Kill Him Twice
This week I've been feeling my mortality. First, David Bowie dies at age 69. Then, Alan Rickman dies at age 69. There's an old superstition that death comes in threes -- something I vigorously deny; death comes in ones. So when Celine Dion's husband passed away yesterday, people who had been happily reminding me that I was 69, now began saying, "There's the third," while ignoring the fact the Rene Angelil was several years older than Bowie or Rickman. Naytheless, when people your age (or close to your age) begin dying it's time to take stock. Which I did and I came to an inescapable conclusion: I'm getting older, perhaps not total geezerdom older, but older.
Which brings me to Richard S. Prather, creator of the popular Shell Scott detective stories of the Fifties and Sixties. Reading Kill Him Twice made me feel old.
Shell Scott, the tough, white-haired, horny L.A. private eye who likes tropical fish and thick, juicy steaks, was created to be a softer alternative to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Hammer had served in WWII and prowled the dark streets of New York City. Scott, appealing to a slightly younger generation, served in Korea and worked the sunny clime of Southern Californa. Hammer's humor wasgritty; Scott's was light, somewhat snaky, and often concentrated on various aspects of the female body. Both were products of their time but Scott, to my now old (but not quite geezer-like eyes) comes off as a sexist.
When I was in high school, I was Shell Scott's number one fanboy. I gobbled up every book by Prather I could find, whether they featured Shell Scott or not. I thrilled and laughed and vicariously ogled the beautiful women that Shell encountered while battling mobsters and other neer-do-wells. I was not alone. Many of my (male) classmates, most of whom seldom opened a book, were addicted to Shell Scott. Looking back to that time, I do not recall a single female who read these books. After high school I dropped the Shell Scott books for some reason. Prather had changed publishers, for one, moving from the glorious Gold Medal to the more sedate Pocket Books. I was in college, for another, studying and drinking and rather mild debauchery began to take precedence and brighter and shinier books were catching my attention. Also, Prather seemed to change with the times. He seemed to try too hard to be hip and current. The sexual revolution had caught him off guard. Breasts were now passe, so, in an error of epic proportions, Prather and Scott tried to breathe a ribald new life into fannies, Politics were now being skewered in a blunt and awkward way. The theme of one book was flouridation. Really? Long before Fonzie jumped the shark, Shell Scott did.
As for Kill Him Twice, girls and women (often the same thing) are called "tomatoes." I don't recall that off-putting term being used in the earlier, fast-paced books in the series. Perhaps it was and it floated past my teenaged sexist self unawares, but now, it sure does grate on this not-quite-a-geezer. The humor was forced and weak; again, something that I do not remember from the earlier books. Forced humor is sometimes acceptable. But weak? Never!
Prather would almost always open his books with a bang. From chapter one, Shell Scott would be in dire straights, most often with a barely clad or nothing clad zoftig beauty beside him. The reader would have no idea what is going on because the scene came from later in the book. Chapter two would start the story and we wouldn't catch up the hook until a quarter or a third of the way through the novel. Kill Him Twice's first chapter has little of what we usually expect from Prather. The hero is not in danger. The few beautiful women are in the background and not clinging to the hero as he faces down bad guys. Rather than being hooked by excitement, the reader is left with a ho-hum feeling.
Anyway, the plot is this. Scott receives a call from Gordon Waverly, publisher of a popular Hollywood scandal sheet, asking his to come right over. Scott does, and is given a retainer of a thousand dollars by Waverly's secretary. Waverly, however, is not there; he had gone rushing out of the office yelling, "Finley Pike! I'll fix that Finley Pike!" Pike is one of the magazine's vice-presidents and the writer of several of it's columns. Scott gets Pike's address and heads over there, only to find the place surrounded by police and ambulances. He also is almost hit by a car containing four thugs and hitmen for gangster Al Gant; the car reverses direction and races away when they spot the police. Pike, of course, is dead, battered by a figurine. Waverly is next to the body and is arrested.
Things get complicated when Scott goes to interview a woman who might shed some light on the case -- beautiful Black actress Natasha Antoinette, the star of a highly anticipated film. While on the set, Scott sees Natasha fall forty feet into a lake covered with fiery oil. Scott dive in to rescue her, but Natasha is dead, shot through her ample chest.
(Slight aside here: Prather (and Scott) handle the racial aspects of the book well. Kudos to the author.)
Turns out that Natasha was being blackmailed by someone who apparently got the information from Finley Pike's secret stash of information on Hollywood VIPs, leaving the possibility that a number of big-wags and almost big-wigs are also being blackmailed. It also turns out that Al Gant, the gangster, provided the funds through an intermediary for Waverly to start his magazine. The same intermediary owns the property where Natasha was killed. And one of Gant's thugs was killed in a shootout with the police at Pike's place shortly after Waverly was arrested. Did I mention that Gant has a very good reason to hate our white-haired hero?
Kill Him Twice is more of a disappointing book than a bad book. Prather was a talented writer and glimpses of the show here and there. Perhaps Prather was just feeling old and tired when he wrote this one. Or perhaps he just did not move with the times that well. Or perhaps it's me. I'm not the eager kid I once was. Although this is open to debate, I know more now than I did then and my critical senses have been sharpened. Or perhaps, as Danny Glover said in the Lethal Weapon movies, "I'm too old for this shit."
So, yeah, I'm becoming aware of my mortality.