Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, October 15, 2020


 Death of a Flack by Henry Kane (1961)

Henry Kane (1918-1988), a lawyer turned mystery author, wrote over sixty books in his career, thirty of them novels about private eye Pete Chambers.  Kane's first books were published in hardcover but, beginning in 1954, his books were all paperback originals -- popular enough in their day but basically light-weight, easily forgettable stuff.  There is a possibility that the early Pete Chambers influenced television's Burke's Law and Peter Gunn (Henry Kane did write a paperback tie-in to the Peter Gunn series).  Kane tried to keep Chambers fresh for his time by using some pretty tortured verbiage.  Chambers began by describing himself as a "private Richard," eventually settling on "private dick" when it became obvious that the former was no longer cute or in vogue.  As late as 1961, in Death of a Flack, Kane peppered his book with tortured beatnik phrases and words, you dig?  Kane's unique style (a cross between Robert Leslie Bellam and Harry Stephen Keeler, perhaps) could be off-putting, as witness the very first few sentences in Death of a Flack, narrated in the first person by Chambers:

Oh ho, the private eyeball!  Poor, prosaic, wretched eyeball.  als, alack, woe and whoa!  Harder nd faster they chain him to the stone of stereotype -- more and more he cannot earn his daily bread without conforming to the curious standards so stringently set out for him.  Once upon a time he had to talk out of the side of stiff-lipped mouth in accents clipped and surly, and there was the bleak butu sheer necessity of constant sexual acrobatics with each and every lady who entered within earshot of the case, no matter how casually.  And by any chance the case was not a "caper," it was no damned case at all...[This goes on for a page and a half before transitioning into a similarly-phrased long exposition theater about the main characters in the book.]

The characters?  The main characters form a party at the ballet.  They include Chambers (along for the promise of a client-in-waiting), his drinking acquaintance Jefferson Clayton (a prominent stockbroker), Cobb Gilmore (a very wealthy jeweler with a ticky heart; think Tiffany's or Cartier), Henry Martell (the public relations flack soon to die in the middle of the book, and a very nasty piece of work), Gilmore's sullen but beautiful daughter Lori (presently a poetess trying to find herself and ga-ga over Martell),  Sherry Greco (Martell's voluptuous mistress, prone to sleeping with anyone to get her way), and Sophia Patri (also voluptuous, a belly-dance who owns the successful Club Athena).   Clayton is infatuated with with Lori Gilmore, a situation which has himself and Martell glaring saggers at each other.  Both Clayton and Cobb Gilmore are occasional clients of Chambers.

Nothing much happens then except for Chambers bedding Sophia Patri (in tortuous terms) and wanting to bed Sophia Patri (who teases him along).  In fact, nothing much happens for the first third of the book.  Another private investigator (sleazy but surprisingly ethical) is beaten to death by Henry Martell.  Chambers goes after Martell only to find him shot dead, with Lori Gilmore standing over the body with a gun in her hand.  Soon, the reader finds himself up to his (or her) neck with pornographic blackmail, false identities, stolen Nazi loot, payoffs, betrayals, and confusion.  And there's another murder -- actually two but one of them is offstage.

It is a hodge-podge that surprisingly comes together.  You have to overlook a lot of flaws to find the relatively fast-paced action.  As a series character, Pete Chambers ranks below others of his ilk, far below Michael Shayne, Scott Jordan, Chet Drum, Shell Scott, or even Honey West. 

 Recommended only if you have a couple of hours to kill and you are not the discriminating type.

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