The Danger of Taking Odd Jobs: Jeff Strand’s Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)

Graverobbers Wanted-Strand

Early in Jeff Strand’s career, he kicked off a series following the exploits of a guy with the unlikely but not completely unbelievable name of Mayhem. Andrew Mayhem. My tip of the hat to James Bond is almost justified; Andrew may not be hypercapable or equipped with all the latest gadgets available to Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but in one of the books after a gruesome action sequence he ends up with a martini. The books are dubbed thrillers, but they are equal parts horror story, comedy and thrilling adventure. The first of the books add in a whodunit style mystery to the mix, as well.

Three novels in the series appeared in a relatively short span of time (2000-2003). The character took a hiatus before showing up in 2010 for Suckers, a collaboration with J. A. Konrath. The fourth volume in the series arrived in 2012. A fifth installment (and possibly the final one) has been teased and may see release in the coming months. For May, we will explore the four solo-authored books in the series, starting with the first in line: Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary).

Andrew Mayhem is probably best described as an independent contractor. He takes odd jobs so he can avoid getting a regular one. This works for him, even though he has a wife and two kids, because his wife Helen is a nurse and she tolerates his forays into foolishness. Andrew’s daughter Theresa and son Kyle are precocious and precious kids. They well know their dad is a bit of an oddball as shown in the novel’s opening.

“I’m not going to tell you kids again to knock it off! If I have to turn this car around and cancel my stakeout, there’ll be no TV for the rest of the month!”

“It’s July twenty eighth. The month’s almost over,” said my daughter Theresa with a grin. She’s been alive for eight years, and been a smart-ass for six-and-a-half of them.

“Don’t be cute. Now I want you two to behave yourselves. I bought you nice new coloring books and crayons, so use them!”

“Can I color on Kyle?” asked Theresa.

“No you may not.”

“Even if I stay inside the lines?”

That didn’t even make sense, but I didn’t call her out on it. My wife Helen says that Theresa takes after me, and as happens more times than I can count, she’s right. That’s why I try to let Helen handle as much of the child raising as possible. It’s for the good of society. (Location 37)

And just to show he really is the father of the year material we might have expected from such an opening, he continues:

“I’m not going to tell you again,” I warned. Then I used language I shouldn’t be using in front of children (at least, children with a tendency to repeat colorful phrases in front of their mother) as I realized that I’d just missed my turn. “Okay, that’s it. Tomorrow morning both of you are being shipped off to that munitions factory in darkest Peru.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Kyle, my six-year-old, protested.

“Then you get to go to the factory where they’ll feed you every few days. Your sister has to scrounge up bugs.” (Location 46)

He calls himself a private investigator, but he has no license. In that regard, Andrew Mayhem is not dissimilar to Robert Leslie Bellam’s pulp fiction character Nick Ransom, a guy who did the job of private investigations but was not a private dick at all—he labeled himself a “Confidential Investigator.” However, Andrew has something most pulp characters do not: a life outside of work. There are his wife and kids, of course. There’s his best pal (with a big nose) named Roger Tanglen. Also, Andrew’s adventures often put him in comic and disturbing situations that Bellam’s characters would seldom encounter outside of a pulp magazine with the word Spicy in the title. Maybe not even there.

Andrew manages to end up in all kinds of trouble, particularly since trying to cover damages from an accident without alerting his wife to the debt he has accrued forces him to consider just about any work that comes his way. As Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) opens, he has been hired by a friend-of-a-friend to follow a cheating husband to a tryst. There he will acquire some video of the man in the act. Thanks to a well-positioned tree house and Helen’s camera, he can do just that. Unfortunately, dropping off the kids with his somewhat unreliable friend Robert means he arrives just late enough to be spotted by some of the trysting dude’s pals. Andrew ends up on the receiving end of a beating and his wife’s camera makes the ultimate sacrifice. Whoops!

Andrew Mayhem is that peculiar character type known as a trouble magnet. So it comes as no surprise that while drowning his sorrows at a local watering hole (well, a coffee shop with wobbly tables and heated brown water that somewhat resembles coffee), he and his coffee-drinking buddy Roger is approached with another off-the-books kind of job. The task turns out to be pretty unwholesome:

She leaned forward confidentially. “I want you to dig up my husband’s grave.”

Roger and I simultaneously leaned forward as well. “I beg your pardon?” I said.

“My husband was buried last night, and I want you to dig up the coffin.”

It was clear from Roger’s expression that he considered this task quite a bit less appealing than wild kinky sex. “You’re kidding, right?”

She shook her head. “I’m quite serious.”

“Is this the kind of thing you usually ask people in coffee shops?” I inquired. “This isn’t Andrew and Roger’s Discount Graverobbing Emporium.” (Location 233)

The offered pay is enough to engage his interest: Twenty thousand dollars.

Roger and I glanced at each other. That was incredible money for what basically amounted to an evening of manual labor. It would more than buy Helen a new video camera and pay off the car damages.

No no, what was I thinking? This was graverobbing! This was ghoulish behavior! This was sick, sick, sick! This could put me in jail or in an asylum. The best thing—no, the only thing—to do was tell Jennifer we were flattered she’d thought of us to fulfill her disinterment needs, but that we had to pass.

“Twenty thousand in cash?” I asked. (Location 244)

His half of the twenty grand will go a long way to satisfying his debts. How can a man say no to a couple of hours of honest labor for such an outrageous sum? Maybe Andrew should have found a way. When the coffin comes out of the ground, the corpse inside proves not to be as dead as promised, and Andrew Mayhem finds himself caught up in the strangest and deadliest mystery of his career thus far. A maniac with a penchant for playing a macabre Robin Hood leaves Andrew with the ultimatum: Don’t dig deeper or else you will suffer.

Though Andrew has quite a bit to lose, including a family he cares about and who cares about him in their way, his sense of justice comes into question. This comes out in a conversation with his pal in arms:

“We obviously can’t go to the police,” I said, “but we’ve got to investigate, see what we can find out.”

“Why?”

“Because the killer’s still out there!”

“Yeah, but he got what he wanted. There’s no reason for him to come after us,” Roger insisted.

“You’re right, but, I dunno, there’s some weird instinct inside me saying that somebody who buries a man alive and stabs a woman to death shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. What do you think?” (Location 685)

So, like the graverobber he has become, Andrew digs. A clue gleaned from the exhumed coffin leads him to Ghoulish Delights, a company that makes low budget horror films on demand for clients. Is one of their employees going a little too far? Maybe one of their former clients? The more Andrew delves into the mystery, the more threats he receives from the mysterious killer, and the higher the stakes become. What began as a bit of a morbid lark soon shifts into a mystery, and somewhere shortly after the midway point escalates into a mystery-thriller with life or death stakes not only for Andrew but for two of those nearest and dearest to him.

Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) was actually the first novel I read from author Jeff Strand. I originally reviewed it for http://www.HorrorReader.com, back in 2005. The novel has several of the elements that would go on to infuse the author’s tales of humorous horror, but it applies these qualities to a thrilling whodunit narrative. The prose is readable, engaging. I can appreciate the skewed perspective on life this book offers, and can now appreciate how the presentation of that view sees refinement over time as the author develops his craft. This is an early work, but it is not one of those freshman volumes from an eager, passionate and yet unrefined writer. The influences are evident in the prose, with subtle nods to the sorts of maniacal killer horror that appear in the fiction of folks like Michael Slade, Thomas Harris or Richard Laymon. Strand, however, builds his own style applying liberal doses of comedy throughout. As his career would lead him to write more (and more and more and more, the man is certainly prolific), the elements already present in this early work might see fine-tuning, but the writing style already shows the confidence of a natural storyteller and the delivery of a good stand-up comedian.

The humor is often chuckle-worthy, though the books made me guffaw at least once during the reread. Though the violence does not quite have the visceral quality that one of his more recent books such as Allison has, Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) still manages to go to some extremely odd and chilling places. Strand employs have some solid gags, some eerie sequences, and a maniacal antagonist with both a wicked sense of humor and some human failings. Take the conversation Andrew has with the killer via telephone. The killer is using type to voice software to disguise their identity, and this does not come without a few problems of its own:

“Okay, fine, I don’t expect you to reveal your secret identity. Tell me why you’re doing this.”

“I have nothing to loss.”

“What the hell does ‘nothing to loss’ mean? What was that, a typo?”

Silence.

“Jeez, Mr. or Mrs. Psychopathic Dipshit, you’d think if you were going to go to all the trouble of letting your computer do the talking you’d be more careful with your typing so you wouldn’t sound like a complete moron.”

Still no response.

“What’s the matter, did you loss your voice?”

“It won’t seem funny when you’re the one tied to that bed.” It was the computer speaking. I’d hoped to make the killer mad enough to break in on the conversation, but no such luck.

“No, you’re right, it probably won’t,” I conceded. “That’s why I’m not giving it a chance to happen.”

“People will die.”

“You already said that. Are you using macros now?”

The typing grew louder and faster. “You listen to me, Andrew Mayhem. I have five people locked away who are going to die the same excruciating death you saw tonight if you don’t follow my instructions.” (Location 1618)

Leave it to Jeff Strand to include a typo into the proceedings to add some levity while also upping stakes.

Graverobbers Wanted: No Experience Necessary is the kind of genre novel that has always appealed to me. It has a strong cast of characters, and a likable though foolish protagonist who finds himself in way, way, way over his head but always struggling to get out from under his circumstances. It appeals to me both as pulp fiction—it applies the Lester Dent model of burying a hero under buckets of trouble, while keeping a shovel at the ready to add more trouble when the protagonist claws his way out of the last load—as well as a character driven plot. Andrew is not the best investigator out there, but he tries darn it.

Reading this adventure is a fascinating exercise. It is a nostalgia blast putting me back where I was when I first encountered the book fifteen years ago, when I was on the cusp of turning thirty. That was when Trista and I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, me working a science job and she working on her PhD but still finding time to regularly see one of the strongest support groups of friends we have known. The book is a little time capsule of that era, when video tapes were still available and saw regular use though DVD was a dominant power in home media and when cell phones were the less-ubiquitous, Neanderthal versions of the much smarter mobiles we have now. Adding in the sometimes gory, sometimes slapstick and often witty elements of Andrew’s adventures makes me grin. I still respond positively to creative mayhem, after all.

However, not all is sunshine in this tale of dark Florida mystery . . . One of the more challenging issues I saw this time around arise with the protagonist himself. Andrew Mayhem is a character I dearly loved fifteen years ago. He is very much in the model of the sorts of slackers and minimum wage kids who populated Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater films. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor. He has a strong, supportive family who does not quite understand him but tolerates his (often bad) decisions. All these years later, as I ventured through the opening chapters I could not help but see him as a little too irresponsible for my current preferences. Sure, he is a loving father and husband, but he still takes some unnecessary risks with his family situation because he is all but blind to the fact that his actions have consequences. Andrew is not one of the toxic kind of guy characters found in, say, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. However, he is still a product of the nineties and the early oughts, which makes him a slacker and a bit of a charming fool. When I first read the book, he was the sort of guy I would not have minded hanging out with. These days, he would be the kind of guy whose calls I would honestly debate whether to let go to voicemail or begrudgingly take.

Of course, this is all part and parcel of his character growth. By the end of the book, as he learns that nothing comes without a cost and that his decisions have impact on people outside of himself, Andrew Mayhem steps up into a more responsible role. By the end of the book I was back on board team Mayhem, but the opening chapters are a little rough going from where I am now. For those of like minds, keep going. The payoff is all the sweeter for that initial unease.

Andrew Mayhem might be a bit of a throwback to odder days, but the loveable idiot’s first adventure is an engaging one despite the subtle reminders of just how much growing up can occur in fifteen years. What will happen when I revisit this book fifteen years from now? The mind boggles. However, it is a book I fully intend to revisit, which could well be a testament enough to its quality.

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Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) is available in an eBook edition. Artifact editions of the book’s hardcover and paperback copies from micro publisher Mundania Press can be found in the wild for determined hunters.

Next up in our Jeff Strand mini-series is the second book in the Andrew Mayhem series of thrillers, Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, which finds Andrew and Roger once more up to their necks in trouble. First, with a maniacal murderer called Headhunter (not to be confused with Michael Slade’s Headhunter). Then, in a remote amusement park wonderland where a gang of maniacal murderers go to kill at leisure. Grab a copy of that on in eBook format or grab the whole series.

WORKS CITED

Strand, Jeff. Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary). 2000.

“The Danger of Taking Odd Jobs: Jeff Strand’s Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover (designed by the great Lynne Hansen) and quotes taken from the “slightly revised” eBook edition, released 2011.

Disclosure: Considering Stories is a member of the Amazon Associates program. Qualifying purchases made using the above product links can result in our site receiving monies from amazon.com. If you prefer not to fill that company’s coffers, there are options for reading the books. Check with your local library or even purchase print/eBooks directly from the author or publisher; all of these could use your support.

 

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