I want to be Inspector Franz Heineken of the Tasmania Police Force, protagonist of David Owen's 1990s series and proud bearer of the nickname Pufferfish ("An ugly, poisonous scavenger known to bloat in times of distress," according to one description). OK, I want to be everything but the "ugly" part.
Pufferfish knows his boss is an oily, backstabbing careerist. Pufferfish recognizes that colleagues are vindictive and possibly bent. In X and Y, the third of the four books in the series, Pufferfish has been shot at and set up to take the fall for a drug bust gone wrong. But he's not bitter, and he's not haunted. John Rebus and Matt Scudder would sidle away from this guy at a bar. He's too psychologically healthy.
And that's what makes him such a standout protagonist. He works in a nest of vipers, but he's an amiable zoo guide, telling the reader about the snakes' habits, rather than worrying all the time about being swallowed up by them. His attitude of amusement leavens the contempt and anger enough to set him apart from the legions of police-procedural protagonists in similar situations. At the same time, he can survive very well among the reptiles, and he's not afraid to tell his boss where to get off, only in language a good deal coarser than that.
And his sense of humor ... I've been reading Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels, and Maloney's a wild man compared to Owen when it comes to jokes. A Murray Whelan joke can stretch near a page in length, pushing the reader to the brink of impatience before whomping him or her with the payoff. A Pufferfish joke is more likely to be a wisecrack slipped gently into the dialogue.
Heineken, under police guard, trying to persuade his minder join him for a fishing trip: "Don't you eat fish and chips?"
Heineken, on a colleague who wishes him no good: Of all the eyes that look at me, it's Boston's that talk. They're flat, without light and they wish to hell that I were well and truly dead. A-ha. Well, well.
As a bonus, X and Y functions very nicely as a thriller, as a hunted-man story, and as a mystery. It's shame Owen did not take the series beyond the four novels.
Labels: Australia, David Owen, Franz Heineken, Humor, Pufferfish, Pufferfish first series