Until recently, I’d never read a novel by Richard S. Prather all the way through, yet I own more of his books than most authors I actually like. Don’t ask me why – I mean, usually even the cover art isn’t much good (although I’ll make an exception for this one).
On reflection, I think it must be Prather’s gift for titles that keeps me parting with (extremely small amounts of) cash to add to my pointless collection of his work. Whilst I’ve still not acquired a copy of his hopefully beatnik-themed masterwork ‘Dig That Crazy Grave’, I could easily rattle off a top ten awesome/absurd monikers from the Prather canon, and it is this aspect of his career that I aim to primarily highlight in this new series of posts.
Though not as mirth-inducing or psychotic as some of his titles, ‘Gat Heat’ is a sublime bit of gutter pulp nomenclature that might well make it into my top five, and it was probably that, plus the rather unique aspect of the hip-hugger clad dame featured on the cover, that led me to pull this one off the shelf when, bolstered by the realisation that Prather is actually rated rather favourably in certain circles of vintage crime fiction fandom, I determined to finally actually sit down and read one of these damn things front to back.
And so, the verdict. Well, in short, Prather strikes me (on the basis of this novel at least) as a talented writer who was fully aware he was cranking out trash, and happy to let his standards slip accordingly.
His writing does often have bit of a raw, weird post-Cheney/Spillane punch to it, leavened with a hefty dose of goofball humour, and, at his best, he is capable of crafting bits of prose that read like extended strings of irresistible exploitation movie poster tag-lines. This is perfectly exemplified by chapter # 2 of ‘Gat Heat’, which begins with the immortal line;
“They were all naked. It was that kind of party. Even the dead guy was naked.”
And if at that point you don’t feel compelled to immediately cease whatever else you’re doing read on, you’re a better man than I.
Sadly though, such zingers become fewer and further between as the disappointingly linear blackmail storyline grinds into gear, and, once the novel’s beguiling setting – a delicious world of pre-Manson Hollywood decadence, ripe with wife-swapping parties, gaudy condos and brightly hued Cadillacs – has been satisfactorily established, it soon becomes a bit of a plod, despite Prather’s admirable efforts re: piling up blood-thirsty violence, extravagantly lecherous descriptions of scantily-clad dames and miscellaneous crazy, high octane shenanigans to beat the band.
(Clearly already geared up for the ‘70s, ‘Gat Heat’ actually reads like a 50/50 transition between an old-fashioned private eye mystery and one of the action-orientated ‘Men’s Adventure’ titles that would soon begin to take their place in the new decade.)
I’m not sure quite why I remained so unmoved by all this, given that I’m usually pretty happy with so-so pulpy private eye yarns, but what really bugged me I think is Shell Scott himself. Generally portrayed rather unappealingly on the covers of these books as a leering, albino buzzcut-sporting psychopath, Scott is a character who combines the blunt thuggery of Spillane’s Mike Hammer with the wise-cracking, womanising patter of yr average smirking Euro-Spy protagonist, and as such he tends to emerge as an almost insufferably smug narrator.
Whilst some of Scott’s habits (retrospectively assessing the quality of each punch he delivers to a crook’s jaw and ruing the circumstances that denied him a better performance, for instance) are quite endearing, others are decidedly less so (I hope he doesn’t go through all these books referring to women as “juicy tomatoes”, because it gets old pretty quick).
The most essential problem here though is that Scott – and by extension, the story he narrates – simply lacks the sense of moral ambiguity found at the heart of all the best P.I. tales.
From Sam Spade to Lemmy Caution to Lew Archer – they all inhabit a treacherous moral universe in which the slippery relationship between crime, the law and their own uneasy position as a reluctant conduit between the two is forever uncertain; corruption is ever-present, and questions of a given action’s justification ever unanswered. That’s the way these stories work, and it is a large part of what allows them to remain so compelling.
Take that away, and you’re left with, well… Shell Scott – a self-righteous bore whose delusions of self-determination fail to mask his more apparent function as a sadistic stooge for the established order. Every cop he meets is salt of the earth, an A-1 guy with a great sense of humour, whilst the ‘hoods’ he tangles with are diminutive, goblin-like hoodlums left over from the 1930s, who can’t pronounce ‘th’ sounds and have names like ‘Bingo’ and ‘Gippo’. Not much scope for ambiguity there.
Whilst Prather is careful not to put such dialogue directly into the mouths of his police characters, Scott speaks for his cop buddies when – ala ‘Dirty Harry’ a few years later – he repeatedly curses out the pen-pushers in the Supreme Court who won’t even let him give these crooks a well-deserved beating upon arrest, and decries the system that demands he must go through the absurd farrago of actually obtaining evidence against his suspects and letting them call their swanky lawyers, rather than just, say, shooting them.
Of course, given that nobody is reading ‘Gat Heat’ for the sake of court room intrigue, Shell Scott does end up shooting most of them, but in an off-hand, self-satisfied manner that can’t kind help but leave a bad taste in the mouth, as he blunders on towards his next comedic encounter with a bikini-clad ‘tomato’.
Of course you might say I’m expecting far too much of a light-hearted, read-in-one-sitting bit of pulp hoo-hah, and this reactionary take on the genre certainly has its precedents (I don’t recall Mike Hammer being haunted by too much moral uncertainty as he bashed villains’ teeth down their throats). But still, I dunno… arch and self-aware as Prather’s style may be, he essentially seems like a smart guy, so would it have killed him to have approached this tale of blackmail, multiple murder and sexual deceit with just a *touch* of the gravitas such topics entail, in between all the yukks..?
Anyway, more to the point, the artwork on the front of this one is pretty cool. It turns out the illustration is actually by Robert McGinnis, re-purposed by New English Library from the 1967 Carter Brown number pictured below. (I thought I detected a McGinnis-y look in the folds of her flares and contours of her belly, but wasn’t 100% sure.)
As of 1968, the ubiquitous exaggerated sales figures thrown around by all of Prather’s publishers had apparently reached the not unimpressive count of forty million, and NEL’s back cover blurb hedges its bets with a couple of paragraphs that could have been applied to literally any Shell Scott story, suggesting that perhaps they were just as reluctant to read these books as your correspondent.
More fun with the “steel-eyed, sliver-haired ‘tec” coming soon to these pages, potentially.