Monday, July 20, 2015

The Murder Business

The Murder Business, by Peter C. Herring
No month stated, 1976  Major Books

I read about this one in Bill Pronzini’s Son Of Gun In Cheek, where it was featured as an “Alternative Classic” or something. Pronzini was a bit merciless on it, as I recall, but in the expectedly humorous way; nevertheless, it sounded so unusual that I intended to read it someday.

Pronizini’s comments on the book’s clunky writing are on point, but the plot of The Murder Business is actually pretty interesting: basically, “What if James Bond worked for SPECTRE?” While this isn’t a spy thriller by any means, it is sort of similar in that our “hero” is an assassin who works for a shadowy consortium with designs on global domination. However instead of a bald dude with a cat it’s a group of ten men who have secretly been pulling international strings since WWII.

As for our “hero,” he’s a total psychopath: Michael, a good looking young British dude who began killing as a kid and quickly learned that he enjoyed it. And I mean “enjoy” in the sexual sense, as Michael my friends actually orgasms when he murders! His favored instrument is just as kinky, a six-inch blade which he mails to himself overnight before he goes on missions, thus bypassing aiport security. (Why the dude couldn’t just buy a new knife wherever he goes is never explained.)

Michael is the chief assassin of The Board, ie those aforementioned ten men. He’s worked in this capacity for a few years, and is very good at what he does. However as we meet him Michael is in a bit of a pickle: he might be falling in love with a British girl named Jenny. They met a few months ago and have been seriously dating; Michael even rushes to her after the novel’s opening murder, leading into one of the novel’s few (and not very explicit) sex scenes.

Our depraved hero is sent from London to Los Angeles and then to Las Vegas, all within a few days, on his next assignment. Here he knifes another powerful man, one who apparently works for a sort of anti-Board. In a sadly-underdeveloped plot we are informed that the Board, despite its power, has an equally-powerful enemy. But Michael is too far down the totem pole to care, and instead gets off royally on this latest hit, in which he discovers that his target is having sex with a hooker. Michael’s never killed someone while they were doing it, and he has a major orgasm as he knifes them.

So as you can see, The Murder Business definitely has a sleazy vibe going for it. But here’s the major problem with it, at least so far as I’m concerned. It’s just too damn overwritten. Practically every single thing Michael does is described. The dude can’t open a window without like two sentences detailing the act; no matter how menial the event or the action, the author overdescribes it. It becomes very ponderous and makes the book, which is only 176 pages (of pretty small print, though), take seemingly forever to read.

I have no idea who Peter C. Herring is/was, but judging from the Catalog Of Copyright Entries this was really the author’s name; in other words, “Herring” apparently wasn’t a house name or pseudonym. I’d gather Pronzini’s statements on Major Books is correct in this case – Pronzini in the two Gun In Cheek books particularly takes Major to task for publishing manuscripts that were rejected everywhere else. The hell of it is The Murder Business has the potential to be good, but it’s undermined by the overwriting and the mid-novel plot switch.

Sadly, Herring jettisons the entire “sick assassin” angle and goes for more of a “hunted man” storyline. That mysterious “anti-Board” has targeted everyone, and while on vacation in the south of France with Jenny Michael is ambushed. He manages to kill his attacker, and Jenny witnesses it – cue a rivalry that will go on until the end of the book, with Jenny now hating Michael, whom she screams is a murderer. Strangely though, the dude was just saving his own life, not to mention Jenny’s, so her vehement reaction is puzzling. But her hatred of Michael comes and goes, and besides the two are now on the run together.

Anyway from here Michael spends the rest of the novel rushing from one place to another, all while various assassins come after him. We see no more of The Board and only find out major plot details through phone calls, like when Michael calls his contact at one point and is casually informed that all ten members of The Board have been killed! It’s so anticlimactic as to be hilarious. I mean, you want to read this “evil James Bond” story but instead you read endless patches of description of the English countryside as Michael, Jenny, and a fellow Board employee named Henri hide in the rural home of Jenny’s aunt.

Herring delivers action scenes here and there, but as the novel progresses the sick and sadistic vibe is replaced by more of a standard action vibe. Michael in fact goes on to using pistols, his kinky murder-orgasm penchant completely forgotten. Speaking of which the violence isn’t too graphic, though some of the pictures Herring paints are particularly gruesome. But there’s just this blasé air that permeates everything, neutering any impact the book might otherwise make. Another big problem is that neither Michael nor Jenny are very likable characters.

There’s a bit more interest at the very end, where Jenny, driven to a total loathing of Michael now – guess what happens to poor old “auntie” after she and Michael try to hide in her home? – plans to sell out our sick bastard of a hero. But this development too goes nowhere. In fact Herring does his best to tear everything down, and not just the whole “Board” angle: Michael too is disfigured, his face ripped to shreds by a shotgun-blasted windshield. And Herring seems unwilling or unable to end the tale, with the final fifteen or so pages comprised of a half-dead Michael just sort of wandering around the streets of London.

It’s been a few years since I read Son Of Gun In Cheek, so I can’t remember what all Pronzini had to say about The Murder Business. I’ll have to check out the book again to see. I have to say though that the book isn’t terrible. I mean it’s not the worst book I’ve reviewed on this blog. But there’s just something ponderous and sort of detached about it, and the mid-narrative detour from the opening sadism is unfortunate.


Johny Malone said...

It would be interesting to know what the best novels of professional assassins, a genre with poor visibility.

FreeLiverFree said...

Of hand, I can think of Day of the Jackal. Barry Eisler's John Rain books are very good. I also really enjoyed Lawrence Block's stories about a hitman named Keller.

FreeLiverFree said...

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series.

Johny Malone said...

It's true: Matt Helm is a great assassin.