Friday, January 15, 2016

FFB: Richard S. Prather Week: SHELL SCOTT'S SEVEN SLAUGHTERS (Fawcett Gold Medal 1961)

Barry Ergang proposed a Prather Friday Books, and as one of the best-selling crime-fiction writers we've had so the same league with Christie and MacDonald and however you want to account James Patterson, that seemed to Patti Abbott not the worst idea.

And it's not. Prather wrote most of his work, or certainly that published under his name, about Shell (Sheldon) Scott, a tall ex-Marine Hollywood/LA-based private detective, who seemed to have a lot of money to throw around despite not (in the fiction I've read) managing to worry too much about getting paid for his work, falling into bed with at least a woman or three in any given story (one gathers never for too long, as there's no steady carrying over), and, as Bill Crider notes in his review of this collection today, getting bashed in the head (and shot, but only nicks and flesh wounds) at least as often as Mike Shayne, Mannix, Blimmix or anyone else you'd like to cite in the history of crime fiction. 

I've yet to read a Prather or Scott novel...I'd come across the short stories in anthologies, but never had gotten around to reading a book of Prather's, either, so as someone who's bought a bunch of Barry Ergang's books over the years (at The Title Page, a fine secondhand store in Bryn Mawr or arguably more in Villanova, PA), and who almost never throws in on the theme weeks, I meant to check into one or another of his many uncollected stories, figuring someone (like Bill) would've snapped up his collections (I was vaguely aware of two...turns out there are four, as The Thrilling Detective informs us:
  • Three's a Shroud (1957; three novellas) 
  • Have Gat, Will Travel (1957) 
  • Shell Scott's Seven Slaughters (1961) ...Buy this book
  • The Shell Scott Sampler (1969)
--but I can't find the box where I tucked my several handfuls of issues of Manhunt, typically the most common market for bestselling hardboiled CF writers of the 1950s to drop their shorter works, at least if they were clients of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which controlled the magazine. Not a few of my 1960s Mike Shayne Mystery Magazines and any copies I might have (two?) of Shell Scott Mystery Magazine are probably in the same box.  So, having dawdled as I often do, I ended up "borrowing" this anthology from the Internet Archive...and am slightly surprised that it doesn't seem to have gone into as many editions as nearly all of Prather's other books, even given the bias toward novels too many readers regrettably share.

I've always thought of Prather as the next-gen version of Robert Leslie Bellem, best remembered for his Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective, famously written up by S. J. Perelman in The New Yorker in the essay "Somewhere a Roscoe...".
Like Bellem, only perhaps a bit less consistently humorously, Prather is well-known (where he still is) for fast patter and sometimes rococo slang, rather improbable incidents, more sexuality than many of his contemporaries (in Prather's case, even given the relatively leeway the post-Spillane generation were able to engage in), and nonetheless a sense of genuine love and respect for the art of the detective story (if Prather actually titled the anthology, I have to wonder if he, or whoever, did so with a nod to Paul Cain's Seven Slayers). Along with that, Scott and the other male characters have a tendency to be utterly gosh-wow floored by sudden female nudity that seems to be more reader-service than anything resembling actual behavior of any such bed-hoppers, but can also be seen, I think, as somewhat endearing, given his superhuman ability to recover from head trauma, his otherwise larger-than-life behavior, and his occasionally nasty irritability with the women characters...who are remarkably likely to be either very pretty to jaw-droppingly so, or rather painfully plain, and guess which class tends to be, if not always, the helpful and virtuous set.

With citations from the Crime Fiction Index:
is a good start for the book, with much of the color of the story coming from a gimmicky nightclub, the Haunt, with essentially a Hallowe'en year-'round theme (hence the alternate title, from somewhere)...Prather refers to one of the effects affected by the club being achieved with fluorescent lights, by which he means black/UV lights...though Scott has a rather less common term for them in today's parlance ("gook lights" is presumably not meant to be any more an ethnic slur than referring to a spy as as "spook" is...). (I will disagree with Bill here slightly, as the story offers three Best Motives, jealousy being only one, and the final one settled on being rather arguably the best, indeed.)

is damned near plotless, in the thin and aggressively ridiculous nature of the plot such as it is (as Bill suggests as well), but mostly pleasantly enough evocative of the kind of fun, and "fun" trouble, Scott finds himself in even when trying to relax. The alternate title is rather On the Nose, or at least in the pit. Tiki culture fans will enjoy the setting here.
Even if the women in the Scott stories can be snapped at by our hero for trifles, at times, and Scott isn't afraid, as in this story, to rough up a woman who's involved in trying to hurt him (while, you know, at least half-willing to still sleep with her), Prather takes great care to make his male villains mean furniture, and the various medium-level mobsters in this story do give him some reasonable trouble before the rather Over The Top which wouldn't be out of place in a present-day explosion movie and which would almost ensure a multi-directional bloodbath (moreso than it does) if played out in today's reality...or, I suspect, in that of the 1950s.
Bill fears this one might be, at least in resolution, too un-PC for most readers, and I suspect that's not quite as true as he thinks, albeit what Prather probably thought was a solid clue to the eventual revelations is a lot less likely to make today's reader stop and assume as it might've been in the mid 1950s. It is the most brutal and least lighthearted of the stories by some distance, very much in keeping with the nihilism that tended to pervade Manhunt at its height. As frequently, a fair amount of broad assumptions about humanity are tossed around here, some of which are a lot less likely to be taken for granted or blandly agreed with by today's readers...but the story sticks, particularly as Scott is somewhat less improbably unstoppable in this one.

is a short novella that I didn't have a chance to finish, though it certainly starts well enough, with Scott dismissing even the reasonably attractive...but Fifty Years Old!...client who has engaged him. One wonders how old Scott is supposed to be...perhaps as dewey as his mid 30s?
is perhaps the best story as story in the book, despite having a plot that is, in part, even more ridiculous than most, reaching toward Michael Avallone (or his earlier correspondent, Harry Stephen Keeler) territory...while in description of the confidence tricksters Scott goes up against, Prather is unsparing through his protagonist in not sharing any sense of appreciation for the clever scamps they are, even when actually clever and charming, and paints a rather good picture of the kinds of folks whom they can most easily con. The bit of the budding romance in the story is some of Prather's best writing here. 
The seventh story in the book might well get the actually PC (of many different spectrum positions) crowds a bit riled, as a young woman and Scott are in their own little world of rhapsody, over her stripping/exotically dancing for Scott to see and shoot with his new, expensive film camera...only to have their fun intruded upon by a murder in the background. One which causes Scott to abruptly try to intercede, with his friend rather improbably pouting because he ran from her, off somewhere, just as she was getting completely naked...and for some reason, you know, that chick's logic thing or lack of it, not realizing that there was no place else he'd rather be, but, c'mon, babe, duty called. Which, of course, Scott at least manages to eventually prove to her, though by improbably dragged out-means even while he's toting a film camera with a bullet in it. This leads to complications and a remarkably ridiculous plan to catch the criminal, which only succeeds because both criminal and Scott can be depended upon to go all Gosh Wow, as the woman in question figures out at the last minute how she can both help catch the thug and protect Scott, while being Only a Woman, doncha know. 

So...these are smoothly written, and fun for the most part even when mildly annoying (or amusing) in their attitudinal antiquity and offhanded improbability (the latter, of course, at least probably intended).  Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard and Joe Lansdale, among others, might've improved on the model set here, in varying degrees at various times, but they had a fine model to draw from. 

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for this week's list of books.


Barry Ergang said...

Todd, I hope some of what you've read to date will prompt you to have a look at some of Prather's novel-length titles, especially some of the comic ones--e.g., Strip for Murder and Dance With the Dead.

Meantime, as someone who has lived in the Bryn Mawr area for decades and who's the owner of The Title Page been a good friend since 1965, I'm glad you know and deal with Beverley, who not only knows her books but who is also a terrific person.

Todd Mason said...

Beverly is always up for a good conversation...sadly, since I haven't worked in Radnor for about a year now, I haven't dropped in much. THE TITLE PAGE remains a very impressive collection.

I might try some more Prathers...I should give at least one of his novels a chance, and mean to read the novella referred to above. Meanwhile, the Crime Fiction Index could use your help, Barry...could you provide the contents information, via photocopy or otherwise, for the following early issues of FUTURES?

Futures Missing: #2; #3; #6

Mathew Paust said...

Great Scott! Is that Norman Mailer in a powdered wig posing on the cover second up from the bottom with the naked tomato curled up in front of him? Then again, it could be Howard Duff...or even George W. Bush, come to think of it.

Todd Mason said...

Mailer is certainly a decent guess. I gather Prather *hated* the photo covers, which apparently were an enthusiasm of Pocket Books. Not the happiest of relations between them.

Barry Ergang said...

Todd, I don't have the info you want about Futures--I came to the magazine long after those issues were published. But I contacted my friend Babs Lakey, FMAM's founder and publisher, about your request. If she can provide me with the answers, I'll certainly let you know what they are.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks. Is Babs still on ShortMystery? I should check. Glad she's still about!

Barry Ergang said...

I don't think she's still on Short Mystery--she's not well and not very active online these days. However, she's found two out of the three issues you asked me about. Do you happen to have Kevin Tipple's e-mail address? If so--and *he* suggested this--let him know what your e-mail address is, and he'll pass it along to me so I can put you directly in touch with Babs. If you don't have it, we'll work something else out.

On another note, Beverley's store is technically in Rosemont, formerly called a substation (when there was a Rosemont post office) of Bryn Mawr because of the same zipcode, but definitely not in Villanova.

Todd Mason said...

Fair enough! Thanks. I was reading about some of Lakey's troubles. Life is full of unexpected fun. Kind of her, and you all.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I came across Prather's stories in a couple of early magazines including MANHUNT and EQMM (I think), but they were bound by copyright. And at the time I didn't know he was such a fine writer. Your review tells me much about his work.

Todd Mason said...

Well, look at the link,.Prashant, and see if you can "borrow" their copy. He's not Hammett nor Westlake, but he's worth checking into.