PATTERN FOR PANIC (Fawcett, 1954) by Richard S. Prather
reviewed by Barry Ergang
Prather's thirteenth novel, and the twelfth in the Shell Scott series, Pattern for Panic was first published in 1954 and "specially revised by the author" in 1961. The latter is the version I just reread for the first time in roughly forty years—a nostalgic revisit to the work of a writer I've long enjoyed, and who passed away on February 16, 2007.
L.A. private eye Shell Scott is summoned to Mexico by his old friend Amador Montalba with the promise of a high-paying job of considerable urgency. The much younger, somewhat round-heeled wife of prominent General Lopez is being blackmailed, the blackmailer having obtained an incriminating film of one of her trysts he's threatened to make known to her husband. General Lopez is well-known in the U.S. as well as Mexico for his anti-Communist efforts.
Not long after Scott arrives, he meets Dr. Jerrold Buffington, his lovely daughter Susan (better known as Buff), and their beautiful friend Monique Durand. Dr. Buffington is in Mexico to address a meeting of the International Legion for Peace.
Buffington is a research scientist seeking an anti-polio vaccine more effective than Salk's, his wife having died from the disease despite three injections of the Salk formula. One of his experiments resulted in a deadly serum which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could become a potent biochemical weapon. A pacifist, Buffington destroyed the serum and all of his notes pertaining to it to prevent anyone from obtaining it.
Scott's pleasant evening of drinks and dinner with Buffington and the ladies is abruptly curtailed when a man unknown to any of them offers to buy Buff a drink. She declines, he persists, and Scott tells him to go away. This doesn't sit well with the man, and he invites Scott outside to settle it. The two get into a brawl, and suddenly the police appear, pummel Scott, and drag him off to jail—but not before he knocks out the front teeth of Captain of Police Emilio who, as you might imagine, is a man who holds a grudge.
Amador, however, prevails on Señora Lopez to bail out Scott. This she does, and Scott soon after begins his quest to recover the incriminating film before General Lopez has a chance to see it. This requires him to gain entry to a fancy whorehouse where the screening will take place, and to snatch the film off the projector in the presence of the general and his associates without being identified.
The mission accomplished, Scott delivers the film to Señora Lopez. He's concerned about the welfare of Dr. Buffington, his daughter, and Monique, but has trouble resisting the allure of the seductive señora. His resistance returns tenfold when General Lopez comes home unexpectedly early.
Matters quickly become more complicated when Scott can't locate either Dr. Buffington or his daughter, and it soon becomes obvious they've been kidnapped by Communists led by the mysterious, rather fabled Culebra. His motive is equally obvious. Dr. Buffington may have destroyed the notes for the unintentional biochemical weapon, but he knows how to reproduce it.
Scott sets out to save them, encountering a multiplicity of surprises, obstacles, and a dose of the nightmare chemical. Along the way, he realizes the situation concerning General Lopez and the one concerning the Buffingtons have converged.
A thriller rather than a whodunit—though Prather has written more than a few of the latter—Pattern for Panic reflects the prevalent anti-Communist attitude common to many a mystery writer of the 1950s (think Mickey Spillane in One Lonely Night). The Communist villains were portrayed as not only cunning, crafty, and conspiratorial, but also as slavering sadists. The pacifistic Dr. Buffington is portrayed as idealistically naïve. Scott, unsurprisingly, is virulent in his hatred for Communism.
It's not a vintage Shell Scott novel on the order of, say, Strip for Murder or Dance With the Dead, but Pattern for Panic contains a few moments of the racy, sometimes wacky, humor the series is famous for, along with a rapid-fire pace and plenty of action. I had completely forgotten the storyline, so my nostalgic visit was akin to reading the book for the first time. Taken on its own terms, it was an entertaining (re)read.
For more on the Golden Age of Detection as well as this novel which features a rather interesting cover, be sure to follow the link http://tinyurl.com/ywch6d
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