Friday, December 18, 2009

Forgotten Books: A Slice of Death - Bob McKnight

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.

11 comments:

Vince said...

I'm hearing the imaginary theme song as it plays over the imaginary title sequence. Travis McGee meets Dick Francis? That would have been a good show.

Anonymous said...

Bob McKnight loved the sport of horse racing. The majority of his novels use the track (in Florida)as a backdrop in the plots. He even wrote a couple of non-fiction books on handicapping. I've always enjoyed his ACE mystery novels.

Bill Khemski

Bill Crider said...

McKnight was a pal of Harry Whittington's, and Whittington helped him get his first book published. Or so I speculate. Thanks to Richard Moore, I have a copy signed by McKnight to Whittington.

I was a member of the Slide Rule Club in high school. You can't get much geekier than that.

James Reasoner said...

Bill,
Hey, at least you were cool enough to be in the band. (I was in the Slide Rule Club, too, and had the coolest leather holster for it . . .)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I never mastered the slide rule despite having a math whiz boyfriend. He carried it around for onspot demos but no leather case.

Todd Mason said...

I inherited my engineer-father's slide rule, but never learned to use it, as calculators were getting good about then. I'm just old enough to prefer electric typewriters to manuals.

Todd Mason said...

Look out for web references to GRANDSTAND going forward...

Anonymous said...

This looks like a cool read, James. I sometimes see the Ace Doubles around and will look for it. Thanks for posting it.

We used slide rules in h.s. chemistry and I never did get the hang of using them.

Ed Lynskey

Evan Lewis said...

30,000 words in 102 pages? Must have been either big words or big type.

James Reasoner said...

Well, I've never been very good at estimating wordage. Could've been more than 30,000. No more than 40,000, though.

George said...

I liked some of Bob McKnight's other ACE novels, THE FLYING EYE and A STONE AROUND HER NECK.