Richard S. Prather’s greatest creation was Shell Scott, one of the most famous and successful hardboiled detectives back in the 1950s, second only to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Prather sold more than forty million Shell Scott books, of which there were over three dozen, and even lent the name to a short-lived Shell Scott Mystery Magazine. The iconic detective was a massive 6’2″ ex-marine, with a white-blonde crew cut, broken nose, ear with a chunk taken out of it, usually dressed in a teal suit. He was usually seen motoring around Los Angeles in a canary-yellow Cadillac convertible, scoping out the hot babes and looking for trouble.
If you can’t tell by now, the Shell Scott books have a reputation for their bouncy, humorous tone; the plots are outlandish, off-the-wall, certainly no Mike Hammer brutality here. But since their heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, Shell Scott and Richard S. Prather have fallen into relative obscurity… in part due to changing tastes (the late ’60s and ’70s were dominated by bleak anti-heroes like Parker), in part due to changing times (some modern critics lump the Scott books as adolescent and sexist). There’s been few attempts to bring them back into print, though Open Road Media has released the lion’s share of the Shell Scott series as ebooks, hovering around a $3.99 price point.
As a disclaimer, I was provided with an eARC of Kill The Clown in exchange for an open and honest review.
Shell Scott is a magnet for trouble with an eye for the ladies, so when a beautiful woman named Doris walks into his office, he takes her case in a heartbeat. Her brother Ross is on death row in San Quentin—his execution only three days away—for the murder of his boss, a crime he swears he didn’t commit. One of the key witnesses that put Ross away told Doris he was pressured into a false confession. Signs point to local hoodlum Frank Quinn, a man loosely tied to several high-profile murders and suicides… signs which turn out to be true when, after prodding Quinn a little, Shell is ambushed by the thug’s goons on the highway.
Luck may be turning in Shell Scott’s favor after all, when Quinn’s wife contacts him with a deal. She wants Quinn out of the picture, and knows exactly how to make that happen—which will give Scott with the evidence he needs to save Ross’ life. One small catch: it requires Shell go undercover at Frank Quinn’s costume ball on Halloween—into the belly of the beast, a party that’s sure to be rife with Frank’s hired guns, crooked politicians, and all the dregs of the underworld…
The one word I’d use to describe Prather’s writing would be “jovial.” Shell Scott isn’t one of those mopey, depressive detectives lurking at the bottom of a bottle; between the fast one-liners and witty similes, you can tell Shell Scott is having a lot of fun. You can see the smirk on his face and the spring in his step, a happy-go-lucky personality until he’s staring down the barrel of a gun, and as soon as that’s resolved he’s back to business as usual. Scott braves death every other chapter, and every other other chapter he becomes acquainted with a beautiful woman; the plot bounces around from hilarious to suspenseful and back again. I hope Prather had a lot of fun writing this, because it sure felt like he did.
No, Shell Scott exists to live. He takes a case and does it well—he’s good at digging up clues, he sees the job through to the end, a few bad guys get plugged and some others get what they deserve—but between that, Scott is always looking for a good time: scoping the streets both for danger and for the next hot babe, keeping his eyes peeled for the next highball. All work and no play makes Shell Scott a dull boy, and he’s the life of the never-ending party. He seems like a nice guy to hang out with, or in this case, to follow around while he does some detecting.
Prather’s prose is smooth as silk and chugs along at its enjoyably jovial pace, showcasing a good sense of action and a strong case of wit. While it can become serious—dead serious, when the guns come out and the slugs start flying—the tone for most of the novel is very relaxed and playful. That makes the violence and suspense sharper and more pronounced in contrast. And while it has a reputation for the ribald, its bevy of flirtatious women who tempt Scott (and visa versa) is pretty tame; there’s more sly grins and winking than there is anything explicit.
The only other Prather novel I’ve read was The Peddler, a well-written novel with a pedestrian “criminal’s rise to power and inevitable downfall” plot arc. There difference between the two novels, published only ten years apart, is like night and day: Kill the Clown has a wry sense of humor and great sense of character, a unique feeling all to itself; The Peddler had none of those things. Despite its age, Kill The Clown is invigorated and fresh and just rip-roaring to go, and you can’t always say that about fifty-year-old paperbacks.
So, that’s Shell Scott then: everything I’ve read about the series is true. It’s about a hardboiled detective, yes, but Shell shares more in common with Stephanie Plum (or, for the really deep cut, Dan Turner) than with Spade and Marlowe. It’s a playful romp with gun-in-cheek humor, suspenseful at one moment and ribald funny the next. You can see why Prather was such a huge hit back in the day: Shell Scott is the kind of guy you want to go partying with, and then follow as he leads you to the next party. Kill the Clown is the kind of novel that makes for excellent beach reading, and I can see doing that very thing this summer.