Eight Mysteries Miming a Novel : GORDON LIDDY IS MY MUSE By Tommy (Tip) Paine <i> by John Calvin Batchelor (Linden Press/Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 303 pp.; 0-671-69078-7 </i>
This book is not really a novel in the traditional sense but a collection of eight sophisticated mystery stories narrated by one Tommy (Tip) Paine, namesake of the patriot and present-day scion of a Mainline Philadelphia family.
Paine is an irascible, right-wing, science-fiction/spy novel/movie writer whose tongue-in-cheek exploits include encounters with a Russian KGB man, a self-righteous novelist, phony Hollywood types, foolish rich Texans, murderers in Maine and finally a confrontation with the infamous G. Gordon Liddy in which the author presumes to unravel the mystery of who, in fact, was this century’s ultimate fink, Watergate’s “Deep Throat.”
I have never met the author, but before beginning this book, I recalled his name and pulled from my library shelves a tattered set of galleys I remembered vaguely. Sure enough, they were a decade-old set of proofs of John Calvin Batchelor’s voluminous first novel, “The Further Adventures of Halley’s Comet.”
Inside these galleys was a faded personal note from someone named Virginia, who said, among other things, that she hoped I might enjoy this book, calling it, “sometimes exasperating, sometimes brilliant.” I am embarrassed to say I neither remember Virginia nor read the book, but it intrigued me to see how this early assessment of Batchelor’s work might stand up after all these years. With this in mind I began the present book.
“Mother Treason” is the first of the stories--the saga of a 12-year-old Philadelphia boy who goes to Russia in the 1960s in a student-exchange program and stays with what is assumed to be a typical Russian family. Young Tip and the family’s son Trifya become fast buddies; they keep in touch over the years until Tip finally returns to visit his old pal in present time, only to discover he’s become a Soviet agent, now “disappeared.” The mystery, of course, is how and why.
In “Hollywood Before the Mast,” Tip-the-movie-writer becomes romantically embroiled with a beautiful studio executive who, as the mystery reveals, turns out to have thoroughly re-invented herself from a deprived childhood back East and is passing herself off now as the wealthy offspring of a society family. This story, almost Fitzgeraldian in intensity and wit, unfortunately misses the boat by a year or two, since, in the meantime, Hollywood has itself discovered the intrigue of people re-inventing themselves and the genre has almost become a cliche in the movie business.
“Pathfinder Losing the Trail” is the account of--and here the author loses me because he describes the “Pathfinder” as “My imaginary best friend”--a wild man named McKerr. McKerr believes he is fighting the French and Indian War but winds up marrying a typical rich Texas girl and suffering the aftereffects of her overbearing family. Whoever the Pathfinder really is (perhaps the author?), he “knows the Battle of Saratoga like his apartment, and he will someday defend Fort Ticonderoga to the death from the condo crowd.” In any event, Pathfinder finally discovers the truth (to hell with rich Texans!) and returns to the real world of Indian fighting. But then, isn’t this a lesson many urban society cowboys learned even before the oil glut of 1986?
“Murder by Paine” is a highly stylized mystery in which Tip and his friend McKerr try to solve a bizarre double homicide at a seaside resort in Maine. It is a crackling yarn up until the last part, when all the sleuthing becomes a little tedious and the dialogue begins to sound like that endless final explanatory scene in “The Maltese Falcon.”
Finally, Tip-the-Curious decides to unveil the identity of Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” after a session with superspook G. Gordon Liddy at his seminar for mercenary types in the Southwest. Tip’s revelations are interesting, if hardly new, but he gives us a good mind-romp along the way.
Batchelor’s writing in this collection of tales is generally a highly entertaining combination of the philosophical, political, allegorical and metaphorical. Unfortunately, it sometimes lapses into the cryptic and occasionally degenerates into just plain gibberish. Since none of these stories reprise any of the others, save for a character or two, one of the mysteries to me is why it is being published as a novel-- except that publishers often think they can’t make much money selling a collection of short stories.
So yes, Virginia, whoever you are, I heartily agree that Batchelor is “sometimes exasperating, sometimes brilliant.” Also, I think I’ll pick up that first novel right now and entertain myself.
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.