Tag Archives: PI series

The Doomsters: Ross Macdonald (1958) Lew Archer 7

“You don’t play footsie with a homicidal psycho, Mister.”

In Ross Macdonald’s gritty PI novel, The Doomsters, PI Lew Archer opens his front door late one night only to become embroiled in a tangled web of murder, deceit and toxic family relationships. Carl Hallman knocks at Archer’s door after escaping from a mental institution. Carl, who is irrational and raving, has a story to tell: sent there by fellow escapee Tom Rica, a heroin addict from Archer’s past, Carl claims that he’s been locked up by the family’s crooked doctor on orders from Carl’s older brother, Jerry. There’s a large inheritance at stake: the family’s orange orchards. Archer agrees to help on the condition that Carl return to the mental institution. Carl agrees, but on the way back, he overpowers Archer and steals his car. Archer, trying to track his car, and Carl, ends up on the Hallman estate along with Carl’s patient, long-suffering wife, Mildred. According to Mildred, the Hallman household is toxic:

A building can soak up emotions, you know, so that after a while it has the same emotions as the people who live in it. They’re in the cracks in the walls, the smokestains on the ceiling, the smells in the kitchen.

Mildred, who currently takes care of her boozy mother, says she was glad to leave the Hallman ranch. She claims that Carl’s incarceration at the mental institution is about Jerry controlling the money. Everyone on the Hallman estate, hearing of Carl’s escape, is on edge. Jerry Hallman returns home only to be murdered a few minutes later. Carl is the prime suspect, but he can’t be found. Archer has his doubts that Carl is the killer; it just all seems a little too convenient. And then again, Dr Grantland, the man who helped Jerry lock up Carl, seems to have a cozy bedside manner with Jerry’s wife, err.. make that widow. Add to the mix, a violent sheriff, and the body count rises–and then there’s the murky question of Carl’s parents’ deaths. …

The Doomsters, as its title suggests, is a novel that festers with people headed for doom. In this world of toxic relationships, many of the characters seal their own fate due to their choices or actions. Macdonald creates a number of fascinating women here: Miss Parrish, who seems so perfect and proper, works at the mental institution. A zealot, she has various theories about Carl’s breakdown, and she voices those theories with no small amount of snobbery. Mildred, Carl’s wife seems weighed down by responsibility and bad luck, and Zinnie, Jerry’s widow sizzles when a man casts his eyes her way.

A nice machine, I thought: pseudo Hollywood, probably empty, certainly expensive, and not new; but a nice machine.

A little of Archer’s past is revealed along with regret at the loss of his wife. He observes Zinnie, Mildred and Miss Parrish, noting that their affections are for others:

She sat down on the piano stool and took out a cigarette, which I lit for her. Twin lights burned deep in her eyes. I could sense her emotions burning behind her professional front, like walled atomic fires. They didn’t burn for me, though.

He seems to be just at the boundary of accepting that he’s too damaged to sustain a relationship with a woman. He’s not quite reached that cynical point of no return:

Try listening to yourself sometime, alone in a transient room in a strange town. The worst is when you draw a blank, and the ash-blonde ghosts of your past carry on long twittering long-distance calls with your inner ear, and there’s no way to hang up.

Lew Archer novels paint twisted images of family life, and this one is no exception. The ending is one long confession, and yet that detailed confession, a few pages later, is seeded with doubt. The entire experience leaves Archer hollow as he notes that people from the past “wait for you in time,” to “ambush” us in our memories

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The Wycherly Woman: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #9)

“I glanced up at her small tense face. She looked like a bunny after a hard Easter.”

In The Wycherly Woman, PI Lew Archer becomes embroiled in the ashes of an acrimonious divorce in pursuit of a missing daughter. Archer is summoned to the home of the obnoxious bombastic Homer Wycherly, a wealthy man who has just returned from a cruise only to find that his only child, Phoebe, has been missing since the day he sailed. Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find Phoebe with the odd admonition that Archer not, under any circumstances, contact his ex-wife Catherine, a woman with, according to Homer, a “vile tongue.”

Just a little digging and Archer discovers that Phoebe was last seen in the company of her mother. Phoebe came aboard her father’s cruise ship to say “Bon Voyage,” but the moment was ruined by Catherine Wycherly who came aboard the ship before it sailed and created a scene with Homer. She demanded money. Two months have passed and during that time, Phoebe has not been seen at Boulder Beach College, at her rooming house, or by her momma’s boy boyfriend, Bobby. Bobby’s acidic mother is, or was, also Phoebe’s landlady. Archer is sure that Bobby knows more than he’s saying, and it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Bobby’s mother and Phoebe.

Although Archer is told by Wycherly to steer of Catherine, after he learns that Phoebe left the ship with her mother, he has little choice but to talk to Catherine. One missing person case quickly becomes a case of two missing persons. Catherine, a full-bodied, loud-mouthed blonde long past her sell-by-date, has also disappeared. Her residence, bought with money from the divorce, is up for sale, and when Archer starts asking questions regarding the real estate agent involved, the body count rises.

Archer encounters a lot of lonely, lost women on his way to solving the mystery:

You’re a hard man, aren’t you? But I like you, I really do. Are you married?

No.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know where to go.

She leaned towards me with a lost expression, hoping to be found.

For most of the book, I thought The Wycherly Woman could end up being at the top of my Archer list. I liked the book’s structure, and the elusive glimpses Macdonald gives the reader of Phoebe, a troubled girl who never recovered from her parent’s nasty divorce. I didn’t come close to unraveling the mystery, and the toxic stench from Homer and his relatives kept me guessing. On the down side, the plot twist was hard to swallow. Can’t say more than that without giving too much away.

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The Galton Case: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 8)1959

In Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, PI Lew Archer is hired by one of California’s richest families to find the long lost heir, Anthony Galton. 22-year-old Anthony Galton disappeared, along with his pregnant, lowlife wife and a sizeable amount of cash, over 20 years ago in 1936. There’s been no word from him since. Widowed Mrs Galton, querulous and ill, wants Anthony, Tony, found, so the family lawyer, Sable, hires Archer for the job. With the trail long cold, Archer thinks the search is a waste of time and money, but he takes the job. mainly due to curiosity.

Oddly enough, in this cold case, there’s a trail of clues, like pieces of gingerbread that lead Archer to a pile of bones and a young man who claims to be Anthony Galton’s son. This seems to be the end of a long saga, but Archer isn’t satisfied. Early in the book, Archer says he “hates coincidences,” and those coincidences begin piling up.

When Archer starts digging, it’s the 50s, but the case reaches back into a world of prohibition and organized crime. There are many unanswered questions: including who killed Anthony Galton (the pile of bones without a head) and why? Where is his wife? The son has a story which seems to check out, but the entire swirling mess is entangled with some very unsavory characters. One of them, an impertinent, unlikely ‘butler’ who works for Sable and his much younger wife, is stabbed to death on the Sables’ doorstep by an unidentified man. Also, Archer isn’t happy with the way in which the missing persons case was solved so easily. Plus he is beaten badly and ends up in hospital.

Archer is a great character; he has his own code of ethics and once interested in a case, no-one can shake him lose. In The Galton Case, Archer is given a big cheque and is expected to walk away, but Archer senses there’s a lot more to the Galton story, and he continues investigating. Lew Archer books are peppered with fascinating characters, and there’s always the sense that Archer stumbles into the messy detritus of people’s lives. Here there’s a middle-aged poet, a woman with a shady past who now lives shrouded in middle-aged respectability, and a sordid couple who run a sordid rooming house. Many of the characters are imprisoned in their miserable lives. The class divide is the strongest yet I’ve seen in an Archer novel.

I bought a pint of whisky to ward off the chill and checked in at the Salisbury, a small side-street hotel where I usually stayed in San Francisco. The desk clerk was new to me. Desk clerks are always moving up or down. This one was old and on his way down; his sallow face dropped in the pull of gravity. He handed me my key reluctantly:

“No luggage, sir?”

I showed him my bottle in its paper bag.

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The Barbarous Coast: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 6) 1956

“Jerkiness isn’t as respectable as it used to be, even in LA. which is why they had to build Vegas.”

In Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast, Lew Archer tangles with organized crime and decadent Hollywood. Archer is called to the exclusive Channel Club on Malibu Beach by nervous middle-aged club manager, Clarence Bassett. Bassett is being threatened by George Wall, a young married man, who is looking for his missing wife, Hester and claims that Bassett knows where she is.

Before Archer even meets Bassett, he runs into George Wall trying to crash the club in a desperate attempt to talk to Bassett who refuses to see the very upset husband. Archer also meets Tony Torres, ex-fighter and now the gateman at the Channel Club.

The job to protect Bassett turns into a job to find Hester–after all the two things are connected. Hester was part of a diving show, and at one point dove with Gabrielle Torres (daughter of Tony) and her cousin Manuel. Gabrielle was murdered a year ago–found shot dead on the beach, and Manuel, once a boxer too, is now banned from the profession and has served a jail sentence. Life seems to be looking up for Manuel; he’s now an actor calling himself Lance and works for a gangster named Carl Stern. Tony Torres used to be close to his nephew and now has nothing to do with him. According to Tony:

A boy gets ants in his pants, you can’t hire no exterminator for that.

Archer’s investigations are often circular, and this one is no exception. Archer senses that Gabrielle’s unsolved murder is connected to Hester’s disappearance, and as usual, Archer’s instincts are correct. There’s a tawdry, rancid stench of shop-worn glamour to the Hollywood crowd in these pages. On one level, there are these young people, the ones with the looks, Hester, Gabrielle and Lance and then there’s the moneyed crowd pulling the strings, gangster Carl Stern, producer Simon Graf and his certifiable wife Isobel, who bounces in and out of institutions. Then there’s Bassett who hosts the rich and famous while nervously trying to keep them happy, entertained and the drinks flowing.

This is probably my least favourite Archer novel so far. We don’t get much of Archer’s philosophy (always enjoyable) and the tale lacks the usual moodiness. I didn’t buy the murder wrap-up. Many of the characters are flat, but Tony Torres is well-created, and Bassett was fun. This is a story of moral corruption and how the pretty and the young who have their looks, their youth, and their bodies to sell, are exploited as playthings by the rich and famous. All of this moral corruption is laced with the trappings of Hollywood and supported by organized crime. Naturally, the young and beautiful end up dead or kicked to the curb when their attractions fade or pall.

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Find a Victim: Ross Macdonald (1954)

“It was a long fall straight down through the darkness of my head. I was a middle aging space cadet lost between galaxies and out of gas.”

Ross Macdonald’s Find a Victim is the 5th Lew Archer novel in this PI series. This excellent novel is a little different from its predecessors, and although Archer is hired to investigate in this murky case, he’s also fired. By that time, however, Archer is committed to the case because he’s in it up to his neck and is considered, at times, a murder suspect. The novel is darker than the earlier novels in the series, and incest, hinted at in an earlier novel, is loud and clear here.

Some people are Trouble Magnets, and we see this in Find a Victim. Archer is minding his own business, driving North to Sacramento when he sees a badly wounded man on the side of the road. He pulls over and takes the man, a shooting victim, to the nearest place he can find. That turns out to be Kerrigan’s Court: Deluxe Motor Hotel which is owned by the unhappily married couple, the Kerrigans. Kerrigan isn’t happy to see the bleeding man who is dying of a gunshot wound, and he seems annoyed that Archer brought this man, a man he identifies as a truck driver known as Tony, to his doorstep. By the time the local sheriff arrives, Tony is barely alive. All the parties involved up to this point are hostile to Archer and the idea is floated that Archer may be the murderer. Naturally, feeling involved, Archer sticks around to delve into the case. He discovers that Tony was driving a truck full of whiskey. The truck has disappeared along with its valuable contents. Turns out the motel receptionist, Ann, has also disappeared.

This is a tight little town in which everyone seems related or connected to each other in some way. Ann, who also happens to be the sheriff’s sister-in-law, AND the daughter of the owner of the trucking company, was also Kerrigan’s mistress until fairly recently. Now, however, Kerrigan is knocking around with nightclub singer, Jo, a girl with “a mouth as sullen as sin.” The nightclub used to belong to Kerrigan, but Kerrigan, up to his eyeballs in debt, just sold it. Here’s Jo:

She looked “more like an actress who hadn’t quite made the grade down south or a very successful amateur tart in the verge of turning pro. Whatever her business was, there had to be sex in it. She was as full of sex as a grape is full of juice and so young that it hadn’t begun to sour.

Hired by irritable, unstable trucking company owner Mike to find the whiskey, the truck, Tony’s killer AND Mike’s missing daughter, Ann, Archer manages to piss off almost everyone in town. There are too many connections between the major players to be just coincidence and Archer unravels the mess and mystery surrounding Tony’s murder. Of all the Archer novels I’ve read so far, this is my favourite. As with the other novels, Archer steps into a twisted, violent world in which he is the outsider trying to discover the truth. Once again, he gets little thanks but lots of beatings. Ross Macdonald seems to hit his stride with Find a Victim, and his use of language complements the story’s tempo and its pitch perfect darkness

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The Ivory Grin: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 4)

“The people you love are never the ones that love you.”

Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin centres on a seemingly simple case of finding a young woman, but the case becomes more complicated as the bodies pile up. This tale of jealousy and revenge begins with private detective Lew Archer being hired by a middle-aged woman he dislikes. He finds her waiting for him outside of his office early one morning, and with just two sentences out of her mouth, Archer notes “she had begun to irritate me already.” She wears a “slack suit” with a blue mink stole and her hands are dripping with large diamonds. She alternates between “girlish vivacity and boyish earnestness” neither of which fit this hard-edged woman who is clearly used to being obeyed.

“Call me Una,” she said.

“Do you live in Los Angeles?”

“Not exactly. Where I live doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you what does if you want me to be blunt.”

“I couldn’t bear it if you weren’t.” Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. “You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me.”

I was in no mood to swop compliments. The ragged edge on her voice and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete.

Protective coloration.” I caught her glance and held it. “I meet a lot of different types.”

For one thing, Una, as she calls herself, spins Archer a tall tale about needing to find a former employee, a black girl called Lucy. In the first version Una tells Archer that Lucy stole some jewelry and she wants it back. When Archer doesn’t swallow that tale, the second story is that Lucy knows about Una’s “private affairs,” and Una wants to know what company Lucy keeps. Both stories reek, but Archer’s interest is aroused so he takes the case. But things don’t add up–Una knows where Lucy is, where she hangs out and even what she’s wearing.

She produced a crumpled bill and tossed it to me as if were an old piece of Kleenex and I were a wastebasket. I caught it. It was a hundred dollar bill, but I didn’t put it away.

Archer’s used to digging in the grubby lives of his clients, and so often doesn’t get the straight scope, but this woman is over the top: she won’t tell him her real name, and she won’t tell him where she lives. But the trump card that should end it all is that Archer doesn’t like this woman. At all. Archer drives to Bella City, the place where Lucy was spotted, and in hardly any time at all, he sees her. He follows her only to see her tossed from a boarding house, so when Lucy moves to a low-rent hotel, Archer takes the room next door.

The case, which seemed so quickly resolved, becomes complicated. Archer follows Lucy to the grubby practice of a local doctor, a doctor whose femme fatale wife doesn’t fit the image of a small-town doctor’s wife. Curiouser and curiouser, there’s a low-rent PI on Lucy’s tail who gets busy pumping the doctor’s nurse for info. Who is he working for? Turns out that Lucy is somehow involved in a kidnapping case, but Archer doesn’t understand what Lucy’s role was. When Archer finds Lucy with her throat cut, he’s committed to the case–not the client. Archer may be working for “Una” but as always his code of conduct defines his actions. This novel, written in Macdonald’s gritty, sardonic style, is about a tangled mess in which an elusive, opportunistic femme fatale leaves a trail of lovers, creating chaos and moving on. But the tale is also about the depths of human nature–how warped and corrupt people stain everyone they touch sometimes with fatal results.

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The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”

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The Count of 9: Erle Stanley Gardner (1958) Writing as A. A. Fair

“Double lives are simple. It’s triple lives and quadruple lives that give you the excitement.”

I’ve read earlier Cool and Lam novels: The Knife Slipped and Turn on the Heat. The Count of 9 hasn’t been published in over 50 years, and since it’s classic Erle Stanley Gardner, it’s also a refreshing change from the standard PI novel. Witty, snappy dialogue helps of course, but the heroes here, Donald and to a lesser degree his partner, Bertha, shape this gumshoe novel into a lively, engaging romp.

The count of 9

Donald Lam has finally made partner in the private detective company owned by Bertha Cool. He’s always done most of the leg work with Bertha arranging the jobs and spending most of the money while Donald is kept on a shoestring budget. The novel opens with Bertha landing a job to guard a society party from gatecrashers. This may sound like a strange assignment but the wealthy eccentric throwing the party, Dean Crockett II, threw a party three weeks earlier which resulted in the theft of a valuable carved Jade Buddha.

The job seems simple enough: Crockett, who is serious about his privacy and his security, lives on the twentieth floor of an apartment building. First all visitors check with the front desk, and then, if a visitor is approved, Crockett gives the green light which sends the elevator to the guest. This is “special elevator” which only travels to Crockett’s penthouse. For the night of the party, visitors must request permission for the elevator from the desk staff on the ground floor, and then Bertha’s job is to check the invitations against the guest list, but in spite of all these precautions a blowgun, poison darts, and a Jade Buddha, which matches the one that was already stolen, disappear from the Crockett apartment.

Crockett is furious, but his third wife, a former beauty queen, is a calming force. Since Donald and Bertha are already familiar with the case, they are hired to track the thief. Donald applies some basic logic and is soon hot on the trail of a very clever thief. But the case is complicated by murder. …

While Donald certainly has no small success with women, the novel places Donald on the opposite side of a lecherous photographer. There’s a very funny conversation between Donald and the photographer with the latter bragging about how he tricks women. Donald responds by pretending admiration which is covered with a patina of dislike. We get it, but the photographer, who is enamored with himself, misses the signals:

He opened another drawer, took out the usual eight-by-ten professional portraits, then some full-length shots with legs and bathing suits.

“Nice looker,” I said.

He hesitated a moment, then took an envelope out of the drawer. “You look like a good egg, he said.” “Maybe you’d be interested in these.”

I opened the envelope. It had a dozen five-by-seven shots of the same girl. This time she was posing for pictures I was certain had been suggested by the photographer. Clothes were absent. 

“How do you like that number?”

“Class,” I said.

“Lots of them are like that. I won’t monkey with them unless they’re real class.”

Donald Lam is an interesting protagonist. There are many references to his diminutive stature (made by the beefy Bertha Cool), and while Donald is capable and intelligent, he doesn’t come across as hyper-masculine. That said, he doesn’t need to prove anything. He’s always a sucker for a damsel in distress and Bertha can never quite understand his success with women. One of the funnier aspects of the book is Bertha’s attitude towards her own sex. She sees, and resents, how lookers get away with a great deal, and since it’s suspected that the person responsible for the theft of the first jade Buddha was a woman who hid the statue in her dress, Bertha states that she would “have picked her up by her heels, stood her on her head and shaken the damn thing out.

review copy.

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The Knife Slipped: Erle Stanley Gardner (1939) writing as A. A. Fair

“You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”

It’s been a long time, too long, since I read a Hard Case Crime novel, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped  arrived at a good time. Gardner, using the name A.A. Fair, originally wrote this novel with the intention that it would be the second in the Cool and Lam series, but the book was rejected, partly, for the behaviour of Bertha Cool. This is a tale of a low-rent, bottom-feeder PI agency (owned by Bertha Cool) whose operative, disbarred lawyer, Donald Lam, investigates a case of adultery, triple identities and corruption.

the-knife-slipped

Bertha Cool’s agency is hired by a bossy mother-weepy daughter duo to investigate the daughter’s husband who was seen in a nightclub with a blonde “who wasn’t wearing a stitch more than the law allowed.” Bertha, who dominates the story, has a very particular attitude towards husbands –possibly because once she had one of her own.

By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do-those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighbourhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.

Bertha is an incredible, confident, tough-talking, penny-pinching character, and Donald, who’s barely making a living,  knows that “if you made anything out of her you sure as hell earned it.” Here’s Bertha laying down the rules to her clients:

“Twenty-five dollars a day,” she said.

“Twenty-five dollars a day is a lot of money,” Mrs. Atterby snapped. 

“Seems like it is to you,” Bertha Cool said easily, “not to me.”

Mrs Atterby hesitated. Her long, lean fingers gripped the black, patent leather handbag which was supported on her lap. You guarantee results?” she asked.

“Hell no,” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do, get him seduced?”

Donald begins the investigation, and the case of the cheating husband soon morphs into something much bigger and much more dangerous. Bertha Cool, the brains of the outfit, is a great character. While Donald is the operative, Bertha, who often talks about herself in the third person, is a huge (literally) presence, guiding the investigation every step of the way, and saving Donald’s neck more than once. She’s cheap (lets Donald drive her beat-up heap, springing for a new car when the junker breaks down), reads the odometer so that Donald can’t use the car for anything other than business, and keeps him on a pauper’s budget. But Bertha is also unflappable and commands respect from even the lowest, pavement-hugging-hood.

This PI story, with more than a smattering of humour and high on atmosphere rips along at high-speed, narrated by our flawed detective, a man who takes all the risks while his female boss maximizes profit. These two characters work well together, for as we see when the plot plays out, Bertha has a soft spot for romance, and is very well aware of Donald’s character weaknesses and his tendency to fall in love.

It was raining hard outside. It was a cold rain. The drops were big and came down hard, making little bursts of water where they hit the dark pavement. I heard her give a little exclamation behind me as she saw the weather. 

Yucca City turned out most of the lights at midnight. The clouds had settled low enough so the lights from the metropolitan district below were all blotted out. The Mountain Crest apartments seemed to be shut off from the rest of the world, an island of wan light isolated in a sea of darkness. 

The afterword from Russell Atwood contains some interesting information on the series and how the two main characters changed in the books that followed this second, rejected, story.

Review copy

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Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.

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