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The Exploding Detective by John Swartzwelder
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Feb 28, 12

really liked it
Read in January, 2008

John Swartzwelder, notoriously reclusive Simpsons scribe, is known for penning some of that show's funniest and most culturally pointed episodes. He is capable of being absurd without succumbing to plot-driven idiocy and able to nestle high-brow-rising humor next to the goofiest of puns without skipping a beat. Few of the show's current writers can boast his kind of output, whether you're measuring it by episode or by how many gags he can fit into any given minute.

His books (four so far) don't try to follow coherency as much as his work on The Simpsons. Instead, he uses the medium as a forum for his stream-of-consciousness wise-cracking. Mass by volume, these slim tomes have the same silly density as his episodes, even if they sprawl ten times as much. For the most part, Swartzwelder sticks to the same basic formula that made his shows a success: a fat and idiotic central character gets into all manner of monkey-shines and comes out mostly unchanged. Instead of Homer, though, our main man is called Frank Burly.

THE TIME MACHINE DID IT
Frank Burly introduces us to his unlikely career as a private eye. Although his primary talents are screwing things up and getting beaten on a regular basis, he ends up with a fairly important case. A bum claims that he used to be a millionaire, but criminals with a time machine retroactively stole his wealth. Burly's in over his head (heck, this guy gets in over his head just trying to tie his shoes), but that doesn't stop him from barreling headfirst into the mystery and subsequently making it messier and harder to solve. Quickly written, hastily plotted, and genuinely funny, this is one of the few books I've ever read that's gotten me to laugh out-loud, and on a regular basis. 5 Stars. FAVORITE LINE: Frank Burly, on his imprisonment and torture by the criminals -- "I held up under all this pretty well. I was sleeping like a baby -- waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants."

DOUBLE WONDERFUL
Swartzwelder makes a mistake. Instead of one central character with the brains of a dusty cactus, he creates an entire town of them. The citizens of the Wild West town of Slackjaw are having economic troubles. Part of their problem is that the "wild" in their western town is missing; it's a pretty boring place, plus it exists in the shadows of the world-renowned Double Wonderful ranch, run by a wealthy couple who are so perfect, God owes them favors. They try desperately to bring fame and/or notoriety to their little corner of the world, but most of their ideas are pretty lame (encourage bandits to rob them, hang the mayor, etc.). They eventually get their wish, and it's mildly amusing, but the scattered scope of the story's lunacy and its slap-dash conclusion are pretty harried. You won't laugh as much as you'll roll your eyes. Not bad; not great. Notable mainly because the story's central theme (the horrifying price of fame) gives you some real clues as to why Mr. Swartzwelder himself so adamantly chooses to stay out of the spotlight. 3 Stars. MOST SELF-REFERENTIAL LINE: "...Buntline said that short books were the best selling kind ... That's what the reading public wanted in a book these days, he said. They wanted to get as close as possible to not reading at all."

HOW I CONQUERED YOUR PLANET
Swartzwelder, catching on, brings Frank Burly back to the fore. He's still a private detective, he's still pretty bad at it, and he's still stumbling backwards into strange cases (and sometimes plate glass windows). This time the case may have something to do with Martians. Or maybe it's Neptunians. They're both very similar, as far as aliens look, although it's harder to pronounce the word "Neptunians." While going about his daily routine of getting in the way of things, Frank ends up alienating (nyuk, nyuk) all sorts of planetary species. And, of course, he conquers your planet. Not as consistent as "Time Machine," but much sharper than "Double Wonderful." 4 Stars. FAVORITE LINE: Frank Burly, on his new alien secretary -- "...I discovered that I had hired a surprisingly dedicated secretary, who listened in on my phone calls, patted down my visitors, looked through my desk for me each morning before I got in, even appeared in my dreams taking notes."

THE EXPLODING DETECTIVE
Frank Burly's back, this time augmenting his act with a mostly-malfunctioning jetpack. His inability to steer is overshadowed, however, by his ability to withstand multiple explosive collisions, and he becomes something of a superhero. The new title doesn't fit him so well, because it requires that he get up before noon and commit all kinds of acts, most of them selfless and painful. He ends up getting involved in a battle against a super villain, a washed up James Bond type, and another time machine. Although this book is as funny as the previous, it makes it obvious that, while Burly's adventures through time and space are all well and good, Swartzwelder might do well to actually keep his gags confined to the realm of detective work. I doubt it took the man longer than a couple of days to write any of these books, but this is the first time I felt it really showed. 4 Stars. FAVORITE LINE: Frank Burly has infiltrated a Secret Club for Super Villains, searching for his would-be assassin -- "I continued around the room ... making it sound like I was a new member who was just making conversation. "Have you been trying to kill me?" I would ask, casually. "I'm just curious. Or we could talk about the weather, if you like. The weather's been trying to kill me too.'"
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