Friday, July 27, 2012

Forgotten Books: SHAKEDOWN by Roney Scott (William Campbell Gault)

Shakedown (1953) was William Campbell Gault's first private eye novel, and the first of eight books featuring the rough-around-the-edges womanizer, Joe Puma. But I'm pretty confident in saying that when Gault wrote it, he had no intention of turning Puma into a series character.

Joe Puma bears all the earmarks of a use-once-and-dispose detective. Like the dark heroes of novels by James M. Cain, Harry Whittington and Charles Willeford, Puma is far more interested in sex and money than he is justice - or the welfare of anyone but himself. The story, too, bears little resemblance to the average private detective plot. Though it begins with a murder, the lead-off killing has its roots in Puma's earlier illegal activities, and he's quickly sucked into a complex con game with three other unsavory characters, each of whom hopes to cheat the other three. And just for kicks, there are prostitutes and lesbians thrown into the mix.

Then there's the pen name, Roney Scott. Gault used this a couple of times in the pulps, when he had two stories in the same issue of a magazine. In this case, I'm guessing it was more of a stylistic decision. He'd already written two stand-alone mystery novels under his own name, and would follow this one with three more. All of those were more traditional - or at least more sedate - mysteries. And those first two novels were published in respectable hardcover, while this one seemed more of a throwaway as an Ace Double original.

Shakedown gets off to a daring start simply by revealing the details of Puma's previous case. Here's a Hollywood story that would have made Spicy Detective's Dan Turner blush:

     Rickett had a yen for sweet young stars, and Bea Condor had been one of those. Rickett, it seemed, was overendowed and Bea had suffered. He'd taken her to a quack, and she'd died. 
     Enter Target, who had a string of call girls for the money trade. Target had sworn on the witness stand that Bea was one of his girls and that she was famous for a trick involving the disappearance of a beer bottle. That took care of the dead girl's reputation, though there wasn't a shred of truth in any of it.

An unusual murder weapon, don't you think?

One more thing. Though it's not a big deal in the story, we learn that Puma played three years for the L.A. Rams. Gault would re-use that resume in 1955, when he introduced his best known character, straight-arrow detective Brock Callahan in the novel Ring Around Rosa (aka Murder in the Raw).

Joe Puma, meanwhile, did not resurface until 1956, in a series of stories published mostly in Manhunt, and finally resumed his novel career in 1958 with End of a Call Girl.

Forgotten Books? Me too. Lots of 'em. Refresh your memory at pattinase.


George said...

I loved William Campbell Gault's work. I first started reading Gault when I was kid. Gault wrote a ton of Young Adult novels. I read every title by Gault that my school library had.

Evan Lewis said...

Me too. My favorite author when I was a kid.

Steve Lewis said...

I've had this book for a long time, but I've never gotten around to reading it. Most of that time I didn't know it was by Gault, which may be why I didn't gobble it up when I first got my hands on it.

From your review I'd have to agree with you that SHAKEDOWN wasn't meant to be the first book in the series. It's interesting to look back now and see how things like that worked out.

David Laurence Wilson said...

I'm away from my notes and transcripts, but I interviewed the great man and corresponded with him. As best as I recall "Roney Scott" for this book came about because Gault was already selling hardback mysteries, and Ace was a secondary market, even for the paperbacks. It didn't give Bill the money or the prestige of his hardback publications and sensibly, Gault didn't wish to taint his brand. He was a sensible man, a wonderful working-class poet.

Evan Lewis said...

I met him once at a Bouchercon, and we talked for quite a while. Seems like I would have asked him about this, but my memory is fading.