At the peak of his career, Richard S. Prather sold millions and millions of paperbacks. His main series character was the detective Shell Scott, a PI almost but not quite in the atypical detective mold: Scott went down those dark alleys, but was the angst-free life of the party, kind of a doof as he stumbled after ladies, wound up in trouble, or motored around Hollywood in his canary yellow or robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac convertibles. Prather wrote some three dozen Shell Scott novels before a disagreement with publisher Pocket Books cut his writing career short in 1975, when he gave up writing and farmed avacados. His last few books were printed in 1986-87, and he passed away peacefully in his sleep in 2007.
Shell Scott’s in a tough one now. It started when Scott was hired to find a missing woman by Ormand Monaco—yeah, that Ormand Monaco, the brains behind the new Kubla Khan super-luxury hotel just opening out in Palm Springs. Nothing too out of the ordinary for Scott, who then mosied out to Monaco’s ranch for more information. He doesn’t find Monaco, though, but he does find something when he hears gunfire down the trail and investigates—the missing woman, her face blown off and her murderer swinging slugs at Shell Scott.
To make matters worse, Monaco’s a prime suspect for another murder—the death of Monaco’s partner, who paid the lion’s share of the Kubla Khan. And Shell Scott is on the case, offered ten grand if he can find the real killer and clear Monaco’s name before noon the next day. To do so, he’s going undercover at the grand opening of the Khan, costumed as a maharajah and made a judge on the beauty contest—now, there’s a job Shell Scott can get behind. Now, he just needs to distract himself from the bikini’d beauties long enough to connect the clues—and with luck, he’ll live to see that twelve noon deadline.
The novel starts off with an interesting use of a flashback, beginning at the hotel and going over the events that brought Scott there. From there, it’s a routine PI mystery in the Shell Scott vein—there’s blood at times, but Scott isn’t interested in that kind of stuff. He prefers the confines of the bar, hopefully with some female companionship. Of all the series PIs, Scott is one of the most outlandish, rife with innuendo and Prather’s farcical humor. Detractors lump it as puerile chauvinism; fans consider it humorous entertainment. Your mileage may vary.
Oh, if ever there was a setup ideal for Shell Scott. Scott is a irascible scalawag, prone to lengthy internal monologues and philosophizing when there’s liquor in him (which is often), and even more prone to eyeball the female form. He’s got a goofy, easygoing style, something the series in known for—as are the screwball comedic elements, which are out in full force in The Kubla Khan Caper. The climax is a beautiful oddball sequence where Scott, wearing half of his maharajah costume (shirt, turban, shoes, and skivvies) is chased through the hotel by a naked man wielding a scimitar. That’s pretty far out, but trust me, it works. Well, most of the time, but when it works, it’s pretty good.
The Shell Scott novels are not the peak of the genre; Chandler or Hammett this is not. The Scott series are kind of bawdy burlesques that exist as exercises for Prather’s wit, double entendres, and plays-on-words. They make for good beach reading, but aren’t very deep or stimulating—in other words, entertaining fluff. But for entertaining fluff, they’re pretty good. This one has a decent mystery and some ribald humor for good measure; there’s a good balance between them, but the comedic elements steal the show. If you enjoy the ribaldry and antics, it’s worth looking into; otherwise, I’d recommend the likes of Donald Westlake or Richard Powell for comedic crime novels.