Coming off of the powerful Black Wings Has My Angel, I knew I wanted my next read to be something more fun and lighthearted. That’s when I remembered I had half of a Stark House double to finish, Shell Game by Richard Powell. I’ve really enjoyed the Powell novels I’ve read thus far, Say It With Bullets and A Shot in the Dark; Powell’s big claim to fame is his everyman protagonists and quirky sense of humor, screwball comedies wrapped up in noir garb.
Powell only wrote around ten mysteries before he switched to “mainstream” novels, the latter including The Philadelphians (filmed as The Young Philadelphians) and Pioneer, Go Home! (filmed with Elvis as Follow That Dream). Many of his mysteries starred the crime-solving couple Andy and Arabella Blake, though some—such as those published by Stark House and Hard Case Crime—were stand-alone novels.
Vacationing ad-man William J. Stuart is not one for danger or excitement, content to wander the Florida beaches in search of rare shells and beautiful women. Only, the woman he finds—Valerie Wilson—disdains shell collectors, and has a cock-eyed story of why she’s wandering the beach alone at night. Undaunted, Stuart offers her a ride into town, which is when he discovers she’s being tailed by a mystery gray sedan that all but refuses her efforts to shake it; luckily, they lose it just long enough for Stuart to lose Valerie.
When she disappears into thin air, he contacts the police, who have little interest in his missing persons story—at least, until the next day, when it’s discovered she’s a suspect in a murder case. Assisted by a big city detective on vacation, the police show up at Stuart’s cabin looking for her… which is when Valerie barges in, telling the detectives that she’s Stuart’s wife. She wants Stuart’s help, and she’s going to get it. What’s a poor guy got to do to just look for shells around here? Stuart doesn’t know, as he’s sucked down into the investigation as Valerie drags him along for support.
William Stuart is the perfect everyman protagonist; a pure faint-heart, his defense is having a fast tongue to dish out a barrage of witty remarks. He has no business getting wrapped up in a murder investigation, in part because he’s so unsuited for such a thing. He’s something of a stick-in-the-mud and risk-averse, which, combined with his banter, makes him an interesting narrator. Hardboiled hero he is not; he’s as timid as they come, honest to a fault, and woefully unlucky, though over the course of the novel he toughens up a tad. He’s no superman, just some guy caught up in a twisty-turny mystery, bumbling around attempting to help—with varying degrees of success.
Powell’s prose is hard to describe; it merges a hardboiled wit with a playful style, really a kind of entertaining mix. It’s a lot like a ’40s screwball comedy, and breezing along with effortless ease. The sense of danger is interspersed between lines that’ll make you grin, even if you never get the sense the characters’ lives are threatened. It’s altogether great lighthearted entertainment. The first few pages dive into the comedy and it doesn’t relent.
The bumbling police department—more focused on finding those responsible for feeding slugs into parking meters and unsure what to do about those who put .32 slugs into people—are a nice touch, and the snappy dialogue is impeccable. There’s some great scenes of Stuart first trying to get the chief of police to track down Valerie, then trying to get him off the case the next day; there’s also a great sequence where we learn Valerie cooks quite often (but never very well).
I’m also impressed at how Powell wove the mystery; there’s a lot of fishy goings-on, as evident by the fact that Valerie changes her story every ten minutes, and becomes more and more impressive with each retelling. But the greater mysteries—the killer and their motivation—came as a complete surprise. Everybody in the book has a story, but very few are what they seem. And as noted, there’s no shortage of colorful characters, nor of mystery and murder (or threat thereof).
I’ve enjoyed the Richard Powell novels I’ve read before, but feel Shell Game is the best of his works of the bunch I’ve read, due to the punchy repartee between Valerie and Stuart. If Powell’s novels are reminiscent of screwball comedies, this one would be one of the funniest. It’s a short, fast, and funny read, an enjoyable novel with plenty of misdirection and mystery underlining the humor. The comedic tone is perfectly implemented, and the novel breezes along without losing focus.
Shell Game is a great noir-lite novel, the kind of mystery that brings a smile to your face. If you don’t mind a mystery with a strong sense of humor, Shell Game is a real gem by a great author.