRASH AND TREASURES books (vol 1,2). They're non-fiction guides to,well, obscure video trash (forget the treasures part) that appeared on home video in the mid-80 to late 90s. Way ahead of the z-movie, Eli Roth-styled trash film resurgence we've recently had. Highly recommended.

Also of note: L. A. wrote a sickening "biography" of the likely fictional Sawney Bean family -- has a Frazetta cover. It's a real stomach churner.

RJR said...

Hunter also had sex with a neighbor's teenage daughter--in the shower, yet.


horrox said...

I concur with your "foodie" comment, good point!

Dan_Luft said...

I think this came out about the same time as Murray Sinclair's Tough Luck L.A. which started a series of three novels. I always confuse this with them.

AndyDecker said...

The novel is hard to take seriously because it is so over top. Hunter is a typical teflon character. Nothing sticks. You are right with this getting repetive fast.

Still, if you don't expect a classic P.I. novel like, say, Crumley's Last Good Kiss, it is fun.

I love this version of "I, the Jury". It had more in common with a paperback original then all the "serious" P.I movies of its time. A shame that it isn't avaiable on DVD.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Grant and Andy, glad you guys have also heard of that I, the Jury film. Yes, it should be on's a mystery why it isn't, as it would go over great with people who are into weird and lurid action films.

Rayo, great to hear from you...I still refer to your Sharpshooter essay on your Sick Hipster blog. That's a typically great Frazetta cover on the other LA Morse book...maybe I'll check it out someday.

RJR, the recurring joke with the teenage daughter was one of my favorite things in The Big Enchilada, what with Hunter never remembering her name (Candi/Trixi/etc).

Horrox, I'm glad you agree with me! I'm sick of hearing the word "foodie!"

Dan, I've never heard of Tough Luck L.A., so I'll look into it. Thanks!

Scott said...

I remember reading this title when a was in HS. I had a good chuckle.