Friday, July 10, 2009

Forgotten Books: Armed ... Dangerous ... - Brett Halliday (Robert Terrall)

A while back I had an email conversation with an author friend of mine about the relative merits of Robert Terrall’s Mike Shayne novels. When I was first reading the Shayne novels back in the Sixties and early Seventies, I didn’t know that Davis Dresser, the original Brett Halliday, had had so many ghost-writers contributing to the series. But I did know that as the Sixties went on, I began to like the novels less, and by the Seventies, I didn’t care for them at all. Later, of course, I found out that Robert Terrall was the author of the books I didn’t like.

However, a number of people whose opinions I respect do like Terrall’s Shayne novels, and since I hadn’t read one in close to forty years, I thought I ought to do so and see if my opinion of them has changed since then.

Well . . . it has and it hasn’t.

ARMED . . . DANGEROUS . . . , from 1966, is one of the books I never got around to reading back then. It’s got a nice McGinnis cover, at least on the first edition, and although Mike Shayne is nowhere to be seen, the opening section certainly has plenty of action and intrigue to recommend it. Early on, there’s a beautiful French blonde, a jewel heist, the brutal shooting of an off-duty cop, and a kidnapping. But there’s a twist coming, and I’ll admit, Terrall slipped it right past me for a good while, although I caught it before it was revealed. From that point on, there are a lot more twists, as the story takes on a much larger scale and becomes part caper novel/part thriller with international implications. It’s very well written, a little dated in some respects today but not all that much, and the pace is spectacular, leaving the reader whipping through the pages to see what’s going to happen. There’s even a bit of humor as Terrall name-checks another of his pseudonyms. This is a very entertaining novel. The problem is, it’s barely a Mike Shayne novel.

Oh, a character named Shayne plays a huge part in it, make no mistake about that, but he’s so lacking in personality that the protagonist could be almost anybody. There’s no sense that this is the same character who inhabits all the books in the series actually written by Davis Dresser. Terrall may have been a better wordsmith than Dresser was, I won’t argue that point, but Dresser’s Shayne is a fascinating character, no more honest than he has to be but with a decent core, and maybe one of the most intelligent characters in mystery fiction, who is always two steps ahead of the other people in the books and three steps ahead of the reader. I think most of the other authors who ghosted full-length Shayne novels were able to capture this to a certain extent, and Terrall did, too, at first, but as his stint on the series went on, I believe he lost his handle on the character. However, I could be wrong about this, and I plan to read more of his books to see what I think.

In the meantime, should you read ARMED . . . DANGEROUS . . .? Absolutely. It’s well-written and a lot of fun. If it had featured anybody but Mike Shayne, I’d give it an unqualified recommendation. But if you’ve never read a Shayne novel before, this is definitely not the place to start.

9 comments:

Cullen Gallagher said...

I've never read a Shayne before, but just got "Bodies Are Where You Find Them" in the mail - is that a good place to start?

Jake Murdock said...

As the years go by, the Shayne novels are becoming more forgotten. I always had a fondness for "Blood on the Black Market." Halliday wrote off Shayne's wife (dead)in that one.

Cullen: as for "Bodies Are Where You Find Them," Its one of the early ones, which makes it one of the better Shayne novels. If fact the crime plot line for the 2005 film "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is loosely based on that novel. And its a very good movie.

Murdock

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Great review, James. Enjoyed reading it. Makes me want to re-read Mike Shayne.

Ed

Scott Parker said...

I have one Shayne novel at home, the title of which I've forgotten. And I have only one Terrell novel, the one from Hard Case Crime.

So, when you wrote your first Shayne story back thirty years ago, was it, in some way, writing about a character you liked but felt that then-contemporary authors were losing and not sticking to the original spirit?

James Reasoner said...

Cullen,

Yeah, as Jake Murdock says BODIES ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM is a good one. And BLOOD ON THE BLACK MARKET, which he also mentions, is one of the best.

Scott,

No, I don't recall thinking about that at the time. I hadn't read a Shayne novel in a while, although I'd been reading the ghosted novellas in the magazine. When Sam Merwin asked me to write a Shayne story, I went to my shelves and reread the first seven or eight books in the series to immerse myself in the characters and the setting before I started my story. So my Shayne work wound up being heavily influenced by the early Dresser novels.

Frank Loose said...

Hey James ... I'm with you on the Terrall "Shaynes." I prefer the Dresser penned early titles. I found a list on line somewhere that lined up all the titles of the books with the true authors, and I discovered that of the books in the series i liked least, Terrall had written them. Not that i want to deride his writing skills, he just didn't present Shayne the way i liked him.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for making time for us, James.

Randy Johnson said...

When I was a young man and started on the Shaynes, I didn't know diddly. As far as I knew, Brett Halliday was just that. This internet IS good for something though.
Having just recently read Dividend on Death, I see the difference. I must get more of the Dresser Shaynes.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I just saw a Lloyd Nolan Shayne movie, one of four from a DVD set. I'd seen the other three a few months ago. I recommend them highly.