Sunday, August 21, 2011

They don't write 'em like that anymore

Shell Scott, a private detective character created by Richard S. Prather, appeared in a successful line of paperback originals in the 1950s and '60s. Prather's books were full of vividly humorous description, a change from the more serious hard-boiled fiction of many of his contemporaries. I picked up a collection of Shell Scott stories, Shell Scott's Seven Slaughters, all published in the 1953-54 period, anthologized in 1961. Despite some dated slang, I think some of the opening paragraphs are great examples to aspiring writers of how to write a paragraph that grabs a reader.
"The cab dropped me off on the outskirts of Silver Beach and I looked around before I walked through darkness down the narrow alley. I didn't see anybody who looked like Bruno, the guy Ellen had told me was due for a stretch at the cackle factory. Any guy who'd try twice to kill a sex-charged hunk of dreamy tomato like Ellen had to be one step removed from the net. The crazy guy was probably still around here somewhere; he had been when Ellen phoned me, fright twisting the words in her throat." --"The Best Motive"

"It was a pleasant enough party, I suppose, if you like sherry in thin, brittle glasses, ancient babes without bustles who look like ancient babes with bustles, and stern-faced old ducks conversing gently about a coloratura soprano's ecstatic debut at La Scala--which I don't.

"No, I like parties with bourbon in water and in me, juicy tomatoes dancing can-cans, and conversations about tomatoes and no conversation at all. This would have been a grand party for centenarians dating octogenarians under a large oxygen tent, but it was not a grand party for me, not for Shell Scott. But, then, I wasn't really invited." --"Babes, Bodies and Bullets"

"This was a morning for weeping at funerals, for sticking pins in your own wax image, for leaping into empty graves and pulling the sod in after you. Last night I had been at a party with some friends here in Los Angeles, and I had drunk bourbon and Scotch and martinis and maybe even swamp water from highball glasses, and now my brain was a bomb that went off twice a second.

"I thought thirstily of Pete's Bar downstairs on Broadway, right next door to this building, the Hamilton, where I have my detective agency, then got out of my chair, left the office and locked the door behind me. I was Shell Scott, the Bloodshot Eye, and I needed a hair of the horse that bit me." --"The Double Take"
Scott mixes it up with the usual run of fictional private eye cases: beautiful women in trouble, sinister guys with murky motives whacking him over the head to the point where you wonder if, between the babes, alcohol and concussions, Scott will live to see the next day (or not spend his latter days in a nursing home for dementia patients). But he takes care of the babes, sexually, of course, shakes off the alcohol fogs and the beatings, and like other good paperback dicks, emerges, not unscathed but triumphant. What made the genre popular was the sex and violence formula, marketed to men who were looking for some fast fiction with which to kill some time in a bus station, in a hotel room or even at home. Before television was ubiquitous, before the Internet or gaming, people--even men--actually sat down to read. Imagine that.

Shell Scott was sexist, but so were most of the male heroes of the era. Women existed to provide sex for the main character. The women were always beautiful with great bodies, and there for instant gratification. A perfect male fantasy. In the days when sex acts weren't described in graphic terms, there was a lot of titillation:
"She was stark naked. I had seldom seen anyone so stark . . . then she turned around and walked back into the room. She was about five-six and close to 130 pounds, and she was shaped like what I sometimes muse about after the third highball. Everybody who had described the blonde, and she was a blonde [alluding to public hair, unspoken but understood], had been correct: she was not only 'stacked' but 'ah, curvaceous.' . . . the one time a man can be positive that a woman's shape is her own is when she is wearing nothing but her shape, and this was really in dandy shape." --"The Double Take"
No one could write a paperback novel without being able to describe scenes of fighting, because private detectives got into a lot of fights:
"I hit him with a left in the gut, swinging with all my strength, 205 pounds moving, fast behind the blow, and that would have been enough, that one punch. Noodles was thin, bony, and I'll swear I felt the bones of his spine hit my knuckles. But I swung my right hand up to his jaw, forgetting for the moment the gun in my hand, and it ripped across his face, clicking as it tore into the cheekbone." --"Babes, Bodies and Bullets"
Prather's Shell Scott books were everywhere in the golden age of paperback original novels. I saw them every time I went to the paperback book spinner.

Prather went from Gold Medal books to Pocket Books, and later sued them. He turned to growing avocados. So his writing career was about 25 years, from 1950 to 1975, although he did a couple of books in the '80s. His last published work was 20 years before his death.

This obituary, from the New York Times is a good and concise look at Prather's career. The Wikipedia entry on Prather has a bibliography of his published works, as well as a photo.

Prather was a talented original working in the field of paperback originals.


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