Sometimes a book is sort of like a Hershey bar – a good, solid choice that doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but still satisfies. For me, that pretty much describes Keith Laumer’s Fat Chance, which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Michael Caine.
Laumer dedicates the book to Raymond Chandler. For me, it recalled both Chandler and Ross Macdonald – a novel set in Southern California featuring a world-weary private eye. Laumer draws on Macdonald’s standard plot – somebody did something bad in the past and the past catches up to them (or their children) in the present. While Fat Chance isn’t quite as good as Chandler or Macdonald, I still enjoyed it. I give 7 out of 10.
Laumer’s private eye is Joe Shaw, whom a woman describes as one of those “tall, tough men with cool gray eyes” (p. 79). Shaw isn’t one of those “new-age” private eyes who started appearing in the 70s. He’s a hard-drinking, sarcastic loner in the old mode. I didn’t always find Shaw to be convincing, as he often gets what he wants to “running over” people who have no incentive to cooperate with him.
The book starts with an aging thug named Lou Anglich who tells Shaw that he had an adopted daughter in Tampa during World War II. Anglich lost her but has reason to suspect she’s in California. He wants Shaw to track her down. Predictably, Anglich isn’t telling the whole truth. Shaw’s search leads him deep into a rich family’s murky past – that the family wants to keep hidden.
Shaw’s cynicism is a good fit with 1970s America. He describes a fallen world –
Again, I like this book, but it has several flaws. One of the issues is that – aside from Shaw – it needs a stronger center. Anglich becomes a peripheral character and Shaw’s cynicism prevents him from getting too emotionally involved in what’s happening. Laumer needed to give the reader more reason to care.
Another concern is that the Byzantine plot is nearly impossible to figure out. Laumer wraps it up well; but as the novel unwinds, he provides few clues to the backstory that is driving the case.
Still, I enjoyed Fat Chance. It’s not great, but for fans of old-school private eye novels, it’s a lot of fun.