Friday, July 4, 2014

Forgotten Books: RING AROUND ROSA (aka Murder in the Raw) by William Campbell Gault

This is the book I planned to re-read and review a month or so back for the FFB '50s Extravaganza. Due to brain fade, that didn't happen. But the book remained on my desk, eyeing me accusingly, until I broke down and picked it up.

William Campbell Gault is a special name for me. He was the first contemporary author who made me want to hunt down and read all of his books. This was back in my grade school days, and the books had titles like Dirt Track Summer and Mr. Quarterback. At the time, I had no idea he was also writing adult mysteries. If I had, I probably would have been reading Brock Callahan and Joe Puma books (instead of Mike Hammer) - when I was ten.

Ring Around Rosa (1955) introduces Callahan, an L.A. Rams lineman turned private eye. Sadly, the book is better known by its silly and inappropriate paperback title, Murder in the Raw. Jeez, I enjoy a lewd title as much as anyone, but this one is inappropriate because no one is murdered in the raw. That's false advertising.

Anyway, Brock Callahan figures he still has a couple of years left in football, but his knee has been bothering him, so he decides it's time for a new career. Because he'd spent three years in the O.S.S. during the war, and his father was a cop, he decides he's cut out to be a private detective. And since he has a lot of fans and friends in L.A., many of whom are cops, he figures Beverly Hills is the place to start. The events in Ring Around Rosa give him plenty of reasons to doubt both decisions.
Gault's prose stands up well against other hardboiled writers, but the actions of his characters don't always ring true. The problem is that his characters may be a little too realistic for the genre. We expect hardboiled dicks to play it cagey with the cops, shielding their clients and never revealing their sources. We expect, for the most part, an adversarial relationship with the police.

Well, Brock Callahan is on the receiving end of that adversarial relationship, but can't seem to dish it out. The police are arrogant, condescending, secretive and suspicious of him, but when they demand to know who his clients are, he spills his guts, not batting an eye when they get the third degree. When witnesses tell him secrets they withheld from the police, he rats them out as fast as he can, regardless of consequences. And astonishingly, none of them seem to bear a grudge for this betrayal. Maybe this is how real people act (at least some of them), but it's not what we expect in detective stories.

Other characters tell Callahan he's too naive for the job, and they're right. Over the course of the book he does wise up a little, but never enough. The cops keep dissing him, and he keeps taking it. Maybe that was Gault's intent - to keep the readers coming back to find out if he ever pulls his head out. In any case, the readers did keep coming back. Brock Callahan rolled on into thirteen more books, the last published in 1992.

Does Callahan ever grow into a true hardboiled dick, or is he doomed to remain a dimwitted (but somewhat realistic) boy scout? Looks like I'll have to re-read more of the series to find out. Next up in Day of the Ram. I'll keep you posted. 


Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this series. Haven't reread any of the books, but I should. Gault was quite a guy.

August West said...

One of my favorite PI series. I love Gault's Joe Puma series, but IMO the Brock "The Rock" Callahan ones were better. (the writing is superior) "The Convertible Hearse" is a classic.

George said...

I started reading William Campbell Gault's Young Adult novels as a kid. Years later, I discovered Gault's PI novels. WCG is a very underrated writer.

Anonymous said...

A couple summers back I decided to catch up on my 1950's detective reading and dug into both Gault's Brock the Rock and Talmage Powell's Ed Rivers series.

I read a couple by Gault, but Powell's books pulled me in. Ed Rivers pushed Brock the Rock aside, and I had to read all five books about the character.

I need to go back to Gault's stuff and give it another chance.

John Hocking

Evan Lewis said...

Never heard of Ed Rivers. Until now. Pretty sure I have a couple of unread Talmage Powell books, and I know I have some pulp stories. Did Ed appear in the pulps?

Anonymous said...

I believe Ed Rivers showed up once, in a short story, in Black Mask in the 40’s, but that was a kind of prototype of the character.
The novels, which appeared mostly in the early sixties, are more satisfying.
The Killer Is Mine (1959)
The Girl's Number Doesn't Answer (1960)
With a Madman Behind Me (1961)
Start Screaming Murder (1962)
Corpus Delectable (1964)

All of these books are good, though the first three are probably a wee bit better than the last two. Powell brings solid plotting, quick bursts of action, rich sense of place, and (this is important) an exceptionally strong first person narration. Rivers voice is sincere and has a seemingly easy-going way of describing people, places and things with casual, but sharply lucid, clarity.

If you haven’t read the Ed Rivers books I'd suggest you check them out. I think Powell is one of the most underrated detective fiction authors of all.