Friday, March 22, 2013

Forgotten Books: PASSING STRANGE by Richard Sale

You know I like a book when I have five different editions of it. That’s the case with Passing Strange. And this time, I’m pretty sure I liked it even more than my first reading, twenty-some years ago.

Why? Because I know more about writing than I did then, and have an even greater appreciation for Richard Sale’s talent. This is the kind of book that puts me in the mood to write.

About his pulp stories, of which there were many hundreds, Sale said the first draft was the last draft. Whether that’s also true of his novels I don’t know, but it wouldn't surprise me much. His pulp dialogue is consistently smooth and entertaining, and this novel - told in first person, so it’s essentially all dialogue - ranks right up with the best of his pulp work. And by that I mean it ranks right up with his Daffy Dill series.

The narrator here is Peter Merritt, a New York obstetrician who’s summoned to Hollywood by his pregnant sister-in-law. Though he considers himself stuffy compared to movie folk, he shows flashes of Daffy’s wit and classical education, and is far less stuffy than the physician hero of Sale’s first Hollywood novel, Lazarus #7.

In Hollywood, Merritt meets two of the supporting players from Lazarus #7, the quiet but effective homicide detective Daniel Webster, and slimy but almost likable movie producer Al Roche. A third of the way into the book, the setting moves east, and all the Hollywood players move along with it, bringing their wacky personalities with them. ‘

As depicted on three of these covers, the trouble starts when someone in surgical garb slips into the operating room and murders the slimeball Hollywood doctor Merritt is assisting. Then a dead baby in a black-trimmed bassinet turns up, and before you know it more bodies start dropping. It’s all passing strange, but all very nicely told.

I've been slowly reworking my way through all of Sale's novels, of which this is the sixth. Previously reviewed here were Not Too Narrow . . . Not Too Deep (1936), Is A Ship Burning? (1937), The Rogue (pulp serial, 1938), Cardinal Rock (1940) and Lazarus #7 (1942). Still to come are Sailor Take Warning (aka Home is the Hangman) (1942), Destination Unknown (aka Death at Sea) (1943), Benefit Performance (1946), The Oscar (1963), For the President's Eyes Only (1971) and The White Buffalo (1975). Stay tuned.

Click HERE for earlier Sale reviews, pulp covers, two complete Daffy Dill stories, the first Candid Jones story, an early story from Nickel Detective and other cool Sale stuff.

Click HERE to visit pattinase, where you'll find links to more Forgotten Books.


George said...

I don't have five different editions of PASSING STRANGE but I do have two: the ACE Double and the digest. I need to read more Richard Sale after your reviews!

Rick Robinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Robinson said...

This sounds very interesting indeed, sir.

Anonymous said...

I was just looking through O'Brien's Hardboiled America (again) and looking to see how many authors on his checklist I still hadn't read (again) and Sale's name popped out at me bigtime.
Haven't read a word by the guy.
If I was to dig up any of those you've read, which would you suggest?

John Hocking

Evan Lewis said...

Hm. Not familiar with that book. But my favorite novelists of that era - after Hammett and Chandler - are Jonathan Latimer and Richard Sale, followed by Cleve F. Adams and Norbert Davis. Paul Cain's Fast One ranks right up there, of course, but it was his only book.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I was unclear.
First off, I was asking for your recommendation of the best work you'd read from Richard Sale.

Second, I've read Latimer, Adams, Davis and Cain, just not Sale.

And as a guy with obviously similar tastes I recommend you get a copy of Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America as soon as you can do so. It is the best, most incisive, most passionate examination of hardboiled fiction I've ever read.

There have been two editions, the second one is somewhat different and expanded a bit. Each edition has a checklist of notable hardboiled works in the back.
I have both and would not part with either.


Evan Lewis said...

Thanks, John. I'll check it out.

Until someone reprints a bunch of Daffy Dill stories, I'd say your best bets are these two Hollywood mysteries, Lazarus #7 and Passing Strange. I haven't read the later books in so long I can't remember how they compare.