Big trouble and light hearted investigations…
A beautiful stage show star, come whore house madam, is suddenly foully murdered, despite her apparent gangster protection. A disgruntled Japanese business tycoon hires a hit man to assassinate Australia’s Prime Minister. An unbeatable game show contestant takes a recreational bungee-jump, only to have her rope break in what her friend thinks is dubious circumstances. Enter the low-life world of Paddy Pest, sometimes Private Investigator and sometimes secret agent for Australia’s spy bureau ASIO. Pest is based in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, though is very frequently an international traveler. He is a master of dubious disguises, and often manages to solve the case despite his shortcomings. Here is a world where virtually everybody has a rancorous underbelly, and where murder is a common life event, but where good will eventually win out (even if by fluke). These humorous short stories with beguile you, entertain you and make you chuckle. Gerry Burke’s Pest On The Run: More Humorous Short Stories From The Paddy Pest Chronicles (iUniverse, c2012) is ideal for the lover of crime and murder mystery tales, but will also suit busy people looking for a witty amusement to fill a free hour or two.
Paddy is a frequent visitor of both upper class and lower class hotel bars, and these tales have the ethos of a pub yarn: unlikely events, boisterous pride, and male machoism lubricated to dubious heights. The style is very chatty, with Pest narrating his stories as if he is talking to an interested acquaintance. There are asides to the reader. When pertinent, Paddy occasional reminisces about his past, including his childhood. With a flair for drama he sometimes skips over the more mundane details to get to the action and juicy bits. These stories certainly deal with the darker side of life, and a few times death is narrated, but the great majority of these plots take place after the brutality is over. This book is about solving crime, not depicting crime and is overwhelmingly light hearted. Paddy is certainly a ladies man and the ticklish subject of sex is often alluded to, though not specifically depicted. In tune with the ‘pub ethos’, Paddy’s descriptions of women can be quite humorously crude, without actually being offensive, except perhaps to the conservative.
There is occasional offensive language, though not overly so. There are several laugh out loud moments and every story will leave the reader smiling. Most stories have moments of high drama, though here the unlikeliness of the action is taken tongue in cheek. Occasionally Burke includes good phrasing that lifts the text. We read for example the atmospheric and slightly philosophic sentence: “Other, when you visit a country with a different culture, it is difficult to break through the veneer of reserve that camouflages a human spirit that is primed to explode” (Burke, p. 25). More of this care in writing would make the book even better. There is occasional foul language, but this is completely in tune with the macho low-life spirit of the book and will not offend most, except perhaps the conservative. This is a book by an Australian author and there is quite a sprinkling of colloquialisms and cultural references which may be unfamiliar to international readers. Some are explained in the text, which erases any difficulty, but some are not. These are, however, in no way essential to the text and will at the most cause a moment of wondering before the reader passes on.
In his collective stories Burke presents us with an interesting portrait of “Patrick Pesticide aka Paddy Pest” (Burke, p. v). Paddy is of Irish heritage, though primarily Australian in outlook. Burke thus combines both Irish luck and silliness, with the Australian macho male. He is a gambler and bets on race horses, and has quite an eye for the women. Paddy is of dubious background. He says of himself “I would not say I was straight or bent – somewhere in the middle” (Burke, p. 4). On the down side Paddy can be quite sexist, seeing women in many ways as bodies first. Full of pride Pest sees himself as a “master of disguise” (Burke, p. 37), though others are not nearly as convinced. While Paddy is in training in New Guinea one character comments on his being “dressed in a ridiculous head-hunter’s outfit” (Burke, p. 188). By creating this mix of good and bad Burke has created an endearing, eccentric character that we can like because he gives us a slightly spicy escape from our ‘ordinary’ lives. Paddy reminds us of the rouge, tough boy at high school who everybody admired, but who never really did anything seriously wrong. He is a ‘lad’ and the reader is charmed. Paddy of course comes in a great tradition of incompetent Private Investigators / Spies. We think of Austin Powers, Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agent Maxwell Smart and even Inspector Gadget. Burke, however, has given us his own particular spin on the pattern, and we do not feel that we are reading a complete copy.
A few other characters pop up more than once. There is Stormy Weathers, the totally competent ASIO agent, who has a cover job as barmaid at Sam’s Fly by Night Club. There is Justin O’Keefe, the slacker police Inspector with an attitude. Mostly these secondary characters are at a minimum. Burke does, though, give them personality traits that flesh them out a bit. Stormy, for example, is a jealous lover. Occasionally Burke gives us a potted history of a character, giving us a summary of their eccentricities and adventures. Murder victim Frankie Hogan, for example, is a memorable woman with true spirit. Burke describes her in three pages giving the story depth and poignancy. Burke is quite skilled at this kind of detail and his writing would benefit by including more of it.
As we have noted Pest himself can be quite sexist. At one point for example he outrageously poses the equation that large breasts equals many friends (Burke, p. 200). Much of the humor, however, arises from the fact that many women are in actuality much more competent than him. As Pest himself says: “There had been two attempts on my life and, once more, I had been saved by a woman” (Burke, p. 77). These stories are indeed filled with dynamic, no-nonsense women you would think twice about crossing. There is a dangerous female assassin, successful business women, and several able female secret agents. Frankie Hogan takes no sexual nonsense from men, has “personality” (Burke, p. 3), and is a success in all her career ventures. Not to err too much on one side Burke has included one nasty, negatively-portrayed, female villain (Burke, p. 118). On the whole this book will pass Feminist standards, though some may not take the humor.
Shifting to male roles and Gender Studies it should be noted that these stories are in some ways very much in the ethos of the 1950’s though they are set in contemporary times. This is the world of the tough guy, the gangster, the merry bachelor. Men should not really have soft feelings. Hyman Finkelstein, a low-life criminal, doesn’t even like people looking at him (Burke, p. 151) let alone be able to have a mature relationship. Fear is a sign that a guy must be a “nancy boy” (Burke, p. 230). Paddy, on the other hand, is able to hug an old, male friend (Burke, p. 17). Women are very much a sexual adjunct to the male ego. Paddy does have a kind of steady relationship with Stormy, but even that is very much a breakable, uncommitted relationship. This whole ‘retro’ male image is, however, held up to debunking humor. This male world is on shaky ground. The great male image repeatedly is out shone by women and needs females to save it.
As with the issue of women and Feminism, Paddy Pest, and those he meets, can be quite homophobic. Paddy, for example, refers to gays by a disparaging name (Burke, p. 244), as does Hyman Finkelstein (Burke, p, 151). Finkelstein is particularly negative about gays. The actual representations of LGBTIQ people, however, on the whole are not at negative about that aspect of their lives. LGBTIQ people are primarily represented by two stories. First there is The Candidate which spotlights Lindsay Dove and his life-partner Jay Sniggle. Lindsay is a U.S. presidential candidate and Jay is an IT consultant. Then there is Who Was That Masked Man? highlighting the ‘butch-fem’ caterer Cate Edwards. Cate is a villain, but the story is not negative about here being a lesbian. This second story indeed has Ellen DeGeneres making fun of Paddy’s cloddish ignorance of the LGBTIQ community. Ellen is mentioned (as an LGBTIQ person) in another story (Burke, p. 84), as is k.d. Lang. Gay Mardi Grass are mentioned twice. A number of times women are suspected to be lesbian (not in a negative way) and a ‘drag-queen’ secret agent is depicted canoodling with an unwitting male political (Burke, p. 138-139). On another occasion Paddy comes upon a not so pretty ‘drag-queen’ (Burke, p. 21), but this is the only negative description, and of course not all transvestites are necessarily beautiful. Once again the issue should not offend interested parties as long as the humor is taken into account.
The often ignored Indigenous and Racial Minorities also feature. Lindsay Dove is “black” (Burke, p. 79) as well as being gay. In A Long Time Gone Australia’s Jewish minority is highlighted in the character of Hyman Finkelstein. Hymie is a gangster villain, but Burke goes out of his way to point out that he is not being anti-Jewish (Burke, p. 158-159). Louey is a successful “Polynesian” bar owner on Norfolk Island (Burke, p. 121). In The Goodbye Wave, though, the head of Fiji is referred to as a “baboon” (Burke, p. 129). This is a rather racist description, even for humorous purposes. Overall this is a very multicultural book, with Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino, Hong Kong, Russian, Balkan and Greeks mentioned with stories being set in many different countries. We get a true sense of the world, rather than a monosyllabic, white Anglo-Saxon perspective.
The aged feature in a very minor way in these tales. There is one uncomplimentary portrayal (Burke, p. 176) and one positive description of an older (though not necessarily aged) woman (Burke, p. 195). Burke could lift his game a little here, as the world is not full of only those under 55 years, even though some agencies such as advertising would have us believe this.
From the Capitalism verses Socialism perspective wealth in these stories is certainly suspect. These tales show only a very slim difference between corrupt businessmen and rich gangsters. Politicians and even judges don’t exactly receive compliments. The lower classes are not lauded, but they are not seriously criticized. The Little people’ more often than not help Paddy. The middle class is to a degree absent, but this is not so surprising as they are not likely to have the funds to hire a Private Investigator and are too ‘clean’ to have information on gangsters.
From the broader outlook of society in general, the Catholic Church is foot-noted as being anti-gay (Burke, p. 82 & 154) and rather a kill-joy for the more spirited members of the world (Burke, 149). The Police are depicted as being often incompetent and corrupt. These two institutions of society, perhaps in tune with Socialism, could be improved.
Before departing from these various social issues it should be stressed that these stories rely very much on outrageous statements and circumstances for humor. The book is full of politically incorrect text, but we are meant to take everything tongue in cheek. If we read these tales too critically we will be deeply offended, but Burke wants us, on the one hand to ‘lighten up’, and on the other hand to look a bit deeper. If this is kept in mind the book can very much be enjoyed.
From a Postmodern perspective it can be noted that there are no hard edge binary oppositions in Pest On The Run. There are definite ‘bad’ guys, but good and bad blur. As has been noted, Paddy himself is shady. We like him precisely because he is a ‘wag’. In Murder Before Lunch Pest even works for a crime boss. This blurring of categories makes for a more realistic and interesting read. It adds ‘spice’ and avoids boring oversimplification.
Many stories have a mythological quality, and indeed these elements can be what attract us most to an author’s work. For Paddy Pest we need only to turn to the Joker Card in the modern playing card pack. As court jester, the Joker is dressed in a funny costume, and Pest similarly assumes dubious disguises. The Joker‘s cap has pretentious baubles and he holds a wand topped with a manikin of himself. Pest is none to retiring in describing his own talents as a spy and lover. Yet the Joker possesses almost magical powers that no other card has, and in its presence many a losing hand can be transformed into a winning hand. Pest does solve the case, even if by sheer luck. Of course, most of all, the Joker tells silly stories and jokes, and that is the overwhelming ethos of Burke’s book.
Gerry Burke has written a very entertaining book for the not so serious at heart. He manages to take a look at a wide variety of social issues, such as Feminism, while at the same time making us laugh. The dark world of crime is depicted, occasionally with the brutality described, but good always wins out and we are mostly entertained by a light hand. Most stories are around 20 pages long, and are ideal reading if you are short of time. Pest On The Run was a pleasure to read and I am happy to rate it as 4.5 out of 5 stars.