Friday, April 22, 2011

FFB: Dead Man's Walk - Richard S. Prather

Cover art by Barye Philipps
I have to thank Christa Faust for first getting me interested in looking for the Richard Prather books. She says her book Money Shot would never have been written had she not read the Shell Scott books. Money Shot is one of my favorite Hard Case Crime originals. That praiseworthy note of a writer's influence was enough for me to check him out. I know I have quite a few of these books now but like most collectors I did more amassing than reading. I saw Dead Man's Walk on one of those old paperback spinning racks in a used bookstore in Ohio last month. With its tantalizing catch phrase "It was murder all right – but was it voodoo too?" I knew that this had to be the first Shell Scott book for me to read. Private eyes and voodoo? Give me that book, now!

Voodoo was a fascination for crime writers from the 1930s through the 1960s. I can think of an entire bookcase full of related detective novels and thrillers, all of which I've read. Let's see how many I can type off the top of my archive of a head: Voodoo by John Esteven, Voodoo'd by Kenneth Perkins, The Obeah Murders by Hulbert Footner (Bahamian spin-off of voodoo), A Grave Must Be Deep by Theodore Roscoe, Conjure Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher (deals more with hoodoo, an offshoot with voodoo roots), numerous short stories from the pulps like "Papa Benjamin" by Cornell Woolrich and "The Voodoo Mystery" by Arthur B. Reeves, and even Live and Let Die, James Bond's own voodoo/occult adventure. I could go on but that would mean leaving my seat and checking the shelves. How about movies? The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Skeleton Key (Hoodoo again), Isle of the Dead, Voodoo Man, Voodoo Woman, Voodoo Dawn, I Walked with a Zombie, White Zombie (yes, the zombie legends have their roots in voodoo and not George Romero). Et cetara, et cetera, and so forth.

I'm not sure any crime writers will touch voodoo anymore as a plot basis. The most recent I can think of that comes close is Michael Gruber's excellent job of incorporating Santeria and black magic in his chilling supernatural thriller Tropic of Night. But that wasn't exactly voodoo. Is it a taboo topic now? Perhaps very un-PC? No matter to me. I'll eagerly seek out as many voodoo thrillers as I can. Dead Man's Walk is one of the best out of all those I listed. It was like a crash course in voodoo. From accurate terminology well defined (no glossary required) to astonishingly detailed descriptions of the rituals, tools and the entire belief system of voudon.

Shell travels to Verde Island to investigate the suspicious death of George Knowles. His business partner, John Farrow, disagrees with local authorities that Knowles died of natural causes. It may have something to do with the death of a local boy only days earlier. Farrow is convinced someone is trying to destroy his business especially since his employees have quit the place en masse for fear that the hotel is cursed. Oddly enough, the guests have decided to take over and fill in as maids, bartenders, kitchen help and what have you. Farrow needs Shell to get to the bottom of the mysterious deaths before his hotel business completely falls apart.

Later he joins forces with local girl Alexandria Ducharme (Dria for short) who will be his tutor in Voodoo 101. It's clear to Shell that he will need a rudimentary understanding of the local beliefs if he is going to outwit the bad guys who are taking advantage of a superstitious population and killing anyone who gets in their way. His imaginative and purely American revenge on the local voodoo bad guy takes the form of an elaborate magic show employing balloons, voodoo dolls, a booby-trapped tree, a very large and powerful magnet, and generous amounts of fake blood. He outwits and out-cons the con artist - a forbidding voodoo priest who turns out to be powerless compared to Shell's ingenuity. It's the best sequence in a very entertaining crime novel.

I've read that the later Shell Scott books tend to get fanciful. That's putting it mildly. Apart from the heavy emphasis on voodoo rites and rituals, the murder method employed (and those mysterious deaths are indeed murders) is something out of the world of weird menace pulps. Anyone well versed in those magazines may know that Anthony Rud's five part serialized detective novel The Rose Bath Riddle which appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly (Sept – Oct 1933) employs the very same method. This is only the second time I have encountered it in any crime fiction of any period. In Rud's story I thought the method was more like science fiction and probably impossible to pull off. As Prather describes the use of this specific means of killing people it seems more feasible. And more psychopathic. It gave me chills reading the villain's dialog as he gleefully described administering his weapon of choice and how he managed to leave no trace of it on their bodies. Fanciful is not the word here. Fiendish is the proper adjective.

I like Shell's oddball sense of humor and Prather's eccentric way of conveying it. Here's a good example from late in the book:
That was she. My gal. The gal I'd swept off her feet. Ah, you Romeo, you, I thought. Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Casanova was a piker. Just wiggle your little finger and they land all over you. Clunk! I've got to quit believing everything these babes tell me. Maybe I'd better give up babes entirely. No, I'd rather die.
I got you, babe. He also calls women "tomatoes."

And his troubles and mishaps and set-backs?
"This is some pickle, eh?"

"…an indication of the depth of the pickle I was in."
I have to dig up the rest of my Shell Scott books. I've only found Kill Him Twice and Three's a Shroud. I was positive I had more than that. In any case, I know I'll be adding to my Shell Scott collection on a regular basis.This is some damn good crime writing.


  1. I have 30 Shell Scot books, including this one, with this cover, but have read only about a third of them (so far!). I've enjoyed every one of those, and expect to enjoy the rest, bit the earlier ones which are a little less "zany" and the later ones. Seems like it's always fun to go along with Shell for the ride, especially since I can sit in my favorite chair and not have to take the punches he sometimes endures.
    If I'm not mistaken there is a voodoo element in one of Salis' mysteries, perhaps LONG-LEGGED FLY.

  2. Utterly fascinating - I've only ever read about the Shell Scott books but had no idea they were so eccentric and Avallone-like - so clearly it is time to do something about it. Ta very much!

  3. John: I don't think Shell Scott is for me. I don't think this author is writing to women. HA!
    Tomatoes. I used to like a next door neighbor who, once upon a time, used to call me 'Doll face' in fun, affectionate way, but don't think I like the whole tone of the Scott thing. I'm also not big on voodoo. Although I did read and like Robert Crais' book VOODOO RIVER, primarily because it has little to do with voodoo and is more of a detective mystery/thriller set in New Orleans and has a killer snapping turtle who dwells in the murky depths of a lake belonging to a very bad man. HA!

  4. Despite misgivings similar to Yvette's ("tomatoes," voodoo), I find myself intrigued. Sometimes it's good to step outside the comfort zone.

  5. Carol & Yvette -

    I'm not a big private eye fan either. But really Shell Scott is a character that I think anyone would find so damn likable. I was surprised how quickly I took a liking to him in this book. He gets beat up a lot (just like Marlowe) but takes his licking with humor. There isn't anything cruel or sadistic in the books I've read. And the babe and tomato thing is just quirky humor. I can see how it can be off-putting, though.

    I can't help but find similarities in all these books I read. I am developing an analogy critique method all my own. Don't know if this is a good thing or a bad one. It's just natural to me. I had to turn this in to a voodoo/bizarre murder method tribute. Though I'm trying to teach myself to talk about characters and story more rather than plot mechanics and incident.

  6. I have no aversion to sexist comments in tough guy fiction - it's part of the charm. It's the use of "tomato" that got me. Are tomatoes the first thing that springs to mind when you see a luscious babe? How about peach or nectarine, or even papaya (if you're feeling whimsical)? "Tomato" just sounds so midwest and wholesome and not terribly tough at all.

    1. ...laughing here...sorry, Carol. "Tomato" just sounds so midwest and wholesome and not terribly tough at all. I think the thing I like most about Scott is the surface pussycat, with the claws retracted. He's tough when he has to be, but when he's talking to "tomatoes" or his "itty bitty...fishies" he comes across almost like what Jonathan Winters would call "a bloody sissy." Tongue in cheek all the way, of course--Scott, that is.

  7. Hugh B. Cave has some voodoo-themed novels, but they are more horror - or even mainstream, as his The Cross on the Drum proves - than crime. Cave also did at least one non-fiction book on voodoo. There's also an excellent pulpy short story by Garnett Elliot called "Rendezvous on a Zombie Island". You might find it with Google.

  8. Oops, that was me, not my wife talking! (Do check out her vintage blog - it's in Finnish, though.) Sorry!