David Spandau
Created by Daniel Depp

"The Nice-Cannes airport is about as architecturally exciting as a VD clinic."
-- from
Babylon Nights

Should a writer's personal life be fair comment in a review?

My first instinct is to go all Nancy Reagan and just say "No.".

But how about if that said writer has used his or her personal life to sell or promote the book?

That's the connundrum that faced me when I was called upon to review Loser's Town by Daniel Depp. And I'd have to say, upon further consideration, "Sometimes."

Not that screenwriter and first time P.I. writer Depp went overboard with the personal stuff, but it's virtually impossible to read his new novel without becoming painfully aware of who his famous half-brother is. But it's also glaringly obvious that's the way the author and his publishers and publicists wanted it.

Aging former stuntman turned Los Angeles private eye and weekend rodeo cowboy DAVID SPANDAU knows more than he ever wanted to know about the movie biz, which may not make him the happiest camper around Tinsel Town, but sure adds an edge and a delightfully skewered "insider's" view to this 2009 debut.

Spandau works for Coren Investigations on Sunset, a swanky "boutique" detective agency that caters to the rich and powerful. Despite his misgivings, Spandau agrees to go to work for heart-throb actor Bobby Dye (a party-loving, good-looking man-child, with a skinny model girlfriend overly fond of recreational drugs in tow -- remind you of anyone?) who's caught up in a nasty Hollywood blackmail scheme. The preliminary buzz on this one made it feel like the start of a beautiful friendship... but actually reading the book harshes that buzz pretty quick.

Not that there isn't some really really good stuff here. Spandau himself is a carefully crafted and intriguing character, with some decidedly Macdonaldesque overtones (the detective, for example, still yearns for his ex-wife), and some of the quirky lowlifes (agents, publicists, gangsters, etc.) who flesh out the story are surprising vivid, suggesting Depp hasn't been neglecting his Elmore.

But all this great characterization (Spandau's sometime assistant is a real piece of work, for example, and the lovesick thug Potts is alternately disturbing and heart-warming) goes for naught because Depp isn't sure where he's going. Sub-plots burst into narrative flames, only to puff out like a wet birthday candle a few chapters later, and Spandau, the alleged hero of the story, is curiously absent -- and not even involved -- in much of what takes place. Not that all major sub-plots simply fade away, though -- some suddenly reappear, long after we've almost forgotten about them. And certainly after we've ceased to care about them.

Which is a real shame. There's plenty of good writing here, and some delightfully wicked takes on the industry (although, honestly, nothing particularly new). But the Johnny Depp-like Dye is curiously flat, as though the author wasn't quite sure how to handle him; worried on the one hand he'd offend and on the other that he'd be accused of sucking up. As it is, whatever resentment and jealousy and contempt might be brewing right under the surface is held in check. After all, everybody loves Johnny, right? It wouldn't do to piss off all those fans. And just to be on the safe side, Depp dedicates the book to "John."

Too bad he hadn't paid as much dedication to his story.

My guess? The Depp name got Daniel's manuscript in the door, even though it was probably good enough to be accepted anyway, but as a result the book got vetted more thoroughly by publicists than actual editors. Because a sharper editor would have insisted on the story being tightened up and would probably have suggested that the author remove some of the more glaring repetitions of descriptions and phrases (sometimes only a few pages apart). And maybe, just maybe, urged the author to drop the kid gloves and just go for it.

As it is, this books reads like a disjointed and failed opportunity. Now that the roman à clef trick has been played, Depp may find it difficult to build a series around a character who ends up being an extra in his own debut.

But I'm happy to report that the sequel, Babylon Nights (2010), is a giant leap forward for Depp. The same leap frog plotting occurs (somebody's been reading their Elmore Leonard), but the characters themselves are sharper, fresher, more fleshed out. And just more interesting. The purported hero, Spandau, still wanders off to the sidelines for disconcertingly long periods of time, and still seems more like a bystander to the action too often, instead of a the hero he's purported to be, but with such a rich palette as this, it's easier to forgive his occasional absence.

Spandau's back on the case, just having buried Bobby Dye, and it's a fitting metaphor. Depp seems far less interested in reminding us who he is this time, and more intersted in simply spinning a yarn. And that's a good thing, because it's a ripsnorter.

Aging movie star Anna Mayhew still has the looks, but she's not getting any younger. She's also smart enough and down-to-earth-enough to know exactly what and who she is (a refreshing change for this sort of Hollywood crime novel) and she's still a big enough name to attract that very latest of Hollywood accessories: her own demented stalker.

Hairdresser and Franco-American freak Vincent Perec has a thing for Mayhew, and big plans for Anna and him, most of which seem to involve sharp-edged implements. Now if only he can get close enough to her...

Standing in Perec's way is Spandau, of course, who's been pressured by his boss to act as bodyguard for the still-sexy Mayhew. Reluctantly, he even agrees to accompany her to Cannes Film Festival where, in an attempt to get back into the limelight, she's agreed to act as a judge.

But Perec's nothing if not resourceful, and bolstered by a suitcase of stolen mob money (don't ask), he's soon off to France, hot on the heels of Mayhew. And completely unaware that Special, a Los Angeles pimp with a jones for opera who's got a few surprising resources of his own, is right behind him, intent on recovering the stolen loot.

It's a deadly game of cat and mouse and mouse, jumping abruptly from point-of-view to point-of-view and character to character at times, which may catch some readers off-balance. Meanewhile, Spandau still seems disappointingly oblivious to much of what's going on, (is he supposed to be the hero here or not?), but overall this is a marked improvement on Depp's last outing.

For a razor-weilding sicko of the Norman Bates School, Perec is a surprisingly sympathetic character at times. And the Cannes-appointed bodyguard for Anna is

Once again, sharp-eyed readers will be reminded of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, anyone?) but Depp brings enough of his own style, wit, insider's colour and flat-out imagination and surprising twists into the mix this go-round to suggest that the David Spandau series is still one to watch -- even if Spandau never quite becomes the star of the series that Depp -- or at least his publishers -- intend him to be.

The author was born in Kentucky, read Classics at university, and has worked as a journalist, a bookseller and a teacher, and now divides his time between California and Europe, writing and producing screenplays. Maybe he and Johnny have matching villas in France.

NOVELS

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, and thanks to Eric Chambers for connecting the dots.


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