Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, December 31, 2020


    The Convertible Hearse by William Campbell Gault (1957)

To the 21st century eye, Brock "The Rock" Callahan, former L.A. Rams guard turned private eye after a knee injury ruined his gridiron career, is a bit of a chauvinist (and, it seems, a bit of a homophobe).  It is 1957, remember, and people back then were not as woke.  He was watching television with his girlfriend Jan one night, when a commercial for used car king Loony Leo ("nobody, but nobody, will give you the deal old Loony Leo will") came on and Jan remarked that she needs a new car and why don't they go down to Loony Leo's lot the next day.  Loony Leo has a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado for sale for thirty-four hundred dollars; both the car and the price interest Jan.  Callahan tries to talk her out of it, telling her that that car never existed and that, when she ot down to the lot, she will be told it had already been sold.  Callahan then tried to explain that these used car lots were traps for naive and unwitting customers.  Callahan's condescending tone irritated Jan, so the next morning she went to Loony Leo's, with Callahan along to try to prevent her from making a mistake.  Of course, the El Dorado had "already been sold."

Loony Leo talks Jan into a 1956 Cadillac convertible for a trade-in on her Chevy and $125 a month for 36 months.  Callahan tried to explain to her that this would work out to an additional $2000 cost for her.  Jan gets her back up and decides to get the car anyway and doesn't Callahan think she is capable of buying a car on her own?  Callahan at least gets both Jan and Loony Leo to give her the car overnight so she can have an independent mechanic look at it.  The argument between Callahan and Jan continues into the night and she kicks him out of her apartment. 

The next day, Jan is still mad and Brock reaches out to a friend in the car business.  Brock gives him the engine number to check out.  The engine number belonged to car that had been completely demolished in a crash and then sold for parts.  Brock reports this to the police but before they could bring Loony Leo in for questioning he had vanished.  Dunbar's first wife, wealthy in her own right, asks Callahan to convince her ex-husband to give himself in to the police.  She told Callahan that he was probably hiding out in a place in the Malibu hills.  Callahan finds Leo there buy Leo has a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.

Things begin to get complicated.  There's an organized stolen car ring, a prominent former mayoral candidate, the sexy young second wife and her actor toyboy, the crooked mechanic with a missing finger, a sexy neighbor who attended some wild parties, a washed-up unlicensed P.I., and a pair of freelance hitmen named Reno and Vanyo.  And there are more bodies.  And Callahan sleeps with one of the witnesses and feels guilty for cheating on Jan, who is still not speaking to him.  It' a complicated mess but Callahan eventually figures it out.  ho knew used cars could be so deadly?

William Campbell Gault (1910-1985) wrote eleven novels about Brock Callahan, of which this was the third.  His other series private eye was Joe Puma, who debuted two years before Callahan in Shakedown under Gault's "Roney Scott" pseudonym (all following Puma books -- there were seven in all, maybe eight --were issued under Gault's name.  Following the 1963  Callahan novel Dead Hero, Gault successfully switched to writing juvenile sports novels exclusively; he had previously mixed his juvenile sports novels with his crime novels since 1952's juvenile best-seller Thunder Road.  (He wrote a total of thirty-four sports novels, as well as one story collection; sports also show up as a theme in a number of his mysteries.)  Gault came back to Callahan and the mystery field with 1982's The Bad Samaritan.  Callahan is older now, married, well off, and retired, but is called back to action to investigate the suspicious suicide of a friend.  In Gault's next novel, The Cana Diversion, Callahan investigates the murder of Joe Puma (the maybe eighth Puma novel I mentioned above).  Gault went on to write two more Callahan novels and two standalone mysteries.  Gault's later mysteries were more controlled than his earlier  work, but still maintained a good sense of place, detail, and character.  Gault completed eleven standalone mysteries in his career.  His very first, Don't Cry for Me, won an Edgar.  Anthony Boucher said the Gault was "a writer who sounds like nobody else, who has ideas of his own and his own way of writing them."

1 comment:

  1. I first read and admired Gault's sports fiction, as written for young readers in short novel form and for adults earlier in short story form, and almost as soon as that I first encountered his crime fiction in "Hitchcock" anthologies edited by Robert Arthur and Harold Q. Masur. Was surprised and gratified when reading Damon Knigt's IN SEARCH OF WONDER in 1979 to learn he had written sf as well, though Knight, noting he'd first read Gault's sf and sports fiction as an assistant editor at Popular Publications' pulp line in the '40s, found Gault's sf rather weak tea, but that he was Hell On Wheels in sports fiction; Knight loved everything about his sports fiction except the sports themselves. And while I've never been too much of a sports fan (and usually an indifferent athlete at best...rather good for my age at darts as a young day-camper and better than anyone in my Hawaiian high school at field hockey, which wasn't played there except in PE classes, largely because I was unique or almost so in having played a fair amount of street hockey in my New England childhood).

    I've been a fan of Gault thus for decades, and still have yet to read a Callahan novel. Though some Callahan stories from throughout his career. His later career in crime fiction was driven in large part by the drying up of the YA sports novel's a real pity he didn't crack adult sports fiction novel markets, aside from the sports-relevant CF he published, and that a collection of his adult sports fiction still awaits publication.

    Yeah, I suspect the condescension and chauvinism in Callahan stories never quite reaches the Norman Mailer level, but thanks for the heads up...and the review...HNY!