Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Pattie Abbott here. Back in the middle of August Patrick Ohl and Barry Ergang teamed up to do a double take review of THE GREAT MERLINI: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective by Clayton Rawson. This proved immensely popular and generated some of the biggest hit counts ever seen on this blog outside of some opinion pieces on the future of publishing contributed by Dave Zeltserman. So, it seemed like a good idea to do it again today with Richard S. Prather’s Strip for Murder. Believing youth always goes first, Patrick is up first, and then Barry…….
You can tell right from the beginning that Richard S. Prather’s Strip for Murder is going to be something special. This is a mystery novel in the hardboiled vein, starring wisecracking private eye Shell Scott. (“Shell” being short for Sheldon.) Scott starts the narrative off with a bang, when he’s out of place at a fancy party-- "and," Shell Scot declares, "if this was the Smart Set, then I was glad I belonged to the Stupid Set".
Naturally, as a private eye, he isn’t getting paid to party—he’s been summoned there by a potential client, the rich heiress Mrs. Redstone, who has two young daughters who will inherit the estate one day. Naturally, the lady doesn’t plan on dying any day soon, but she’s worried about daughter Vera, who’s gotten herself involved with a scumbag, Andon Poupelle, who seems to be after her money. (Which is of course a real shock, since the term “sex bomb” may have been coined to describe Vera herself.) She’s already hired one detective, Paul Yates, to look into Poupelle’s background, but Yates has just turned up with a hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Yates had already delivered his report, where he gave Poupelle a clean bill of health, but he’s been known to be not-quite-honest when the money’s right.
So Shell is hired to find out what Poupelle’s game is and who was responsible for Yates’ murder. Just like that, he gets a call from Mrs. Redstone’s other daughter, Sydney (but who goes by her middle name, Laurel). She is in a panic because someone has apparently been trying to murder her, and she gets Shell Scott to come to a place known as Fairview. Shell comes down, only to discover that Fairview is a nudist camp!
Shell decides to forget being a private eye for once and instead becomes the public eye. But don’t get me wrong— he has no intention of resting on his Laurels. (I know, I know. Two bad puns in a row. Just bear with me.) He goes to work trying to find out just what is going on—do the attacks have anything to do with Yates’ death? Where does Poupelle fit in? What about a new casino in town with a medieval theme? And of course, he picks the perfect time to irritate some nasty thugs who decide they’d rather like to play basketball with Shell’s head.
The result is a brilliantly comic detective story in the hardboiled vein. Shell Scott can be just as hardboiled as the classic private eyes when he has to, but I never had a tough time believing that he could be good friends with police officers and other people in general. You get the feeling that he can be very fun to be around. He’s a successful central character, which is an essential ingredient for this kind of story to work.
But to be honest, characterization isn’t the book’s strong suit. What makes it stand out are the humorous elements. Of course, by today’s standards, these moments may seem not-quite-politically-correct at times (particularly when Shell delights at the natural beauty to be seen at Fairview). But to be honest, I didn’t really care too much. Prather isn't crude-- the nudity and shenanigans in this book are unbelievably tame by modern day standards, especially in comparison to abominations that call themselves "comedies", like Epic Movie. This was a very fun, enjoyable read. You may not enjoy it if you insist on strict political correctness or if you have no sense of humour, but I found it wonderful, with an extremely memorable finale that had me grinning all the way through. The humour really is brilliant-- even, surprisingly, the slapstick elements, which is not at all easy to pull off in writing. (It's not even easy to pull off in movies, for that matter.)
In terms of mystery, though, there’s nothing that will shock anyone. Many people are obvious scumbags, and the criminal’s identity is not particularly shocking. There are a few decent clues buried in the narrative, but you won’t get a masterpiece of fair-play plotting with a twist that will blow your mind. So don’t expect that, and you should be able to enjoy the book for what it is.
Strip for Murder is, to say the least, a very memorable book. It is purely enjoyable from start to finish, and I really enjoyed meeting Shell Scott. I suspect it won’t be our last encounter. It’s a wonderfully fun book with plenty of fast-paced action and many humorous moments, and as a result, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it.
Patrick Ohl ©2013
The nineteen-year-old Patrick Ohl continues to plot to take over the world when he isn’t writing reviews of books he reads on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime. In his spare time he conducts genetic experiments in his top-secret laboratory, hoping to create a creature as terrifying as the Giant Rat of Sumatra in a bid to take over the world. His hobbies include drinking tea and going outside to do a barbecue in -10°C weather.
STRIP FOR MURDER (1955) by Richard S. Prather
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
My father was an avid reader, sometimes known to knock off a couple of books in an evening, and a big fan of mystery and suspense stories. An avid reader myself, and a mystery fan ever since my mother bought me the first two Hardy Boys titles when I was around eight years old, by the time I was twelve I was devouring mystery novels and short stories by the likes of Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Mickey Spillane, among others. I often looked at my father's night table to see what he was reading or had finished, and it was through him that I was eventually introduced to Stephen Marlowe, Donald Hamilton, Ian Fleming, Nick Quarry, Neil MacNeil and Michael Avallone—among others. (If I had kept all of the paperback mystery, suspense and noir originals he bought that were published by Fawcett, Signet, Lion, Ace and other companies, I'd be sitting on a fortune in collectibles today.)
Another author my father introduced me to, who became a favorite, whose books I still own and cherish was someone many would consider a hack but who, in his own small way, was an artist. If you consider artistry to include solid storytelling ability and a flair for comedy, that is—and I do. I'm talking about Richard S. Prather and his series of novels and short story collections starring that perpetual thirty-year-old, the inimitable Shell Scott, private eye. And that brings us to the title under consideration here, Strip for Murder—one of the greatest in the series.
Scott is hired by the very wealthy Mrs. Redstone to investigate the background of a man named Andon Poupelle, who recently married her older daughter Vera and whom she suspects of being a suavely-veneered lowlife whose chief interest in Vera is motivated by avarice. Mrs. Redstone tells Scott she had originally hired a private detective named Paul Yates for the same purpose. Yates’s report on Poupelle was complimentary, but Mrs. Redstone has her doubts. She shows Scott a newspaper clipping, the story reporting that Yates was shot to death that morning on a road north of Los Angeles. Besides having him check on Poupelle, she wants him to determine whether Yates was killed because of what he did on her behalf.
Scott barely begins his investigation when he receives a call from Mrs. Redstone’s other daughter Laurel, asking him to meet her at a place in the country called Fairview. Someone, she insists, is trying to kill her. He, however, must pose as Don Scott, the new health director. Thoroughly confused, he sets out to meet her. On the way, he passes the road on which Paul Yates’s body was found. When he arrives at Fairview, he sees only a locked gate with a cowbell hanging from a rope nearby. He rings the bell and, a moment later, gets one of the great—but pleasant—shocks of his life.
I can’t recall if Scott described himself this way in one of the books or whether the publisher came up with the phrase for a cover blurb. Whichever the case, Scott is somewhere described as a “happy-go-lookie” private eye. After he rings the bell he hears the sound of someone running, and couldn‘t be happier or lookier:
“Then, with startling, almost overwhelming suddenness, a naked tomato swished out from the tree and loped around that curve in the path, straight toward me. Yeah, naked, stark staring nude.
“Well, you should have heard me. I let out one hell of a noise.”
The attractive young woman’s name is Peggy. After a brief conversation with Scott, who finally realizes Fairview is a nudist colony, she summons an equally attractive, equally naked Laurel Redstone. Once she determines that he can focus on matters of urgency more than on flesh, Laurel tells Scott about the two attempts on her life, one of which resulted in a serious injury to Fairview’s health director. A nationwide nudist convention is scheduled for a few days hence, so Scott must undertake the role of the new health director while trying to protect her and while fulfilling his obligations to her mother.
The novel moves at a rapid pace as Scott tangles with a variety of hoods, among them a dangerous young bald Chinese with the moniker Young Egg Foo, narrowly avoids being killed, tries to protect Laurel, and struggles to solve several murders—including that of Mrs. Redstone. Along the way he meets the sophisticated but dangerous Ed Norman, who owns a nightclub called Castle Norman, which is several miles from Fairview. The place is literally an Arthurian castle, complete with drawbridge and moat and hoods decked out in armor and bearing lances. There’s a kind of edgy civility to Scott’s first meeting with Norman that concludes with Norman advising him not to return.
Richard S. Prather had a fondness for the wacky major action scene when the storyline lent itself to one. Strip for Murder’s storyline not only lends itself, it gives the reader two such scenes. Earlier I alluded to Prather’s comic skills. Slapstick is easy enough to portray on the screen—remember the Three Stooges—but extremely difficult to convey in print. Few writers can pull it off. Prather was a master of written slapstick.
Shell Scott needs to get back into Castle Norman. There’s only one way to do so: as a knight in armor, complete with horse and lance. (Might this be an oblique allusion to the romantic concept [a la Raymond Chandler] of the private detective as a modern knight errant?) Of course, once he’s in he has to get back out, which isn’t easy after he’s been identified.
And then there’s the chapter readers will remember above all others, not only in this novel but in other Scott adventures. (I first read the book more than forty years ago and have never forgotten this section. In fact, in my junior year of high school, I read the section in a public speaking class as part of an assignment, to the merriment of my classmates.) It’s the day of the nudist convention and Scott resumes his imposture as the health director when a squad of hoods invade and start shooting at him. He can’t shoot back; he’s unclothed and unarmed. He has only one choice: flee. I won’t mention how he effects an escape lest I ruin the surprise and dilute the laughter. Suffice it to say that readers who don’t laugh or, at the very least, grin through this chapter shouldn’t be reading comic novels.
Strip for Murder is unabashedly sexist—keep in mind when it was written and that its audience was primarily male—so readers for whom modern “political correctness” is a shibboleth will probably be turned off. Yes, there are a couple of descriptions of unclad females, but I hasten to add they‘re tame by modern standards and not necessarily different from that which you can find in a lot of mainstream fiction. Yes, there’s a scene in which Scott makes love to Laurel, but it is not at all graphic. Prather kept couplings discreet.
Strip for Murder is, first and foremost, a galloping hardboiled detective story leavened with humor, not a leering, slobbery excuse for sexual shenanigans every few pages. If you’re not easily offended, you’ll have a great time reading a classic of its kind.
Barry Ergang © 2013
Among other works, Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang's own impossible crime novelette, "The Play of Light and Shadow," is available at Amazon and Smashwords. Barry is selling books from his extensive personal collection at http://www.barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/