The original hardcover edition of this book (pictured here, complete with an illustration by a commercial artist named Andy Warhol) carried the tagline “A Novel of Menace.” Yet the actual amount of menace to be found in its pages—pages that recount a series of events in and around a Greenwich Village alehouse—is small beer. There is a murder, and there is a bomb threat of sorts, and there are characters who exude a vague stench of decay, but the general mood of the tale is one of light satire and mildly dark comedy. The book’s first paperback edition, meanwhile, offers the promise of “A Mystery Novel.” Yet, although the novel contains plenty of small-bore mysteries, it lacks the kind of large-scale quandary that most whodunit readers expect when they see that tagline. The question of who killed Carley Dane hovers along the edges of the tale, but it’s a trifle in comparison with a question that clearly holds much greater interest for Alexander: How will Dane’s killing affect the motley denizens of the Old House, a bar on Washington Place that is known (not quite affectionately) as “the Madhouse”?
Dane, a onetime literary wunderkind whose life had gone sour, was a frequenter of the Madhouse, and he had done more than his share to spoil the lives of several fellow patrons. The hand that fatally struck him with a poker in his seedy Bleecker Street apartment could have belonged to any member of that sad, not-so-small group. In a marvelously grim set piece near the start of the novel, regulars of the Madhouse (along with a couple of newcomers) file into the bar at 8 a.m. to slake their thirst. They include Peter Dotter and Major Trevor, two stalwart conservatives who regarded Dane as a filthy communist; Helen Landers, an aging artist’s model whom Dane once abused and disfigured; Manley Ferguson, a failed painter whose wife had an affair with Dane; and Martha Appleby, a middle-aged woman who believes that Dane drove her husband to suicide. Unlike many authors who chronicled bohemian life in the late 1950s, Alexander gives short shrift to the beat generation. (In a brief scene, he lampoons a crew of young beatniks, rendering them as shallow posers—as little more than a soulless blur of peaked caps and bongo drums.) Instead, Alexander focuses on an older group of has-been and never-were types who have curated their despair over many years.
Seen for what it is—a neatly carved parable of fate, built upon a suite of vignettes drawn from one corner of big-city life—Madhouse makes for an entertaining read. Its virtues include sharp and occasionally lyric writing, brisk scene-by-scene pacing, and an approach to characterization that cleverly blends mockery with empathy. Its deficiencies are equally apparent. Although Alexander fields a large retinue of suspects, he makes no attempt to construct a proper murder puzzle around them. Just as the novel delivers little in the way of menace and little in the way of mystery, so it offers little in the way of detection. A certain Inspector Gold, from Manhattan West Homicide, arrives to interrogate the bar’s patrons, but he devotes more energy to bemoaning the difficulty of the case than he does to solving it, and the revelation of the murderer’s identity comes without the aid of human ingenuity. The only clue of any consequence, a watch that has gone missing from the victim’s pocket, functions not as a sign to be interpreted, but as talisman of lost time.