Chuck Barris’ 1984 autobiography, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, is best remembered these days as an outrageous prank, the sort of nose-thumbing craziness expected from the man responsible for TV shows like The Gong Show and The Dating Game. The book and the movie it inspired were rife with comic invention, re-imagining Barris as some kind of golden-boy producer-cum-assassin who spent his time killing America’s enemies when he wasn’t lowering the tastes of the American public, but underneath all the lunacy and violence was a deep, pervasive melancholy. That melancholy finds its way into Who Killed Art Deco?, Barris’s new novel, and for all the punchlines, it’s still the only piece of fiction that rings true.
Like any murder victim, Art Deco Jr. has his share of enemies. His millionaire father, Art Deco Sr., along with most of the rest of the Decos, disapprove of his partying lifestyle and his refusal to follow in the family business; plus there’s his friend, Eddie Cotton, made bitter by poor treatment at the younger Art’s hands. So when Junior is found shot to death in his apartment, the cops don’t buy it as a suicide, even though the dead man is holding the gun. Too bad their bosses don’t agree. Enter Jimmy Netts, a former podiatrist turned detective, who gets hired to find Art’s killer. It’s too bad Jimmy isn’t much of a detective, but then, all things considered, it isn’t really much of a case.
For a murder mystery, Deco is curiously structured, spending nearly as much time with the victim of the crime as it does on finding that crime’s solution. This deflates the mystery to the point where the final reveal seems almost like an afterthought, and viewed as a genre exercise, the book is too lopsided and scattershot to work. But while Deco never gets off the ground as a thriller, as a series of character studies, it’s uneven but often funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. Art and Eddie’s relationship is well-drawn, and Jimmy, for all his clumsiness, has a certain rumpled charm. Barris isn’t much of a plotter, but his sympathy for the social misfits inhabiting his story is undeniable; that makes it a pleasure to read, even when the pieces don’t fit together in the end.