Friday, January 15, 2016
Forgotten Books: Dead Man's Walk - Richard S. Prather
There's a reason why I picked this Shell Scott novel to reread for Richard S. Prather Week on Forgotten Books, even though in some ways it's not really typical of the rest of the series, but to explain it you'll have to allow me to wax nostalgic for a minute.
As some of you know, my dad was a TV repairman for many years, and during the summers when I was a kid, I often went with him when he made his service calls. I was no great shakes when it came to electrical stuff, but I could carry tool boxes and tube caddies and help load and unload TVs. Inevitably, though, I got bored, so I always slipped a paperback in my pocket. While my dad was on his knees behind one of those giant console TVs of the Sixties with his head buried among its guts, I'd find a place to sit, haul out the current book, and read for a while.
So one day--probably in the summer of 1966--I took along a book in a series of private eye novels that I'd seen around all over the place, although I hadn't read any of them up to that point. That book, of course, was DEAD MAN'S WALK.
Well, I instantly became a fan. In those days I bought most of my books at Thompson's Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth, and they had a bunch of Shell Scott novels. I grabbed as many of them as I could afford and continued to do so, read them throughout the rest of junior high and high school, and had a great time doing it.
Unlike most of the other books in the series, which are set mainly in Los Angeles, DEAD MAN'S WALK takes place almost entirely on a Caribbean island called Verde. Shell inherits a small percentage in a resort hotel there, and he's summoned by the hotel's proprietor when a mysterious murder takes place. Accompanied by a beautiful blond tomato (that's the way Shell talks, and it's catching), he arrives to find that Verde is a hotbed of voodoo and other sinister goings-on. There are a couple more gorgeous babes, including the dancer on the cover, several more murders, some double-crosses, and a voodoo showdown between Shell and the local hungan. The humor, the fast pace, the sexy girls, and Shell's own irrepressible personality are all there, even though the setting is different. I can certainly see why I started gobbling up the rest of the series.
To be honest, although DEAD MAN'S WALK is pretty entertaining, it doesn't hold up quite as well as I thought it might. The plot seems to meander around quite a bit in the middle of the book. But it ends with several great action scenes, and Shell is . . . well, Shell, still one of my all-time favorite fictional private eyes.
Now, I'm pretty sure I've told this story before, but I'm going to tell it again, since it's appropriate to this week's topic. When I was a freshman in high school, my Algebra I teacher was the head football coach (and an excellent teacher, too). One day in class, Coach Hall gave us time to start our homework. I went through mine pretty quickly, and since I was done, I hauled out the book I was reading, one of the Shell Scotts. Coach Hall got up from his desk, walked toward me, and said, "What are you reading there, Reasoner?" I thought I was in trouble, but I said, "It's a, uh, mystery novel, Coach." He smiled and said, "I think I've read all those Shell Scott books. They're great."
The coach and I were fast friends after that, bonded by our enjoyment of Shell Scott. And to be fair, I may well have been the only other person in our high school reading them.
Years later, I was lucky enough to correspond briefly with Richard S. Prather, so I got to tell him how much his books meant to me. I'm glad I did.