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Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat

By David Markson

Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007

ISBN: 9781593761349

Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these two crime novels – published as paperback originals in 1959 and 1961 – is their author: David Markson, he of Wittgenstein’s Mistress fame.  A very different kind of novel, that one.

As for Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat, they feature a PI called Harry Fannin and are set in Greenwich Village, amongst hipsters, beatniks and would-be poets and artists.  Fannin is apart from this world, indeed is not above the odd satiric quip and/or superior wisecrack.  He’s basically your typical PI, a world weary ex-cop with an errant heart.  He bends the rules and is handy with his fists.

Markson seems to have written the first, Epitaph for a Tramp, as a pastiche of Raymond Chandler – the prose is mannered, even a bit leaden at times, you’re not really engaged.  Whereas Epitaph for a Dead Beat is much more adroit, has more of the flavour of the time and place: a milieu of basement parties, coffee houses and poetry readings; hipster dialogue; every third character with pretensions to be a jazz musician or poet.  Both novels exhibit homophobia to some degree, but that’s true of a lot of pulp fiction before and since.  In fact, you could probably file the same charge against The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  Maybe it’s endemic to the genre?

These novels represent a welcome reissue – then again, I’ll read just about anything written by Markson.  The cover paintings (there are two, front and back) are by Robert McGinnis, an artist who’s done a lot of work for Hard Case Crime.

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