BOOK REVIEW / Country boy on the case: The Kinky Friedman Crime Club - Kinky Friedman: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
AS A piece of cult book packaging this is pretty damn fine. A maverick country singer, who has eschewed recording for long enough to become 'legendary', takes up writing thrillers featuring himself as the cigar-chomping sleuth.

But Kinky Friedman's history is not an unmixed blessing. If the reader is not, for instance, aware that 'the Kinkster' - as he is fond of referring to himself - was the leader of that seminal country and western combo, the Texas Jewboys, and the author of songs such as 'They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore', then it won't be long till the narrative reminds him of the fact. The Kinkster is far from backward in coming forward when it comes to pedalling his own steel guitar.

But then it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to read this collection without already being aware of who Kinky Friedman is. Because what we have here is essentially a massively inflated in-joke - the kind of thing that would be a hoot at the annual revue of the New York country humourists, but feels a little forced on the printed page.

Take the first novel in this collection of three, A Case Of Lone Star. This kicks off with Kinky receiving a phone call from the manager of a New York club called the Lone Star. A country singer has been murdered backstage; the only clue is a mysterious envelope containing a Hank Williams song. Kinky reluctantly agrees to investigate, only to be confronted with two more Hank Williams murders. Matters then build to a fairly preposterous conclusion, as Kinky himself accepts a booking at the club on New Year's Eve, and receives the lyrics to Hank's immortal 'Kaw-Liga' in the mail.

Along the way we encounter a spectrum of Kinky's real-life associates, such as the biographer Chet Flippo and Larry 'Ratso' Sloman, the editor of National Lampoon, mixed in with a selection of New York stereotypes - Kinky's upstairs neighbour Winnie Katz, say, a pretty amusing character if you're prepared to accept that the existence of a lesbian dance instructor is in itself funny. The trouble is that the plotting is too sloppy to offer much in the way of excitement, and the jokes tend to fall flat.

The Kinky Friedman Crime Club sports a hard veneer, but at heart the stories are traditional puzzles in the British tradition. It's something of a New York house style this, the soft-boiled comic crime caper, dating back at least to Hammett's The Thin Man, and since then executed with varying degrees of finesse by Jonathan Latimer (so-so), Gore Vidal (writing as 'Edgar Box' - execrable), Laurence Block (sometimes very good) and Donald E Westlake (mostly pretty decent). Unfortunately, the writers whom Friedman most resembles are Latimer and Vidal; like them, he uses comedy to mask what is ultimately a sour and misanthropic view of the world.

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