Monday, January 17, 2022

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow, by Jon Messmann
August, 1973  Pyramid Books

The third volume of Jefferson Boone, Handyman is a little better than the previous two, because Jon Messmann backs off on the “international terrorist” angle and delivers a mystery plot that’s more in-line with his cerebral protagonist. It was kind of hard to buy the whole Jefferson “Handyman” Boone concept in the earlier books; as I wrote, he just came off a bit too much like “James Bond meets Frasier Crane” to be believable. Messmann also slightly tones down on the introspective musings, which is a help, but he also turns way up on the casual misogyny. 

Again, I don’t virtue-signal lightly (or ever, really), but in this case there’s no other word for it but misogyny. Messmann is kind of a creep in how he typically treats his female characters, as has been noted in reviews of his other novels (as well as in the comments sections). And I’m not talking about how he objectifies them, how he always mentions their breasts – I mean I encourage stuff like that from my men’s adventure authors; these books should come straight from the male id. What I mean is how many of his male protagonists are just total assholes to women. Constantly putting them down, snipping at them, mocking them, etc. Murder Today, Money Tomorrow goes further in this regard than any previous Messmann novel I’ve read, with the ultimate effect that Boone (or “Jeff,” as Messmann most often refers to him in the narrative) comes off as a dick, and the “taming of the shrew” angle ultimately makes no sense in the context of the book. 

There’s no pickup from previous volumes, and in fact Messmann gives a bit more background on Jeff this time. Not too much, but in dialog Jeff relates how he decided to become an international “handyman” after the murder of his diplomat father. In fact we’re told his dad was “killed right in front” of Jeff. This volume overall really ties into Jeff’s past; when we meet him he’s waiting in the dark in rural Virginia for a childhood friend named Roger Van Court, an eccentric guy Jeff never really liked. Jeff’s dad and Roger’s mom were apparently having a bit of a fling when the two boys were kids, and Jeff would spend every Christmas at the Van Court estate. And we’re really in the upper-crust world of the filthy rich; this series has always traded on the jet-set world, and Murder Today, Money Tomorrow makes it clear that Jefferson Boone grew up in the lap of luxury. This of course makes his current role as a total bad-ass a bit hard to buy, but whatever. 

That bad-assery is displayed posthaste, though; first Boone is approached by a “truculent” young blonde with an “elfin” build who appears to be with Roger. Jeff immediately dislikes her, for reasons Messmann never really makes believable. She’s protective of Roger, clearly, but Jeff suspects her of foul play or somesuch. Roger does appear, but only momentarily, as some guys with guns show up and start blasting at him. In the pitch dark Jeff manages to turn the tables, killing off the thugs with his pistol. Here Messmann introduces a new gimmick to the series: Jeff drops a “little gold toolbox” onto one of the corpses. In other words, the calling card of the “Handyman.” Meanwhile, both Roger and the girl have fled. Jeff goes back to DC for some good lovin’ with a chick he’s been checking out at cocktail parties over the past few years; Messmann develops this curious subplot where the girl, Fran, she of the “full-bosomed, long-legged loveliness,” wants to be Jeff’s steady, but the relationship is broken off within a few pages, due to jealousy. Fran calls Jeff up next morning and discovers another girl on the line. This is Cassie, the “elfin blonde” who was with Roger the night before; she’s lost Roger as well, and will hang out with Jeff for the duration to find him again. 

The funny thing about Money Today, Murder Tomorrow is that the back cover makes it clear that Roger Van Court, a geologist, has made a discovery that could lead to a new form of power. However, Jefferson Boone spends the entire novel not knowing what it is Roger’s discovered, nor why so many people are trying to kill him. Even more ridiculously, Cassie herself has no idea what Roger was up to, even though she’s spent the past year as his companion. The two had an “understanding,” one that Messmann plays out as a lame mystery for almost the entire novel. But it’s clear that she and Roger were close, and a recurring bit is that Jeff is just unable to see Roger being with this cute blonde with an elfin build…however, when Cassie comes over to Jeff’s pad and takes off her coat, Jeff sees that “the little elf had magnificently high, full breasts.” 

Poor Cassie can’t catch a break from Jeff or Roger. She goes around the world with Jeff, who treats her like shit the entire time. Putting her down, mocking her, disparaging her relationship with Roger. He’s constantly on the attack, too; I lost count of the number of times Messmann used the dialog modifier “tossed off” when Jeff spoke to Cassie. But then Roger was a dick to her, too, a condescending one at that. She’s from backwoods Tennessee (or maybe it’s West Virginia; Messmann can’t seem to make up his mind), and Roger met her while on one of his research trips. He took a cotton to her, took her under his wing; it was a podunk town and everyone always took Cassie for granted until Roger Van Court came along. But, we learn, he tried to give her culture, giving her books to read, teaching her how to act in “polite society,” etc, etc. Now that’s “mansplaining” folks. And of course done without any apology; indeed, Jeff is quite pleased with the progress Roger made on the otherwise rednecked Cassie! 

But see that’s the thing. Nowhere does Cassie act like a dumb hick, or do anything stupid, or do anything that would make Jeff dislike her. And yet Jeff does dislike or at least distrust her, and goes out of his way to attack her at all times. It makes him seem like a total asshole, and what’s weird is that you get the impression that Messman doesn’t think he is an asshole. I mean we aren’t talking like an anti-hero sort of deal here. Jeff is the hero, no questions asked. So he takes Cassie under his own wing and they follow the vague leads on where Roger could be holed up, and why. Given this, Cassie has a greater part in the narrative than previous female characters. But it’s a strange relationship for sure, and Jeff’s attitude toward Cassie would certainly get him canceled in today’s “believe all women” world. 

It soon becomes clear that Roger is into something deep and is hiding for a reason. Jeff is constantly followed; even when going to pick Cassie up, driving back into Virginia, he’s tailed by some goons, managing to lose them in some salt flats. It gets to be annoying, though, because every time Jeff gets close to Roger, the guy will either run away or send an emissary in his place, to the extent that it almost takes on the tone of a Monty Python skit. Roger’s sought out Jeff, though, because Jeff’s “Handyman” status has become legedary, and also even as a kid Jefferson Boone was known for his fortitude. The action is infrequent, but always handled in a realistic matter when it happens, however as usual Messmann never dwells on the gory details. After encountering a few random thugs, Jeff deduces that Portugal had something to do with whatever Roger was into, so he and Cassie head there. 

The jet-setting Eurotrash stuff is pretty thick, here; as I mentioned before, Jefferson Boone, Handyman is more akin to the trash fiction bestsellers of the day, a la Burt Hirschfeld and the like. Messmann shows restraint, though, in that Jeff does not conjugate with the ultra-hot, ultra-stacked beauty Maria De Vasquez, whom he first sees getting into a fancy vintage car outside of a restaurant. Through various plot developments, Jeff has settled on Maria’s wealthy uncle as someone who might know what Roger was up to. De Vasquez seems to have walked out of a Bond novel, a man of such wealth that he retains his own retinue of enforcers and who has a garage filled with priceless vintage cars. Even here though the battle of wills with Cassie is played out; De Vasquez invites Jeff and Cassie to a party at his villa, and Jeff keeps imploring Cassie not to go, telling her she’ll be “out of her league” and “make a fool of herself” in front of all the jet-setting Euroscum. Seriously, the guy’s a dick. 

But the “Pygmallion” stuff is only reinforced when Cassie, wouldja believe, comes out of her room ready for the party…and it’s as if she’s become an entirely different woman. She has just one dress – bought for her by Roger, of course, for when he took her to socialite parties! – and she’s gotten her hair done, and she of course manages to hold her own at the party. Indeed she holds it so well that Jeff finds himself ignoring super-stacked Maria to keep checking on Cassie! Now all along Cassie’s been telling Jeff there was “more to the story” so far as her relationship with Roger went, and that night she finally tells Jeff it all: due to a “childhood incident,” Roger was no longer able to, uh, rise to the occasion, thus he and Cassie had a sort of “student-teacher” relationship and nothing more. And folks you better believe she’s ready for some good lovin’. She and Jeff go at it in a fairly explicit scene that for once doesn’t play out with the Hirschfeld-esque metaphors and analogies of previous such scenes. 

And meanwhile, Jeff still ponders this unfathomable case, this “increasingly multifaceted rigadoon with death.” Yes, that’s actually a line in the book. I don’t think even prime-era William Shatner could’ve delivered that with a straight face. (Orson Welles probably could’ve…and then he’d take a thoughtful puff on his ever-present cigar.) Finally, on page 147, Jeff learns that Roger was in-line to a breakthrough in “thermal energy.” This he learns from his State Dept. contact Charley Hopkins. And, of course, De Vasquez and his minions are out for it. This leads to a nice action scene where Cassie gets in on it; a country girl, she’s more than familiar with handling a rifle, and uses one to blast apart some thugs they chase while Jeff handles the car. As I say, she’s a likable character, making Jeff’s treatment of her seem even worse…though of course by this point they’ve been to bed a few times together, so at least he’s nicer to her. 

This proves to be the action highlight of the novel. As befitting the mystery thriller Murder Today, Money Tomorrow really is, the actual climax plays out more on a suspense vibe. Jeff and Cassie return to Roger’s home, where they learn exactly why thugs were constantly popping out of the woodwork to tail them. In other words there was a traitor in Roger’s life, and this character is dealt with in an entertaining – if predictable – finale. And it’s also worth noting that Jeff pitchforks a guy in this climactic sequence. It’s also interesting that Cassie knows her fling with Jeff has a limited lifespan; at novel’s end she wants one more roll in the hay, then she’s off to live her life. 

But man, there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t even cover here…like the bit where Jeff and Cassie go back to Cassie’s home town and run into some rednecks there. And other stuff on Jeff’s highfalutin childhood and jet-setting life in DC. As ever Messmann packs a lot of prose into the small, dense print of the book, clearly trying to write a “real” novel instead of the third installment of an action series. And I have to say, I think he succeeded this time. It won’t float everyone’s boat, but Murder Today, Money Tomorrow was pretty entertaining…if you can put aside the main character’s rampant misogyny, that is.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Maybe the guy is just an elitist snob?