The P.I. Poll

 The P.I. Poll  July/August 1998

The Cheese Stands Alone

It's summertime and the living is cheesy...

Bill Pronzini, in his classic Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek, called them "Alternative Classics," I just call them "Cheese," but what we're both talking about is those guilty little P.I. pleasures, those little paperback treats we gobble up even though we know they're probably bad for us,
or at least lacking in literary nutrition; those books so bad they're good.

In fact, July is Cheese Month around here. I put away the "good" books, grab a few cold ones, hit the hammock in the backyard, shove a tape in the machine, and plow through some so-bad-they're-good no brain, no-gain Cheese Classics. Some of my personal favourites include the Honey West series, the Rocky Steele books, some of the later Mike Shaynes, and a whole bunch of one-shot wonders, mostly old bargain bin paperbacks with some babe and a gun the main features of the cover art.

In the summer of 1998, I asked readers to name their own favourites. Here are some of the responses...

(Unfortunately, the automatic guestbook I set up to handle your answers, 1-2-3 Webtools, crashed and burned, taking most of the comments with it.

Sorry for the inconvenience. I'm as pissed off as anyone...this was a fun topic. Maybe we'll do it again sometime...


Actually, I managed to salvage some of the comments, but not, alas, the names of the folks who wrote them. If you're here, uncredited, please let me know, and I'll try to rectify it (which doesn't mean what you may think it does).


From Noah Stewart in Vancouver, BC
My favorite cheesy PI treat is: This summer: re-reading mid-period Perry Mason, the finest work in this great series, in the oldest paperbacks I can get my hands on. The Case of the Empty Tin and The Case of the Crooked Candle still stand up after all these years. Gardner's Terry Clane series, what little there is of it, is also delightfully cheesy, including his Disney-esque take on Chinese philosophy. I'm also re-re-re-re-reading the complete Rex Stout, but that's not cheese -- it's a lesson in how to write. On videotape -- the immortal Banacek, Polish cheeseball extraordinaire. Disgracefully sexist beast that he is, he still manages to solve brain-cracking puzzle stories on slender evidence. Great plots -- horrible dialogue -- the occasional spectacular woman in a bikini -- and George Peppard's ridiculous haircut. I screen these for myself once every coupleof years. So cheesy, it's wonderful.

From M.K. Smith
Clay Harvey's 2nd-in-a-series, Whisper of Black, is as cheesy as a Texas nacho. While the main character ain't really a p.i., the writing and characterizations fullfill any official p.i. criteria.

From Paul Bergin in Sarasota, FL
Blue Murder
, by Robert Leslie Bellem. An unintentionally (?) hilarious PI novel from the literary Titan who gave us Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (and several early episodes of the Perry Mason TV series). The book was reissued by Dennis McMillan Publications awhile back, but I saw it remaindered at last year's Bouchercon, which means it may be difficult to find by now. It's well worth looking for, though.

From Mystery Caller #8
Miss Marple
? Hercule Poirot? Someone set the snooze alarm! I thought this was supposed to be P.I. Cheese! My favorite is Andrew Vachss's Burke...sure, he thinks it's great writing, but I like the pulpy, comic book feel to it!

From Mystery Caller #7
I guess I consider all of the "brain candy" reads kind of "cheesy"...(the ones you can read in a couple of hours) but my favorite summer reads are the old characters revisited...Travis McGee (John D. MacDonald) never lets me down, living on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and "doing favors for friends"...Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple...Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr is "the burglar who..."...Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin....all fun to spend a summer afternoon with...

From Mystery Caller #6
I nominate Joe Lansdale's Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Although I believe cheesy is too strong a word, they're certainly high on the sheer fun chart. Deliciously politically incorrect, too!

From Mystery Caller #5
You want cheesy? Grab any of the half dozen or so titles by John B. West. His private eye was Rocky Steele, and worse tripe was never published. For sheer ludicrous plotting, miserable dialogue and classic bad writing, they can't be topped (or bottomed). What makes it more interesting is that the author was an MD, successful business man, and black.

From Mystery Caller #4
I don't consider Mike Shayne or Shell Scott "cheesy" in the Bill Pronzini "Gun In Cheek" sense. I read them because I think they're good, within the limits of the story they're trying to tell. They are PI-doms "entertainers" as opposed to the "serious novelists" (ie: Hammett, Chandler, etc.). Of course, the "serious novelists" have to be entertaining, and the "entertainers" exhibit some considerable novelistic skills every now and then. But my point is that a Halliday or a Prather shouldn't be classed as "cheesy" just because their ambitions are not as high as a Hammett or a Chandler. To me "cheesy" is a euphemism for "plain bad," and I don't read anybody I consider plain bad. Well, almost nobody. There's a guy named Mike Avallone, the self-proclaimed "fastest typewriter in the West," and the creator of the long-running PI named Ed Noon. His plots are often ludicrous, his syntax has to be seen to be believed, and his dialogue is even more unbelievable than his syntax. And yet he has a marvelous story-telling ability, and a driving sense of pace that makes his Ed Noon books (and almost anything else he writes) hard to put down. If I have a "cheesy guilty pleasure," Michael Avallone is it.

From Dick Awl in Trenton
I don't know if these are cheesy enough, but my grandmother cleaned up her attic, and gave me a bunch of my grand-dad's old Mike Shayne books. Some of 'em are pretty good, and some aren't, but they're sure fun. And some of the old Dell ones have maps on the back, which is fun. I'm bringing a bunch on my vacation.

From Mystery Caller #2
Cheesy? Oh, I would hate to think I were reading anything cheesy! But great beach or back deck reading for me this summer includes the Archy McNally books by Lawrence sanders. A friend recently gifted me with these and what fun! While I am taking my summer leisure I can read Palm Beach playboy "Arch" taking his leisurely time to run investigations for his lawyer dad. Oh, the fine dining and drinking and easy women! Another recent find for me is Lupe Solano, the Miami P.I. of Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. I detect a pattern in my summer scheme? Florida! Love those Laurence Shames capers as well, but alas, not private eyes and hence I suppose I oughtn't to be mentioning them.

From Christopher Mills
Well, I recently managed to track down four of the five books in the Hook series by Brad Latham (I'm assuming it's a pen name since these paperback originals were a part of Warner's Men of Action Books line). I had the first one, and read it a few years ago-now I've read it again, and am starting on the second. Good, dirty fun, with graphic sex, plentiful gunplay, and more car chases than an episode of Rockford. The period setting's nice, and Bill "The Hook" Lockwood is a refreshingly upper-class P.I.--he wears Brooks Brothers suits, eats and drinks well, and lives in a luxury hotel suite...but he's not afraid to get his hands dirty, shoot a few gangsters (or get beaten to a pulp, for that matter) in the course of his investigations. Pure cheese....but tasty. Anyone got a spare copy of five?

From Rick Robinson in California
I, too, am reading Richard Prather--as a matter of fact the Wizardly Webmaster of this site just sent me a couple and so did Gary Niebuhr. As a beer commercial said, or should have,light but satisfying. That's not all. I'm planning on reading three books by Michael Stone this summer: The Low End of Nowhere, A Long Reach and Token of Remorse. Wait! There's more! I just got The Road To Perdition by Max Allan Collins, and I should have it read by the end of the weekend. Okay, it's a graphic novel, but so what? This is comics grown up and tailor-made for mystery fans: great writing and great artwork. Do yourself a favor and buy this, it's GOOD! Lastly, my summer list includes Ross Thomas' The Backup Men and Charles Willeford's The Shark-Infested Custard. Now all I need is the chaise lounge and a pitcher of lemonade.

From Kevin Burton Smith in Montreal
Well, I'll kick things off (again! #$%^& Freebie Guestbook!). My favorite cheesy treat has to be Richard Prather's Shell Scott series. Screwball Hollywood swingin' dick running rampant through Tinseltown dodging bullets, scoring babes. Utterly hilarious, utterly disposable. So shoot me!

Oh, and by the way,
the results of the June 1998 P.I. Poll, which asked readers to vote for
No Business For a Lady: Female Eyes are posted here.

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