SYNOPSIS: 1965. In Ketchum, Idaho, the last residence of Ernest Hemingway, a perfect storm is brewing. A conference of Hemingway scholars has descended on the small town, each of them frenetically eager to espouse and gain support for his own opinions on Hemingway's work, his life and especially his death. Among the scholars are Professor Richard Paulson and his pregnant wife, Hannah, a budding writer. The alcoholic Paulson has somehow gained the inside track to write a book with the widow, Mary Hemingway. Paulson, whose career is in a slump, believes Mary killed her husband and he will do anything to secure a confession from her and get his hands on the treasure trove of unpublished papers Hemingway left to Mary. But Mary has her own agenda, and Paulson's wife is on it. And she guards her late husband's work with murderous tenacity. But there are more sinister forces at work than a pack of self-absorbed, backstabbing Papa-wannabes. Hannah is certain that she and Richard are being followed. The Hemingway house is overflowing with wiretaps and listening devices, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. A cold killer named Donovan Creedy is even more hellbent than the scholars to get his hands on the Hemingway papers and destroy all literary and popular respect for Hemingway. At the center of this perfect storm is Hemingway's long-time friend, Hector Lassiter. Lassiter has a clear mission in mind: Protect his late friend's legacy from the bastards who would destroy it, and while he's at it, he might as well make them pay.
REVIEW: I had a great deal of difficulty trying to review McDonald's last novel, Toros & Torsos, because of its scope, depth, style, and complex plot. Right up front, I'll tell you: the man hasn't missed a step in this third episode of the life and times of Hector Lassiter, the crime writer who "writes what he lives and lives what he writes."
Hector is 65 years old now, far beyond the years allowed for the generic fictional he-men of the 21st century. But Hector is a rare breed; he's "the last man standing of The Lost Generation." He's a man of letters who carries a Colt, a two-fisted intellectual, and age has not diminished him. McDonald stays true to the character we saw in the first two books while developing Hector further. Hector is still a romantic in some ways, but he's also learned a degree of caution in his more intimate relationships. His anger can still escape his control, and when that happens Hector's reaction is extreme. He will stare into the face of the American criminal justice system, with all of its power and minions, and not blink.
The character of Donovan Creedy bears a strong resemblance to the notorious E. Howard Hunt in that both are right-wing nuts, CIA/FBI shadow ops agents, and mediocre (at best) crime novelists. Creedy has a string of pulp novels to his name in this story, as did Hunt in real life. (Remember the scene in All the President's Men when Woodward and Bernstein found out Hunt wrote spy novels? That always struck me as something worthy of fiction, and McDonald has neatly taken care of that.)
Other characters such as Paulson, Hannah, Mary Hemingway, are all so deftly drawn that one feels that it would be entirely possible for any of them to show up on Larry King Live to defend their motivations. Hannah in particular is a fascinating creature, a short story writer and a keen observer, but she is also one of the several bazillion women who are much stronger than they realize, until they are put to a crucial test. Hannah passes her test of strength and character with flying colors, and in sharp contrast to how her husband, Mary, Creedy, and even Hector face their own trials. I'd love to tell you how Hannah did it, too, because she put McGyver to shame. He would never have thought of something so simple.
Action? Yep, there's plenty of that and plenty of suspense. There's murder and there's attempted murder. There are threats and there are warnings. There are the evil and the weak, the good and the strong, the selfless and the self-absorbed. There are illegal drugs. Plane crashes. Ambushes. Beatings. Even one orgy. For those who just want action and heroes and villains, you won't go wrong with this book. But you'd be cheating yourself if you didn't look even just a little deeper. There's a rich, liquid quality to this book, in characterization and in plot, that leaves me thirsting for more. And the historical facts used to frame and enhance the fiction are mesmerizing even without any help from the author.
As McDonald played his small surrealistic mind games in the text of Toros & Torsos, here again he has seamlessly blended fact and fiction until my head was in a whirl. I kept one hand on the book and one hand on Google while I was reading. While McDonald's text of Toros &Torsos is actually told in third person as it follows Hector over several decades, in Print the Legend, that book is being written by Hector (still in third person) about himself, treating biographical facts about himself as fiction. Okay, treating fictional biographical facts about himself as truth. No, as true fiction. I think. Do you see what I'm getting at here? McDonald writes it so that I know what he's doing but I can't even describe it. It's history and fiction tied up in one neat Möbius strip. When Hannah gets a sneak peek at Hector's manuscript, she is astounded that it "transcended any notions of genre writing."
Well, hell, Hannah, welcome to the club. I take pride (the I-told-you-so variety) in noting in my review of Toros & Torsos that the book 'exceeds and expands the genre.' Should I be wondering at this point if McDonald is Hector made flesh and reincarnated? In my haste to praise and deify McDonald's talent have I actually underestimated the caliber of his work? Can I get an amen, somebody?
Still don't believe me about the mind games? Well... In Print the Legend, one Hemingway scholar is observed to have stolen the title of his book from one of Bud Fiske's volumes of poetry. Don't know who Bud is? Google him; read his poetry. Better still, read Head Games, the first in the Hector Lassiter series, then read Bud's poetry.
Is it a coincidence that the spook following Lassiter around has the last name of Langley? Or that chapter 22 is titled Art in the Blood? When Creedy accuses Lassiter of "chasing post-modernism" by using himself as a character in one of his own books, one has to wonder what he would make of what McDonald is doing: biting post-modernism on the ass?
What really happened on that July morning in Idaho? The book ends with a delicious mixture of resolution and ambiguity. While studying the ripple effect of Hemingway's life and death, McDonald has created his own ripple effect. Long may he wave.
Disclosure notice: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher (or his agent) at no charge to me. The publisher (or his agent) neither stipulated nor received from me any promise that the book would be the subject of an endorsement or review, either positive or negative.