A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Prozini
MEL ARRIGHI – Alter Ego. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1983. No paperback edition. TV movie: CBS, 1987, as Murder by the Book (with Robert Hays as D.H. ‘Hank’ Mercer / Biff Deegan, and Catherine Mary Stewart).
Hank Mercer is a New York mystery writer, author of such modest best sellers as Death Is My Bedmate and Kill Me Tender. Biff Deegen is Hank’s series sleuth, a hard-boiled private eye patterned after Mike Hammer. Hank is tired of Biff and Biff’s uncouth style; he wants to scrap him and begin a new series about an erudite, tasteful detective named Amos Frisby.
His editor, Norman Wagstaff. is of course opposed to the idea vehemently. But to placate Hank, who after all is one of his top authors, he agrees over lunch to the following bargain: If Hank can solve a real-life mystery, using Frisby’s methods of deduction, then he trade Riff in for Amos/
What precipitates this bargain — and what starts Hank off on his all-too-real mystery — is a matchbook dropped on their lunch table by a well-dressed woman, containing the scrawled words “Help me.”
The mystery involves a valuable statue called The Etruscan Dancer, some urbane crooks, some not so urbane crooks, sexy Marisa Winfield, a poker game, a daring rescue accomplished by Hank using methods better suited to the Human Fly, a chase through the Lexington Avenue subway and, as it were, the piece de resistance: Biff Deegen.
Biff, you see, steps out of the pages of his own books to become a character in Hank’s real-life mystery.He doesn’t really come to life, of course; he is merely an anthropomorphized figment of Hank’s overworked imagination, his creator’s alter ego. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming Hank’s detective “partner,” sneering at the likes of Amos Frisby and appearing at tense moments to advise Hank on the finer points of physical combat (“Kick him in the balls!”).
This amusing and affectionate spoof of both genres seems to have been intended as the first of a series– it is billed on the dust jacket as “A Hank & Riff Mystery” — but so far no second book has appeared. Arrighi’s other criminous novels are much more serious in tone; these include such first-rate titles as Freak-Out (1968), The Hatchet Man (1975), Turkish White (1977), the Hitchcockian thriller Delphine (1981), and Manhattan Gothic (1985).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
NOTE: Mel Arrighi died in 1986 at the relatively young age of only 53. If it so happened that he wrote another book in this series, it was never published before he died.