Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 07/10/2001.
The Kinkster is still churning out his detective mysteries, although these days they battle for shelf space with his non-fiction works. For example, You Can Lead A Politician To Water But You Can't Make Him Think tells the true story of what happened when he ran for Governor of Texas in 2006 (campaign slogan: "How Hard Can It Be?").
I've been back to New York twice since I wrote this piece, and the closest I've got to achieving an item on my list was looking in the window of Myers of Keswick while it was closed.
221B Baker Street is a branch of the Abbey National building society. Everyone knows that. Doesn't stop them coming, though.
It didn't even exist when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made it the London residence of Sherlock Holmes: the numbers on Baker Street didn't go up as far as 221 until some time after his death. But some legends are just too big to be quashed by mere facts. So fans faithfully flock to the Abbey National building to gaze wistfully at it, and imagine what it looked like in a better, simpler, yet somehow more murderous time.
My first visit to New York two years ago was ruined somewhat by torrential rain, as I've mentioned elsewhere. But when I go back, I suspect I'll be making a similarly pointless pilgrimage. Because I want to see what 199B Vandam Street looks like.
199B Vandam is the home of Richard Kinky 'Big Dick' Friedman, the country-singing detective hero of a series of novels written by country-singing non-detective Kinky Friedman. The real Kinky had - and, to a lesser extent, still has - a long and flourishing career as a writer and singer of the sort of C&W songs which laugh in the face of political correctness and then piss all over its hair for good measure. They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Any More, Old Ben Lucas Had A Lotta Mucus, Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed - titles to rank with the best in the genre, but for once with lyrics just as funny throughout.
But in 1986, Kinky branched out into detective fiction with Greenwich Killing Time, his first novel. He cast himself in the lead role: a country and western singer, living in a rundown Greenwich Village apartment with only a cat for company, who accidentally finds himself involved in a murder mystery. Using the C&W music scene as his backdrop, he wangled in most of his real-life friends as the supporting cast, and used all his favourite venues and NY locations as scenery. And he's been doing it on an almost annual basis ever since: Steppin' On A Rainbow, the volume currently under consideration, is his fourteenth. Fourteen novels' worth of gags, thrills and infectiously inventive language: after only a couple you'll be calling your shower "the rain room", and going to the lavatory with the excuse that you need to "take a Nixon".
Over the years, Kinky and the band of compadres he calls the Village Irregulars have become perfectly real to me, simply by virtue of the fact that they are real. And the same goes for the locations too. So dammit, I want to visit 199B Vandam Street, and strain to hear Winnie Katz' lesbian dance class stomping the hell out of Kinky's ceiling. I want to drink beer at the Lone Star Cafe, or possibly at The Monkey's Paw on Bedford Street, described by Kinky as "one of the few heterosexual bars in the area." I want to taste the killer-bee roast pork at Big Wong's, and risk the social stigma of not being given linen at the Carnegie Deli. I want to shop at Myers Of Keswick - a foolish idea really, as its sole purpose is to import British foodstuffs like pork pies and Scotch eggs for the homesick Brits living in New York.
I'll do it one day. And I may even write about it here. But for now, we'll have to make do with the books.
Steppin' On A Rainbow - the title's a familiar Kinkster euphemism for death - begins, as these things always do, with Kinky alone in his apartment, pondering the miserable nature of his life. Things are even more depressing than usual, as all of the Village Irregulars are out of town. Larry 'Ratso' Sloman - one-time National Lampoon editor, ghost writer of Howard Stern's books, owner of the worst clothing ensemble in New York - is off on a writing assignment, and sadly doesn't feature in this book at all after the first page. Mike McGovern - journalist, Irish poet, inventor of the Chicken McGovern - is in Hawaii researching recipes for the Kinkster's cookbook Eat, Drink And Be Kinky. (In the non-fictional universe we live in, McGovern published this book last year.) Steve Rambam - real private investigator, occasional spy, the hardest Jew in New York - is in Israel working on - you guessed it - his own book, an autobiography.
The silence is eventually broken by the beautiful yet unattainable Stephanie DuPont: you could say she's had a love-hate relationship with the Kinkster over the years, except there never seems to be much love around when the two of them are swapping bitchy wisecracks. As she returns home from holiday for the funeral of Pyramus, one of her beloved dogs, it seems like the perfect opportunity for the Kinkster to move in and offer her his sympathy. Except it's right at this time that, as ever, trouble pops up to bite Kinky on the ass.
Because McGovern has vanished. Last seen on a Hawaiian beach, all that's left of him is a clutch of notes for the recipe book, and a mysterious phone call in which he can be heard shouting "MIT! MIT! MIT!" - the Man In Trouble code word that Kinky and McGovern have always used to alert each other to danger.
Kinky doesn't have any choice but to fly out to Hawaii and track down the whereabouts of his favourite Irish poet. He's aided by his local contacts, journalist Will Hoover and shampoo centimillionaire John McCall. He's abetted by Stephanie, who's accompanying him with her surviving dogs Thisbe and Baby Savannah, in an attempt to take her mind off her recent bereavement. The trouble is, by the end of the week, bereavement will be the only thing on everybody's mind...
You see it happening in every long-running TV show: after a few years, they're desperately looking for ways to keep the audience's attention, and so they do The Holiday Episode. Send all the cast off to an exotic location, and rely on the change in scenery to make things interesting. So Friends went to London, Only Fools And Horses went to Miami, and now Kinky's going to Hawaii.
As a result, Steppin' On A Rainbow isn't the book I'd recommend to a newcomer to the series. There's something comforting and reliable about Kinky's love-hate relationship with New York: take him away from there for any length of time, and you lose one of the elements that gives a Kinky Friedman mystery its unique flavour.
And there's another problem with the setting, one which it's difficult to explain clearly without blowing the plot (but I'll try). The Kinky mysteries may be funny as hell, but they're also properly constructed whodunnits. He doesn't cheat: he lays out all the clues for you, and pulls it all together at the end like the best crime writers do. (To that end, if you are a first time Kinky reader and you're looking for a book to start with, I'd suggest his previous novel The Mile High Club - the one I was promising to review last year but never got around to. That one has a fiendishly twisted plot, culminating in a terrific final revelation that may or may not be connected to McGovern's statement that "a blow job given with love is as beautiful as dogs playing poker.") But in this novel, Kinky cheats. He uses the exotic locale as an excuse to throw in a couple of supernatural elements that short-circuit some awkward loopholes in the plot.
Having said that, all the other things Kinkophiles buy his books for are present and correct. His writing is as beautifully schizophrenic as ever, swaying from hard-boiled philosophising to lowbrow filth in the blink of an eye. In chapter one, he's considering the things that are worse than being alone: "one of them was looking at a cat who was looking at you with pity in her eyes." By chapter two he's dealing with the loneliness by "masturbating like a monkey on the back of a dying black jazz legend in Paris."
As ever, his supporting cast is splendidly drawn: you wonder just how close they are to their real-life counterparts, and (given the chance) which of the two you'd like to have a drink with. Stephanie gets the lion's share of the screentime here, still showing no signs of throwing Kinky the bone he's been craving for the last half-dozen books or so. ("Friedman may get the opportunity to see me cut off his balls and and sprinkle them on top of a macadamia nut tart," she says in one of the book's more romantic exchanges.) Rambam doesn't turn up until late in the novel, but his hard-headed practical approach to helping Kinky solve the mystery ties in well with his credit as "technical adviser" on a number of the stories. The two new characters fit in well with the old ones: McCall the eccentric millionaire, Hoover the journo with a penchant for obscene limericks. And McGovern... well, I'll leave you to find out whether he ever appears in the book.
On the whole, Steppin' On A Rainbow isn't a great Kinky Friedman novel, but it's still as readable as they come. And if you've never tried anything of his before, you've got another thirteen to look forward to. So get out there and start reading them, or I'll take a Nixon on your head. Being a monkey, and all.
The American Red Cross has to get first link here, because it's impossible to write a piece about New York these days without acknowledging the appalling events of September 2001. Give them your support with an online donation. (Grim irony alert: in chapter 4 of Steppin' On A Rainbow, Kinky tells the following anecdote about Mike McGovern. "One time he met a Japanese tourist on the streets of New York and the guy asked him how to find the World Trade Center. 'You found Pearl Harbor, didn't you?' McGovern told him.")
Kinkyfriedman.com is the great man's official site. It's got all the stuff you'd expect, including a biography [dead link], a discography [dead link] (including full lyrics), details of all his books, and forthcoming tour dates. (Hey, he's playing the Scala in London in November. Hmmm.)
Kinkajou Records is the Kinkster's record label, distributing and selling both his own records and those of other country artists. I'm particularly intrigued by Kacey Jones' current record, Every Man I Love is Either Married, Gay, or Dead.
Texas Monthly has taken its life into its hands and hired Kinky Friedman as a regular columnist. Here's what he's done for them so far: unfortunately, only the most recent article will be accessible, and to read the rest you'll have to subscribe to the magazine. Tricky, eh?
Mohan's Lair [dead link] is a review site which includes a pretty good section on The Kinkster [dead link]. Other Friedman fan sites include The Kinkophile [dead link] and Gerrit Kuilder's Kinkster Page [dead link]. Unfortunately, the latter includes the truth about 199B Vandam Street, and makes a nonsense of my opening paragraphs here. Balls to it, I'm still going! [That truth about 199B Vandam Street? It's as much of a detective's residence as 221B Baker Street, though you probably guessed that.]
Pallorium, Inc. is the real live Steve Rambam's real live detective agency. Really.
Myers Of Keswick isn't one of those things that Kinky made up: it's an actual shop in Greenwich Village, run by occasional Village Irregular Pete Myers, which specialises in imported English food. If you're ever in New York and you get a sudden craving for any of these exotic products, now you know where to go. (English readers will probably be drastically re-evaluating their definition of the word 'exotic' by now.)