McGregor’s Detectives, Inc.: Artless, Prating Emotionalism

Posted by on March 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Detectives. Inc. is a disastrously mawkish and disjointed attempt to lash together pulp fiction (in this case, a detective story) with a serious theme. Betrayed by overwhelming shortcomings in their styles and approaches, Don McGregor and Marshall Rogers have, with all the best intentions in the world, given birth to a monstrosity of a book that fails on all the levels it aspires to.

McGregor has been guilty of tastelessly florid prose for as long as he has been writing professionally, and this book is more than enough to rekindle the memories of those fortunate enough to have forgotten Sabre (his previous graphic novel, the first one published under the Eclipse imprint) and Dragonflame (a ghastly compendium of short stories and a novelette released by David Anthony Kraft). Nothing has changed, really: he still wedges words together, blissfully unaware of awkward connotations, incoherent syntax, and sometimes even misunderstood meanings. The result, as usual, is a discordant jangle of verbosity that suffuses his every sentence; sometimes it becomes so bad that one wonders if McGregor has ever heard the English language spoken.

“The gutters.” McGregor scribes on the very first page of this 4-page story, “run a desperate current of McDonald’s hamburger wrappers, rusted beer cans, dog shit, hope, despair, love, hate, ignorance, and wasted intelligence, and with the memories of blood.” Setting aside for a moment the dangling construction of the final clause (whither comes that “with?”), one must dismiss the wholesale melange of abstractions and sordid realities as a banal conceit at best, elevated into absurdity by the ponderous length of the litany. It is typical of McGregor’s technique —I’m not sure I would west to dignify it with the word “style” —to cram as many emotionally high-powered words into every caption, emotionalizing everything from gutters (“desperate”) to the Bronx (“expectantly”) without worrying about constructing a sentence that flows or even coheres.

It was the speculative fiction writer Arthur Byron Cover who called McGregor “tone-deaf to the English language.” and that is a very keen and well-put appraisal, but McGregor’s failings run much deeper and broader than that. The prose in this book is atrocious across the board, sometimes even complicated by grammatical errors that should have been corrected by the editor: “[He] suffers the memory of such brutality as if he had committed them.” How could a writer with a halfway logical mind qualify the noun “whip” with the redundant “flexible”? What possesses a man to describe in writing “memories and fantasies” as “corrosive Siamese twins”? How can a writer force one of his characters to mouth the torturous phrase, “The bizarreness of your ‘Captain Queeq-esque’ mind”? This last is wretched in several ways: one, the usage of the quotation marks is incorrect and they should have been deleted; two, the connotations are discordant (the paranoias of Captain Queeg and the person thus addressed are totally different and the simile falls flat); and three, the sentence is as euphonious as Robert Blake singing “Feelings.”

McGregor’s prose is not the worst aspect of the writing on this book. The content is worse.

I have come to the conclusion that McGregor is peddling as “sensitive” writing is simply the emotional equivalent of pornography. Something like Deep Throat provides the viewer with close-ups of genitals; in McGregor’s writing, its is the throbbing emotions, relentlessly plastered on with a trowel. This kitchen-sink emotionalism, which manifests itself in characters’ spending two-thirds of their copious word balloons sniveling about how they feel, is about as sensitive and sympathy-inducing as low-grade pornography is erotic, and in some ways almost as repellent. For while pornography destroys eroticism wit its coarse explicitness, McGregor’s prating emotionalism grinds to dust whatever emotional subtlety there might be in the material – and subtlety is as vital an ingredient to true sensitivity as it is to true eroticism. When a character insists on blathering on and on about his emotional turmoil, it is artless and boring and connections only with those members of the audience whose sensitivities are so stunted that only a full-frontal attack can connect the their emotions.

Questions of subtlety and art aside, most of this Sturm-und-Drang is stultifyingly banal; moreover, it is never developed, commented upon, or resolved, but pitched pell-mell into the readers’ lap and left there to fester — seemingly in order to prove that McGregor is, in the words of the National Lampoon’s delectable John Lennon parody “sensitive as shit!” One of the emotional hemophiliacs that populate the book agonizes because he is forced to kill a man who was about to kill his partner; in the climax of the book, his mind snags, flashes back, and he finds himself unable to pull the trigger on a killer barreling down on him is a Monza. Fine. But the man’s turmoil is touched upon only in a heavy-handed and cliched monologue about guns in the opening sequence (before he actually commits the killing), and in a brief, early scene with his girlfriend (who tries to console him by rubbing his crotch), before it is pulled out like a rabbit from a hat at the end in an inept symbolic montage of teeth, eyes, and human figures. Other psychological strands are woven through the work, but almost none develops in any manner, and all are so obviously shrilly manipulative of the reader’s sympathies that they can be shrugged off as the author’s mechanical constructs without much difficulty.

Particularly distasteful is a scene between the book’s hero, Bob Rainier, and his wife Rita, which is so transparently biased and loaded it’s embarrassing. (One aspect of it that is even more repellent is that it seems based on one of McGregor’s real-life ­­relationships, turning the book into a backstabbing roman a clef for the duration of that chapter.) Rainier is sweet, sensitive, vulnerable, disarmingly naive, witty and ironic, and likes sex. His ex-­wife is cold, cynical, sexually repressed, sarcastic, and thoroughly vile. She is about as much of a real human being as Darth Vader is, and this sabotages the scene. Whatever meager emotional impact is left is dissipated when McGregor lets loose with phrases like, “Rita, we were strangers for three-and-a-half years. Strangers trying to conquer. Strangers, oddly, even as lovers.” This leaves his ex-wife speechless. I’m not surprised; it had much the same effect on me. Many writers take hackneyed ideas such as lovers-as-strangers and recycle them; few, however, wallow quite so deliriously and naively in them.

Finally, I cannot resist quoting in full one exchange between Rainier and his wife, from a flashback: “I’m leaving,” she says. “I’ve made the decision! I’m going to find me! I’ve a new consciousness, now!” And Rainier answers, “Fine, honey. Find you. But why can’t you do it with us?” I half-expected to look up to the top of the page and see the headline “Dave Berg Looks at the ‘Lighter’ Side of… FEMINISM.”

One good thing about McGregor’s prose is that there is less of it than usual. This book was done full-script and is thus, thankfully, devoid of the classic McGregor panel in which characters are squashed beneath huge bulging captions. Still, some perverse McGregor-esque corollary to the law of conservation of energy seems to be at work here, resulting in “chapter introductions” of several hundred words every few pages. It’s not a bad idea per se: there is no reason why this method shouldn’t be used to present facts and ideas that can be expressed better in words than in pictures, and it eliminates the imbalance between text and illustration prolix captions engender. Still, in whatever configurations, quantities, and typefaces, the prose in this book is bad.

Not much need be said of the plot, really, except that it doesn’t work as a detective story. The murder victim’s lover conveniently hands the detectives a shopping list of suspects, they visit them all to absolutely no avail, and in the last chapter, the murderer calls their client to a rendezvous and tries to off her, at which point the detectives intercede. No detecting here, folks.

The title of the story, as far as I can tell, refers to sexual jealousy, which is the theme of the book. Bob Rainier is actually the one who coins it, although he seems to mean something quite different with it — something about the intimidating permanence of the world as opposed to the transience of human relationships, or some such. Rainier, who is McGregor’s stand-in throughout the book, makes little sense most of the time, so I didn’t worry overly about not understanding what it meant.

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One Response to “McGregor’s Detectives, Inc.: Artless, Prating Emotionalism”

  1. patford says:

    KT: “a disastrously mawkish and disjointed attempt to lash together pulp fiction with a serious theme. Betrayed by overwhelming shortcomings in their styles and approaches, Don McGregor and Marshall Rogers have, with all the best intentions in the world, given birth to a monstrosity of a book that fails on all the levels it aspires to.”

    If only the young Kim had reviewed The Watchmen.

    KT: “(What is generally overlooked by these simplists, though, is that if a page is well-designed and foreground and background differentiated through line quality and blacks, no amount of detail will confuse or delay the perception of the reader.)”

    Case in point, Footsteps in Gaza. Joe Sacco’s art illustrates what Kim is describing perfectly.