There are so many crime, mystery and thriller novels being released these days, it’s easy to forget that some of the most interesting works this genre offers weren’t just published yesterday. And they won’t be showing up on bestseller lists tomorrow. In fact, most readers probably haven’t even heard of them, since the books debuted 20, 30, 50 or more years ago and aren’t ranked among the “classics.”
It’s time to refresh some memories.
Did you read the last Rap Sheet?
Back in the spring of 2008, Derringer Award-winning short-story writer Patti Abbott (the mother of novelist Megan Abbott) suggested that the Web’s various crime-fiction commentators start making “recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years.” Ever since, bloggers in this field have provided weekly posts about “forgotten” works. A number of those volumes have been quite dusty and obscure; others reached bookstores only within the last decade, yet failed to attain prominence.
Because I think voracious but discriminating Kirkus readers could benefit from this effort to explore fine vintage crime fiction as well as new works, today I’m launching an irregular feature here called “Rediscovered Reads.” In the future, I’ll be looking back at unjustly neglected yarns from familiar authors, as well as novels by people you might not think of as contributors to this genre.
Today’s choice—The Kill (1985) by Douglas Heyes—comes from that latter category.
Anybody who remembers Heyes (1919-1993) probably associates him with Hollywood. Indeed, he spent the bulk of his career as a screenwriter. He worked on motion pictures such as the Ann-Margret vehicle Kitten with a Whip (1964), the 1966 big-screen adaptation of P.C. Wren’s novel Beau Geste, and the 1968 film Ice Station Zebra, based on Alistair MacLean’s Arctic thriller of the same name. In addition, Heyes brought his expertise to such TV programs as Bourbon Street Beat, The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones and McCloud, and he was frequently employed on shows produced by the legendary Roy Huggins, including Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and City of Angels. He penned the excellent (but regrettably unsold) 1974 TV pilot film, The Underground Man, based on Ross Macdonald’s 1971 novel and starring Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves as Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer. And he went on to create the too-short-lived William Shatner-Doug McClure historical adventure serial, Barbary Coast, and adapt Taylor Caldwell’s inter-generational saga, Captains and the Kings, as a 1976 TV miniseries.
As an author, though, Heyes proved far less prolific. His first book, The Kiss-Off (1951), was a Chandler-esque tale introducing L.A. shamus Steve Mallory, a character who subsequently inspired a radio drama series, Steve Mallory, Private Eye (with the author himself portraying his protagonist!). He followed that in 1963 with The 12th of Never, a complex melodrama about a dying doctor who—on the verge of his committing suicide—is approached by a stranger willing to pay him to switch identities. Given the weight of Heyes’ other responsibilities, both as a screenwriter and TV director, it’s hardly surprising he took another two decades to crank out his third and final novel.
The Kill reads—in the best way—like Heyes’ ode to the pulp period of American detective fiction. Set in Los Angeles during the sweaty, Depression-era summer of 1938, it welcomes us into the company of Ray Ripley, an unusually college-educated peeper in his early 30s, who used to be a cop on the rise, before he resigned over a tragic child-kidnapping case. That switch of careers hasn’t made Ripley rich (he concocts his office coffee by boiling grounds over and over again in a sock), and it certainly hasn’t made him popular with his erstwhile colleagues (“Looking back,” he says, “I can see how quitting a corrupt police force to go straight as a private cop was like a two-dollar whore coming out of a cathouse to set up shop as a virgin”). Yet it allows the P.I. to maintain his pride. Though not enough to turn down a job from banker Fritz Osterreich, a onetime friend who filched Ripley’s girlfriend, Dinah Culver, from right under his nose and then married her.
It seems Fritz has a problem. He’s got a girl on the side, a Jean Harlow look-alike named Gloria Savage, who’s under contract to Columbia Pictures—and under threat from unknown assailants. Or so she fears. Fritz explains that Gloria recently met an ostensibly decent mechanic named George, who helped her resolve a car-jam problem in the desert outside of L.A., and then asked her on a date. But just as they were leaving Gloria’s chic house in the hills on that later occasion, with George driving her supercharged Duesenberg, they were suddenly accosted by a gunman, who kept firing until George managed to throw him off in a high-speed escape. Now Fritz wants Ripley to determine what the gunplay was all about, and in the meantime protect Gloria. Which is easier said than done, for when Ripley goes to the young actress’ abode, he finds her dead and decorated with cigarette burns. Not long afterward, Gloria’s house goes up in flames, and the police reason that she accidentally set the fire herself, while smoking in bed.
Our wisecracking hero would prefer to leave this whole mystery alone. He’s drawn into it, though, by his corrupt former cop partner, acting on a tip from a neighbor who spotted Ripley leaving Gloria’s house. The P.I.’s best defense is that he’s as clueless as the constabulary. But at least he knows some of the right questions to ask: Who, for instance, is “George,” and why would anyone want to ventilate him with bullets? Was Gloria’s death caused by somebody searching her home for secrets, or was she killed by her vengeful lesbian ex-lover? Why is there another, even less-respectable investigator-for-hire nosing around the edges of this case—and who helped him take a swan dive from a building’s balcony? As each new revelation enlarges the puzzle, and Ripley appears to be reigniting his relationship with the delicious Dinah, it becomes clear that this cut-rate Philip Marlowe has stumbled into the middle of a manhunt likely to make one of the era’s “public enemies” his own.
Heyes’ TV-scripting history clearly influenced The Kill, particularly the work he did on City of Angels, a 1976 NBC series that found former M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers playing early 1930s L.A. gumshoe Jake Axminster. There’s a reference here to one of the city’s old telephone exchanges—AXminster—and a key scene occurs in what is obviously the landmark, 1893 Bradbury Building, where Rogers’ character kept his office. With its tight pacing, regular action sequences and romantic interludes, one can easily imagine The Kill having been conceived as an episode of City of Angels.
Too bad Douglas Heyes never found time to compose a fourth crime novel. The genre seemed a splendid fit for his talents.