The first Friday of August is bringing fires out west, record heat here in Texas, and another FFB review from Barry Ergang. Stay safe and check out Barry’s review as well as the FFB list over at Patti’s blog.
THE DEATH GODS (2011) by Richard S. Prather
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
I’ve been a fan of Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott detective series since I was in my early teens—which means roughly 55 years ago as of this writing. The Sure Thing was published in 1975, and that seemed to be the end of the series. But 1986 and 1987 brought us, respectively, The Amber Effect and Shellshock—and then nothing more. Those seemed to be the last two Shell Scott capers.
Sometime in the early 2000s, I discovered a website devoted to Prather and his work. No longer accessible, it included a lengthy interview of Prather conducted a couple of months prior to his death by Linda Pendleton, wife of the late Don Pendleton, who was best known for his series about one Mack Bolan, a.k.a. The Executioner. The interview mentioned an unpublished Shell Scott manuscript of considerable length, but with no indication as to whether it was ready for publication, let alone whether it even had a prospective publisher. I could only hope it would eventually appear. It was published posthumously (Prather died in 2007), and I eagerly snagged a copy of the print edition to complete my collection.
In my review of Double in Trouble, which Prather co-authored with Stephen Marlowe, I quoted a chapter opening in which Scott says, “My joyously anticipatory emotion was all shot to hell.” That pretty much sums up my take, alas, on The Death Gods, the premise of which is pretty basic. Scott is hired by Dr. Henry Hernandez, an M.D. who fervently believes in the homeopathic ( as opposed to the allopathic) approach to medicine, to find out who tried to kill him; to find out what happened to his dog Rusty, who chased the van that almost ran down his parent (I hate the term “pet owner”); and to locate the recently-vanished Guenther and Helga Vunger, patients the doctor cured of the deadly disease IFAI (pronounced “eye-fie”) that threatens to wipe out everyone on the planet.
IFAI stands for “Invariably Fatal Acquired Illness,” neither a cure nor preventative vaccine for which has yet been developed, but which is being worked on by the esteemed Dr. William Wintersong at the Omega Medical Research Institute, owned by the well-connected billionaire Hobart Belking of Belking-Gray Pharmaceuticals, Inc. In the course of his investigation, Scott must confront both of them. It’s not a spoiler to state that, unlike many another Shell Scott story, this isn’t a whodunit, that the bad guys are obvious early on—and that I’ve just named them. As the story progresses, situations become messy enough that Scott could eventually find himself in prison if the bad guys or their henchmen don’t kill him first. He must find a way to convince the authorities that these prominent and respected men are criminals, and that he and Hernandez are innocent.
In a prefatory note, Linda Pendleton, who is credited as editor and publisher, writes of The Death Gods and Richard S. Prather: “I believe it will be considered his ‘masterpiece,’ in the clever way he used his character, Shell Scott, to bring forth his own beliefs and deep passion about a subject he held dear to his heart for many, many years.”
I believe Ms. Pendleton may be the only reader who will think so. Most others are likely to feel as I do, that she’s done a terrible disservice to Prather’s memory and reputation with this book in its present form.
The so-called “editing” is atrocious. The book is rife with grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors (note the unnecessary comma after “masterpiece,” as well as the quotation marks around it, in the Pendleton quote above). It contains some sentences that make no sense whatsoever, suggesting that Pendleton published the text of a manuscript Prather himself never had a chance to proofread and revise, and which she made no effort to correct herself. It contains sentences that are missing key words.
Then there’s the glaring error concerning a character’s name. In the first chapter, the reader meets the novel’s principal female character, a writer Scott says is named Dane Zanie. But the next time she appears, and from that point on, her name is Dane Smith.
At 411 pages (it starts on page 9, ends on 420), The Death Gods is too long. The inordinate length is attributable in large part to long and often repetitive harangues against the medical establishment by Dr. Hernandez. They go on for several chapters. Whether they agree or disagree, wholly or partly, with his positions on allopathic medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, animal research, vaccinations, and pollution, I can easily imagine some readers mentally shouting, “All right already! I get it! Can we get back to the action now?” Others will simply put the book down and never pick it up again. There are also some descriptions of people and locations throughout that suffer from needless repetition.
If the book were cut to about half its length, with just enough of Dr. Hernandez’s polemic included to make his—and the author’s—points without bludgeoning readers, it would work as a thriller. In its present form, and especially at its present length, I can only recommend it to Prather completists possessed of a great deal of patience.
Sensitive readers need to be aware that the story contains some extremely grisly moments. Those offended by profanity should be aware that the story contains some, though it’s nowhere near as prevalent as in many other modern mystery novels.
© 2015 Barry Ergang