Book: D.D. Murphry, Secret Policeman
Type of Book: Fiction, themed short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the whole book is based on the delusions of a seriously mentally ill man.
Availability: Published in 2009 by Raw Dog Screaming Press, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve been thinking about the mentally ill a lot lately. I technically have mental illness, but given my recent methods of fighting back as well as the relative mildness of my condition, I am getting very close to being The Sanest Person You Know. Earlier this year I read Pete Earley’s book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, a sickening and sobering look at the mental healthcare system nationwide, but especially in Florida. When the face-eating cannibal case hit the headlines, my first thought was, “I bet he was a schizophrenic.” News said it was bath salts but the autopsy said all the face-eater had in his system was marijuana. I looked it up and sure enough – Rudy Eugene had a rich history of untreated schizophrenia, resulting in many assaults and several arrests.
It is with Earley’s book and the recent graphic example of the mental health care system failure in Florida in mind that I am writing this discussion. There is a lot that is funny in this book. Clark and Massie wove a mentally-ill conspiracy so well that it is pure genius – at times I wondered, briefly, if the conspiracy was real, that perhaps Murphry was ill but was also being used as a pawn by a malevolent force. So strongly does Murphry believe the truth of the misfires in his brain that the reader, even with strong clues that this is indeed a mentally disturbed man acting out what is happening in his mind, cannot help but think there is some truth to such energetic and labyrinthine delusions.
It is impossible to discuss the structure and plot of this book in much depth because to do so would utterly spoil the book. So I plan to give a bare-bones plot synopsis and then discuss the parts of chapter one that resonate with me. D.D. Murphry is a mentally ill, mostly homeless man. When a social worker helped him get on disability or some sort of Social Security, he interpreted that as having been hired by the “True Government” to spy on and take action against the “False Government.” His interpretations of various situations, as filtered through his damaged mind, range from the hilarious to the deeply disturbing, often depending on how it is he decides to react. He believes a librarian named Kate, who fears and loathes him, is his secret bride, given to him by the “True Government.” He believes her nasty reaction to him is a facade assumed to throw off others and he longs for the day he can finally consummate their marriage. Kate inadvertently provided a large source of fuel for Murphry’s delusions, as she taught him to use a computer and access e-mail. Murphry sees spam as secret communications from the True Government and Clark and Massie really shine when they show how he manages to find real life corollaries in the simplest things that match the messages he thinks he received in the e-mails. Murphry careens from humorous misinterpretation to grave acts of utter mayhem as he tries to make the world a better place for the True Government and foil the actions of the False Government.
The chapters are divided into cases and the first chapter sets the stage for the novel very well. Murphry’s amusing inability to understand common phrases and turns of speech is laid out, and so is his utter dangerousness. Murphry sees what he thinks is a drug sale on a bus and causes the bus to crash, injuring and killing the riders (he goes limp and lets his body get tossed around and avoids injury). He calmly walks away from the bus and Clark begins to show us what is fueling Murphry.
A billboard overhead selling insurance asked him, “Are you sure you have peace of mind?”
This seemed an unusual question. Sure I do. A few innocent people were hurt, but that’s the price of freedom.
But then, suddenly, he realized what the billboard’s question was really about. He had almost forgotten his disguise.
There might be witnesses to the accident who could described me to the non-secret authorities! I can’t risk being stopped and questioned by the cronies of the False Government. They would not find me out, (I know what I’m doing) but time would be lost. That could mean lives lost!
Quickly, anxiously, Murphry reached into his left hip pocket, removed his comb and placed it in his shirt pocket. It’s usually the little things people noticed about you, he thought.
Murphry is a paranoid schizophrenic – every street sign, every scrap of paper, every news headline has been created and placed in his pathway by his handlers with the True Government. Everything in his life is significant.
Murphry walks away from the crash and joins a bus stop to wait for another bus. Here Clark introduces us to how literal Murphry is.
As he waited, he overheard two elderly ladies talking about a young man by the name of John. “He’s got his grandmothers eyes,” one of the women said. “They’re green with flecks of paprika.” Then they smiled.
Murphry was outraged. These women looked like sweet grandmotherly types. How could they be delighted by such cruelty?
Murphry’d received information about this crime via e-mail, he realized now, but his knowledge of it was incomplete. Now, at least, he had the name John to associate with the crime.
His heart raced. He wanted to beat the truth out of these brutal witches. It was broad daylight, however, and there would be too many witnesses.
The two elderly woman should be glad Murphry decided against wrecking another bus to punish them for being so wicked, but he really needed more information about this John and where he keeps his grandmother’s eyes. This is a frequent problem in this book, as Murphry is too addled to understand the colloquial meanings of phrases like “head on a platter” or something “costing an arm and a leg.”
But what does Murphry mean that he realized that he had heard of the case via e-mail but only now realized it? Well, the same messages that Murphry picks up from billboards he can receive in e-mail.
Murphry gave his e-mail address out freely on the web and so received a lot of junk mail filled with paragraphs of nonsense word conglomerations. He transcribed the parts that seemed to have meaning into word processing documents in the sure and certain hope that messages from his superiors would be revealed.
Sure enough there were always messages waiting for him. In truth they were just partial messages and it took quite a bit of work and intuition on Murphry’s part to pry the relevant fragments out of the nonsense and assemble them coherently. He had to relax and work only with those words and phrases that resonated for him. Slowly but surely, each time he checked his e-mail, he would add to the assemblage until the story of a crime was revealed.
Here’s one of the assembled messages and how Murphry interpreted it. He has received this garbled message in an e-mail:
“Just because women waterproof doesn’t mean swim.”
He opens his Word document and adds that phrase to the other spams he has “decoded” into a specific crime he is to solve or prevent:
“Along with the glossy orbs, Grandma sported six blue and purple sawmill tattoos, and her skink experiments had once saved the toenail industry. Back in the day, a mere glimpse of the bony plates of her wedding gown had caused 1920s megaphone crooners to swallow their own heads. Even when he was raised, she could still fire lap dogs from her armchair at blinding speeds. Spite for this was a waterproof woman who could not actually swim.”
While I know just about enough about paranoid schizophrenia to recognize it in pop culture references to it, this sort of controlled paranoia, whether it is realistic or not, has a ring of terrible truth to it. The stories in this book are essentially nothing more than a very mentally ill man navigating the rough terrain of his mental illness, creating an entirely fantastic world that still operates within a “real” world. And that is what is so menacing about Murphry, even as he is sympathetic and at times amusing. He is twisting the real world into his own strange world and it makes sense on a very basic level, even to the reader. Being able to decipher so clearly how Murphry interacts in an A-Z world and manages to create such a violent yet orderly chaos pulls the reader in in a manner that ensures a very interesting interaction with the text.
But even as we see how Murphry gets from a discussion about a shared genetic appearance, spam e-mails and a strange crime he feels he must solve, there are still plenty of completely horrible, unsettling moments when the authors remind us Murphry’s illness is not going to be so orderly. He sees messages in a woman’s paisley blouse. He sees a woman in a black coat and assumes she is tracking him for the False Government. His inability to see the real world causes extreme trouble for everyone around him, causing him to harass people at the very least; at worst, his illness causes him to kill people or get them killed when things go completely awry.
And no discussion would be worth a dime if I didn’t talk about Kate. Poor Kate. Librarians are the unsung heroes of suburban and urban life because I suspect every single one of them has their own Murphry who dogs them. In the same way I reacted so personally to Murphry’s illness, I reacted strongly to Kate’s plight. She kindly taught a homeless,mentally ill man to use a computer in her library branch, and he decided she was his secret wife, given to him by the True Government to keep his morale up, and continually unnerves her with his strange behavior until she no longer can maintain even the most basic civility. And even her lack of civility is something he can easily explain.
Although she most often glowered at him and responded sarcastically when he spoke to her, Kate was capable through the amazing complexity of her voice to simultaneously provide other messages just beneath the evident disdain, a susurrus of endearments and sweet, calming language, expressions of affection, of longing and sorrow for the charade they must endure and an entreaty for him to be patient. He knew he was the only one who could hear these lovely messages.
Everyone else probably thinks she sees me as a crazy street person.
While one could fault Kate for not showing Murphry more mercy, one could not fault her for long if one imagines being in her place, the person at the center of Murphry’s erotic imagination.
While Murphry waited for one of the computers to become unoccupied, he gazed at Kate as she moved around the room. She was gorgeous, with her long red hair pulled tight into a bun at the back of her head and her broad, well-padded hips and huge breasts straining at the seams of her clothing. She was what some might call frumpy from outward appearance, but Murphry knew what a delicious body she was hiding to maintain her cover.
She noticed him watching her. “Quit staring at me, you weirdo, or I’ll have you thrown out.”
And Murphry was certain that was what everyone heard, but beneath Murphry also heard, “I’m so glad to see you, my husband. Be patient with me, my dear, my dear. Like a beautiful Orchid, my love blossoms slowly. I promise that when it is in full flower, the bloom will last and last.”
Poor Kate. And poor Murphry and poor everyone who gets in his way as he eludes the Woman in Black and solves his crimes.
All I quoted and discussed here comes from just the first chapter. Just one. Murphry wrecks a bus, hears of the grandson who has his grandmother’s eyes, eludes the woman in black, receives strange messages from billboards, harasses Kate at the library and interprets spam he is sure are messages sent from the True Government to alert him of crimes he needs to investigate. In one chapter we get so much – imagine what the rest of the book is like as Murphry’s illness causes him to careen from one unfortunate situation to the next, killing people he means to save, killing people who mean him no harm and in some cases want to help him, and from time to time, engaging in just enough humorous activity to prevent this book from being too dark and too sad. The strange puzzle of his mind is also a pleasure to read.
This is a nearly perfect novel. There were a few editing problems here and there, but none were particularly intrusive. The authors managed to write in a way that didn’t alert the reader in huge red letters that there had been a change in writers, though they kindly tell us who wrote what. And they created a sad, interesting, brave, stalwart, creepy hero in Murphry.
My only real quarrel with this book is not the fault of the authors. It is strictly RDSP’s error. Someone who offered a blurb for this book actually said, “If you have ever wanted to know what sort of book Hannibal Lector would have read as a child, you have only to open D. D. Murphry, Secret Policeman to have your answer.”
Seriously? Not only was Hannibal Lecter misspelled, but this book was not something that would inspire a diabolical psychopath when he was in knee pants. I simply do not understand why any publishing company would want such a fucking stupid blurb that so completely mischaracterizes a book. Bleah. And if this is the only quarrel I have with the book, that’s a very good thing. Other than the publisher’s decision to include that blurb on the back cover and some mild editing issues, this book was tight, amazing, saddening, and at times an almost rollicking read. Highly recommended.