Forty years ago, when novelist/screenwriter Roger L. Simon first introduced his countercultural private investigator, Moses Wine, in The Big Fix (1973), the American school of P.I. fiction was primed for change.
Two of its most influential contributors had already gone to their graves, passing away in quick succession—Raymond Chandler in 1959, Dashiell Hammett in 1961. Ross Macdonald, the third member of that school’s Holy Trinity, published his 17th Lew Archer novel, Sleeping Beauty, in 1973, but was able to finish only one additional entry in that series before he himself died 10 years later. A score of paperback scribblers who’d come up in the crime-writing ranks during the 1950s and ’60s, including William Campbell Gault, Mike Avallone, Dennis Lynds and Mickey Spillane, were still beating tales of hoods and hotties from their Underwoods, but the slim paperbacks they produced inevitably won greater notice from fans than critics. Bill Pronzini’s earliest “Nameless Detective” novel, The Snatch, had seen print in 1971, and Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, which welcomed Boston gumshoe-gourmet Spenser into the world, debuted in 1973. But it would be several years yet before Arthur Lyons, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Lawrence Block and other wordsmiths integral to the task of reviving interest in fictional shamuses came to prominence, and another decade before Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton proved that women—as both creators and characters—deserved their own distinctive role in that resurgence.
Simon sought to put an innovative spin on private-eye fiction. He didn’t wish simply to re-wrap the field’s hard-boiled conventions in new, shinier paper, but instead hoped to reboot the genre in a way that would resonate with a generation of readers less wistful for the quieter “good old days” than they were hopeful about how late-20th-century upheavals might redefine modern culture for the better. Moses S. Wine would chronicle that evolution through the course of his cases.
When we first meet him in The Big Fix, Wine is a divorced, 30-year-old Jewish “ex-Berkeley radical” and law-school dropout with a couple of small sons he sees only on weekends, a battered 1947 Buick and a non-existent sex life. For his snooping services, he charges $300 a week plus expenses—not much, even when compared with the modest demands of another ’70s sleuth, television’s Jim Rockford (whose rate was $200 a day plus expenses), and not nearly enough to satisfy his creditors. Consistent with a tradition among fictional private dicks, Wine is an outsider; however, the distance he maintains from the public mainstream is less about his being shunned than about his shunning societal expectations. This hash-smoking “People’s Detective” is nostalgic for the anti-nuke demonstrations and self-righteous denouncement of capitalism that drove him in his younger days, and hasn’t quite figured out how to adjust to a life of middle-class responsibilities.
As The Big Fix opens, a willowy blonde canvasser drops by Wine’s Los Angeles residence on behalf of U.S. Sen. Miles Hawthorne, who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination in the fast-approaching California primary election. It turns out she’s Lila Shea, whom Wine hasn’t set hungry eyes on since they made love in the back of a vintage hearse during an antiwar protest five years before. Now she wants to introduce him to Sam Sebastian, the L.A. County coordinator for Hawthorne’s campaign. The senator has recently received an unwanted endorsement from Howard Eppis, the Abbie Hoffman-like leader of the Free Amerika Party, who’s promising that Hawthorne “will do for Amerika what Mao and Lenin have done for China and Russia.” The senator’s staff fears Eppis’ backing might scare ordinary Democratic voters into the arms of Hawthorne’s primary opponent, Gov. Dillworthy. They want Wine to locate the reclusive Eppis and put a stop to his activities. Although the P.I. generally recoils from the “fetid stench of bigtime politics,” he accepts this assignment out of loyalty to Lila.
Simon’s plot quickly becomes twisted with imposters, diabolical schemes and dubious motives. Wine seeks Eppis at his last-known address, a Gothic mansion in L.A.’s canal-riddled Venice neighborhood, only to find that place abandoned. He has no better luck tracing him through Oscar Procari Jr., the late son of a deep-pocketed California financier who’d produced a record Eppis once made, but he does discover that Procari made off with Eppis’ girlfriend—who just happens to be Lila Shea. Soon afterward, Lila perishes driving over a cliff near Wine’s home, the sleuth is approached in a bar by a suspicious Mexican beauty, Alora Vazquez, and two guys in a car bearing Nevada license plates start tailing our hero. Then Sam Sebastian goes missing, raising the possibility that he’d been a Dillworthy spy in the Hawthorne camp, and suggestions are raised that Eppis’ disappearance may be linked to that of Alora’s theater-director father. By the time Wine winds up breaking his carnal dry spell at a brothel in Nevada desert country, The Big Fix has become a crazy quilt of puzzles.
Several loose ends and unanswered questions remain at the close of this novel (what purpose was there, for instance, in the story’s occult subplot?), and there are points where preposterous turns threaten to undermine its serious intent. Indeed, many readers today may come away from The Big Fix recalling only its humor. And maybe also its dated references to Datsuns, the scarcity of pre-Roe v. Wade abortion services and the then-current TV drama Mannix.
However, author Simon establishes in these pages a protagonist with dimension as well as durability. He’s particularly successful in portraying Moses Wine’s ambivalence about working for an elected lawmaker, somebody the P.I. grudgingly comes to accept as a decent man rather than an unscrupulous caricature. As voting day draws near, Wine actually finds himself hoping Hawthorne will win. “I wasn’t sure I liked myself for it,” he confesses. “Once you began to place your trust in a politician you were something of a fool. You ran the risk he would betray you for the next vote. And he surely would.” Again, Wine feels the tension of overcoming his youthful prejudices.
The Big Fix won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Memorial Award in 1974 and, four years later, a film adaptation starring Richard Dreyfuss was released, with Simon having penned the screenplay (and simplified his original plot a bit). Wine went on to star in seven more novels, including 1979’s Peking Duck (which sent him to China) and The Lost Coast, a rather touching 1997 yarn that found the guilt-ridden gumshoe defending his younger son against murder charges. His most recent outing, in Director’s Cut (2003), dispatched Wine to Prague to protect American moviemakers and repeat conservative cant supporting George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” Somehow, the formerly free-spirited, left-wing, “stoned Sam Spade” of old had become a proselytizer of the Establishment dogma he’d once have gladly skewered.
It’s best to enjoy Moses Wine’s early adventures, especially his first. After half a century of hard-boiled sleuths with no friends and too many guns, in 1973, Simon’s detective was a breath of fresh air—with a whiff of pot smoke.