||Nov 1 2000
Who is Vera A. Utall? Why has she entwined celebrity Nick Maggot and legendary literary genius Orville Goner in her sexual web? Soft-boiled private eye (and hairdresser) David Dennings is hired to track the vanished siren. Through a hallucinatory labyrinth only Ann Diamond could have created,the trail leads him to the nefarious Dead White Males.
Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick meet Virginia Woolf in this unconventional whodunit in which Dennings’ very life depends on finding the solution that lies buried within an elusive master’s thesis. Will he make it before the hourglass runs out?
OFFICE OF DAVID DENNINGS, PRIVATE DETECTIVE The phone had not rung all week. I was sitting at my desk that day, pondering my bank statement and feeling very much like an ex-hairdresser in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Which was what I was. In the last two years, my trickle of customers had gradually decreased to a few droplets. My once-dazzling celebrity clientele had all been lured to other establishments whose marketing tactics were far beneath me. My reputation for being a busybody never really helped matters. What exactly were my options? Run away to some Third World country and work with lepers. That takes training, and I had only my skill with scissors and a box of business cards identifying me as David Dennings, Private Detective.
The phone lay dead, dormant, soon to be disconnected. A sudden intuition made me pick up the receiver. I could hear the sound of breathing at the other end.
"Hello?" "Hello." "Ariadne Detective Agency?"
"Yes." "Are you a detective?"
The voice, muffled and artificial, seemed tense.
"I don't like talking on the phone."
He sounded like the nervous type. I told him to come on over. Minutes later I heard the screeching of brakes, a thud, and a car door slam. Then came the sound of the doorbell. I buzzed him in. As I listened to his footsteps climbing the stairs, I felt a slight frisson of déja-vu. At the top, he swayed panting in a cloud of patchouli oil. Earrings, neckscarf. A few thousand dollars worth of leather which looked like it had recently been run over by a car. The inevitable skullring winked from his pinky finger. I welcomed him in to my headquarters, such as it was. He reminded me of some fancy heron tiptoeing across a beach.
I said, "I like to get to know people before I say I'll work for them. Have a seat and let's talk."
He flung himself on the only sofa, slid one hand into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled photograph.
"There's someone I want you to locate."
Review of Dead White Males
Dead White Males by Ann Diamond. (D.C. Books, 2000, $19.95).
Exact Fare Only: Good, Bad & Ugly Rides on Public Transit Edited by
Grant Buday. (Independent Publishers. Anvil Press, Vancouver. 2000.
170 pp., $15.95).
If you're tired of pretentious Canadian literary experiences and want a
good story that keeps you laughing, Ann Diamond's Dead White Males is
a heartening change. Males following David Dennings, Private Detective,
as he becomes entangled in a web of double-crosses, femme fatales and -
The tone of Dead White Males amused me from the first page.
David Dennings, a down-on-his-luck P.I. and part-time hairdresser,
(whose slogan reads No Hair Too Thin, No Case Too Small) is sitting and
stewing in his office. The phone rings. It's a potential client. Enter the
effeminate and flamboyant Nick Maggot, who, in a snappy dialogue
exchange, asks Detective Dennings to find Vera A. Utall, who broke his
heart. Maggot hands Dennings her photograph. Dennings notices
immediately that she's a mermaid. They negotiate.
Private Detective Dennings knows hair. As a result, he encounters
characters that are either former customers, whom he recalls through
nostalgic shampoo-and-blow-dry flashbacks, or potential customers. He
either has done everyone's hair or has the uncontrollable desire to do
everyone's hair. Every third line reads like hard-boiled Truman Capote
turned on its head - except that in this case, the P.I. ends up falling not only
for the missing Vera A. Utall, but his client, Nick Maggot, as well.
Dennings tries to track down Vera A. Utall, working only with her
failed thesis - a semi-coherent mish-mash of purple prose and journal
entries. The thesis becomes progressively more significant as the author
reveals excerpt after excerpt at different intervals throughout Dead White
Males. Just as you think you're on solid ground, Diamond pulls the rug
from beneath you, keeping you laughing and turning pages as you try to
find your feet again.
Set against the backdrop of Montreal in cold winter, I found the
novel had good local feel, despite having the unique genre along the lines of
The Big Sleep meets Brazil meets Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The title,
Dead White Males, refers to a covert group of dusty University professors
who may or may not be pulling strings behind the scenes.
Of course, Dead White Males would not be a detective yarn
without a gallery of suspicious and strange characters, such as Sergeant-
Detective Gaston Plouffe, who dogs Dennings at every turn and the
bisexual, cross-dressing Nick Maggot, who could either be friend or foe.
Others include the disgruntled Weather Girl, Ramonda Valdez, who
Denning thinks needs a new perm, Ned Bone, the literary genius, who has
a penchant for young, vulnerable women and Soleil Soleil, the flakey police
consultant and witch doctor, who constantly blurts obscure and useless
phrases (such as "Missing persons are everywhere").
While at times, the reader may get dizzy from the tangled web of
plot as Dennings wanders through Montreal and Venezuela stumbling
through surreal twists and turns, Ann Diamond delivers an ending tying up
all loose ends - with, of course, the requisite twist. The repartee, snappy
phrasing, betrayals and sense of desperation - all traits of the classic
Humphrey Bogart flick - work well in a theatre of the absurd. In fact,
Dead White Males is one of those rare books that would, on a second
reading, like the second viewing of a film, glean more fine detail and
Diamond in the Rough
This is just a prediction, obviously,
but I'm guessing that as centuries
go the 21st won't be a great one for
my gender. Judging by her new
novel, Dead White Males, Ann
Diamond is guessing the same
thing. Even so, she's not taking any
chances - she is determined to kick
us beleaguered DWMs when we are
Look past the fighting words of
the title and there's Montreal
illustrator Geoff Isherwood's lurid
cover to contend with, a
pulp-fiction rendering of a
stiletto-heeled femme fatale,
pistol in hand, stepping lightly over
the bodies of three guys whose
time has clearly come and gone.
There's also Diamond's unsavoury
male characters: in particular
international rock 'n' roll celebrity
Nick Maggot, who might have
been a Nazi in a previous life, and
Orville Goner, a reclusive poet,
serial killer and quite possibly
cannibal. His unpublished thesis is
called: On Capturing, Cleaning,
Curing and Cooking Young Women.
Diamond's narrator, David Dennings, a would-be private eye and
ex-hairdresser, is a man, too, but, by his own account, not a very
convincing one. Even so, he does his share of typical fin-de-siecle male
whining about how guys just aren't permitted to behave like guys any
"Why shouldn't it enrage me that, as women grow ever more aggressive
and confident, even the so-called moguls and magnates are beginning
to look frayed around the edges? ... We were all scrambling for a space
in a world that was becoming increasingly personal, elusive and elliptical
- like a women's novel."
But Dead White Males isn't so much a women's novel, as one specific
woman's novel. Diamond, a longtime Montreal author, is teaching
creative writing in Kamloops, B.C., these days and I, for one, miss her.
She remains a kind of mythic figure in this city's Anglo literary
community. Just about every writer I know has a wacky story about
In my case, she's accused me, in curiously friendly letters and E-mails,
of being, among other things, Conrad Black's unwitting lackey. Our
correspondence was infrequent and not entirely coherent, but I always
looked forward to it.
My favourite Ann Diamond story concerns a feud she had some years
back with the League of Canadian Poets. She sent them a series of
supposedly threatening letters. The RCMP was called in and it took a
Mountie to recognize and inform the nervous, humourless poet's
association that Diamond was just kidding - or, more likely, working on
a book. Diamond's missives were later published as the poetry collection
All of this is to say that anyone reading Dead White Males, Diamond's
third novel, probably won't be surprised to learn that it is kooky. They
also won't be surprised that it is kooky in an entirely original and often
very amusing way.
For starters, there are lots of funny one-liners. Like the time the story's
enigmatic heroine Vera A. Utall - she may or may not be a mermaid -
tells her drug-addicted tenant "no one can help you but yourself," to
which her tenant responds, "Oh, well, then - forget it."
In another scene, Vera asks her hypnotherapist for advice: "My life has
come to a premature end even though I'm still walking around. What do
you call that in your profession?" "I call that a problem," the
The detective narrator, Dennings, gets in on the act too. After being
roughed up, he admits, "I didn't like being knocked unconscious. It
brought back painful memories of my marriage."
I could go on and would if it meant I didn't have to summarize the plot,
but sometimes even a 21st-century man has got to do what a man's
got to do. As near as I can tell: Dead White Males starts out as kind of
a postmodern spoof of Raymond Chandler with Dennings, more Vidal
Sassoon than Philip Marlowe, hired to find Vera who may have been
abducted and murdered by a serial killer.
The parody of the detective genre eventually loses steam and subplots
about cloning, voodoo, intergalactic travel and past-life regression pick
up the slack. Meanwhile Dennings keeps finding Vera - or the
unpublished, autobiographical thesis she is writing - and then losing her
again. He also uncovers the existence of the secret society of Dead
White Males, which is determined to promote male supremacy and make
women disappear, figuratively and literally.
Of course, as soon as Diamond gets to the bottom of one conspiracy
theory, the bottom falls out. Diamond's paranoia is playful and
unrelenting. Red herrings turn up everywhere, but are hard to dismiss
because even the most preposterous of them is presented as a distinct
possibility. Like bank managers who are iguanas and undercover cops
posing as creative-writing students. And did I mention the mermaid?
Speaking of herrings, Diamond is at her most enjoyable when she is
shooting fish in a barrel. One especially tiny barrel where DWMs have
always thrived is a university creative-writing department very much
like Concordia's. What am I saying? It is Concordia, or at least that's
what it is called in the novel. Here's Diamond - or Vera - settling what
sounds like an old score with creative-writing professors:
"They liked tenure, and they liked order. ... I knew they had no
tolerance for a woman who taught from the opposite side of her brain,
who told her students to ... rely on vision rather than critical theory."
The weirdest thing about this weird novel is that most of the time it
reads like a roman a clef. Diamond's usual suspects - and obsessions -
are rounded up: Nick Maggot bears more than a passing resemblance to
Mick Jagger; Orville Goner, the cannibalism notwithstanding, sounds
Leonard Cohenish. And Vera, the long-legged ditsy philosopher, part
Lucille Ball, part Virginia Woolf, offers this typically Diamond-shaped
"Fiction had begun to bore me. It was ridiculous, somehow, making up
stories about people when real life was, in itself, completely
Not surprisingly, so is Dead White Males. Apparently, during the making
of the movie version of Raymond Chandler's own confusing private-eye
classic The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawks and star Humphrey Bogart
couldn't agree on how the story ended, so they called Chandler for a
definitive answer. "How should I know?" Chandler said. "You figure it
Diamond might have been better off if she hadn't tried to figure her
story out either. Instead she wraps up her already screwy plot with the
revelation, in the last few pages, that two of her main characters are
playing out a past-life regression that saw them together in a Nazi
concentration camp. Talk about a surprise ending.
For fiction to work, even fiction as deliberately outrageous as this, it
has to take reality a little more seriously than Diamond seems prepared
to. Her "reality" is always surrounded, confined really, by quotation
marks and after a while a reader can't be blamed for wondering if the
reason she can't say what she means is because she doesn't quite
Of course, that's just the sort of thing Diamond would expect a
card-carrying DWM like me to say. (In the interest of full disclosure, I
should also admit that I'm currently teaching creative writing at
Concordia.) So I'll do what guys are supposed to do - stick to the
facts. Dead White Males is nutty, paranoid, messy and a great deal of
fun. A must for Ann Diamond fans.
- Dead White Males, by Ann Diamond (DC Books, 147 pp, $17.95)
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