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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The DADA Caper

Ross H. Spencer

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To purchase The DADA Caper

Title: The DADA Caper
Author: Ross H. Spencer
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 202 pages
Availability: The DADA Caper - US
The DADA Caper - UK
The DADA Caper - Canada
  • The first in the Chance Purdue series

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Our Assessment:

B- : some fun, but not enough to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Many mystery writers try to add a humorous element (or tone) to their crime fiction, but in Ross H. Spencer's works it's the main point, and his debut, The DADA Caper, is much more about the joke(s) than any mystery. And while it's not of the Dada-ist sort, as the title might initially suggest (but shouldn't: "DADA stands for Destroy America Destroy America"), Spencer does play with form and language, his Chance Purdue mysteries distinctive in their presentation.
       Except for a postscript sort of final chapter -- a brief press report -- the story is presented in brief chapters in which the narrative consists entirely of (generally short) one-sentence paragraphs, with punctuation limited to sentence-ending periods and question marks, and the dialogue without quotation marks. Each of the 76 chapters also comes with an epigraph, all ascribed to (the fictitious) Monroe D. Underwood -- pithy, humorous (or would-be, anyway ...), worldly-wise but down to earth (as evidenced by the loose grammar and spelling) observations such as:

... you show me a man what strikes while the iron is hot and I'll show you a man with a whole mess of third degree burns ...
... oncet I knowed a feller what woke up without a hangover...called an ambulance...thought he was dying...
       The DADA Caper opens with the story's narrator, private eye Chance Purdue, getting fired from his position with the Ammson Private Detective Agency for botching a case in particularly impressive fashion. He opens up his own shop -- subsidized by supportive girlfriend Betsy, who wants to make their relationship closer and more permanent. Purdue seems rather more reluctant -- though it's not that Betsy is a call girl (or whore, as he prefers to say) that really bothers him ..... He's been married once before, and he's no huge fan of the institution:
     Betsy said you never told me what happened during your first marriage.
     I said I don't like the way you emphasized first marriage.
     I said you seemed to imply that there could be a second.
       Purdue doesn't seem to be the most impressive of private eyes: a case he actually takes up -- to see if a husband is cheating on his wife -- finds him tailing the wrong man, for example. Instead, a lot of time is spent at the local bar -- with an owner desperate to sell the place and move on, but mostly stuck in his rut -- while Betsy seems to almost always be incredibly eager and obliging (except when she's on call somewhere), and there's a friend of hers, Candi Yakozi who is eager to get Purdue in bed, too.
       Though fired from the Ammson Private Detective Agency, Purdue can't quite escape Kellis J. Ammson's clutches: in one of the books funnier running gags, their paths keep crossing on a variety of cases they get involved in. (After a while Ammson even offers to hire him back: "he seems to think it might be better for all concerned".)
       Purdue does land a big case: a man identifying himself as from the US government comes to his office and offers him: "three hundred dollars per week for occasional investigatory work". Specifically, they're concerned about DADA, "a highly efficient subversive organization founded and funded by the Kremlin". They believe DADA is run by one Nivlek Ysteb -- "a shadowy figure at best" -- and they want Purdue to find Ysteb.
       They have some conditions, too: close the office -- and: "move in with your lady friend". It's almost a deal-breaker for Purdue, but the government agent convinces him that it would be good cover .....
       Purdue, of course, doesn't have much luck finding Ysteb. Betsy, however, is confident: "you'll find Nivlek Ysteb where you least expect" -- and she's right about that.
       In (near) conclusion:
     I said I am going to write a bok about this.
     I said it will be a mystery.
     I said I will call it Nivlek Ysteb Who the Hell are You ?
     I said or maybe The DADA Caper.
     Betsy giggled and dried her eyes.
     She said will you employ a nom de plume ?
     I said no I intend to keep it as clean as possible.
     I said but I will use somebody else's name.
     I said maybe I will call myself Ross H. Spencer.
     I said he can't write either.
     Betsy shook her head.
     She said it wouldn't work.
     She said the average reader will solve it by page 80.
     I said oh I don't know about that.
     I said it took me clear to page 184.
       Betsy's a bit premature -- at least in the reprint edition, where Nivlek Ysteb isn't mentioned until page 87 -- but the fundamental problem with that 'mystery' remains: it's staring readers in the face throughout. Coupled with the fact that the the payoff then is pretty minimal -- though satisfying enough, in its small-scale way -- The DADA Caper is very light on actual mystery (especially given the brief promise of international intrigue...).
       More problematic is Spencer's crotchety old-school tough-man routine, both in the sayings of Monroe D. Underwood as well as some of Purdue's behavior: even Betsy complains: "dammit Chance can't you ever say call girl ?" while he insists on calling her a whore. Apparently, Purdue is meant to be presented as fundamentally good-hearted enough that his gruff talk is supposed to be forgivable. And, yes, there's a happy end (complete with Betsy exclaiming: "oh my God for once you didn't say whore" ...). Still, it jars -- a willful sort of sexism that really serves no purpose except to say 'look what I can do'.
       Some of The DADA Caper is genuinely funny, and Spencer uses the writing tics to decent effect, but it does have the feel of a practice-work -- and it's a shame there isn't more to the mystery and, especially, to DADA.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2017

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The DADA Caper: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Ross H. Spencer lived 1921 to 1998.

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© 2017 the complete review

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