This first collection by Gault—best known for his YA fiction and the hardboiled mysteries starring ex–football player Brock “The Rock” Callahan he published nearly 50 years ago—suggests that he may have saved his best stuff for his short fiction. Half of the dozen tales, dating from 1940 to 1957, are adventures of LA p.i. Joe Puma that mostly suggest an easy command of familiar elements—though even here there are a couple of bulls-eyes: “The Unholy Three,” in which Joe is hired by a preteen who wants to get the goods on his sister’s no-good boyfriend, and “Don’t Crowd Your Luck,” in which Joe’s client, an auto mechanic who signed a prenup when he married a former child star worth millions, can’t imagine why somebody might want to kill him. It’s in the Puma-less stories, though, that Gault really gets down to business, usually in their trenchant opening paragraphs. In a few short pages he can unlimber as many twists as The Manchurian Candidate (“Marksman”) or take his luckless hero straight to hell (“Creature of Habit”). “They’d Die for Linda” shows his mastery of the tricky multiple-narrators formula, and “Dead End for Delia” presents a cop memorably unhinged by his estranged wife’s murder. Best of all is “Conspiracy,” a story of two farm kids whose glimpse of an escaping bank robber takes them into somber territory Ed Gorman would be proud to claim.
A standout collection in the publisher’s Lost Classics series.