Carolyn Weston’s first big hit was Poor Poor Ophelia (1972), picked up to become the TV procedural The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77). Aside from a few changes to character names and setting, it followed Weston’s pattern by pairing two police detectives with generation gap issues for five seasons. Poor Poor Ophelia became Weston’s big break; as far as I can tell, it was her only one. She only wrote a handful of other novels, two of them sequels to her big hit, and never gained much fame or popularity in the genre before she passed away in 2001. Brash Books is reprinting her novels for 2015, which is how I obtained some eARC’s in exchange for an open and honest review.
It’s 4 AM in a deserted laundromat and Paul Rees is the witness to a murder: a black Mercedes that runs down a motorcyclist, the driver making sure that the biker is well and truly hit before peeling off into the night. Detectives Krug and Kellogg are assigned the case, running afoul of two complications. First is another witness, Susannah Roche, who makes contradictory claims of the murder car in question. Second is Rees’ own dark past—a tragic death, a murder, and a criminal record that makes Rees too leery to tell cops the truth, and makes him a prime suspect. He hits it off well with the mod-chic actress Susannah, and starts to spend his nights out partying, falling for a girl whose secrets make him a bit uneasy. More mysterious for Krug and Kellogg, the dead biker’s autopsy finds him loaded to the gills—he’s saran-wrapped with thousands of counterfeit tens and twenties, his “million-dollar shroud.”
Aside from the sharp plot, the unique thing about the Krug and Kellogg novels is that Weston spends as much time following the suspect as the starring detectives. It’s as much a police procedural as a psychological drama playing within Rees’ head as he attempts to clear his name, not looking forward to another stay in the pen. This also means that Rees gets better characterization than Krug or Kellogg; Kellogg has enough character to become the sympathetic “good cop,” but Krug remains something of a grumpy cliche, and could really use some development to show how he became such a curmudgeon. (It helps a bit to have read the first novel, but it’s not a requirement, and Susannah Screaming could work as a standalone read.) Weston’s writing style is smooth, with some stylish Southern California atmosphere; despite the twisty-turny plot with several surprises, the novel is easy to follow and even easier to be drawn into.
As with Poor Poor Ophelia, this novel feels oddly contemporary—aside from Susannah’s mod-squad flower-power slang, it still feels fresh and contemporary. I had to remind myself during the initial chase-murder scene that I should be imagining a retro Mercedes and not a modern one. Maybe it’s because one of the novel’s core themes is the generation gap between the two detectives; while not as extreme as today’s culture wars, there’s a sharp contrast between the two characters. Kellogg is the young, college-educated detective of the future, with enough hopeful idealism that he’s willing to give a witness or suspect the benefit of a doubt. Krug is middle-aged and pessimistic, having earned his detective’s badge not from a fancy degree but by honing his senses and wearing the leather off his shoes; he dislikes anyone wealthier than he is, younger, smarter, anyone with more hair… Krug is a smart cop but a grating curmudgeon.
Susannah Screaming is a decent ’70s police procedural with a few great twists; some of its elements are typical of the genre, while others stand out: the setup is slick, the plotting is intricate, and the divided focus between the witness/suspect and the detectives offers a unique balance between characters. Overall it holds up rather well, and is an entertaining entry by an almost-forgotten author. It puts another solid entry in Brash’s lineup, one that will appeal to crime readers who don’t mind a flashback to the groovy mid-70s.