Dead men and bonobos: a winning combination

If you purchase only one supermarket paperback global conspiracy murder mystery this spring, make sure it’s Sparkle Hayter’s “The Last Manly Man.”

Packed with action, romance, senseless violence and plenty of chimps, “The Last Manly Man” (2002, Penguin Books, New York, N.Y., $5.99, 260 pages) is a unique exercise in 21st century urban media adventure.

The story begins simply enough with the death of Robin Jean Hudson, an angst-ridden reporter for New York’s less-than-stellar All News Network.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), our heroine isn’t really deceased. Reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. So have reports of the death of one Robert Huddon, a deputy secretary of state whose obituary tape has been mistakenly broadcast by the network in place of Robin’s prerecorded death notice.

(You’re following all of this, right?)

As readers may have guessed by now, Robin is having one of those lives, and her death is just the tip of the iceberg.

Before she failed to die, Robin was working on a vodka-fueled special report about “The Man of the Future.” She was hoping to put together a series dealing with how far the male has come over the eons, how he might evolve in the future and, most importantly, what it is that makes a man a man.

The project sounds straightforward enough, but it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated, starting with an elderly man in a brown suit who gives Robin his hat and an address moments before he’s swept away by a couple of mystery men in a limousine.

When Robin tries to return the old gent’s hat, her life slowly begins to unravel.

The address leads her to an animal rights organization that’s looking into the bizarre kidnapping of a dozen bonobo chimps. From there, it’s a short trip to a dead, nine-fingered French biochemist, a pistol-packing, blue-haired octogenarian vigilante and an eccentric millionaire whose house talks to him.

Romantic interests include Mike, an Irish cameraman whose personality fluctuates between sweet, sensitive poet and dark, brooding dog killer; and Gus, a guy who insists that he once had a pet salmon named Harry whom he used to take for long walks in a bucket.

To complicate matters, Robin seems to have a double named Miss Trix, who’s just gotten out of jail for selling bad heroin and using deaf-mute orphans from Guatemala to help with marketing.

Meanwhile, Robin’s also being pursued by a gang of thugs who keep asking her what she’s done with “Atom” or “Adam,” depending on which mealy-mouthed thug is asking.

I could tie this all up for you in one neat little package, but that would ruin all the fun of connecting the dots yourself and discovering what bonobo chimps, dead Frenchmen, Mr. Chicken, Miss Trix and Morton Mopwash have to do with a sexist plot to subvert an entire gender.

Is “The Last Manly Man” worth a trip to your favorite supermarket’s paperback aisle?



Originally published March 17, 2002

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