Never Cross a Vampire
A Toby Peters Mystery by Stuart M. Kaminsky
I am slowly working my way again through the compete set of Toby Peters mysteries by Stuart Kaminsky. I own them all in paper, and am acquiring them now in electronic versions. It's a series about a down-and-out P.I. in 1940s Hollywood, written with humor and pathos by one of the great Hollywood scholars and historians.
It was also one of those series where the author didn't write them fast enough, and I would go back and re-read the old ones as I waited for the next. Some of them were rare and hard to come by, but I haunted used book stores and the library, always on the look out. I eventually acquired a copy of every book.
Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't the sort of books that stand up to endless numbers of re-readings of the same book.
It's just that I loved Toby and his friends and the world of the series. And since Kaminsky didn't write new ones fast enough, I had to read the old ones to satisfy that itch. I rationed them so I wouldn't get too tired of them: I allowed myself to read two old books between releases of new books.
As a result, I never experienced the series in order, as a more or less continuous read-through, until now.
Reading a long, familiar series in order, watching the development of the characters and series tropes, is an interesting experience.
Never Cross a Vampire was the fifth book in this series, and not the best. It is probably the first book, though, that actually feels like the mature part of the series.
The first two books, Bullet for a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, are busy establishing Toby and his world, and especially building his odd-ball circle of friends and family. The series starts with him seemingly a complete lone-wolf with no friends and nothing to lose, but that is deceptive, and aside from the dysfunctional friends and family he turns out to already have, he gains a few more.
These early books also have a slightly darker tone than the later books: The motives more twisted, the small bits of sex more explicit. They are a pastiche of both Hollywood of the 1940s and of Raymond Chandler, and these early books show the Chandler influence more, but the full series feels more Hollywood.
The third book, You Bet Your Life, takes Toby out of town; to Chicago to try to settle some gangster trouble the Marx Brothers have gotten into -- so we don't see so much of Toby's friends and world. And the fourth book, The Howard Hughes Affair, gets personal, as Toby's ex-wife gets him a job investigating industrial spies. And with that book, the series finishes building its world. When it's done, we're set and established.
So then we come to the fifth book -- which I admit I'm featuring today partly because it's got a Halloween theme, but also because it is a typical fifth book: A bit ordinary and forgettable, but very much in keeping with the overall series. A good book for getting your "Toby Peters fix."
It begins with Toby sitting on a coffin, at a meeting of a vampire fanclub, hoping to track down who has been sending threatening notes to Bela Lugosi. It's absurd and a little silly, but soon Toby finds himself embroiled in two cases -- one featuring William Faulkner -- and people are chasing him and beating him up and shooting at him, and even seducing him, and he's not 100 percent sure which case is causing the trouble. The two cases, in particular, allow for some nice twists and turns that keep the mystery puzzle from being too obvious.
The best books in this series, imho, are a little further along. And I find that is typical of a lot of good, long standing series like this. The beginning might be uneven, and the voice evolves, then the author takes the story to other locations and maybe gets a little personal... and then it gets ordinary for a bit. And then the series hits its stride.
And I've seen this pattern so often, I think it's necessary. The later books work better because the earlier books not only set up the story, but also set a pattern. And that pattern allows the later books to vary and be all the more powerful for it. Particularly when it gets personal. An early book that gets personal is just filling in more information. With a later book, it can grab you.
So, in some ways, I like the way Never Cross a Vampire settles down and becomes average and ordinary. I feel like it's warming me up to really enjoy it when Toby's brother asks him for help in book eight, or when his ex-wife needs him for real in book ten.
This is one of the reasons so many mystery readers (who tend to read long series) like to wait until there are seven or eight books in a series. You can judge the variations of the first books by knowing where it is going, and you can trust that the author has established things well enough to vary things in even better ways coming up.
Most of the books in this series are being re-released as ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media. The are available at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and probably other ebook vendors.
See you in the funny papers.