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My aunt Betty owned some very interesting books.  

I'm not talking about the unending supply of current mystery, suspense, and police procedurals that showed up every month courtesy of the Mystery Guild, or the three-in-one condensed mysteries that she got from some other source that I never discovered.  I'm not even talking about the short stories and occasional anthology that came thanks to her subscription to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Those were normal, and expected, and aside from the occasional mild sex scene in one of the Mystery Guild's selections, there was nothing particularly unusual about the bulk of her collection.

The anomalies were in a small and usually ignored group of tattered paperbacks.

Now, mind that Betty was, to say the least, puritanical in her personal life and beliefs.  Also please remember that Betty was a lifelong Republican who believed in clean living and traditional values, and that her favorite Agatha Christie character was Ariadne Oliver, Hercule Poirot's dippy detective friend, and the existence of these books on Betty's polished maple bookshelves becomes even less explicable.

Because these weren't just paperbacks.  They weren't just mysteries.  They were racy.

The one I particularly remember was a slim, well-thumbed book with a vivid cover painting of a busty blonde in a raincoat.  I can't recall the title, unfortunately, but the blurb on the flyleaf described the blonde slithering up to a man in a bar, complaining about the heat in the room, and then shrugging off her raincoat to reveal that she was -

Completely and utterly naked.

I never dared read any farther - I was only twelve or thirteen when I encountered this amazing tome - but I knew right away that this was a dirty, dirty book that I should never, ever read.  And so, being a good little repressed nerd with a huge crush on Mr. Spock, I would simply reread the blurb from time to time, usually when Mum was in grad school, Betty was putting in some extra hours at work, and my uncle Oscar was upstairs in his study reading the morning paper.  I'm not sure they ever knew I'd found the Naked Woman Book, or the other, equally overheated titles.  I did try to read one, an edition of Erle Stanley Gardner's Give 'Em The axe with a somewhat less lurid cover than the Naked Woman Book, but never managed to finish it thanks to Gardner's writing having all the color and life of a heap of discarded sawdust.

How these books came to be in Betty's house I am still not sure.  Why she kept them in a place where a curious tween could find them is beyond me.  What is beyond dispute is that these were my very first introduction to what is called the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.

These stories, first popular in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to magazines like Black Mask and writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, could not be less like the clever puzzles and cozy whodunits that Betty favored.  Oh, there's a murder (or two, or three, or a dozen) and a brilliant detective, just like in the average Hercule Poirot/Lord Peter Wimsey story, but the violence is overt and constant, the hero is cynical and wounded, the heroine is usually a tough-talking dame, and the setting is the mean streets of a major America city, not a British country house or a pretty village in the Cotswolds.  There's plenty of gunfires, plenty of dumb cops, and plenty of blood, and most examples have plenty of rough, tough, not particularly romantic sex.  There's also a significant emphasis on the detective hero making sure that justice is served, either inside or outside the law, often while avenging the death of a partner, friend, or client.

If all of this sounds very close to classic film noir, and later iterations like Blade Runner and The Dresden Files, give yourself an unfiltered Marlboro and a blue plate special at the nearest greasy spoon.  Early noir drew heavily on hard-boiled detective characters, plots, and tropes, with some of the very finest noirs being direct adaptations of hard-boiled classics like The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Adultery, murder, rape, sexual abuse, drug running, gangsters, crooked cops, crooked politicians...all of these appear regularly in both hard-boiled stories and film noir, along with some gut-wrenching violence thanks to Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson.  

Exciting, daring, often moving, sometimes brilliant...hard-boiled stories are many things, but polite and cozy they are not.  What a handful were doing at my aunt's house puzzled me than and puzzled me now.

Tonight I bring you two examples of the hard-boiled genre, both somewhat soft as these books go.  One was a cheerfully goofy series featuring a big lunk with a crew-cut, while the other starred a gorgeous, slinky, professional virgin and the cop who lusted for her.  Both are quite entertaining if you're in a certain mood, and more than qualify as Books So Bad They're Good:

The Shell Scott series, by Richard S. Prather - Richard S. Prather was many things:  World War II veteran courtesy of the Merchant Marine; loving husband to the beautiful Tina for over half a century; civilian supply clerk for the Air Force; even, from 1949 to his death in 2007, avocado farmer.  He was also the creator of possibly the only natural platinum blond private eye to stalk the mean streets, Sheldon "Shell" Scott.

Shell Scott is one of those fascinating literary creations who never seems to age; like the far superior (and far more intelligent) Archie Goodwin, Scott hit his early 30s sometime right after he mustered out of the Marine Corps in World War II and hasn't acquired so much as a callous, let alone the wrinkles, scars, sun-blotching, or melanoma that one might expect the average white-blond with a crew cut to pick up in Southern California.  Shell is also remarkably free of PTSD or other psychological disorders that would seem part and parcel of being a Pacific Theater veteran who earns his living as a private detective, but such is the glory of literature.

Then again, we are talking about a PI who wears teal blue suits, tootles about the mean streets of LA in a brightly colored convertible, has an aquarium full of tropical fish in his apartment, and says things like "she was nude as a noodle."  Shell may get the job done, but it's pretty clear that he's far more concerned with the next beautiful woman, semi-stupid joke, or perfectly mixed cocktail than justice, vengeance, or any of the more typical hard-boiled obsessions.   He may have a broken nose and a chunk out of one ear, but overall?  Shell Scott is just a big, goofy, happy go lucky guy who happens to make his living hunting down the bad guys, shooting them, and then making time with a gorgeous, not overly intelligent dame.

As for how he does this...they say that nobody does it better than James Bond.  That includes Shell Scott.  But it's safe to say that nobody does it weirder than Shell Scott.  During his three dozen cases, our hero does the following:

- Swings on vines through the set of a jungle movie...stark naked.

- Fights the bad guys armed only with a crossbow.

- Infiltrates a naturist colony and escapes in a hot air balloon...stark naked.

- Disguises him not as an extra, not as an actor on yet another movie set, but as a prop...which leads to the memorable line "That rock just shot me in the ass!"

- Delivered himself of such scintillating remarks as:

Lita was a gal so female that she made most other females seem male
It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles.
Her breasts were so full and firm and abundant that each of them might have been both of them
Not surprisingly, Shell Scott's adventures were immensely popular during the 1950s, rivaling only the blood-soaked exploits of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in sales.  Prather wanted his readers to be happy when they finished his books, and in that he more than succceeded; readers looking for adventure and sex were happy, readers looking for fun were happy, and Richard S. Prather and his avocado plantation were very, very happy, since the royalties were more than enough to cover the times when guacamole wasn't all that popular.  There was even a Shell Scott magazine for a year in the mid-1960s, which was unfortunately too late for the big galoot to get any traction on the newsstands.  

Prather and Shell continued on their merry way until a nasty dispute with his publisher in the 1970s led to a long hiatus from publishing, including a complete Shell Scott manuscript that wasn't published until Tor Books attempted to revive the character a decade later.  Alas for detective aficionados, enough time had passed that what had been funny in the 1950s now just looked dumb, and Shell Scott joined so many other series characters whose day had come and gone.

Perhaps it's time for a Shell Scott revival.  After all, Mad Men has made the early 60s cool again, so why not?  If nothing else, why not an e-book or two?  Surely there's room on the Nook or Kindle for titles like Have Gat, Will Travel?  Or how about The Trojan Hearse?  Who could resist a character who talks like this:

Why does everyone want to do me in? Sure there was a national election going on, but I wasn't running for any office. Still, if it hadn't been for me the other candidate, who was a shoo-in, might have won. But there were a lot of things going on, too.

Like Polly Plonk, whom I first encountered all dressed up in her birthday suit in her psychiatrist's office. Or Johnny Troy, America's golden-voiced gift to females of all ages, who might have polled more votes than both presidential candidates if he hadn't fetched up dead. And, lastly, Ulysses Sebastian, whose talent agency was the biggest in the world until it started to "represent" some mighty peculiar clients. Such as Joe Rice, top man in the west coast Mafia, whose delightful little hirelings kept trying to kill me for reasons that were not all clear to anyone, least of all me, Shell Scott.

Who indeed?

The Honey West series, by G.G. Fickling - Honey West, like Shell Scott, is a blonde private investigator in Los Angeles, but the resemblance definitely stops there.

Honey, who got her name because "Honey" is a common endearment and she lived in the West, got her start in the late 1950s and continued to appear in books, the occasional comic, and even in a one-season TV show starring Anne Francis.  There had been a handful of female PI's before her, most notably Mavis Seidlitz and Nero Wolfe supporting character Dol Bonner, but Honey was different from the first.  

The brainchild of Forest Fickling and his fashion writer wife Gloria, Honey was deliberately intended to combine Mike Hammer's toughness and Marilyn Monroe's looks in one gorgeous, lethal package.  Her first case used the common hard-boiled trope of vengeance (for her murdered father, private investigator Hank West, who had been gunned down behind a theater while on a case).

At first glance, Honey West seems like a terrific proto-feminist character.  She wasn't the first hardboiled female private eye - Mavis Seidlitz preceded her by a few years - but a smart, strong-willed woman avenging her father?  Going out on the mean streets to fight crime?  Honey might not be as conflicted or deep as Vic Warshawski, or as damaged and tough as Eve Dallas, but at a time when the average female character in a mystery novel was either a treacherous dame, a swooning damsel, or a dotty old lady, she was a breath of fresh air.

Except…that Honey really wasn't all that different from the rest of the pack.  For a supposedly independent character, she sure needed to be rescued by her faithful friend/partner/non-sexual love interest Mark (or was it Johnny?).  Why was this woman who was supposedly as tough as Mike Hammer called "girl" in so many of the titles of her books?  And why oh why were the books titled things like Honey in the Flesh or Honey On Her Tail?

Worst of all, the Ficklings, who were friends with Richard Prather, were equally enamored of innuendo, double entendres, and outrageous flirting, even though Honey and her totally not-doing-it pal constantly talked about sex.  No, Honey was a good girl even though she looked like Marilyn Monroe and shot people, and there was no way her creators were going to let her lose her virginity, nuh-uh, no how no way.  Even being dosed with an aphrodisiac and complaining mightily that her bottom felt like it was aflame wasn't reason enough for Honey to spread some of it around with her oh-so-respectful main squeeze.

Despite this insistence on Honey remaining a professional virgin, the books were popular enough that someone in Hollywood thought that Honey West would be a terrific TV series, especially after the British spy show The Avengers and its karate-kicking heroine Emma Peel hit and hit big on American television.  Clearly women who could fight but still remain feminine were hot stuff, and what better heroine than a popular American lady PI?

And so Honey West, starring Forbidden Planet lead Anne Francis as Honey, debuted in 1966.  Her faithful if azure-genitaled swain Mark/Johnny was renamed Sam, she was given high-tech weaponry like teargas earrings that seemed better suited to Modesty Blaise, and the cast was enlarged by the addition of Honey's pet ocelot, Bruce (played by a real genuine ocelot), and the producers sat back and congratulated themselves on their wisdom in capitalizing on the fad for tough female crime fighters.

Unfortunately, Hollywood forgot one thing:  Emma Peel (and Modesty Blaise, and Mission:  Impossible's Cinnamon Carter) were more than pretty faces who could fire a gun and look tough while the men in their lives rescued them.  Mrs. Peel, Mam'zelle Blaise, and Agent Carter were every bit as strong and competent as Messrs. Steed, Garvin, and Phelps, and often as not rescued themselves.  Add in that none of the above spent their time flirting with their male allies and then turning them down, and it was no contest.  Ocelot or no, Honey West only lasted one season.

That doesn't mean that the character disappeared; novels continued to appear until the early 1970s, and a small but faithful fan base agitated for the return of Honey West for the next few decades.  As recently as ten years ago, there was serious talk that Reese Witherspoon would appear in a big screen Honey West movie as a follow up to Legally Blonde, while a coffee table book a few years ago was an affectionate tribute to both the book and TV versions of Honey.

Most intriguing of all, Moonstone Books recently revived the character in a series of comics.  These stories, some written by underground comics legend Trina Robbins, take place in Los Angeles in the 1960s and feature Honey as the smart, competent bombshell she should have been all along.  There's even an odd little one-shot that simultaneously revives Honey, Bond spoof Derek Flint, and GI Joe rival Captain Action (who came with outfits that could make him Spider-Man OR Superman OR Batman OR Aquaman OR Captain America OR the Phantom OR Buck Rogers OR Flash Gordon OR just about any other male action hero your tyke idolized), all fighting evil side by side (by side by side by side by side depending on just which of Captain Action's fifty million personalities showed up that day).

Surely even the amazing virginity of Honey West would finally yield to a man who could be everything to everyone, and often was?


And so - what hardboiled PIs have you encountered that hadn't been submerged long enough?  Or were actually sunnyside up?  It's the first day of autumn, so help us celebrate the darker days with a recommendation or two....


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

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Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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