New York Dead by Stuart Woods (b. 1938) was first published in 1991. This is the first in the Stone Barrington series. There is really not much I can say about this one that is positive. Shockingly, there are over sixty in the series. One of the reasons I read it is because I am trying to get through a very large stack of – truly – pulp fiction. The stack has a lot of real junk fiction on it – schlock and pulp at its finest worst. Part of me is utterly amused by how horrible most of these books are. I do mean in that paradoxical sense of “so bad, its good.” Not all of them meet that level, though. Most are “so bad, just so bad.”
So interspersed with my usual much better reads there are going to be some of these schlock novels. I could not possibly read them back-to-back, I would probably expire. However, I realize it is ludicrous to use the same sort of rating system that I do with general fiction, etc. The first thing to do is to decide if a thing is in the “Schlock Category” or not. This book by Woods is without doubt in that category. So, then to decide how to rate it within that category? Maybe the novels earn stars through meeting basic elements. Like a coherent plot. Well, let me share that New York Dead is missing that. The plot was so, utterly, unnecessarily, uncomfortably ridiculous that it lost any claim to the concept “plot.”
Maybe we give a star for likeable and enjoyable characters. Ones that are good to have met because they are interesting, curious people or because they are proficient at their jobs. Characters that maybe a better story and a better author could really develop. In New York Dead we meet no one even remotely good at their jobs or even in the slightest to be likeable. (There is a character named Baron Harkness – whom I could not think otherwise than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune.) These are some idiotic and wretched characters – in particular the main character, Stone Barrington. The “uniqueness” is that he is allegedly from an upper “WASP” background full of money and education (he has his law degree, just has not passed the bar exam, which, by the way, he does in a skinny minute) and he inherits a massive old home. Except Stone decided he wants to be a cop because of some convoluted backstory that is unrealistic. The thing is, he isn’t even a good cop, but we are supposed to believe that he is a detective (second rank). Instead, he is an intemperate, undisciplined sucker who enjoys going to the posh spots in NYC. Its supposed to come off as unique, but instead its dislikeable and toxic.
All right, but what about good writing? Good pulp writing should be a bit sharp and snappy. Caustic and yes, maybe it does rely on tropes, stereotypes, and well-built standards of junk fiction. But the writing should be relatively consistent. New York Dead has several examples of stupid writing:
“I had a couple of good collars that got me a detective’s shield; I had a good rabbi – a senior cop who helped me with promotion; he’s dead now, though, and I seem to have slowed down a bit.” – pg. 77, chapter 10.
That was the main character talking to another key character over dinner. Stone was asked for his life story and he just spewed it out over the dinner. Not very wary, is he? Anyway, he told her what a “rabbi” in that context was. But then on page 128 we have this interchange:
“Stone laughed and shook his head. “To get that badge, you’d have to sign up for the Police Academy, walk a beat for a few years, spend a few more in a patrol car, then get luck on a bust or two, and have a very fine rabbi.”
“A senior cop who takes an interest in your career?”
“Do you have a rabbi?”
“I did. His name was Ron Rosenfeld.”
“And he helped you?” – pg 128, chapter 17
I mean, holy crap. If it had been a conversation between two different characters, maybe? But its like Groundhog Day at dinnertime with these idiots.
Setting and pacing might be my last two vital elements for these silly novels. I can be a sucker for certain settings and I can appreciate well-written settings. I want to see those in all the books. I want the place to come alive. And if there is no setting whatsoever (Cp. PKD’s novels) then there has to be a legitimate reason for it (in PKD’s case, a setting would keep the plot too grounded and PKD likes when the reader is floundering a bit). As far as pacing goes, well, even a bad story can have action or edge-of-your-seat interest. Surprises, maybe? Tension and suspense?
Well, New York Dead was a bad read. I am not saying that because it is junk fiction. I am saying it because as I might rate schlock, it still does not attain a good rating. I mean, there are some things in here that are just so awful I cannot write about them. Trust me, do not read this one – its very bad on the crap scale. The best thing that comes of my having read this (and my expectations on it were very low, by the way, when I began it) is that now I have some benchmark for how the junk fiction pile should be assessed. It gets 1 star for the fact that the idea of the main character is vaguely unique; too bad it was mauled. So, pure junk and bad even for it being pure junk!
** I made a grievous error in writing this review. There is a character, Elaine, who is, for all intents and purposes, Elaine Kaufman (1929 – 2010). My error in saying there were no likeable characters obviously does not include Elaine – real or simulacrum.