March 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Short, Sharp, Shock: The Work of George C. Chesbro

We’ll get to the dead. Let’s talk about the disappeared.

One of the aspects of the publishing industry that shocks me is how quickly authors and their work can vanish from the face of the earth. Like some haunted face on a milk carton, they can just fall away and one day that book that you used to carry around and read every six months is in a box. The big box bookstores are desperate for shelf space and suddenly they have thumped your hard man or scribbling murderess away to the remainder bin to make room for the annotated, illustrated, multimedia version of that Da Vinci thing. Bastards.

The tricky thing about the disappeared is that things that are cool tend to be hoarded by the hip. It explains why I can’t find that CD of Tom Waits’s The Early Years at the record store, why I’ve never seen a first edition of Fight Club and why you know who Bret Easton Ellis is but you’ve never heard of James Robert Baker and Fuel-Injected Dreams. Cool fades. It takes work to unearth.

So let’s dig. Out comes the shortest, baddest, ass-kicking crime fighter that ever stalked the hard-boiled streets. George Chesbro's creation Mongo the Magnificent was one of the most readable detectives ever created, stalking the weirdest adventures that mixed tough-guy gunplay with fantastic plots that bordered on science fiction. Dr. Robert Frederickson is a doctor of criminology at New York University, a black belt in karate, and a licensed private detective. It sounded almost clichéd until you found out he was a dwarf, a former world-class circus performer billed as “Mongo the Magnificent.”

“Some years ago a psychiatrist had told me that finding out things other people didn't want known was my way of trying to stay even with a society filed with people bigger than I was,” says Mongo in his debut, Shadow of a Broken Man. “The remark had been meant to startle, to provoke insight, and eventually to alter my behavior. Instead, I'd simply found that I thoroughly agreed with him, and had gone out after a private investigator's license.”

Starting with mystery magazines, Chesbro created a unique witches’ brew of noir brutality, occult tension, detective science and bizarre villains. Playboy once described it as Raymond Chandler meets Stephen King but it was often more like James Bond on acid. Mongo had the skills, the international intrigue and the strange appeal of a man forced to make his way in a world of giants. Through fourteen novels, Mongo fought monsters, warlocks and scientists. He battled Iranian secret police. He infiltrated an isolated biosphere. He fought ninjas.

In 1996, Simon & Schuster quietly published Dream of a Falling Eagle, the last Mongo adventure to see mainstream print. Mongo disappeared.

Thankfully, Chesbro has managed to secure the rights to his work and he and his wife Robin have put the Mongo mysteries back into print. They formed Apache Beach Publications to put all of the books back into print as well as corollary novels from Chesbro’s stab at action-adventure in the Chant series, the Veil Kendry books featuring an eccentric veteran with psychic powers, and two new short story collections. All are finally available through the author at Admittedly, the covers look a bit rough, as if they’ve been hand printed. While they don’t have the bizarre 1970’s surrealist covers on the rare paperbacks in used bookstores, it is nice to have them in a solid trade paperback edition.

In even stranger news than the sudden reappearance of the books, the film rights were purchased and they might not even screw them up. An Australian/Hollywood partnership has announced plans to bring An Affair of Sorcerers to the screen with actor Peter Dinklage as Mongo. The actor received widespread critical acclaim for his starring role in The Station Agent and should translate well into Mongo.

First the books, though. Make the effort. They’re worth it. Chesbro’s writing is as solid as anyone in the business with rich plots, terse dialogue and smart commentary from our hero. Start with Shadow of a Broken Man, in which Mongo is approached about finding Victor Rafferty, a famous architect who died under mysterious circumstances. Rafferty suffered terribly in a car accident, taking a blow to the head that may have left him not only alive but changed. Helped by his brother Garth, a police detective, and pursued by a ruthless government agent, Mongo takes the fight all the way to the hall of power at the United Nations.

City of Whispering Stone was actually the first Mongo novel to be written and although its complex tale set in Tehran seems a bit dated, it reflects Chesbro’s interests in using the novel as a form of social commentary. By the time An Affair of Sorcerers emerged in 1979, the author had hit his stride and marched unafraid into one of his continuing themes of human belief systems. Trying to spring a faith healer and investigating a mysterious colleague researching sensory deprivation should fill a book nicely but then Kathy Marlowe, Mongo’s seven-year-old neighbor, gives him her life's savings -- 57 cents -- to find her father's "Book of Shadows.” It’s fantastic and gripping writing but moreover, Chesbro’s plots are surprising. The sheer sensation of seeing an author find their way into something completely new is exhilarating, like watching Blade Runner for the first time.

There are plenty of good books in the Mongo canon. Second Horseman Out of Eden starts with a puzzling letter to Santa Claus and leads to a crazed millionaire bent on destruction. The Fear In Yesterday’s Rings takes Mongo back to the circus. Bleeding in the Eye of a Brainstorm calls on Chesbro’s experiences in working with mentally ill children.

The pinnacle of the Mongo series and a book even the author admits is his very best is The Beasts of Valhalla. It’s the perfect mix of science fiction, detective fact and bold writing in which Chesbro exudes absolute confidence in his weird masterpiece. Mongo is already under high stress when he returns to his Nebraska hometown for his nephew’s funeral, facing the monsters of his own tormented childhood. Before long, he has run headlong into the plans of a family of disturbing geniuses who are mucking about with DNA sequencing, creating strange creatures and leading up to a plan to devolve the human race back to its starting point. Mongo and Garth follow the trail from New York City to a crazed Christian cult in California's Big Sur, to a bloody showdown in an icebound fortress. Mongo breathes water and fights with a ancient sword, assisted by his blue-furred brother, their deadly friend Lippitt and an altered gorilla named Gollum.

It’s epic. It’s cult. It’s unexplainable but it’s damned addictive. Go dig. The dead will wait.