Blood, Bewilderment and Bad Luck: Jeff Strand’s Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”)

Lost Homicidal Maniac-Strand CoverThe fourth Andrew Mayhem novel took a while to gestate, but when it arrived it seemed like no time at all had passed for our plucky, beleaguered hero. After a brief and surprisingly touching introduction, which recounts Andrew Mayhem’s relationship with his parents as well as the imparting of such nuggets of wisdom as “I hope you have kids like you one day,” and “guilt doesn’t make a fluffy pillow,” (Location 136) the chapter concludes with the ending of the third book in the series. Wife Helen Mayhem is still pregnant following the dire adventures with Mr. Burke and his crazy cohorts and the baby is actually babies. The epilogue to the previous novel gets included here with one seemingly minor addition: “God, I wanted my mother.” (Location 200)

The Mayhem family will be growing by leaps and bounds in no time at all, so it’s time to put away his irregular work and to continue his program of being a decent, upstanding and responsible husband-father. He and his best pal Roger Tanglen start their own business, doing their damnedest to better monetize the skills they have been giving away cheap in previous books. They decide to become problem solvers of a sort, which is a none-too-clear name for being professional unlicensed investigators who get involved in weird cases. Their first client has them doing more-or-less routine manual labor. Their second client is a woman named Shirley, who has a special problem:

“My name is Shirley,” she said. “I think I might be a serial killer.” (Location 544)

It is not exactly your run of the mill issue, but what in Andrew Mayhem’s life is? The reason for this client’s uncertainty is, she has been experiencing black outs from time to time as well as violent dreams. She is scared of what she might be doing, but not quite convinced she wants to go to the authorities. As it turns out, Shirley wants the guys to accompany her to a creepy house that she vaguely recalls from her dreams. Further, she wants to be handcuffed to one of them in case they find something to convince her to try and make a break for it. Andrew gets to be the unlucky handcuffed man, and they set out on their new adventure.

All is not completely new, however. Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”) is a book that balances some new material along with continuing to grapple with material that was not quite laid to rest in the previous book. In good old pulp fiction style, the maniacal Mr. Burke makes a return, hoping to teach Andrew new lessons in pain and suffering. In addition to Burke’s vengeance, readers learn that a family of lunatics are waiting in the wings for Mr. Burke’s demise to fall on someone’s shoulders so they can strike even harder. And then there is Shirley, the homicidal maniac of the title, who seems to bounce between different personalities at the drop of a hat—sensitive and conciliatory in one moment and utterly vicious in the next.

I wasn’t a big fan of handcuffs, even when used in private in a locked bedroom as part of a committed marriage when the kids were staying with their grandparents for the evening. (Location 755)

That tells a whole little story right there, don’t you think?

Be that as it may, poor Andrew spends a large part of this book cuffed to her, in no small part due to Shirley’s refusal to let him go. Andrew later discovers the key to the handcuffs has disappeared, which leads to an unlikely conversation as well as a new revelation about Shirley’s previously unreported skill as a pickpocket:

I patted my pocket, felt nothing, then reached in and dug deep. “Where’s the key?”

“Don’t be mad,” said Shirley.

“Where’s the key?” I repeated.

“You promised you wouldn’t be mad.”

“I didn’t promise anything! Where’s the key?”

Shirley held up the key between her thumb and index finger. “I took it. But it’s only because I didn’t want you to unlock us before we finished searching the place.”

“Are you saying that you handcuffed us to make sure you didn’t try to flee, but you stole the key for yourself?”

“Yes.”

“You understand that this logic is not airtight, right?”

“If I were trying to run away in a panic, you’d be able to stop me from putting the key in the lock. At least I assume you would. I’m sorry. Sometimes I just swipe things.”

“Give it back.”

“You’ll unlock us.”

“Correct.”

She popped the key into her mouth. (Location 971)

In fact, Shirley is willing to do more than swallow a key to keep the connection here, you see. She’s also willing to steal a cop’s set of handcuffs when her first pair get removed. The symbolism is plain, if you’re into that sort of read: Andrew Mayhem is shackled to The Crazy in his life like no other character in this series (or any other series I can think of). And I am sure all our mothers warned us about the dangers of sleeping too close to The Crazy . . .

Jeff Strand’s blend of comedy and gruesome horror is as seamless as ever in the fourth book. While this one delves some dank and dark places, it is not quite as soul-numbing as the grueling middle sequence of Casket For Sale (Only Used Once). The thematic aim here is less about suffering than it is about frustration.

Andrew spends a lot of the book dealing with people who cannot express themselves in a reliable or meaningful way. The writing draws up some of this frustration into the reader as well. We feel for Andrew and Roger here, goofy as they are these are the (more or less) heroes of the series. Strand’s comedy here has equal parts bantering dialogue and awkward situations, which we can feel for. As a reader, I dearly wanted to choke the ever living shit out of some of the people Andrew encounters, so on that front, Strand’s writing is as effective as ever.

Career and craft can change quite a bit in a ten-year hiatus. It is not necessarily an easy thing to do, picking up a series begun early in a career and seeing it continue. Author Donald Westlake lost his alter ego Richard Stark for almost twenty years between the books Butcher’s Moon and Comeback, and yet when he returned to the heister character of Parker, it seemed as though little real time had passed either for the character or for the author. The prose was still as strong, the storytelling still as keen. We get a similar sense of confidence and craft here between the Mayhem series’ third and much delayed fourth volumes. The character is growing, slowly and steadily. He picks up exactly where we left him and continues his development. If he hasn’t quite learned not to trust strange women with ominous jobs, well, hopefully he will do so in time for the next book. Or the one after that (cosmos willing).

Of course, there was not a complete hiatus of silence on the Andrew Mayhem front in between the third and fourth books. He appeared in the collaborative novella Suckers, which also featured J. A. Konrath’s lovable (?) private dick Harry McGlade. While the events of that novella are not vital here, the events in this novel do touch on that work in a fun and surprising way. A fifth (and possibly final? Yeah, right.) book is on the way, so the Andrew Mayhem series will be continuing at least for the near future.

One of the features I most I appreciate in Jeff Strand’s work is the unerring sense of logic some of his characters try to bring to the most illogical and irrational of situations.

Consider, for example, the appearance of a hired gun by the name of Markus. He is working for one of the book’s big bad guys, he’s been tasked to keep tabs on Andrew Mayhem, and when he arrives he finds his quarry in an unbelievable situation. Of course, being a reasonable, rational (if homicidal) kind of guy, Markus suspects a ploy.

Markus went silent for a very long moment. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I come from a world of competence. The idea that you could be handcuffed to somebody who accidentally swallowed the key while your friend was stuck—”

“She swallowed it on purpose,” I clarified.

Markus looked as it he wanted to just sit down and weep. “Brains come very soft in these parts.” (Location 1225)

The joke is on Markus, however. Andrew’s life careens into the wildly implausible with regularity. And yet, this flying in the face of logic is not a feature to only the Andrew Mayhem cycle. That’s one of the underling themes Strand’s humor takes in a large number of his works. If Monty Python were obsessed with uncovering the absurdities of the everyday and presenting them to their audiences from an equally absurd slant, then Jeff Strand’s sense of humor is interested in applying equal doses of everyday logic as well as genre logic.

Sometimes this appears in a character (often a protagonist, though in the case of Markus above it can be a secondary character) stopping to say a variation on “Hold up. This doesn’t make sense. The real world doesn’t work this way, it works this other way,” and then having a plot twist, villain or secondary character basically thumb his nose at the attempt to find some shred of sense to cling to. Of course, the flipside is also true—power tools intended for acts of gruesome dismemberment do not actually start, guns do run out of ammunition and even the bad guys can mess up big time. The humor in horror in general and in this author’s brand in particular is found in circumventing expectations. For horror fiction and contemporary fantasy, this generally involves establishing a real world and its expectations and then throwing a gear in the works with an unexpected intrusion of the otherworldly, the strange, the surreal or the homicidal. However, Strand’s work is equally intrigued by the flip side, circumventing genre expectations by sudden intrusions of the real world. The instability inherent in such regular script flips is delightful to see and adds a quality of surprise.

This is part and parcel to Andrew Mayhem’s existence throughout the series. A woman can hire him to dig up her illegally buried hubby in search of a key, and the coffin’s occupant can turn out to still be alive and armed with a magnum. A family can decide to take a vacation to the woods and end up in the hands of a monstrous manchild who never got over a childish infatuation with cyborgs and the unstoppable desire to make his own. The glee this author takes in bending reality around his humorous and horrific ideas is evident with each book. The most pleasant surprise of all is how often he bends reality to the breaking point but does not let it actually snap because that would throw us out of the moment. Characters can stop for a moment to assess the situation, but the second a reader stops to say, “Wait a minute here,” would be dangerous to the mood he has established. Instead, Strand keeps his readers guessing and always on their toes.

As for Andrew Mayhem, after four brushes with extreme horror, it is perhaps a surprise he’s still relatively sane after the many awful turns his life has taken. I can’t be the first reader to wonder if the man has to be reconsidering his life choices at this point. In fact, this is something that materializes in a moment of doubt late in this book.

I should’ve just left the state months ago. When my daughter started having nightmares about me, I should’ve realized that they’d all be much better off if I moved away completely. Be the kind of father who just sent checks. Maybe I shouldn’t have even stayed in the United States. I could have picked a charming little village in Ireland, improved my beer drinking skills, and lived out the rest of my life in happy obscurity. (Location 2800)

Of course, he would probably also have picked the one Irish village where ghastly murders happened. He is, after all, a self-described “freaking neodymium magnet for trouble” (Location 237) and that means he is screwed no matter where he goes or what he does.

Of course, running away is never an option for him. Certainly not now that he has another pack of kids on the way. Andrew Mayhem may be many things, but he is not the kind of guy who walks out on his family. In that first book, he started off as a bit of an irresponsible ass, but he grew up over the story. With each book, his maturity has improved (though he has a long way to go before anyone will mistake him with a boring, mature adult). In Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”), he has taken one big step forward and tried to become a businessman, an entrepreneur. Of course, the lunatic and violent world that waits on his doorstep is all too eager to kick him in the crotch, regardless. However, he does keep trying, growing, developing.

One disappointment I have with this volume is the lack of cut away sections to other perspectives. They might have been fun to see, but such elements might well have ruined the suspense in the storyline. Here we get quite a few instances of “is Roger/Helen/Theresa/Kyle/Samantha still alive???” Immediately cutting to that character would wreck the surprise. So, for the first time since the first novel, we get only Andrew’s point of view. Still, I miss the different perspectives his family and friends had to offer.

While Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”) might neither be the engrossing mystery that Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) was nor the relentless race through woods, evil lair and highway that Casket For Sale (Only Used Once) was, however, it is an entertaining and fast-paced read on its own. Old enemies come calling, new ones show their pumpkin-masked faces and at least one recurring character from the series gets axed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, Jeff Strand’s careful prose keeps us on course and always eager for the next gag or gross moment. Not since Clive Barker’s novella “Babel’s Children” has farce been quite so unsettling.

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Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to Shirley) is available in a standalone eBook edition or as part of a bundle of the entire series to date.

Next up in the Jeff Strand reading series, we are going to take a step away from Andrew Mayhem (at least until the next book is available), and venture into one of the most ambitious books in the author’s catalog. The novel Cyclops Road is at once a road story as well as a dark fantasy, it’s a psychological suspense story and a mythical quest novel, taking a disbelieving protagonist from his regular life on the road to adventure. A woman falls into his life, believing herself to be a chosen warrior on the road to a small town in Arizona to kill a one-eyed giant. Is she for real, is she delusional, or is the truth somewhere between these extremes? The answers await in Cyclops Road, available in eBook, paperback and audiobook editions.

WORK CITED

Strand, Jeff. Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”). Self-published: 2011.

“Blood, Bewilderment and Bad Luck: Jeff Strand’s Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to ‘Shirley’)” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover art (designed by the great Lynne Hansen) and quotes are taken from the eBook edition, released 2011.

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