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The Weird World of Wes Beatie, by John Norman Harris

May 19, 2014

Felony of the Week: Weird World of Wes Beattie, by John Norman Harris

As a mystery-maven, I was schooled by my college roommate’s mother. Evelyn Berkowitz had a terrific line in “weary disdain”: She was like the American version of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, New York Jewish division. And there she was, eying my bookstore’s Out of Print section, the lurid covers and fourth-rate titles, the grubby spines and crumbling pages eliciting only the most elegantly restrained of sighs. From my perch at the register I could see her nostrils flaring ever so slightly.

Then suddenly she let out what from a less ladylike person might be called a yelp, and stomped over to me with as much grace as orthopedic shoes permit. “You don’t even know what you have!” she snorted. “Call yourself a mystery expert. The best book in the store, one of the best mysteries of the past 50 years, and you’ve just got it shoved in there with the, the, the Sue Grafties and whatever, all those silly books about serial killers. And you don’t even know what book I’m talking about, do you?”

“Uhh…well….ahhh…umm…no,” I said sheepishly.

She snorted again. “What is it with you kids? Your mothers taught you what was good, so how come you don’t recognize it?” And she slammed down on the counter a copy of The Weird World of Wes Beattie. “I’m not buying this. I own it. But will you for chrissake read it? And the next time some customer asks you for a really great book, you’ll know what to give them.” Chastened – she really was awfully good at chastening – I nodded, and, I think, gave her whatever books she did want for free. I mean, I adored her. And she was my roommate’s mother.

So that’s how I was introduced to Wes Beattie, truly one of my favorite books on the F&M list. But almost nobody knows about it. The author, a well known ad-man in Toronto, died in 1964, shortly after Wes Beattie, his only novel, was published, and – perhaps because it’s neither cozy nor cop-yarn nor anything else easily categorized – the book had not been reissued until we came along. So what is it? Funny as all get-out, for starters. We’ve called it the love-child of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and as marketing monikers go, that one has a certain basis in fact. Like Christie’s work, it’s a glorious rampage of clues and train-schedules and fiendishly clever plotting. But the characterizations – of stumblebum Wes, of Sidney, the smartypants lawyer who takes on Wes’s case – would stand up to Wooster & Co. The book is just a happy explosion of inspired silliness. Confetti all around.

As I said, though, nobody knows about it, and we are determined to spread the word. With that in mind, not only are we putting Wes Beattie on extra-special discount, but we’re holding the price for the rest of the month, in the hope that you May – heh, get it? MAY? Like, the month of M…ok, never mind – in the hope that you will tempted to bite. Wes deserves to live again.

Neither the price nor my endorsement is persuading you? How about this: It took me ages to track down the author’s widow, ages and a lot of creative sleuthing and a tiny spot of larceny. But I finally got her on the phone. She was profoundly deaf, and couldn’t, for the longest time, understand what I was on about. But eventually she got it: I wanted to republish her husband’s book. The one that came out nearly 50 years ago. He hadn’t been entirely forgotten. And now a new generation was going to discover him.

And she cried and cried and said “Bless you, my dear,” over and over again. She herself died not long after our conversation, and her daughter told me that seeing Wes Beattie back in print was one of the great joys of her final months.

There, your daily weep, and it’s a true story. SO WILL YOU READ THE BOOK ALREADY??? Jeez, you people.

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