The Dungeon Master is an intoxicating book. The 1984 nonfiction novel contains the very earnest, very weird musings of no-nonsense private eye William C. Dear, the man hired to investigate the disappearance of 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III. The book, while written straightforward and fact focused, is frequently operating on an entirely different wavelength from the rest of humanity. And that, my friends, is why it is a must read for connoisseurs of the odd.
The Dungeon Master, long out of print but very easy to find used online, details the highly publicized 1979 case in which Egbert, a child genius attending Michigan State University, went missing for nearly a month. Dear, a private eye working out of Dallas, was hired to investigate the boy’s disappearance. It was during the course of the investigation that Egbert’s obsession with Dungeons & Dragons became a major focus of coverage – with many speculating that the child’s proclivity towards using the campus steam tunnels to roleplay D&D led to the boy’s death. Dear’s book covers all aspects of his investigation – from gay conspiracies to pagan rituals to one very intense session of Dungeons & Dragons that left Dear drenched in a clammy sweat.
While reading the book, it is very easy to anoint William C. Dear a badass. If I ever have the opportunity to meet the man (Dear still works as a private investigator though much of his time seems to be spent selling his theory that O.J. Simpson was innocent), I would bow down in awe. In his book, Dear presents an image of himself as a calculating, empathetic superhero – willing to risk his name, his life and his career in an emotionally-fueled quest to rescue young Egbert. Finding Egbert is as much a moral imperative as it is a job for Dear. The thoroughness that Dear undertakes in his investigation is admirable – as is the frequency and ease with which Dear will find an opportunity to slip in random badass facts about himself throughout the book. Dear is a man who knows how to sell himself, and I can respect that. The dust jacket for the book features a black and white picture of Dear clutching a rifle, staring off into the distance! That is a true badass.
It would also be very easy to accuse William C. Dear of being an exploitative self-promoter – exaggerating his image into near-mythological status via his words in an attempt to further his own career and obtain more clients. Dear flat out admits that he promised to keep secrets of the case a mystery out of respect for Egbert and his family – but proceeds to spill the beans anyway to sell a few more copies of his book. Please don’t sue me for writing that, Mr. Dear. Your book came out in 1984 – surely enough time has passed for you to realize that breaking a promise – even to a dead person – is a pretty dick move.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, William C. Dear is a man who was trying to sell a few books and obtain a few new clients from the case’s publicity but, as Dear frequently points out in The Dungeon Master, he was already more than set for cash when he took the case. The man boasts about his wealth and success nearly as much as he showcases how selfless and caring he is. Dear is just a man, and man is prone to self-flattery - but no man looking solely for self-promotion would publish a book as uncomfortably earnest as The Dungeon Master.
In the course of his investigation, William C. Dear takes much effort to showcase how much of a professional he is – and he is a pro. From leading a full staff of junior private eyes (each with their own personality quirk – how ripe for movie adaptation!) to having a personal jet that comes into play several times throughout the story, the tale Dear lays out in his book is almost indistinguishable from your standard pulp mystery novel. Dear is a mustached, three-piece-suit-wearing, modern day Texas ranger – friendly with children, hard on suspects and always quick with that gruff Texas wit when it comes to bantering with his team of private eyes. Dear couldn’t be more of a caricature if he tried, and it is that earnest exaggeration and self-aggrandizing puffery that proves how much of what Dear is presenting about himself is probably very close to the truth. Nobody who writes as well as Dear does would consciously put on that big of a show without realizing how thick they were laying it on.
It is Dear’s ability to get into the head of the person he is tracking that he is most eager to brag about. Egbert, a troubled kid who had a hard time finding friends and was prone to dangerous stunts, copious amounts of drugs and gay sex, gives Dear plenty of personality to shift through. As Dear unearths Egbert’s past, Dear really does immerse himself in Egbert – or at least the Egbert that Dear conjures up from context.
Dear discovers the kid would hang from railroad tracks as trains passed overhead, so he does the same. What this really adds to the investigation is up to debate, but it offers a pretty riveting chapter that sees Dear playing chicken with a speeding train. Dear, intrigued by Dungeons & Dragons, challenges himself to learn as much as he can about the game – even bribing a local dungeon master to put together an emergency session.
He asked me a few personal questions, including what my favorite fantasy was, a subject I lied about. That single game I had played in my motel room provided an inkling of how Dungeons & Dragons could grip a person. I had concentrated so hard on evading dangers, trying to gather a fortune, and simply staying alive that for longer periods I actually forgot where I was and became a magic user in the perilous maze. My mind pictured the maze as the dungeon master described it, and it seemed as if my body temperature rose as the air became moist and steamy.
The chapter in which Dear plays Dungeons & Dragons is worth the price of admission alone. In it, Dear goes on at length about his D&D game – writing as if he's pitching a fantasy novel. His description of the way he loses control and is overwhelmed by his assigned character is comical – as are his frequent descriptions of the game’s dungeon master as some kind of powerful purveyor of mental bondage.
Dear doesn’t quite dive headfirst into the gay subculture Egbert had been a part of – but he does agree to work with a gay New York private eye who has flown to Michigan out of pocket since becoming obsessed with the boy genius after reading news reports. Let’s review – Dear, a man hired by a young boy’s parents to find their missing son, agrees to accept help from an older stranger from New York City who claims to have an emotional connection with a 16-year-old because he read a few news clippings. More so, Dear agrees to the only payment the New York private eye requires – a chance to meet Egbert when he is found. Either Dear is charmingly naïve or very progressive with man-boy-love – either way, the whole thing comes off as very creepy. Not convinced? How about the fact that this is how the New York detective convinces Dear that he is an essential part of the investigation:“I think I have to go deeper underground, to places where you would never past muster. Bathhouses for instance. They make you prove you’re gay before they let you in.”
Dear bounces around between theories as he investigates Egbert’s disappearance – from the possibility that the young boy became obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons and wandered into the campus steam tunnels to slay imaginary dragons to the idea that the boy was picked up by gay professors and traded into white slavery by a cabal of local homosexuals. Unfortunately, the book’s real outcome proves to be a lot less exciting than any of the admittedly far-fetched ideas Dear explores in his investigation. The mundane can also be tragic, though – the book leaves a bitter taste in reader’s mouths as Dear rambles off the sad, very realistic outcome of his investigation.
My suggestion – stop reading 50 pages before the book ends and go pick up something like Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a fictional book (later television movie starring Tom Hanks) that was clearly inspired by the Egbert case but had the good sense to go full-out crazy in the third act. As Egbert would have been quick to point out, fantasy can be a whole lot more entertaining than real life.
The Dungeon Master is a weird relic from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s – when Dungeons & Dragons was still on the periphery of public awareness and found mostly on college campuses. William C. Dear is a man clearly out of his element in the sexual fantasy weirdness that Egbert made home, but it's this fish-out-of-water aspect that provides the book with its rich absurdity. Reading The Dungeon Master is like listening to your dad describe a sexual fetish he read about on Wikipedia – detached, intrigued but never without that underlying disgust.
William C. Dear has recently posted on his Twitter account that screenwriters have begun working on an adaption of the book, and I do think that with a little work the book would make a fascinating movie. The procedural part of the investigation that Dear explores is compelling, as is much of the book’s exploration into the private eye occupation during 1979. Dear mentions that years ago he talked to Charlie Sheen about playing him in any future adaptation of The Dungeon Master. For some reason, this is oddly fitting.