Frank Gruber mysteries are like snack food. You can quickly gobble one up and have another. There’s nothing really memorable about his style, but his plots are interesting and always pay off in the end. He sort of reminds me of Erle Stanley Gardner.
I’ve read all the Johnny Fletcher books, and liked them fine, but my favorite Gruber character is this guy - Simon Lash. Lash has one leg up on Fletcher because he’s a private detective, and another because he’s a book collector.
I suspect a little Nero Wolfe influence here. Given his way, Lash would stay in his library and read. He only works when his legman Eddie Slocum badgers him beyond endurance. Once Lash gets moving, he does some of his own detecting, but keeps Eddie hopping with even more assignments than Wolfe gives Archie.
The mystery itself is fine. It's full of clues and suspects and plot twists and all that jazz, but what makes this book really interesting is all the talk about Lash’s Western Americana collection. (Gruber, I’m sure you know, was also a western writer, and produced far more western novels than he did mysteries.)
Gruber says this about Lash’s library:
This was the only place where he really ever lived; during the hours when he lost himself in his hobby, the study of American frontier history. All the books were considered “Americana” by collectors and book dealers and as such most of them enjoyed the additional appendage of “rare.” Lash received the catalogues of every rare-book dealer in the country. He was one of their best customers.
Some of Lash’s books are referred to by title and author, others only by description. And in several cases, values (as of 1941) are noted. Here are the books as mentioned in the text:
- Lowe’s Five Years a Dragoon
- The Kansas Crusade by Eli Thayer
- Quantrill & the Border Wars
- The King Strang Mormon book, “worth a hundred dollars” (I was unable to identify this one)
- The McCoy Cattle Trade book
- The Cherokee Bible
- McClellan’s Own Story
- Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital by Robert Wright, one of the founders of Dodge, and one of men who hired Earp, but who spells the name Erb.
- The Vigilantes of Montana by Thomas Dimsdale,“easily worth $200” (Abebooks lists a second edition in fair condition for $975, and one near fine for $1250. The first edition, says a bookseller, is virtually unobtainable.)
- Wolfville Nights
- Clay Allison of the Washita, “worth $35” (No firsts listed on Abe, but a 1922 paperback edition, with a third of the spine missing and the cover nearly detached is offered at $447.)
- The Latter Day Saints Emigrants’ Guide, “last seen offered for twelve hundred” (A 1921 reprint of the 1848 edition is available for $400.)
At one point, Lash looks at the flyleaf of a copy of The Book of Mormon and perspiration breaks out on his forehead.
There are other western connections, too. Lash visits a ranch called “Robber’s Roost”, operated by a son of Billy the Kid. According to Billy's son, Billy himself stayed there shortly before he was killed. Johnny Ringo also spent time there, and was said by Billy to be a great reader. Other former residents, Lash is told, included Dave Rudabaugh and Butch Cassidy. The place was supposedly used by the Wild Bunch as a sort of post office.
I look forward to re-reading the other Simon Lash books: Buffalo Box (1942) and Murder ‘97 (1948).
Simon Lash, Private Detective was filmed (apparently on a meager budget) as Accomplice in 1946. Gruber wrote the screenplay. I found a review that says Lash “loves books”, so at least some of the book-collecting angle was used. Anyone seen it? (I own this poster, but it's too ugly to put on the wall.)
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