Imagine, if you will, a new TV detective series debuting in the fall of 1960, probably on ABC, definitely produced in glorious black-and-white by Warner Brothers, and called GRANDSTAND or maybe WINNER’S CIRCLE, something like that. The narrator/hero is Mack Gaul, troubleshooter for a popular Florida horseracing track, who every week solves murders and deals with all the colorful characters who show up at the track. Mack is played by, say, Darren McGavin. Tonight’s episode . . . “A Slice of Death!”
If you’re old enough to imagine all that, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Bob McKnight’s 1960 Ace Double novel A SLICE OF DEATH is like. Actually, calling it a novel is being generous, since it probably doesn’t have more than 30,000 words packed into its 102 pages. Which is not a bad thing, because that’s just about the right length to adapt into an hour-long episode of our imaginary TV drama GRANDSTAND.
It opens with a beautiful redhead with a slide rule (remember slide rules?) informing Mack that the payoff listed on the track’s tote board is wrong. According to her, the holders of winning tickets are being shorted forty cents. That doesn’t sound like much, but Mack knows it could add up to a lot of money, so he starts investigating and trying to find out if it’s an honest mistake or if somebody who works for the racetrack is crooked.
I think you can probably guess what the answer to that question turns out to be. It also won’t come as any surprise that the guy operating the tote board turns up dead, and Mack is the leading suspect. The manager of the racetrack is missing, too, and his beautiful blond secretary can’t find him. Throw in some Cuban gangsters, assorted racetrack employees and hangers-on, and a few action scenes, and you’ve got a fast-paced mystery that takes place in only a few hours. The prose is strictly functional and there’s nothing jaw-dropping about the plot, including the identity of the criminal mastermind. But it’s all good fun anyway, and a nice little snapshot of an era and the sort of books published then. I’ve read a number of Bob McKnight’s Ace Doubles in the past, and while none of them have risen above the level of competent entertainment, none of them have fallen below that level, either.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go imagine some more TV shows that never existed but should have.