If you can name for me a crime series as wildly different book-to-book than Craig McDonald’s Hector Lassiter saga, I’ll eat my fucking hat sans hot sauce. Head Games was a violent, whiskey-soaked road trip with a severed head in the trunk. Toros & Torsos was a serial killer book that spanned decades and broke your heart. Now with Print the Legend McDonald has given us a spy thriller where the stakes are nothing less than the fate of the Great American Novel itself. To say that Craig McDonald has some fucking range in him is like saying John Holmes had a fair-to-middling sized cock.
The bulk of the action in Print the Legend takes place at a Hemingway convention in Hem’s deathplace of Ketchum, Idaho in 1965. Hector Lassiter, a crime novelist who “lives what he writes and writes what he lives,” is in town as a key-note speaker, but he also hopes to talk to the widow Hemingway regarding some lost pieces of his and Hem’s that have turned up recently. Also in town are Hemingway scholar Richard Paulson and his pregnant bride Hannah. Paulson has been hired by Mary Hemingway to write her biography, but secretly he wishes to interrogate the widow as to what really happened the morning Papa was said to have killed himself. Also in the mix is a nasty hack writer/FBI agent named Creedy with plans to ruin Hemingway’s good name and kill the reputation of the American novel for his boss, J. Edgar Hoover.
What sounds fucking crazy in a condensed plot summary is made plausible through McDonald’s deft research, character work and plotting. After all, Hoover had agents following writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck all throughout his long reign as director of the FBI, looking to hinder their influence on American minds. By taking the facts a step further, McDonald has come up with a startlingly original novel. And not to sound like a grizzled old coot or some shit like that, but it’s fun to think of a time when the novel meant so very much culturally (ah romanticizing the past – is there a more dangerous yet fun mental activity to be had?).
But just because the novel is fairly plausible and full of literary-minded shit does not mean that it’s no fun. In fact, most of the time Print the Legend is a fucking hoot. There’s non-stop jabs at critics and scholars, druggings galore (and I mean a fucking TON of druggings), murder, interrogation, and Hector putting his medicare-qualifying dick to pretty young things. But for all the shennanigans, there’s the legacy of Hemingway hanging over the whole affair. This shit isn’t as painful and complex as Toros & Torsos was (For me that’s the novel to beat so far), but towards the end you get hit pretty hard emotionally all the same. Like Toros, the book favors complex plotting and conspiracy shit more than the whiz-fucking-bang action of Head Games, but like all McDonald’s work this is a crime novel first, historical novel second. In other words, it’s fucking swift as all hell.
But let the Nerd say, as fascinating as all the Papa shit is, I’m hoping that, since Toros and Legend are extremely Hem-heavy, that McDonald will concentrate on other famous folks for a while with his next few books. I think I’ve had my fill of Hem for a while – maybe next time out we can get back to Orson Welles or some other famous friend of Hector’s.
If you’re unfamiliar with McDonald’s work, you should correct that shit immediately. He’s doing his own version of James Ellroy’s “Underworld USA” alternative history thing with the Lassiter series. Thing is, there’s a shit-ton more straight-up fun to be had in McDonald’s world than Ellroy’s. That said, don’t think for a fucking second that you can walk away from a Craig McDonald novel unscathed.