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Crime Watch
Date of Review: 
Published Work: 
Paul Goat Allen
Chicago Tribune

Blurring the lines between historical fact and fiction, Craig McDonald's triumphantly twisted first novel is one of the most unusual, and readable, crime-fiction releases to come along in years.

The story is set primarily in 1957, and McDonald's endearing anti-hero is well-known pulp-crime novelist Hector Lassiter, whose real life is as storied as his novels. As a teenager, he rode behind Gen. John Pershing and the ill-fated Punitive Expedition deep into Mexico in search of revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa. He knew Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, has helped Orson Welles with movie scripts, and has bedded starlets like Marlene Dietrich.

But Lassiter is now a 57-year-old widower battling alcoholism, diabetes and a lethal case of cynicism, and his glorious boozing, brawling, philandering days are long past. Or are they? After becoming entangled in an illegal transaction south of the border involving the unearthed head of Villa that quickly devolves into a bloodbath of a gunfight, Lassiter finds himself in possession of the notorious Mexican general's skull with a host of adversaries in hot pursuit.

While trying to elude irate Yale University frat boys from the Skull and Bones secret society, machine-gun toting bandidos, rogue government agents and an infamous Mexican assassin, Lassiter and a young poet-protege named Bud set off on an alcohol-and-cigarette-fueled journey across a surreal and morally bankrupt landscape that is the great American Dream. Joining such real-life characters as Ernest Hemingway and Jack Webb is an ill-mannered National Guardsman named George W., who makes a rather critical -- and comical -- cameo appearance.

Crime-fiction fans looking for an original voice should check out this exceptional debut, which blends Jack Kerouac's picaresque narrative style and James Ellroy's noir sensibilities with a heaping helping of urban legend, subtle social commentary and a trunkful of decapitated heads.