Tuesday, July 11, 2023

QUICK SHOTS: A Fistful of Empty by Benjamin M. Schutz

Benjamin M. Schutz was a part of the post-Spenser private eye renaissance of the 80's, but seemingly got a little lost in the shuffle. Before I went totally nuts for buying books on the internet, I remember looking for some of his books for ages. I'm sure I found out about him, and his private eye Leo Haggerty from the Thrilling Detective Website and it sounded good. Eventually I tracked down the first in the series Embrace the Wolf and enjoyed in enough to buy the books when I found them, but not to do my searching. See, this is me saying I'm stupid. 

Leo Haggerty is a PI working in Washington DC, with a steady girlfriend, Samantha, who's a novelist and a much more dangerous bounty-hunting buddy named Arnie. The set-up looks familiar to those who have tested out Robert B. Parker's Spenser (or a lot of post Spenser cash grabs) but when I read the first book, I remember thinking that Schutz was a good enough writer to shake the set-up up and do his own thing. Haggerty isn't above fisticuffs or a shoot-outs, but does stop and play with the notions of moral repercussions of his actions. More Lew Archer than Mike Hammer. Which of course, was a central part of a lot of the 80s-90s detectives. Kinder and gentler, but eh, you still have to have some thrills in your thrillers, so gunfight!

So, Embrace the Wolf was a nice paperback detective book, and he wrote a handful more (one winning a Shamus) before he wrote A Fistful of Empty. And boy howdy, what a book A Fistful of Empty is. For a fifth book in a fairly standard series, it's a complete destruction of the formula. I kinda wish I read them through to see what impact the change had, but c'est la vie. It's a big stake-up and a ballsy move. 

Leo makes a choice one night to go help Arnie on a bounty hunting gig. It's partly a macho "get your brothers back" thing, it's partly a knee-jerk to being behind a desk too long and craving a little excitement but what it really is the ultimate bad decision that changes the course of his life and those around him. See Samantha really wanted him to come home and in choosing Arnie there's a crack forming. Then with something hidden in Arnie's car during the arrest leads to a brutal attack on Samantha that haunts the novel to the murder of the "super-badass" Arnie and leaves Leo fully culpable for the revenge that is on his mind as he goes on the run to figure it all out. 

The Arnie/Leo function is a lot like that of Spenser/Hawk. You can have a nice shiny hero with a moral compass who functions fine in society but still give the bloody vengeance of a Hammer as long as you have an outlier who doesn't feel like they owe anything to society and who's personal code is more important that of the masses. That's an 80s thing which isn't really in the Men's Adventure of the 70s. Revenge ruled then, and I think a lot of writers liked that immediate catharsis but felt like couldn't let go of the Marlowe-knight-type. 

With Arnie dead and his girlfriend shattered by the attack, Leo has to be by himself as he lives nearly on the run from mysterious killers and figure out just why this has all happened to him. He also has to deal with the fact that it was all ultimately his fault but not just going home to Samantha one night. The mystery is nicely complex, the villains are nasty, some outright and the rest are just nasty with their indifference to human life. The secondary characters that Schutz populates the novel with are all interesting in their own way, from research lab techs to computer hackers, to evil Neo-Nazi's to corporate assholes. The central McGuffin is nice and simple, yet big and it all unfolds at a hectic pace. 

A Fistful of Empty was a helluva book that should get a lot more attention. Leo is a fine, flawed hero and what was particularly refreshing is that Samantha is a woman-character who was just as well-written. Her feelings and actions ring true, and it'll break your heart a little. Schutz wrote one more Leo book after this and then turned to short stories mostly which I immediately bought. This is one of the finest private eye detective novels I've ever read.