dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,
dr_hermes
dr_hermes

Mike Shayne, still crazy after all these years

You know, I don't mind those Robert McGinnis covers much at all.




SHOOT TO KILL

From 1957, this was getting near the end of the long haul for Davis Dresser; he would write one more Mike Shayne book before turning the "Brett Halliday" handle over to other hands. Dresser had been sending the big redhead out to solve assorted murders since 1939, and although the books were still well-crafted and enjoyable reads, some of the distinctive spark had dimmed with time.

Long gone were the screwball touches of dark humor of the early years, much of which came from Shayne's wife Phyllis. Young and whimsical and more than a bit flighty, she was the perfect counterpoint to balance the morose, hard-drinking detective. Not long after her death (inbetween books), Shayne hired Lucy Hamilton as his secretary and there was clearly some romantic and sexual energy between them but it never solidified. Lucy was nice enough but she just didn't seem to come alive on the page for me.

Shayne's supporting cast also got rather stale. The anorexic reporter Tim Rourke, gruff but fair-minded police chief Will Gentry, and strutting nuisance Peter Painter hadn't grown or developed at all. Scenes with them from 1940 and 1958 could be swapped and no one would be the wiser. (I suppose the same could be said for Nero Wolfe's little team or Ellery Queen's even more insubstantial crew, come to think of it. If you're not killed off for dramatic effect, being a spear-carrier in a detective series gives you a secure tenure.)

As for big Mike himself, he aged in subtle ways. There are no references to traces of gray in the red hair or a thickening of the waistline, and he still is smoking and sipping cognac enough to make any primary care physician frown. And yet... he doesn't rush to slug it out with hulking gunmen or cheerfully take enough physical abuse to kill a buffalo, the way he used to. In his early books, Shayne would collect bullet wounds, broken bones and bruises the way most of us gather receipts while running errands, He also doesn't seem as eager to frantically solve cases on the run from the police while wanted on suspicion of murder, as he frequently was.(Geez, Mike, you're no fun anymore!)

Even Lucy obliquely alludes to this settling down. She has asked Shayne to quietly remove crucial evidence from the scene of a murder before the police arrive and he balks. Now is that asking so much? ("When did you get so smug and legal? What about the first time you met Phyllis and took that bloody butcher knife away from her and hid it from the police? What about the man who fell dead inside your office door and you took the piece of the baggage check out of his hand and concealed it? What about that time in New Orleans when you met me... and the brandy bottle you stole from the scene of the crime?") Against his better judgement, Shayne pockets two airline tickets from the dead man and (sure enough) promptly comes to regret it as he then can't turn them over to the police when it seems expedient. What's exciting and fun at twenty-five is often a drag at fifty. What you used to do all night now takes all night to do

The murder to be solved this time is that of Jim Wallace, the husband of one of Lucy's friends (giving her the personal incentive to push Shayne into investigating). From all accounts, the couple had a perfect Hallmark greeting card marriage and yet... when the wife came home early from a trip, she found her husband dead with a hole between his eyes that had never been there before (that's odd). Wallace had been preparing to leave for South America before her planned return. As Shayne starts asking questions in his usual blunt way, suspicion scatters in all directions. A million dollars in cash was missing from the dead man's brokerage, his two partners are acting funny, there were indications he was not the saintly devoted husband he seemed to be, and then finally there's the cayenne pepper in the stew – a sexually active and slightly alcoholic woman named Lola. (I like her theory of Bloody Marys, "No tomato juice at all this time. That stuff makes you drunk.")

For once, I felt an unreasonable glow of satisfaction as I picked up on the significance of a character making a fateful phone call in front of Shayne that the detective does not get to butt in on. Usually, I get suckered badly by misdirection and only catch the real identity of the killer just before the hero makes his big speech in the final chapter. This doesn't necessarily mean I'm getting sharper, of course, just that Davis Dresser was wearying of the game.

Adventure heroes often have to deal with amazing strokes of luck, both good and bad. They step on a dry twig or their gun jams at just the worst moment, but then they also will hear a phrase in casual conversation that provides exactly the clue they need to solve the mystery (Of course! How could I have been so blind, there's not a minute to lose!). Some might say this is just the writer letting the bones of the plot show a bit too obviously. I like to think of it a sort of balancing act of karma, throwing equal parts of help or hindrance to our protagonist at crucial moments. This time, Shayne leaves a man in an office and (seeing no one is around) hoists himself up to peer in through the transom. He is just in time to see the suspect dial the phone and the phone is close enough and at the right angle for Shayne to make note of the number. How's that for good fortune? Of course, to balance it out, the universe will then demand that Shayne's next case finds him wearing a yellow raincoat exactly like the one a fleeing killer was seen wearing but that's how it goes.
Tags: detectives, mike shayne, robert mcginnis
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