Head Games by Craig McDonald
Review by Greg Daniel
I have always been a fan of the writer as protagonist. So imagine my delight when I chanced across a book with a pulp writer as hero in an honest-to-goodness pulp adventure. No, I am not talking about The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril nor even The Astounding, The Amazing, and The Unknown. I am talking about Head Games by Craig McDonald.
Head Games (a 2008 multiple award nominee) features Hector Lassiter, a two-fisted writer for Black Mask, who lives a gonzo noir existence reminiscent of the Thompson Boys, Jim and Hunter.
The tale opens in 1957. Lassiter has dragged a young writer, sent to interview him, to a cantina south of the border where an old acquaintance needs his help in dealing with the MacGuffin of the story: Pancho Villa’s skull. Their tete-a-tete about Villa’s tete is interrupted by a shoot-out with the federales. And then … things get weird.
Take a trunkful of skulls, the federales, a secret society, the CIA, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, the progenitor of a presidential dynasty, and more historical figures, mix liberally with guns, cigarettes, booze, car chases, and an escalating body count and you are just beginning to get an idea of what is in store for you (and Lassiter) in Head Games.
McDonald, who cites Lester Dent among his influences, manages to provide an action-packed tale full of twists and turns that never lets up while still delivering multiple conspiracies, a history lesson or two, and a look at the onion layers of the writer’s mind and tortured soul that hides beneath Lassiter’s hard-boiled exterior. He does all of this with a dark humor-tinged full bore voice and style (Lassiter’s) that is pure new pulp: a truly modern novel that will remind everyone of what attracted them to the pulps in the first place.
The character of Lassiter shares traits with Hemingway but seems to be more directly influenced by a couple of other writers that may be familiar to pulp readers, Brett Halliday/Davis Dresser (creator of Mike Shayne) and Jonathan Latimer (creator of Bill Crane). It is the latter influence that adds a slight touch of screwball comedy to this volatile cocktail of tale. It is the former who, like Lassiter, lied about his age to ride with Black Jack Pershing.
Head Games is the first, but chronologically the second, in a planned series of seven Hector Lassiter novels. Three others, Toros and Torsos, Print the Legend, and One True Sentence are in print with Forever is Just Pretend coming next.