I’m a real sucker for vigilante stories, that’s no secret. It started with Batman and grew into The Punisher and then took a mind of its own from there. It resonates with my law-and-order perspective on the wider issues of society and it makes for damn good entertainment. That’s how I stumbled upon Death Wish by Brian Garfield.
Death Wish is the story of Paul Benjamin, a life-long liberal and successful New York accountant whose wife and daughter are brutally assaulted one tragic afternoon. The tragedy worsens when Mrs. Benjamin dies in the hospital and their daughter goes down an endless spiral of comatose shock. Paul’s faith in the system weakens as the police turn up little in the way of leads and nothing in the way of hard results. As time goes on, Paul sees the Big Apple descend only further into degenerate brutality from the apathy of good men and the social fostering of evil ones. In the end, Paul decides the only sane course left open to him is to take justice into his own hands.
Most of us haven’t suffered quite the way Paul Benjamin has, but nobody is free of some brush with the unjust nature of the world. You probably still remember that time you got cheated in grade school, the sting of an unfair judgment, the frustration of a sin gone unpunished, or the man who took your eye walking around with both of his. Whatever it is, it helps the character of Paul Benjamin seem more human and more like yourself. Paul’s emotional psyche develops over the course of the story, to positive or negative results, depending on your opinion. His sociopolitical reflections shift just as much, from his liberal starting point to something far more extreme. If you live in a big city, you’ll understand some of the sentiments he expresses; it can be terrifying to live in an urban environment, where everyone knows there are alleys and streets best not traveled after dark, where everyone around you is faceless, apathetic, and the weather is always smothering you. The spiritual degradation of being caught in the great big mouse wheel of grimy stone and stained steel is something most of us can relate to.
The book was written in the early 70s, so a lot of the vernacular and attitudes are funky, to say the least. Part of Paul’s sociopolitical shift emerges from his former attachment to justice reform and social security for the underclasses, mostly of minority demographics in the city. These attachments fade away as he struggles to cope with the failure of the system in a society that seems to foster crime and degeneracy rather than protecting good, honest people just doing their job and living their simple lives. His bigotry may be jarring to the reader in a way that violence in fiction isn’t anymore, whereas when the book was written it would likely have been the opposite.
To shift a bit from the sociopolitical and add some psychology into the mix, there’s a great part near the end where Paul (whose vigilante behaviour has made waves across the city, even inspiring copy-cats) reads a magazine interview with a famous psychiatrist about the mysterious .32 caliber avenger everyone keeps hearing about. The psychiatrist addresses some social concerns regarding the protection of criminals by the system and the abandonment of the law-abiding, as well as the isolation this set-up fosters in some people. For most, their rejection of society turns to extremes, either left or right, but what makes the .32 caliber killer so intriguing is that he operates alone and is thus far more appealing to the common man. He builds a case for understanding Paul without condoning his actions in a discussion that seems just as relevant in 2018 as it did in 1972.
Alas, Death Wish does have something of a non-ending. A great deal of the conflicts go without resolution, and while that may frustrate the reader it also sets up a sequel nicely. I ordered the sequel immediately after finishing the book, in fact. However, it seems that Brian Garfield may not have intended to write a sequel in the first place, as he said in an interview that he did so simply because he was so disappointed in the movie adaptation of Death Wish (the original one starring Charles Bronson, not the Bruce Willis remake).
Look forward to the review of the sequel, Death Sentence; I’m certainly looking forward to reading it. Hopefully, it’s much the same as its predecessor: a short, solid story of righteous anger and the quest for cosmic justice.