You know the drill. Seedy dives and femme fatales with legs up to here, broken noses and broken dreams, cheap thugs and cheaper hooch swigged out of an office bottle. A world of hurt and Chandler's “Simple Art of Murder” essay chanted like a mantra. The result? A lot of hard men tromping down those mean streets over the years, neither tarnished nor afraid, but doing a lot of huffing and puffing about it.
Richard S. Prather, who passed away February 2007, peacefully in his sleep at his home in Sedona, Arizona, saw those same mean streets.
But he also saw the banana peel on the sidewalk. And then he dispatched his Hollywood private eye Shell Scott, to take a little walk.
The rest, as they say, is history.
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Prather, like his hero, was a California boy, through and through. He was born in Santa Ana, California, in 1921. As a child he read voraciously, everything from Tom the Telephone Boy and The Swiss Family Robinson to Ivanhoe and Tarzan, and on to the “raggedy-edged pulp magazines” like Black Mask and Spicy Detective. He attended Riverside Junior College in 1941-42 but spent the rest of World War II in the Merchant Marine serving as a fireman, oiler, and engineer. In 1945, he married Tina Yager and worked for a few years as a civilian chief clerk of surplus property and salvage at the March Air Force Base near Riverside.
But he wanted to write.
In 1949, inspired by lenendary literary agent Scott Meredith's acceptance of his first novel for marketing, Prather quit his job and the young couple moved to Laguna Beach so Prather could write full-time. And he did -- literally.
As he recalled in one of his last interviews, he wrote “at least sixteen hours a day (often more) with time out only for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week for as long as it took to finish the “first draft” of a new novel.”
The young couple had less than $100 left in the bank when Meredith (who had warned Prather that the private eye market was bust) announced that Gold Medal had passed on his first novel, but they liked the second, featuring his Shell Scott character, enough to offer a four-book contract.
Case of the Vanishing Beauty became a huge seller. Over the next thirty-odd years, Prather put his name on close to fifty books, including thirty-nine more novels and several collections featuring his Tinseltown shamus.
In a 1965 book called 70 Years of Best-Sellers, there was a list of the 150 best-selling mysteries of the time and sixteen of them were by Prather.
Do the math. That's more than a tenth of the list, making Prather easily the best selling PI writer of the fifties -- with the obvious exception of that Hammer guy and with over 40 million copies of his books sold, one of the bestselling mystery writers of all time.
Prather was a prolific short story writer, as well, and Scott appeared regularly in numerous magazines and digests, including Manhunt, Cavalier, Thrilling Detective, Menace, Justice, Accused, Suspect, Murder!, Ed McBain's Mystery Book, Adam, Escapade, Man's World, Swank, For Men Only, Tiger, Caper and of course, Shell Scott Mystery Magazine, to which Prather had lent not just the name but also a fresh story for every issue.
He served twice as a member of the Board of Directors of the Mystery Writers of America and received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Private Eye Writers of America, in 1986. The next year the fortieth and final Shell Scott novel, Shellshock, was published.
* * * * *
As originally envisioned, Scott was pretty much a disciple of the post-war Spillane school, a tough-talking, mean streets-walking alpha male with a P.I. ticket and a gun. But it soon became apparent that Sheldon was a little different from the other boys.
The 6'-2” ex-Marine didn't so much go down those mean streets as strut. For one thing, Scott had remarkably little angst, and there were several other traits that must have raised a few private eyebrows back at the lodge.
Like, that hair. A bristly white-blonde buzz cut standing at permanent attention. A perpetual tan. Those bushy white eyebrows. And no dowdy fedora and trench coat either for this ex-Marine -- it never rains in Southern California, baby. Scott preferred Hawaiian shirts and snazzy teal blue suits. He preferred sporty wheels, too; Caddy convertibles in either canary yellow or robin's egg-blue.
Let's face it -- the guy was a doofus.
Oh sure, Scott did the job, and the bad guys got theirs, and when the going got tough, Scott was more than willing to rise to the occasion. But the usual sex-and-violence was lightened by a sort of goofy, relentless hedonism. Unlike so many others, he seemed to actually enjoy life, his main concern not so much vengeance or justice as keeping an eye open for the next good time. The next martini. The next babe. And, judging by the numbers, a lot of readers, both male and female, were more than willing to follow him on that quest.
And as the series progressed, the wisecracks and double-entendres multiplied and things just got wackier and wackier. In Way of a Wanton (1952) for example, Scott escapes the bad guys by swinging from tree to tree - au naturel -- through a jungle movie set. But it was with the eighth book, Strip for Murder (1955) that Prather and Scott finally, truly found their niche.
Strip for Murder is a full-out hoot, a screwball masterpiece, a loopy romp that features our man undercover at a nudist colony and culminates with a naked Scott landing a hot air balloon in downtown Los Angeles (let's see Lew Archer pull that one off!). From then on, almost anything went in the series.
The Wailing Frail (1956) kicks off with a woman answering the door Scott's just knocked on as “nude as a noodle.”
In Gat Heat (1967) he attacks a gang of blackmailers armed with a crossbow.
In The Trojan Hearse (1964) he rides a wrecking ball through the wall of a building while in hot pursuit.
In The Cock-Eyed Corpse (1964) he disguises himself as a prop on a movie set, which gave rise to one of the most memorable lines in crime fiction when a thug exclaims “You won't believe this but that rock just shot me in the ass!”
* * * * *
There were - as I mentioned earlier - lots of babes in the Shell Scott books, most of them skimpily clad and obliging. And well-endowed, which inevitably got Scott's attention. Despite all the nudge-nudge wink-wink, though, very little actual sex. It was all off-stage, Scott too much the gentleman to kiss and tell. Though he didn't mind looking and telling:
* * * * *
Prather also was responsible for arguably the best P.I. series-crossovers ever, when he collaborated with fellow P.I. writer Stephen Marlowe on Double Trouble. It features the Los Angeles-based Scott teaming up with Marlowe's Washington, DC-based PI Chet Drum to investigate a corrupt truckers' union.
Scott also served as the inspiration for another memorabler eye, G.G. Fickling's Honey West. In fact, the husband-and-wife team who wrote as G.G. Fickling were good friends with Prather and his wife. As Gloria Fickling recalls, 'One night Skip threw the idea at Richard, and asked him 'What do you think of doing a female private eye?' and Richard said, 'Nah, I don't think that would work.' "
But the Ficklings took a crack at it anyway, and Honey West went on to appear in a string of popular novel, offering up the sameblend of slightly risque, tongue-in-cheek humour. It's too bad Scott never teamed up with Honey -- it seemed a natural, since both detectives shared a propensity for screwball antics and inadvertent nudity.
* * * * *
And so it went. Prather once edited The Comfortable Coffin, an anthology of humorous short stories, for the MWA and in the intro heexplained that “This book has been designed...with the hope that while reading it you will smile, and chuckle, and-more than once-laugh out loud.”
It was a philosophy he applied to his own work as well, and he succeeded in buckets. If there's a Mount Rushmore of the private eyes, we all know who's already there. The Op, Spade, Marlowe and Lew Archer, with crews furiously jack hammering day and night to put Mike Hammer's puss up there too, while a slew of other po-faced contenders cool their heels, impatiently waiting for their own granite close-ups.
Shell Scott probably won't be there. He'll be off to the side, playing cards, having a drink or two with the likes of Bill Crane, Dan Turner, Max Latin and Stephanie Plum. They may never get their faces carved into stone -- at least on that mountain.
But what the hell. They'll be having fun.
COLLECTIONS EDITED BY PRATHER
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