Friday, January 8, 2010

Forgotten Books: Simon Lash, Private Detective by Frank Gruber

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.)

Visit pattinase for more of this week's Forgotten Books.


Laurie Powers said...

Fantastic review, Dave. I've read a little of Gruber, including his memoir The Pulp Jungle. This one is new to me - I especially like the library angle.

Richard Prosch said...

On a wintry day like today, snack food sounds good.

Paul Bishop said...

The comparrison to Gardner is apt. I've not read any of the Lash stories, so I'll have to give one a try.

Richard Robinson said...

Great review, Evan! I've heard of but not read one of the Lash books, now I'll have to find one.

Randy Johnson said...

I've read maybe half of the Fletcher books, but none of the Lash books. darn you, more to find and add to an already humongous TBR pile.

David Cranmer said...

Marvelous writer, outstanding series. Thanks for reminding me.

George said...

I've read a few Gruber titles, but not this one. I'll have to locate a copy pronto!

Evan Lewis said...

I'd likely have forgotten this book myself if finding the movie poster in storage hadn't jogged my memory. I sure didn't recall the book collecting angle.

Rittster said...

I have a friend who has a vhs copy of both ACCOMPICE and also DEATH OF A CHAMPION, a movie feturing Gruber's short story character Oliver Quade, The Human Encyclopedia. If you want, I could try to borrow them and report back to you. Also, if you really think the poster is too ugly, I'd be happy to provide you with my address and the shipping charges and take it off your hands.


Evan Lewis said...

Any chance of dubbing those flicks, Rittster? I'd gladly reimburse you for tapes and postage. I also have a hankering to see the film version of The French Key. (I have that poster too, and it's not half bad.)

This Accomplice poster is even uglier than it looks. Someone repaired it with 2-inch wide cellophane tape (now brown and brittle) across half the title and in several other spots. And a piece of one corner is missing. Took me an hour on a photoshop program to get it looking as good as it does. Still, I suppose it would be hard to part with. I like knowing I have it in a box.

Rittster said...

Yeah, I can copy those two movies onto a dvd-r for you. Just give me a week or two and I'll email you through your profile when I'm done.

And I was just kidding about the poster. No way would I part with an original poster if I were you. You did an excellent job photshopping it; I can't see any tape or tears.

Rittster said...

Just want to check: you have a dvd player that will play dvd-r's? If so, you don't need to kick in for the blank disc or the postage, as the dvd-r will be inexpensive to ship, even in the dvd case I'll use.


Evan Lewis said...

Never tried a DVD-R. I have two players, so I suppose chances are good. And I have a new computer, so chances are even better there. Thanks!

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