Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Viewer Discretion is Advised

You can tell right from the beginning that Richard S. Prather’s Strip for Murder is going to be something special. This is a mystery novel in the hardboiled vein, starring wisecracking private eye Shell Scott. (“Shell” being short for Sheldon.) Scott starts the narrative off with a bang, when he’s out of place at a fancy party-- "and," Shell Scot declares, "if this was the Smart Set, then I was glad I belonged to the Stupid Set".

Naturally, as a private eye, he isn’t getting paid to party—he’s been summoned there by a potential client, the rich heiress Mrs. Redstone, who has two young daughters who will inherit the estate one day. Naturally, the lady doesn’t plan on dying any day soon, but she’s worried about daughter Vera, who’s gotten herself involved with a scumbag, Andon Poupelle, who seems to be after her money. (Which is of course a real shock, since the term “sex bomb” may have been coined to describe Vera herself.) She’s already hired one detective, Paul Yates, to look into Poupelle’s background, but Yates has just turned up with a hole in his chest where his heart used to be. Yates had already delivered his report, where he gave Poupelle a clean bill of health, but he’s been known to be not-quite-honest when the money’s right.

So Shell is hired to find out what Poupelle’s game is and who was responsible for Yates’ murder. Just like that, he gets a call from Mrs. Redstone’s other daughter, Sydney (but who goes by her middle name, Laurel). She is in a panic because someone has apparently been trying to murder her, and she gets Shell Scott to come to a place known as Fairview. Shell comes down, only to discover that Fairview is a nudist camp!

Shell decides to forget being a private eye for once and instead becomes the public eye. But don’t get me wrong— he has no intention of resting on his Laurels. (I know, I know. Two bad puns in a row. Just bear with me.) He goes to work trying to find out just what is going on—do the attacks have anything to do with Yates’ death? Where does Poupelle fit in? What about a new casino in town with a medieval theme? And of course, he picks the perfect time to irritate some nasty thugs who decide they’d rather like to play basketball with Shell’s head.

The result is a brilliantly comic detective story in the hardboiled vein. Shell Scott can be just as hardboiled as the classic private eyes when he has to, but I never had a tough time believing that he could be good friends with police officers and other people in general. You get the feeling that he can be very fun to be around. He’s a successful central character, which is an essential ingredient for this kind of story to work.

But to be honest, characterization isn’t the book’s strong suit. What makes it stand out are the humorous elements. Of course, by today’s standards, these moments may seem not-quite-politically-correct at times (particularly when Shell delights at the natural beauty to be seen at Fairview). But to be honest, I didn’t really care too much. Prather isn't crude-- the nudity and shenanigans in this book are unbelievably tame by modern day standards, especially in comparison to abominations that call themselves "comedies", like Epic Movie. This was a very fun, enjoyable read. You may not enjoy it if you insist on strict political correctness or if you have no sense of humour, but I found it wonderful, with an extremely memorable finale that had me grinning all the way through. The humour really is brilliant-- even, surprisingly, the slapstick elements, which is not at all easy to pull off in writing. (It's not even easy to pull off in movies, for that matter.)

In terms of mystery, though, there’s nothing that will shock anyone. Many people are obvious scumbags, and the criminal’s identity is not particularly shocking. There are a few decent clues buried in the narrative, but you won’t get a masterpiece of fair-play plotting with a twist that will blow your mind. So don’t expect that, and you should be able to enjoy the book for what it is.

Strip for Murder is, to say the least, a very memorable book. It is purely enjoyable from start to finish, and I really enjoyed meeting Shell Scott. I suspect it won’t be our last encounter. It’s a wonderfully fun book with plenty of fast-paced action and many humorous moments, and as a result, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it.

12 comments:

  1. This is the sort of author I bet the mysteryfile gang is really familiar with. Love that top book illustration--the detective looks like Perry Como (before your time, I know!).

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Patrick. It's always been one of my favorite Shell Scott mysteries. Be sure to put DANCE WITH THE DEAD on your must-read list as well.

    There is, by the way, a new Shell Scott mystery: THE DEATH GODS, which was published posthumously. I bought a copy recently but haven't yet read it. I first learned about it a few years ago when I read this interview with Richard S. Prather: http://user.dtcc.edu/~dean/interview.html

    I'm certain the Mystery*File gang is familiar with Prather, since a number of them collect Fawcett Gold Medal titles and because at one time, Prather titles could be found anywhere books were sold.

    As for Scott looking like Perry Como--not hardly. You can find the standard portrait here: http://user.dtcc.edu/~dean/shellbio.html

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  3. This is an interesting and enticing review, but I think I'll let Shell Scott languish a little bit longer on the list of detectives I have yet to make my acquaintance with. I can't possible stuff any more names at the very top of that list.

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  4. @TomCat
    Oh, I think you'd enjoy it. Prather is not being "realistic" like many others in the hardboiled school. He's just telling a good story, which is what I like my mysteries to do.

    @Curt
    I did a quick Google search and I can see the resemblance with the book cover, but the descriptions in the book make me picture someone rather different. The portrait Barry links to is really darn good.

    @Barry
    Thanks for commenting, and of course, thanks for the recommendation! I highly enjoyed it!

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  5. Shell Scott is the best! (Forgive the teen-age enthusiasm.) Prather inspired so many modern crime writers, among the most recent is Christa Faust. I reviewed the Shell Scott Voodoo book earlier this year (Dead Man's Walk) A great book and an excellent example of how strange and pulp-like the books get later in the series. Strip for Murder is very early in the series - third, I think?

    I have a copy of THE DEATH GODS and was hoping to be one of the first reviewers, but it's mammoth for a Shell Scott book -- over 400 pages. It gets more serious that usual when it veers away from the lighthearted private eye adventures and becomes an indictment against phoney doctors and bad science in health research.

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  6. I don't think that I've posted anything about either Richard Prather or Shell Scott on Mystery*File in a while, but yes, they're both top notch in my book.

    I'm happy to see you enjoyed STRIP FOR MURDER, Patrick. I don't think Prather's unique blend of comic humor with the hard-boiled mystery is much in fashion today. Either that, or today's readership think that if it was published over ten years ago, it's dated already.

    I bought and read the Shell Scott books when they were first published. They were immensely popular back then, and personally, they were in my own Golden Age of mystery reading!

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  7. @John
    Your enthusiasm is not only forgiven, it's entirely understood! I absolutely love Shell Scott's character, and based on this book alone, I'd be more than willing to give "The Death Gods" a go. In fact, I might use it as a substitute for my "How Like an Angel" category for the 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. (If you would like to tackle it first, though, I can wait.)

    @Steve
    It's kind of scary how quickly time flashes by-- ten years isn't that much time, but with the rise of the Internet, news from 10 years ago is practically ancient history. I thought this book was excellent and will definitely take a look at more Prather.

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  8. Prather also deserves credit for being a pioneer in eBook releases. The Shell Scott series have been available as reasonably-priced eBooks for many years now.

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  9. John, STRIP FOR MURDER (1955) is the eleventh book in the series--see http://user.dtcc.edu/~dean/booktable.html (LIE DOWN, KILLER and DAGGER OF FLESH and THE PEDDLER are not Shell Scott titles.)

    Should anyone be interested, I've reviewed a few of Prather's Shell Scott novels, which you can find here (with cover art in two cases):

    http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7930187/Case%20of%20the%20Vanishing%20Beauty

    http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931314/Pattern%20for%20Panic

    http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/38392593/Strip%20for%20Murder

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  10. Thanks, Barry, for the correction. I couldn't find my Prather chronology/checklist and I wasn't in the mood to check Hubin and go through that very long list trying to figure out the order. Should've known there'd be something about the series on the internet. A true "Duh" moment.

    BTW - I've read all your FFB reviews on Shell Scott which I can see are the same as those you posted at the wiki.

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  11. I just realised how embarassingly silly I've been in my last comment-- of course, what I *meant* to say was that I might use it in conjunction with the "How Like an Angel" theme. It's an Angels vs. Demons year coming up, I suppose...

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  12. Hi
    This is Linda Pendleton, (Pendleton Artists) and I published Richard S. Prather's last Shell Scott novel, The Death Gods this month. It is available in print at Amazon, at Kindle, Smashwords and soon in other ebook formats.

    You can find the Bibliography on Prather here:

    http://www.donpendleton.com/prather_bibliography.htm

    and I recently did a blog:
    61 Years...
    http://mydropsofink.blogspot.com/
    and
    http://pratherthedeathgods.blogspot.com/

    I do hope Prather's long-time Shell Scott fans will enjoy The Death Gods, as well as new readers.

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