Re: RARA-AVIS: Madman on a Drum

From: jumblejim (
Date: 15 Mar 2003

> I'm still stuck in the '40s. Madman on a Drum is an obscure
> book by N. R. De Mexico, published as a paperback original
> by Cavalcade in 1944. Anthony Boucher gave it a rave review
> in his column (reprinted in The Boucher Chronicles II), and
> now Ramble House (publisher of the aforementioned Boucher
> book) has reprinted Madman. It's the best Woolrich pastiche
> you're likely to find outside George Hopley and William
> Irish. Larry Graham suddenly finds himself in a nightmare
> world where his apartment is no longer his, his job is gone,
> his girlfriend has been murdered. From there on, things
> just get worse. Everything happens in about 24 hours, so
> the pace is furious. Now and then de Mexico tries to drag
> in the reader by narrating passages in second person. It
> even sort of works. As far as I know, nobody knows whether
> de Mexico (also the author of the highly collectible
> Marijuana Girl) isa real name or a pen name. If it's a pen
> name, two people (including Larry Shaw) have been suggested
> as possibilities.

Spoilers here:

I just read MADMAN ON A DRUM because of this recounting. (I read the
"Suspense" reprint retitled STRANGE PURSUIT.) I have to say, I can't see why it got any praise, anywhere. It was rather tediously padded, with unconvincing forays into stream-of-consciousness, and the second-person stuff was a little irritating. (I wouldn't call it "now and then," either--it crops up about five times per page.) There is a fair amount of stuff that seems naive, even perhaps for the time, such as the leading character's reaction to people smoking "reefers," etc. But the thing that just killed this book for me was the overwhelming and constant use of coincidence and contrivance. A girl is abducted by people who run BOTH a drug den and a recording studio for public-address sound trucks, and she manages to sneak a message onto the tail end of a political-address recording in hopes that the person the message is for will hear it somewhere on the street and come rescue her, even though no pertinent information is given in her message? And it works? The abductee tosses a card with a picture of a lantern on it and a nickel stuck to the card with gum out a window in hopes that someone will find it in the alley below and mail it to our hero who will then come and rescue her from where she's hidden above a club called The Lantern? And it works? The hero can't find a working phone booth in Manhattan? Every single cop the guy turns to for help turns out to be in on the political-corruption/drug-smuggling ring? Every shopowner, diner cook, and doorman the guy gets information from turns out minutes later to have no recollection of their previous conversation (because, it turns out, they've ALL been paid off)? Hiding in a cabinet in the recording studio while the bad guys converse, our hero manages to make not one but two phonograph recordings of their conversation BY MANIPULATING THE RECORDING EQUIPMENT WIRING, BLINDLY AND FROM BEHIND THE CONSOLE, by reaching his hands out and GUESSING which wires controlled the microphones, turntables, and stylus-arms? And it works?

Even without the references to virtually every black character as a monkey or chimpanzee, I would have had a hard time enjoying this thing. There were a couple of good turns of phrase, but the hero seemed incredibly stupid, the bad guys both obtuse and inhumanly crafty, and every situation contrived for the sake of effect, believability be damned.

I've read some amazing books because of recommendations here. I'm thankful this is the only time in several years I've been disappointed. Had to happen, I suppose.

Jim Beaver

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