I was in bed June 19, 2005 when I became Sam McCain. It happened during a flash of magic, one of those unpredictable windows in the space-time continuum one reads about in certain kinds of fantasy fiction. Had I been reading Metamorphosis during that bewitched, cosmic shift you might at this moment be reading combinations of only h and i and s to represent the hissing sounds I presume Kafka’s central character might produce. Thankfully no magic window opened when I read Metamorphosis, not like the one with Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, a mystery novel featuring the aforementioned Sam McCain, whom I became instead of Kafka’s humble dung beetle. I don’t mind admitting this, that I became the fictional lawyer/private eye, in part because the character I was reading about, an engaging little Irishman, himself admits to a cross-identity assumption, that he secretly believes he’s Robert Ryan, the tall, strapping movie actor.
Mixed up, mysteried up, shook up world, to play with Lou Reed's little ditty about a fellow who became a gal named Lola. Oh, there's no Lola in any of the ten Sam McCain mysteries. Straight as can be in that sense. Not that I as McCain nor McCain himself—even in his secret Robert Ryan persona, presumably--would have found anything wrong had any of the plots been muddled that way! That which I've read of Ed Gorman's phenomenal literary canon, celebrates hope in a world seen with unblinking yet tender clarity no matter how jinxed the view. It was my sense of this vision at the start of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow that grabbed me after setting me up with the epigraph:
I smell blood and an era of prominent madmen. —W. H. Auden
“GEE,” THE BEAUTIFUL PAMELA Forrest said. “He actually looks kinda dopey.”
And he did.
Here he was, the world’s first nuclear-powered bogeyman, and he looked like the uncle everybody feels sorry for because he’s fat and sloppy.
Nikita Khrushchev. Premier of the Soviet Union. The world’s number one Russian. Not to mention Communist.
Athough I did not know at this point it was Sam McCain speaking, already I was him—if only to enjoy his proximity to "the beautiful Pamela Forrest." Little did I know how frustrating this proximity would prove to be for both McCain and me as I worked my way through the McCain saga. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is the second in the series. I read it first, not having any knowledge of McCain or Ed Gorman, because it was a Father's Day gift from my wife. She had inscribed it sweetly, hinting that perhaps I would enjoy reading it "while cruising to Bermuda." I couldn't wait for the cruise, which came later, so my initiation to the Sam McCain phenomenon, which led to a treasured friendship with his creator, came landlocked next to the woman whose thoughtful gift had introduced us, and who too was reading during our habitual read-before-sleep time, which, in retrospect, might otherwise have been spent more wisely, as the title's yearning question no longer for us begs a fortuitous answer. Happier exponentially answering the question more directly: the immediate tomorrow of my discovering Ed Gorman has come and gone but I cannot begin to imagine, no matter how many tomorrows I may have left, answering that question any other way than Hell Yes!
Thinking back, it occurs to me there probably was no magic flash that turned me into Sam McCain that fateful eve. At least not in a fantasy physics sense, as Ed Gorman, whose oeveure includes science fiction as well as westerns, noir, horror, and genres I'm likely forgetting, would have told me. Too modest to admit it, though, he'd merely have flashed a leprechaun grin at the suggestion it was his storytelling sleight of hand alone that made the magic. And then he'd have reminded me of the things McCain and I had in common: McCain practiced law and worked as an investigator for the local judge in his hometown, the fictional Black River Falls, Iowa; my dad practiced law in our small Wisconsin town where I was a high school senior when Krushchev visited Roswell Garst's Iowa farm. The detective part? I'd been reading detective novels from the time I discovered them in the little bookcase my dad kept near his favorite chair in our living room. Ed Gorman captured me by capturing the mood and the feel of a small prairie town and its people. Especially Sam McCain, whom, had I not grown up to be a mild-mannered newspaper reporter (sans tights and cape), might well have had a career quite like that of my fictional alter ego.
McCain is not my father's detective type. He's neither the classic hard-boiled nor cozy mystery solver. Were he Jewish he'd be describing himself what in Yiddish is called a schlemiel, a chump. But that is just his modest way of self-appraisal. In truth he's a smart, tough little guy who can face his fears, handle himself, and get the job done. He doesn't often get the girl, although not for lack of trying (see opening reference to "the beautiful Pamela Forrest"). He loves his sister (I have one, too) and his parents. One description of his dad, in the first book of the series—The Day the Music Died—is so honest and poignant it chokes my throat up with each reading:
I still remember standing on the platform at the train depot and watching my dad wave to us when he came home from World War II. I was shocked. My parents are small people. My mom is five-two and has never cleared ninety pounds. But I’d grown up with my mom and was used to her size. My dad was a different matter. I’d seen a lot of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan— two of the many brave movie stars who hadn’t actually gone to war— war movies, and so I just figured my dad would be this big heroic kind of guy, too. He’d been gone a long time. Well, he wasn’t big and heroic-looking. In fact, he looked like a kid. He was five-six and weighed maybe 130 and had dishwater blond hair. His khaki uniform looked too big for him, gave him a vulnerability that made him seem even less soldierly. He was an utter stranger to me. The last time I’d seen him I’d been seven years old. I felt sort of ashamed of him, actually, how young and vulnerable he looked in the midst of all these other towering GIs. Why couldn’t I have a dad who looked like Robert Mitchum? And I’ve always been ashamed of myself for feeling that. I know that when I see him in his coffin over at the Fitzpatrick Funeral Home, that’s what I’ll think of, *how I betrayed him in my heart that first day he came back from the war.
And this, lest there be any doubt about our (McCain's and my) political leanings:
Dad had all the insecurities that go along with being a small and somewhat delicate man. But instead of using them to hate or bully, he’d turned them into empathy and wisdom. He always watched the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards and watched what the white cops were doing to black people trying to ride whites-only city buses. Stuff like that got to him as much as it did me. Even my mom, who didn’t vote because she hated all politicians equally, had tears in her eyes when she saw little Negro kids blasted off the streets with fire hoses and their parents clubbed to their knees.
The McCain series is set in the years 1959-71, with their pop-song titles corresponding to the times of the stories. The first one, The Day the Music Died, begins on the day commemorated by Don McLean’s eponymous song, when a plane carrying rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killng all aboard.The novel opens with Sam McCain and “the beautiful Pamela Forrest” driving home from the group’s final performance at Clear Lake.
McCain isn’t one of those fictional characters who never ages despite a series span of decades. His finale, Riders on the Storm, has him recently returning home from a five-month hospital stint after a drunken jeep accident when he was a National Guardsman. He’s lost some of his smartalecky edge. In fact, well, let’s let him tell us:
I top a small hill and gaze down at the moonlit homes stretching out before me. Senators love to bluster about how the rest of the world envies us, and when you see this portrait in shadow and light you have to agree with them. Solid houses, good jobs, bright futures. Too bad we were losing thousands of our troops— not to mention even more thousands of innocents— just so two fine fellows named Johnson and Nixon could play John Wayne…
This was the seventies. I indulged in liquor, grass and sex. I’d lost my religious faith, I’d lost most of my faith in the political system and I knew how corrupt our system of justice was. And if I had to sit down and count up the number of lies I’d told in my life, a fair share to women I’d cared about, I would be one hundred and thirty-four before I could stand up again.
Sam McCain died 17 days ago, along with the man who gave him the life he shared with me. Ed Gorman promised me several months ago in the last email I got from him that another McCain novel was in the works. I kinda knew better, because Ed had been seriously ill during the years I came to know him after that auspicious Father’s Day 11 years ago. A type of cancer known as multiple myeloma finally killed him. I was never blessed with the honor and the pleasure of meeting him in person, or even speaking with him on the phone. But there was never any doubt he was a friend—from our first exchange of emails. And dammit now he’s gone for good, and so is Sam McCain.