Friday, November 17, 2017

Forgotten Books: DEATH TAKES AN OPTION by Neil MacNeil (aka W.T. Ballard)

Based on the number of published novels, W.T. Ballard has to be ranked as one of the most productive of "Cap" Shaw's Black Mask Boys. After his Black Mask days, he went on to write mysteries under his own name and others, and westerns as Todhunter Ballard and others. As of 1979, the year before his death, Steve Mertz tells us he had written 95 novels, more than a thousand shorter works, and fifty film scripts. 

In 1958, with Death Takes an Option, Ballard began a new series starring the private detective team of Tony Costaine and Bert McCall. And for reasons unknown (at least to me), he chose to write under the pen name Neil MacNeil.

The gimmick of two private eyes for the price of one was a good one, and the book covers play them up as partners. But based solely on Death Takes an Option (I've yet to read the others), Costaine is the boss, and does 90% of the detective work. McCall pops in and out, less often than I'd like, doing secondary investigative work, drinking, being irresistible to women and providing comic relief. In short, he's not really a partner - he's a sidekick. Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

While Costaine is your stock hardboiled P.I., being smart, tough, handsome, and flexible in the morality department, McCall is a free-spirited giant who talks like a hipster. He calls Costaine "Dad" (as in "Daddy-o"), and sums up philosophy with the line, "Three things I don't dig. Finks, falsies and fags."

This being 1958, Ballard wasn't worried about offending the LGBTQ community, and an effeminate thug and his partner are referred to as "Rosebud," "blond queen," "daisies" and "girls." There's also plenty for women to object to. Meeting the secretary Costaine is assigned, he immediately addresses her as "Kitten," "honey" and "sweet." There are also naked ladies in this book - and naked men, too - none of whom show the slightest inhibition. 

Costaine and McCall specialize as business detectives, and in this case they're hired to find out why a company accountant has committed suicide. The job leads them from California to Las Vegas, with a side trip into the desert. It's all competently told, and the patter between Costaine and McCall is entertaining. I would have liked a little more of it, and a little more involvement from McCall, but Ballard wrote the book without asking my opinion. 

The Costaine and McCall series continued for six more books, four of which are pictured here. In a 1979 interview conducted by Steve Mertz (you can read the whole thing HERE), Ballard said this about the series:

I developed the idea and editor Dick Carrol was enthusiastic. Then he died and Knox Burger took over. Burger was wary of the MacNeil byline because he knew the real Neil MacNeil of Washington. D.C., and my use embarrassed him although it was an honest family name for me. Knox did his best to kill the series. However, the books were popular and went back into reprint over which Knox had no control. It dragged on until Knox felt it was safe and then did kill both the nom and the series. I had no recourse. Knox left the house soon afterward, but the series was gone.


Charles Gramlich said...

I had no idea he was Todhunter Ballard. Cool.

Unknown said...

I've reviewed a couple of these. I like the series quite a bit.

Jerry House said...

Ballard was a cousin of Rex Stout, both sharing the Todhunter family name.

Barry Ergang said...

I read and greatly enjoyed these way back when.