The Big Man's Daughter
by Owen Fitzstephen
18 year-old Rita Gaspereaux is suddenly "orphaned" when her con-artist father's illegal enterprise blows up around her. Alone and broke in San Francisco 1922, she must now navigate his criminal world, all the time haunted by tales of a black bird statuette reputed to possess otherworldly, wish-fulfilling powers. Rita has learned much from her father about the dark fringes of society. But has she learned enough? Fortunately, she is not without her own resources. What helps her most to cope with the greed, cruelty, and deceit around her is her almost obsessive reading of fiction, particularly the novel she possesses (and is possessed by) at the time of her father’s death. This book-within-the-book, a source of escape and solace for the blossoming young con-artist, tells the story of another 18 year-old, a Dorothy G. from Kansas. The two young women couldn't be more different. But as the story proceeds their lives become entwined in unexpected ways. The haunting conclusion is breathtaking.
Con artists working the angles, digging for answers, searching for a way in - and a way out. It's a familiar world for crime fiction fans, but this protagonist is not your usual 'investigator', she one of the bad guys - or is she?
‘The Big Man’s Daughter’ takes much from Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’, adding changes that almost distort one’s memory of the original. More sequel than prequel it’s actually neither, more of a knowing nod of appreciation. In this book, there’s no Sam Spade, but detective Sam Hammett writes mysteries as Dashiell Hammett – confused? That’s not the half of it.
Bona fide criminal mastermind, Cletus Gaspereaux (a form of Casper Gutman) was an abusive father to Rita Gaspereaux (a fleshed-out version of Rhea Gutman). Cletus, the eponymous ‘Big Man’ (like the Fat Man) has been gunned down in an incident involving the possession of a statuette called the Black Falcon.
Rita attends his funeral only to be recognised by the undertaker who she has previously conned, pretending that her brother was missing and I.D.ing a John Doe. That ruse had scammed the undertaker out of money but this time, after he recognises her, Rita must apply another inventive scam on the married man (who gets his own back). It’s a great opening.
Rita is broke, dreaming of Hollywood, and turning to the pages of a paperback for escape. Her book, ‘Dorothy G., Kansas’ tells of another young woman, the reimagined Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Dorothy is an innocent version of Rita, a what might have been in another world, and Rita is wrapped up in the story.
She agrees to help the secretary at the Pinkerton agency, aiming to recover the Falcon from a Russian count who may be related to her. It's not an easy story to describe. Let's just say that the structure and plot are both inventive, the ending unexpected, and the writing holds your attention. It’s sharp, at times LOL funny, and a quick read that takes you into the familiar Californian noir world of the golden age of US crime writing.
Here's an excerpt from ‘The Big Man’s Daughter’ by Owen Fitzstephen:
The smallish girl of eighteen, Rita Gaspereaux, placed her right hand into the consoling hands of Theodore Blaisedale, the funeral director who had asked her to join him for a moment alone in his office. Even here, even now, she could not help noting that his cutaway morning coat and striped trousers seemed better suited to the Belle Epoch—her father’s generation—than to these days, the Twenties, when simpler, more business-like attire best expressed the “serious” professional man. Rita considered what wearing such old-fashioned clothes suggested of a man not more than thirty years old. Had Blaisedale an overwrought sense of the romantic past? Or a taste for formality that ran to religiosity? In either case, he would be an easy mark for a pretty girl of eighteen who was well practiced at confidence games. For such a man she would play the damsel-in-distress, Rita thought. She had done it a hundred times before. Life with her father had taught her to consider all human characteristics as vulnerabilities. The way a man walked, the way he sat, the way he spoke, the way he dressed—one need only observe, analyze, and then create a fiction suited to the circumstance. She closed her eyes as if falling into a swoon, and leaned into Blaisedale, who could do nothing but hold her up.
“Miss, are you all right? Miss!”
In the past, she’d have continued the ruse until she seemed to lose consciousness. A dead faint provided opportunities. Matrons, who only a moment before might have felt jealous of the girl’s beauty or youth, would flutter about her suddenly unconscious form, regretful for their resentments, sentimentally identifying her vulnerability with their own lost girlhoods. “Let the poor dear breathe!” they would cluck. And the man into whose arms Rita had fallen (whomever he might be) would discover within his embrace the meager weight of her body, the porcelain smoothness of her face, the softness of her hair against his neck, the sweetness of her breath, before discovering in his own “heroic” heart a sudden, almost overwhelming sense of responsibility for her welfare, whereupon Rita would “regain consciousness” to a world more amenable to her desires than the one from which she had departed just a moment before. She had been taking advantage of such maneuvers since she was six years old. But now, after initiating the ruse in the funeral director’s office, she stopped herself short. She was not here, after all, for business. At least, not the sort of business to which she was accustomed.
This visit was legitimate.
She straightened in Blaisedale’s arms, stepping away from him.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he repeated.
“Yes, thank you.” She had no intention of scamming the undertaker. She was through with all that. “We can just get on with things. You said you wanted to talk to me?”
“Yes, your late father . . .” Blaisedale said. “The shock of the circumstances . . .” He shook his head. “It’s unimaginable.
“I don’t know if I’d go quite that far,” she answered, sitting in the plush chair he offered her beside his giant, uncluttered desk. “The imagination can be a powerful thing.”
“You may feel alone now in the world, but you are not,” he continued.
Yes I am, she thought. Even her father’s business associates were gone. Of course, none of them had ever been trustworthy or reliable. Nor had they ever shown much interest in Rita, except as a vehicle for their schemes. Nonetheless, she couldn’t help missing them a little. Emil Madrid, for example—for all his preening, lilac-scented, self-centeredness—had taken her to the opera a few times, translating the Italian for her at critical plot moments. And once in Greece he had introduced her to his aged mother as his “little American Aphrodite.” Likewise, red-haired Moira O’Shea, the most beautiful “older” woman (over twenty-five) that Rita had ever met, had taken time these past months to instruct her on finer points of make-up and hairdressing that were not to be found in the advice columns of the fashion monthlies. Wilbur Clark, her father’s bodyguard and murderer—a nasty little bastard—had once put a jazz recording on the gramophone in a hotel room in New York and taught Rita to dance the Charleston. She hadn’t even minded when he kissed her that night—that is, until he became drunk and slobbery. And Floyd Bradley had taught her to smoke a hookah in Casablanca and to roll a marijuana cigarette in Juarez, though she could not claim to have ever enjoyed his company. Still, so many of them dead. And the others in prison.
Yes, she was alone. “You said you had some ‘special concerns’ you wanted to discuss with me?” she asked.
Blaisedale focused his eyes upon her with the same practiced expression of sympathy she had seen before in the eyes of countless funeral directors. Of course, most people do not know that what is said and done in such places as this is so standardized. Most people only bury their father once. Still, she thought it strange that this occasion should be so little different from the many other times she had been comforted for the loss of a father by one or another embalmer as saccharine as Blaisedale.
Well, authenticity was bad for her business too, she thought.
The funeral swindle worked like this: Rita’s father Cletus Gaspereaux (known to some in the rackets as the Big Man) would visit a morgue in whatever city he and his daughter were currently residing. There, he would claim to be looking for a brother who had gone missing a week before. Medical examiners would show Gaspereaux whatever unclaimed “John Doe” bodies had recently been discovered in back alleys or floating bloated on the river or stinking up a flophouse bedroom, at which time Gaspereaux would identify one of the corpses as that of his brother and proceed to make arrangements for its delivery to a mortuary under the care of this fictitious brother’s fictitious “daughter,” for whom he naturally gave a fictitious name. The city morgues were always happy to clear space. A few days later, Rita would arrive at the mortuary in the role of the grieving daughter from out of town. For these occasions she wore her black dress and her pearls, cutting a lovely and prosperous figure. Same as she wore now. Tears, grief, a dead faint . . . always the same. At last, after arranging a funeral fit for an emperor—complete with a hired string quartet, local soprano, ebony casket, artisan-fired death mask, leather-bound memorial booklet, cemetery plot with a view and four foot granite headstone with sculpted angel—she would remove her alligator skin checkbook to pay to the by-now charmed funeral director a fee of two thousand dollars or more. At the last moment, however, she would ask him to advance her a few hundred dollars cash (“Which I’ll be most happy to write into the total of my check . . .”) so that she could immediately wire funds to relatives for rail passage to the funeral. Otherwise, as local banks might not cash her out-of-town check, the whole funeral would have to be postponed. Just two or three hundred dollars . . . What could the funeral director say? Didn’t he already have repayment of the cash written into the bank check he held now in his hand? And didn’t he possess the father’s body as collateral for the check? Besides, how can you say no to a grieving girl, especially a pretty one? “Maybe you could make it four hundred,” Rita would add. Naturally, the out of town bank check was no good.
The undertakers’ cash was always good.
What became of the bodies was anybody’s guess.
Some large cities had as many as five or six morgues and up to two dozen funeral directors, most of whom were reluctant to admit to their colleagues (or to the police) that they were ever swindled. Such admissions are bad for a funeral business, which presumes to be the most dignified business of all. The Gaspereauxs could take up to a thousand dollars from funeral swindles in any one city.
But today was different.
This time, the corpse in the next room actually belonged to her father, which may have been why Rita was finding it more difficult now to act grieved than on any of the previous occasions, when she at least had felt no animosity for the anonymous corpses laid out on slabs, her false fathers.
“Your father was a man of diverse interests, I assume.” Blaisedale moved around to the other side of the desk and sat.
“You could say that.”
“Your father’s place of birth?” Blaisedale asked.
Rita was not sure if anything she knew of her father’s past was true. He claimed to have been the only child of a wealthy merchant family in Berne. “Switzerland,” she said.
“Ah, he traveled far in his lifetime.”
That, at lease, was true.
“Tell me about your father,” Blaisedale asked.
Gaspereaux had been educated in English boarding schools; when his family lost their fortune in reckless speculation, he left school for London where for a short time he wrote a column for a Fleet Street gossip page before joining a crowd of underworld types whose diverse and profitable business enterprises spanned the breadth of London. Among them, Gaspereaux thrived, his inventive mind useful not only in East End alleys, but also in the private boxes at Ascot, where horse races proved little more difficult to fix than dice games down on the Thames. Soon, he was no longer taking orders but giving them. “I eventually sat like a spider at the center of a great web of criminal enterprises,” he bragged to Rita. However, a consulting detective of some repute (“You’d recognize his name, my dear . . .”) eventually drove Gaspereaux from London; he fled to New York City with a trunk-full of cash and appetites large enough to consume the world. There, he drank only Johnny Walker and smoked only Coronas del Ritz. This impressed young Polly Shaw, a chorus girl whose tastes in men had more to do with diamonds and promises than physical attractiveness. Gaspereaux was her guy and their three-week affair made up in passion for what it lacked in longevity. When he left New York City for Paris and other promising continental locales he did not know that Polly Best was with child and did not learn he was a father until almost six years later, whereupon he traveled to an orphanage in New Jersey to take young Rita as his charge. Or at least that’s how the story went.
The orphanage part was real, as it was the first home Rita remembered.
After Gaspereaux claimed his five-year-old daughter, the two lived together in a strange, cosmopolitan whirl. One city after another . . . Driven not only by immediate exigencies (such as occasional “mix-ups” with local police or mob bosses), but also by Cletus Gaspereaux’s relentless pursuit of a statuette he called the Black Falcon, about which he explained nothing to Rita, claiming that ignorance was her best defense against the evils of the world. Now, she hoped that as he lay dying the last thing he felt was regret for having failed to acquire the bird. But dying was probably distraction enough to spare him, which is why she hoped there was an afterlife—so he might be regretful now. “I don’t see how my father’s history relates to our business, Mr. Blaisedale.”
“He was a bit of an adventurer?” Blaisedale pressed.
“Well, he died an adventurer’s death.”
About the author:
Gordon McAlpine (writing here as Owen Fitzstephen) is the author of Mystery Box (2003), Hammett Unwritten (2013), Woman With a Blue Pencil (2015), and Holmes Untangled (2018). He’s also the co-author of the non-fiction book The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in Southern California. “Owen Fitzstephen,” by the way, is the name of a character, a dissolute, alcoholic writer, in Hammett’s The Dain Curse.