The Man With the Iron-On Badge

Author: Lee Goldberg
Publisher: Five Star Publishing
Published: 2005

2010 has been a good reading year for me. After people have read some of my reviews, and noticed the generally positive slant to them, I get a few comments along the lines of “What, you like every book you read?” Well this is how it works. If I don’t like a book, I rarely finish it (unless I am reading to learn or understand a particular point of view). So if I don’t finish the book, I don’t review the book. It’s that simple.

What appears on this site, is essentially the books I have enjoyed – and this year, I think there has only been about three that didn’t win me over.

Having explained my methodology, I guess it’s rather predictable for me to say that The Man With the Iron-On Badge is another book I thoroughly enjoyed.

It’s very rare that a book lets you know what you are in for in its first few paragraphs. The Man With the Iron-On Badge by Lee Goldberg is one such book. These few opening sentences tell you more about the book than I can in ten paragraphs, so I’ll let Mr. Goldberg paint the picture.

The story opens with:

I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds” are always very grateful that he does this for them.

To me, that’s a perfect world.

I wanted his life.

Those few simple sentences explain that this is a first person detective novel, it’s witty and it owes a whole lot to the great detective stories of the past. Not only is Travis McGee named checked, but throughout the story, practically every detective whose battered brow graced the covers of hundreds of pulp novels, or who stalked television’s mean streets is given a nod. It also tells you that the story’s hero (and I use the word loosely), Harvey Mapes craves a better life – a life like a literary detective.

The story concerns Mapes, who is a security guard at a private estate in the Spanish Hill area of Camarillo, California. He works the graveyard shift from midnight till eight a.m. His life isn’t going anywhere fast, that is until one of the residents, Cyril Parkus asks Mapes to do a little work on the side. It appears that Parkus’ wife, Lauren has been acting strangely, and he would like her followed for a few days to find out what is going on.

Harvey enthusiastically agrees. This is his chance to do more than just sit on his ass for eight hours in a tiny shack, watching video screen. Of course, Mapes doesn’t have any real investigative experience. His knowledge comes from pulp novels and television show re-runs, and basically he makes a mess of his surveillance stint. But still, despite his mistakes, he is dogged and keeps at it, his confidence growing with each day.

Of course, a story like this, cannot be allowed to run smoothly, and pretty soon Mapes finds himself with cracked ribs and paid off by Parkus. His services are no longer required. But Mapes now has had a taste of life as a detective, and he doesn’t want it to end… and furthermore, he has questions that he needs the answers to. So he begins to dig deeper, flying out to Seattle, to question Lauren Parkus’ mother. Talk about opening a can of worms…

Apart from being highly entertaining, The Man With the Iron-On Badge is author, Lee Goldberg’s love letter to detective fiction and television shows of the past. And as such, a knowledge of these shows is a boon when reading this book. Don’t get me wrong, the references aren’t obscure and you don’t have to be a detective story boffin to appreciate the story, but the subtle in-jokes, and allusions to Shaft, Spenser, Shell Scott, Travis McGee, Mannix, Rockford and many others, simply mean that if you are familiar with those characters, then this book offers that extra bit of ‘knowing’ enjoyment.

Ultimately, The Man With the Iron-On Badge, delivers exactly what the title and the opening paragraphs promise, being a fast paced, first person thriller – about an under achiever who has to strive to be more than he ever thought he could be. More than just a ‘man with an iron-on badge’.

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