I wish more people would do doubles or flip books. I have to imagine they’re a bitch to make, printing half a book upside-down and all, and they’re a niche market, but nothing screams retro like a flip book. In this case, the Hard Case people decided to take two of Robert Bloch’s early works, both set around Hollywood, and make a double out of them. As you probably already know, Bloch is the guy who wrote Psycho, was the youngest member of the Lovecraft Circle, won a Hugo, a Bram Stoker Award, a World Fantasy Award, and served as president of the Mystery Writers of America. In short, he’s a total badass and great writer, specializing in weird horror and crime mysteries.
Shooting Star (1958)
Shooting Star follows one-eyed private dick Mark Clayburn. He’s hired by his old pal Harry Bannock to clear the name of a murdered western star, because Bannock owns the TV syndication rights to the guy’s films. So Clayburn has to solve the guy’s murder, and point out how he didn’t smoke reefers at all. (This was probably a lot more relevant in the 1950s.) Opening up the investigation again causes all sorts of trouble to come out of the woodwork, and when more people end up murdered, Clayburn’s own life is at stake, and nobody wants to talk about the dead guy other than to say he smoked a lot of pot.
The book has a serious reefer madness, anti-drug paranoia; I can’t remember the last Hollywood celebrity whose career was cut short because they smoked a couple of joints. [Other than those who, y’know, OD’d and died.] That’s not a serious flaw, however; it’s a product of the mid-1950s after all. The flaw is that the book’s just a simple detective tale: Clayburn investigates, people die, he ends up solving the crime, and nobody goes home happy. Of course, coming from Bloch, the writing is top notch, especially the dialogue, and the narration from Clayburn. What we’re left with is a well-written, but overly straightforward Hollywood Detective tale. It fit the bill, but left me wanting more.
Spiderweb, by contrast, follows Eddie Haines. He came to Hollywood to become an announcer (…), but things never panned out. With no leads, and no money, he finds himself staring into a mirror with a straight razor in hand when he’s “saved” by The Professor, Otto Hermann. This shady character is a schemer, developing a confidence act to trick personal secrets out of Hollywood stars in order to blackmail them. To do this, he needs Haines’ vocal talents. Soon enough, Haines is a sham psychologist counseling starlets, but he falls for a woman, his conscience rears its head, and he wants out. The Professor has incriminating evidence on him, however, but as The Professor’s plans escalate into extortion and murder, Haines begins to plan for himself.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot from Spiderweb, especially since it got the bar code while Shooting Star got the scantily-clad woman with a gun. But Spiderweb managed to deliver in a hard way, blowing my preconceptions away. It’s clearly the more entertaining of the two, a great psychological thriller. The plot isn’t terribly original—guy gets into crime, conscience appears, does the right thing, gets out of crime and takes dirty money with him. But what makes it work is the unique setup (fake shrinks blackmailing people) and the characters. The Professor is truly eerie as you see some flashes of a demented madman underneath his veneer of civility. Bloch’s writing is still exceptional, making Spiderweb a solidly entertaining read, making up for any of Shooting Star‘s flaws.
It’s been over a year since I reviewed these on Logic, and they’re still vivid in my mind. I think I was a little critical of Shooting Star—it was a straightforward, first-person detective tale, which I love, with the added “Hollywood Detective” and “reefer madness” angles. Very basic, and predictable, but it was enjoyable. Spiderweb, on the other hand, I still think rocked: a tale of blackmail and intrigue, and the attempts of a good man turned crooked to get good again. If that makes any sense. They have some nice connections—they both have psychology as a theme, and are both set in the land of the stars—which I should have noted in the original review. Highly, highly, highly enjoyed these; it’s worth getting.