Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott here. Barry is here today with his review of Not Sleeping, Just Dead by Charles Alverson. As always, comments are welcome…..
NOT SLEEPING, JUST DEAD (1977) by Charles Alverson
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Accident, suicide, or murder? Did Katie Pierce slip from the rooftop terrace and fall to her death on the rocks below, did she deliberately jump, or was she pushed? The police are reasonably sure it was option one or two. Katie’s grandfather, Frederick Crenshaw, is certain it was option three. After asking his friend Ralph Lehman, recently retired chief of detectives of the San Francisco Police Department, for a recommendation, he hires Joe Goodey to prove it.
Goodey, a former San Francisco police detective who now operates as a private investigator, learns that Katie was a member of The Institute, a cult-like organization created and run by one Hugo Fischer, a former merchant seaman with a checkered past that included prison time “for such eccentricities as bad checks, assault and no visible means of support.” A psychedelic substance induced an epiphany of sorts, and Fischer “could visualize in broad outline the creation of a great social movement.” It took him several years, but his charismatic personality ultimately developed a following that included “neurotics, psychotics, alcoholics, workaholics, nymphomaniacs, blocked writers, pillheads, middle-class dropouts, homosexuals, just plain crooks and hoodlums and even a few hard-drug addicts whom nobody else had been able to get off the needle. And from this rabble emerged The Institute of Mankind, later shortened to just The Institute.”
Goodey’s problem would seem to be gaining admittance to The Institute for investigative purposes until Lehman tells him that Rachel Schute, a woman with whom he, Goodey, had a brief relationship, is now deeply involved with both the organization and with one of Fischer’s top associates, Dr. James Carey. Thus, via Rachel and Carey, he’s granted permission to visit The Institute in Monterey, where he’s expected to conclude, as have the police and a large private detective firm Crenshaw hired previously, that Katie Pierce’s death was a tragedy but not a murder.
At The Institute, Goodey meets the narcissistic authoritarian Hugo Fischer, his upper-echelon associates, all of whom defer to him as if he is a god, and various lower-echelon disciples. Among them are the aforementioned James Carey; Institute vice-president Don Moffitt; Fischer’s wife Lenore; press officer Mark Kinsey; a newly married sexagenarian groom and his forty-year-younger seductress-wannabe bride; a local police lieutenant, the degree of whose loyalty to his job versus the interests of The Institute is indeterminate; the mentally and emotionally unstable Tommy Carter and his philanthropic mother Emma; artist Rudolph Verrein; and writer Hank Willis. Many of them treat Goodey with unmitigated animosity as he probes for information about Katie, her relationships with other Institute members, and her death. When another death occurs, he has two mysteries to try to clear up while observing and being drawn into some of The Institute’s peculiar rituals.
Although classified as a hardboiled detective story, Not Sleeping, Just Dead is atypical in that it doesn’t really contain any of the kind of slam-bang action sequences normally associated with the genre. Its implicit theme is that with authority comes responsibility, and its emphasis is on the characters and their relationships. Charles Alverson does an exceptional job of delineating them while maintaining a pace that keeps the reader turning pages.
A blurb from The New Yorker on the cover of the paperback edition I read compares the novel to Raymond Chandler’s work. Despite some Chandleresque similes sprinkled throughout, and despite Joe Goodey’s wry approach to matters, I never felt I was reading the work of a Chandler imitator. Alverson’s voice and worldview are his own.
My sole complaint is with Playboy Press, which published the paperback edition. They really could have used a competent proofreader. There are misplaced punctuation marks here and there. Fischer’s name is often misspelled as Fisher. Another misspelling ruins a punch line because by the time the reader figures out what the author really meant, the humor is attenuated. On one page, Hank Willis is referred to as Jack Willis three times.
With the caveat that it contains instances of raw language that some readers might find offensive, Not Sleeping, Just Dead is recommended.
© 2014 by Barry Ergang
Derringer Award-winning author Barry Ergang’s work (including the mystery novelette “The Play of Light and Shadow”) can be found at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and Scribd. His website is http://www.writetrack.yolasite.com/