Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Favorites - Bullet For A Star

Sometimes I think that if Stuart M. Kaminsky had been super human, I might never have become a writer.

See, Mr. Kaminsky wrote stories that I really wanted to read. And my motivation for writing was because I couldn't find enough stories that I really wanted to read. So if he had only been able to write even faster than he did (and he was prolific) maybe I wouldn't have needed to be a writer.

But he didn't write any faster than he did, and he didn't write the stories that were in my head, so in the end, he had the opposite affect: he didn't turn me into a writer, but he sure as heck accellerated the process.

He made me want more.

Kaminsky was a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, won an Edgar and was nominated for nearly every other mystery award. He had a madcap absurdity, and a gentle pathos to everything he wrote, whether it was comedy or drama. Even his police procedurals, set in the harsh world of Chicago, and the harsher world of Soviet Moscow, had a redemptive sweetness to them.

Much as I liked his police procedurals, and other series, my first love is and always has been Toby Peters -- a down and out private investigator in Hollywood in the 1940's. Toby was his first fiction series, and his longest, at 24 books. I have all of them and I tried to limit myself to re-reading only three in a year as I waited for the next one to come out.

And they've been out of print and hard to find, and that has sorrowed me deeply....

Until this month, when I discovered that Mysterious Press/Open Road is releasing the first sixteen or so books in ebook format. And even though I already own them all in paper, and even though the price is a little on the high side at $9.99, I'll be re-buying them all over time.

And I'll be reviewing them as I read them. Because I want you to know how cool these books are.

Bullet For A Star

The Toby Peters saga begins in 1940. Errol Flynn is being blackmailed, and the studio needs somebody to handle the pay off quietly and cleanly. They call on Toby, an aging PI with a bad back and a smashed nose, to handle the transaction. Toby, who was fired from his job as a Warner security guard at the studio several years earlier, is out of cash and happy to get the job. However, the job doesn't go so well, but that's par for the course for Toby. Getting beat up, shot, framed for murder, beat up again, framed for another murder... that's pretty much Toby's daily life.

This first book in the series is a little different from the rest as it is a little more hard-boiled, thought it is still a pastiche. It involves one moderately explicit sex scene, and not as much silliness as the other books. Even so, it is a good set up for the series, because it really does lay the foundation for everything that makes you love Toby.

When we first meet him, Toby Peters seems like a complete loner. He's on his own, on the edge, with nothing more to his name than what's in his pockets, and nobody to fall back on when he (frequently) falls. He's a tough guy, but not a mean one. As a matter of fact, there is a gentleness to Toby that makes him a lot less of a loner than he seems. The fact is, over the course of the book, you find out he has an unexpectedly strong network of family and friends, many of whom want nothing to do with him -- an angry, alienated bully of a big brother, and Toby's ex-wife in particular -- and yet there is a thread of affection which keeps them all in orbit.

This sets up the fact that Toby is a patient guy, who has a lot of affection for his fellow human beings, even those who are greater misfits than himself. And as the series wears on, that affection is like a magnet drawing people into his life.

Aside from the pleasure of the characters, though, this series is also a beautifully researched historical novel too. Kaminsky, before he took to fiction, was a film historian. He wrote one of the great books of academic theory about film and popular culture, American Film Genres. The books all take place at a very specific time and day in history, and Kaminsky gives us great details, down to what was on the radio, and what was in the papers (via Toby's dry ironic hard-boiled narration).

Toby also crosses paths with lots of real characters from Hollywood history, some not so well known, so it can be hard to pick out all the real ones from those he makes up. In this one Peter Lorre gives him advice on the case, and Frank Capra reacts unexpectedly to Toby crashing through the set of Meet John Doe. Bogie helps him track down a suspect on a location shoot for High Sierra, and several scenes take place on the set for the Maltese Falcon -- which ws being built for filming at the time.

The most fun thing about this specificity, though, is that the stories in the series are continuous: at the end of this story, Toby gets a call from Judy Garland, who showed up for a publicity shoot on the dismantled set for the Wizard of Oz, only to find a dead ex-Munchkin. And at the end of Murder On The Yellow Brick Road, Toby gets a call from the Marx Brothers....

If you like humor and adventure, combined with a little dramatic weight and sentiment, you'll love Toby. I really can't recommend these books highly enough. You can get Bullet For A Star at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple's iBookstore and other vendors.

Next Friday I'll talk about Black Orchids -- the first Nero Wolfe I read.

See you in the funny papers.

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