Thursday, May 25, 2023

Digger #1: Smoked Out

Digger #1: Smoked Out, by Warren Murphy
February, 1982  Pocket Books

The prolific Warren Murphy wrote this private eye series for Pocket Books, and ultimately it ran for four volumes, after which Murphy jumped ship to another publisher and changed the series (and protagonist’s) name to Trace. But for this initial series, Pocket followed the same angle as Popular Library did a decade earlier when they packaged the similarly action-free P.I. series Hardy as an “action series.” 

Not to imply that Digger is as bland and boring as Hardy. I mean, at least Julian “Digger” Burroughs does more than watch TV and eat in Smoked Out. He finds time to hook up with a couple women and even get in a fistfight. But otherwise the action is about on the level of The Rockford Files or some other private eye TV show of the era. And if I’m not mistaken, Trace did end up as a TV show, or at least a TV pilot. Anyway, Digger doesn’t even carry a gun; his weapon of choice is a tape recorder, “the size of a pack of cigarettes,” which he usually straps to his chest to surreptitiously record the witnesses he interviews. 

Like the earlier Killinger, Digger is a claims investigator, but unlike Killinger he isn’t a “ruggedly virile” type who lives on a Chinese junk with all the bachelor pad trimmings. Digger is in more of your typical sleazebag private eye mold, and operates out of Las Vegas, where he shares an apartment with a hotstuff Japanese babe named Koko who happens to be a high-class hooker. The Digger-Koko relationship is by far the best thing about Smoked Out, and in truth is a little reminiscent of the Remo-Chiun relationship in The Destroyer, if only for the acidic barbs which are traded back and forth. There’s also the element that the two love each other but cannot admit it (to each other or to themselves), just like Remo and Chiun. 

But, obviously, it’s a romantic love in Digger, instead of the father-son love of The Destroyer. Otherwise as you’ll note, it’s the same setup: smart-ass white protagonist and calm-natured Asian, with all the bickering and bantering Murphy does so well. In fact he does it too well, as ultimately I found that my problem with Smoked Out was the same as with the other Destroyer novels I’ve read: it was all just too glib for its own good. I kept having bad flashbacks to Chevy Chase in Fletch (which I only saw once, in the theater when it came out, and I was just a kid), as it was quite hard to take Digger as a serious character as he spent the entirety of the novel making one glib comment after another. 

As with The Destroyer, there was nothing believable about the character, at least nothing that made his drive to solve the case believable. Digger, like Remo, seems to exist in his own self-impressed world, mocking and laughing at everything, thus it is hard to understand why he even cares about cracking insurance cases. Same as when Remo is suddenly all resolved to stop some bad guy. Why does he even care? What drives him? This must be a recurring gimmick of Warren Murphy protagonists. They’re such glib smart-asses that I personally can’t believe in them when they’re suddenly retconned into determined heroes due to the demands of the plot. 

In other words, if things aren’t serious for the protagonist, how are they supposed to be serious for the reader? But then, we aren’t talking about globe-threatening plots in this series: Digger’s first case has him investigating the death of a wealthy doctor’s wife in Los Angeles. This would be Mrs. Jessalyn Welles, who’s car ran over a cliff while her doctor husband was a few hundred miles away at a conference. Digger gets the job from his company and heads to L.A., where we learn posthaste the method of his investigation: he goes around to a seemingly-endless parade of people who knew Mrs. Welles, introduces himself with a different fake name to each, and then runs his mouth endlessly in the hopes of getting info from them. 

It gets to be confusing – and not just to the reader. Digger gives one new name after another, seemingly coming up with the names on the fly, as well as what his job is. And of course trading glib dialog with the person he’s trying to get info from. Pretty soon he gets confused which name he gave which person. It’s all funny at first but quickly becomes grating. I guess I just have to accept the fact that I’m not a big fan of Warren Murphy’s novels. And the dialog just gets to be grating. He finds a dimwitted babe who is into vitamin pills and trades lots of glib dialog with her about them. Or he concocts the novel scheme of going around and telling people he’s working on a remembrance card for Mrs. Welles and wants input from those who knew her. 

Speaking of babes, Digger manages to get laid – not that he seems to enjoy it much. Another curious Remo parallel. Anyway, it’s a Scandanavian gal who casually admits she’s had an affair with Dr. Welles, and soon enough Digger’s in bed with her. And thinking of Koko the whole time. That said, Murphy gets fairly explicit here, more so than any of the Destroyer novels I’ve read. But still, Digger doesn’t seem to enjoy it. For one, Murphy’s sarcastic vibe is so perpetuating that any cheap thrills the reader might want are denied; the gal in question is treated so derisively and dismissively by Digger that one would be hard-pressed to understand that she is in fact very attractive and incredibly built. Digger could just as easily be screwing a cardboard cutout, is what I’m trying to say. Also, more focus is placed on Digger’s certainty that the gal is faking it, with his running commentary on how he’d rate her performance. It’s only when Digger himself finally orgasms that he is “Surprised once again at how good it felt.” This is the sort of robotic shit that plagued The Destroyer

One difference between Remo and Digger is that Digger isn’t a “superman” (like the old Pinnacle house ads described Remo). Shortly after the lovin’ there’s a part where Digger is ambushed by a few guys; certainly the inspiration for the cover art, as this is pretty much the only “action” scene in the entirety of Smoked Out. Digger gives as good as he gets, but still gets his ass kicked and is only saved by the appearance of another female character. The ambush was due to Digger’s investigation, of course, and true to the template of most all P.I. novels Digger soon discovers that Mrs. Welles was into all kinds of shady stuff, and that her death might not have been so accidental. 

But still, Smoked Out was a chore of a read. The glib protagonist, the glib dialog, hell even the glib author – I could only imagine Warren Murphy smirking to himself the entire time he wrote it. I mean the dude could write, there’s no argument on that. I just don’t like what he wrote. But as the cover of Smoked Out declares, “over 20 million” Warren Murphy novels were in print in 1982, so clearly my sentiments aren’t shared by everyone.

1 comment:

Grant said...

I get the complaint about the "Scandinavian girl" scene, since one of my pet peeves about the Destroyer series is how it hammers home Remo's "detached" attitude about sex, since he's TOO good at it to enjoy it.
Fortunately # 5 and # 6 and some others are big exceptions to that.