Case of the Vanishing Beauty (1950) by Richard S. Prather
reviewed by Barry Ergang
Released in 1950, Case of the Vanishing Beauty was Richard S. Prather's first published novel but the second one he wrote. The first, The Maddern Caper, was subsequently published under the pseudonym David Knight but retitled Pattern for Murder. Still later it was retitled The Scrambled Yeggs and published under Prather's own name. (All of this is explained by Prather in an interview conducted by Linda Pendleton.)
Vanishing Beauty begins when private detective Shell Scott is hired by Georgia Martin to find her missing sister Tracy. She also insists that Scott accompany her to a less-than-respectable L.A. nightclub called El Cuchillo (Spanish for "the knife"), but beyond saying she might need his protection, she won't tell him why.
At El Cuchillo, Scott and Georgia watch the feature act: the knife-throwing Miguel Mercado and his beautiful assistant/target Lina Royale. After Scott has an altercation with Mercado, he meets the club's owner, the equally repellent Maggie Remorse.
When he and Georgia leave the club, they're tailed by someone in another car who's not reluctant about shooting at them. Scott fires back and the shooter takes off. But Georgia has been fatally wounded. She's able to say "I killed...Narda" before she dies.
Determined to see the case through despite—and because—of the loss of his client, but with very little to go on, Scott talks to his friend Captain Phil Samson, head of L.A. Homicide. When he mentions Narda, Samson tells him a man by that name is the head of a religious cult called the Inner World Society of Truth Believers.
Scott returns to El Cuchillo and later tails Miguel Mercado, who practically leads him to the IW's door. It seems pretty clear the cult is somehow involved in the events that led to Georgia Martin's murder and the disappearance of her sister. Consequently, Scott attends a service, pretending to be a philanthropic sort and using the name Francis Joyne. Narda, he discovers, is very much alive.
As events unfold, Scott eventually finds and rescues Tracy, but there are still multiple mysteries to be solved—among them why Georgia was killed and how Narda, the IW, Miguel Mercado, Maggie Remorse, and twin gunmen Peter and Paul Seipel fit into the picture. Solve them Scott does, of course, and in a fairly-clued manner, with plenty of physical action in the process.
I first read Case of the Vanishing Beauty when I was in my teens—more than forty years ago—so apart from recalling that Scott's term of endearment for Lina was "pepper pot," I had no recollection of the story during my rereading. But when I was a teenager, I didn't read the early Scott novels in order of publication—gave no thought to doing so—I read them in whatever order my father or I purchased them or as the whim took me. I mention this only because, remembering certain things about the series even after all these years, Vanishing Beauty has some of the earmarks of an early series novel in the way it establishes scenes, descriptions, and authorial tendencies that will recur in later books. Among the latter is Prather's habit of having first-person narrator Scott tell the reader at some point during his cerebrations that there's something tickling at his unconscious which, if he could only pull it out, would completely elucidate and solve the case at hand. The technique serves the dual purpose of offering a challenge to the reader, letting him know that he now has all the information Scott has and can solve the mystery himself if he can put all the pieces together; and allowing the author to protract the action and suspense so he can build to a "sock finish."
There have been many Shell Scott novels with sock finishes. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is not one of them. Oh, it's satisfying as far as wrapping up the mystery is concerned, but it doesn't have the wild action and comedy Prather became famous for in later works. Nevertheless, it's a long way from the weakest in the series, and stands up as a fast-paced piece of entertainment.
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Barry Ergang © 2007
Currently the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages