Squatting on the sidewalk as dusk settled over Silver Lake, I reached blindly into the cardboard box, felt around with my fingers and yanked out a creased and weary 95-cent paperback edition of The Black Shrike, by Alistair MacLean, originally published in 1961 under the pseudonym Ian Stuart.
The back cover advertised “a fantastic plot for world domination, played out on a secret missile site on a remote Polynesian island,” and stoked parts of my brain that had lain dormant since the Lost finale last year. What could this mean? I decided I must investigate.
I glanced sidelong towards Sunset Boulevard to ensure I wasn't being followed, stood up and then quietly slipped the paperback into my purse, turning away from the now-empty box and the note crying “Free books!” Someone must have left this here for me, but who?
Earlier that day on my way to the market, I'd passed the same box surrounded by a crowd of bespectacled locals rifling through piles and piles of gratis tomes, skimming, judging, scoffing and making deep sounds of intellectual approval. As I flew from errand to errand that afternoon, I kept a covert eye on the growing scrim around what amounted to a real live treasure chest in a neighborhood where being a broke-ass artist is all the rage.
But how had The Black Shrike escaped the fate of Franzen, Marx and Chomsky? Were the citizens of Silver Lake literary snobs, too cool for a good old-fashioned Cold War-era thriller, even if it's free? Disgusting. Why settle for David Hume when you can have Desmond Hume? I live by my own code, unafraid of condescension from the tattoo sleeves and flannel dresses lurking at Intelligentsia, and so I vowed to avenge MacLean's honor.
I tore through the pages, devouring the tale of secret agents John Bentall and Marie Hopeman, who go undercover as man and wife, get kidnapped, escape by jumping overboard into the Pacific and wash up on an island full of duplicitous characters.
I started to smell something fishy about the time MacLean describes some Chinese guards by commenting on their “cold implacability” and “the oriental immobility of the yellow faces.” I tried to suppress my irritation with Bentall's habit of chastising himself in third person, with copious painful clichés (“I went for that drink like a thirst-stricken camel for the nearest oasis”), and most of all with Marie, the incompetent so-called secret agent with so delicate a constitution a mere rat bite on page 29 renders her clingy and depressed for the rest of the book.
I wanted to lose myself in The Black Shrike, I really did, but I experienced no mindless pleasure while turning the pages, no rush of adrenaline when Bentall discovers seven bodies in a cavern, no swooning when Bentall and Marie finally, obviously, inevitably make out. I only wanted to deconstruct Bentall's latent homosexuality, parse the evil LeClerc's motives in treating his Chinese servants like shit while claiming he planned to invade Australia on China's behalf and whip out a red pen to correct the two or three run-on sentences I found on each page.
And then all of a sudden I had it figured out: it was a setup, from start to finish, and I had fallen hook, line and sinker.
“What have you done, old girl?” I whispered, staring down at my hands in horror.
It couldn't be, but it was the only logical solution: it was I who was the snob, all along.
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