Wednesday, January 13, 2016

SHELLSHOCK - Richard S. Prather

Shell Scott? Meh—today's chichi word that describes my reaction to the first Richard S. Prather mystery novel I read some serious decades past, when I was a serious fan of serious fictional private eyes with names like Spade, Archer, Marlowe, Hammer, and Continental Op. Scott, in my serious opinion then, was a fop.

And I never looked back at the silly, smartassy, white-crewcutted, embarrassing imitation of the “real” P.I.s a mature guy like me could dig. Mature. That was me. So much older then. Thanks be to God's grace and Bob Dylan I'm younger than that now, although I did cringe at the thought of revisiting the extensive Prather canon when crime author Patti Abbott suggested that contributors to her blog's weekly Friday's Forgotten Book feature might consider picking a Prather novel to write about. She dropped this hint just before Christmas. I dragged my feet and finally downloaded the cheapest Prather book on Kindle I could find: three short stories called Squeeze Play. It's named for one of the two Shell Scott stories sandwiching a non-Shell Scott story called The Spirit of the Convention, which I liked. The two Scott stories? Meh. Same reaction essentially I had before.

But as we moved closer and closer to the deadline—it's this Friday—I decided to give Shell Scott another chance. On Monday I downloaded Shellshock, his last published novel before he died on Valentine's Day nine years ago next month. Enjoyed it so much I am now a devoted fan. Scott is a hoot, and Shellshock was a masterful mix of parody with enough serious, twisty plot to keep me scrolling down the Kindle pages. Evidently I didn't appreciate parody when I was older. At the same time, I don't believe parody works in the short story form—at least not Prather's style. The limited length simply cannot accommodate the complex plotting and exaggerated attention to certain details that worked so well in the novel.

No way could he have taken the space to build up Kay Denver's lip movements to have me chortling the way I did in the novel: She pressed her full lips together, then pooched them out a little, pulled them back in again. They kept moving for a while, and I watched them, fascinated by the poochiness of those fantastic lips as they moved out a little almost joyously, then back a trifle in what struck me as clear disappointment, then out a little again, and in, as if maybe she was sucking on a mint that was half sweet and half sour, but surely all melted by now, which would have been true even of a cold-rolled-steel ball bearing, it seemed to me, were it to be nuzzled like that by those wild lips. Then she stopped moving. That is, her nuzzly lips stopped moving in and out in that fetching way they had, and she eyed me curiously.

Chortling? More like guffawing [if it's still called that]. Then there's the face of Spree, the daughter of the probable gangster who hasn't seen her since she was six, when he abandoned the family:  But all of that was only partially absorbed, and only with a kind of peripheral vision and attention, because what I was staring at was, without question, the most beautiful face I had ever seen. It was ravishing, heart-stopping, angelic. And that smile— gentle, bright, warm, more than warm, both soothing and blood-boiling, a blend of sweetness and sauciness and natural-as-breathing sexiness that was down-to-earth but at the same time something else, something more in sensual harmony with sunbeams and moonglow, space winds and starshine, than with earth and its lovely earthiness that a man sees every day.

The lips were full, softly curving over white, even teeth. Or almost even. A little, very little, crookedness on the right there, the incisor on the left just a trifle too short. Plus arcs of new-moon-shaped dimples at the corners of her mouth, like parentheses enclosing and caressing her smile.

And he hasn't gotten yet to the eyes. Parody, yes, but not patronizing. Sexist, surely, but as I see it, given the overall adoration he affords all women, all of whom, of course, are gorgeous—altho each new one seems gorgeouser than the last--inoffensive, albeit this from a heterosexual male reader. Not every female comes in for such exaltation, tho. Here [final quote] is Attorney Bentley X. Worthington explaining to Scott how his client, the probable gangster, described his ex-wife: Bentley explained that a little more than twenty years ago, shortly after his daughter Michelle’s sixth birthday, Romanelle had simply walked out, split, abandoned his daughter and his then wife. “'That cantankerous old horse,’ he called her,” Bentley went on. “Referring to his ex-wife, I mean.”

No kidding? Horse?”

Also poison-tongued termagant, viperine Amazon, whinnying virago, and razor-mouthed Xanthippe.”

Has a way with words, does he? If not women. Apparently it wasn’t a match made in heaven.”
Richard S. Prather

Guffawing, even whilst looking up “virago” and “Xanthippe” in the dictionary. But can you see why I might have found this irritating back when I was so much older, craving more “mature” tough guys? Oh yeah, just because Scott's a sap for the occasional “ravishing, heart-stopping angelic face” with “arcs of new-moon-shaped dimples at the corners of [the face's] mouth, like parentheses enclosing and caressing...and talks to the tropical fish he keeps in his office and apartment, doesn't mean he's not tough. He just doesn't talk tough, at least not constantly.

The thing is, I kinda like the guy. He makes me laugh. But then I am younger than before.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. Mathew, I have never read Richard S. Prather before and couldn't find the time to read and review one for Patti's Prather special. I have read excerpts from some of his books and I like his narrative style. It stands out in a way I can't quite explain.

  2. I expended some spiritual effort trying to rationalize taking a bye for this one, Prashant, but then I took the Christmas Friday off. Now I'm glad for the way things worked out. Prather's voice is so insouciant and full of mischief it's cheered me out of several funks thus far. You just know he had a ball writing these books, and that transmits to the reader--me, anyway. I strongly suspect you would like Shellshock. I plan on reading more, time permitting.

  3. As the guy who prompted Prather day, I'm glad you enjoyed SHELLSHOCK, even if you disliked the short stories you read. I'm curious, though, about the non-Scott story "The Spirit of the Convention," because I've never heard of it before. I"m guessing it originally appeared in MANHUNT or another of the magazines the Scott Meredith Literary Agency put out in the early 1950s.

    You write: "I don't believe parody works in the short story form—at least not in the mystery genre." If you ever come across a copy of a Fawcett Gold Medal volume called THE COMFORTABLE COFFIN, which happens to have been edited by Richard Prather, grab it and read Evan Hunter's "Kiss Me, Dudley." This hilarious Spillane spoof might change your mind about parodic mysteries.

    As for Shell Scott novels, do not miss STRIP FOR MURDER and DANCE WITH THE DEAD, two of the great ones.

    1. Thanks for the tips, Barry. I'm looking forward to reading more Prather. Your guess was on the money re: the stories in this collection, at least for the two Scott stories. Squeeze Play and Best Motive both were first published in Manhunt. The other one in Accused Detective Story Magazine, which I presume was also a Meredith publication.

      Troubled, as well, by that sentence of mine you cited, I later added, "--at least not Prather's style. The limited length simply cannot accommodate the complex plotting and exaggerated attention to certain details that worked so well in the novel."

      Thanks for prompting Prather Day. I might never otherwise have "discovered" Shell Scott.

  4. Early on here, you use the word "collector" in regards to your having Scott books, yet you downloaded the one you read? Me confused. Glad you enjoyed it, though. The earlier books are less guffaw-laden.

    1. Hi, Richard. I believe you're referring to the first download, which I may have described initially as a "collection" of short stories. I find myself constantly tweaking almost everything I write, after it's posted, trying to avoid ambiguities and outright stupid mistakes. If that's what happened, I undoubtedly realized that describing three stories under one cover as a "collection" was a tad misleading. It's entirely possible there is a Shell Scott in my book collection, which would put it among the hundreds I have yet to unpack from my last move (over two years ago). Among Kindle's other evils is its influence on my natural proclivity to indolence. But one of these days...