Every now and then you run into a book that has it all: humor, a delightfully dark tone, a world-weary and larger-than-life protagonist and a wildly inventive storyline. Craig McDonald's Head Games is such a novel. The head in question is none other than that of Pancho Villa, which was stolen from his grave decades ago, perhaps by longtime Villa henchman Rodolfo Fierro. Rumors flew that Yale's vaunted Skull and Bones society might have been the ultimate recipient of the head, but nothing was ever proven. McDonald uses that real-life incident to build a darkly humorous story, using a cast of real-life mid-century luminaries: Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Webb (of Dragnet fame) and a laconic Yale frat boy who goes by the name George W. As Head Games opens, it is 1957, and the head is still on the missing list. The protagonist of the tale, a mystery novelist/screenwriter named Hector Lassiter, came up through the pulps like his contemporaries Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. With several marriages and countless bottles of booze behind him, Lassiter is a little the worse for wear. Still, he carves a dashing figure the sort of man's man who would appeal to the readers of that era's True magazine. His interviewer, one Bud Fiske, is a poet by trade, but as any poet can tell you, there's not a lot of money in that line of endeavor; Bud pays his bills by grinding out prose for the lurid men's magazines that grace the behind-the-counter areas of '50s drugstores and smoke shops. Early on, Bud reflects that he may have bitten off more than he can conveniently chew, as he finds himself smack in the middle of a shootout in a south-of-the-border cantina, with the Mexican Federales as the opposing team. A book with a premise as unorthodox as this could easily dissolve into farce, but McDonald skillfully avoids that trap, crafting a clever and only slightly over-the-top slaughter-fest worthy of James Ellroy or James Crumley.

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