Friday, September 1, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE SPY WHO WAS 3 FEET TALL by Peter Rabe

There's a good novelette in here somewhere. Trouble is, it's smothered in a lot of extra words meant to market it as a novel. That's what happened back in 1966, when it was published by Gold Medal, and it will be happening again this month in a Manny deWitt Omnibus from Stark House Press. 

When I read the first deWitt novel, Girl in a Big Brass Bed (discussed HERE), it took me a long time to settle in and appreciate Rabe's slow pace and odd sense of humor. This time I was ready for it, and the first thirty pages went pretty well. 

DeWitt is sent by his quirky international multi-industrialist boss, Hans Lobbe, to handle legal details for the building of a road in the fresh new African nation of Motana. But he soon learns there are people who don't want him to get there, let alone get that road built. And that's where, for me, the story bogged down in a lot of nicely written but pointless captures and escapes.

Bored, I had to start another book, Steward Edward White's The Long Rifle, which begins the saga of Andy Burnett (you'll hear more about that anon), and slog through this one a few pages at a time until it caught my interest again. 

That happened about forty pages from the end, when deWitt finally gets an inkling of what's going on, and who the real players are in the story. 

DeWitt stumbling around in the dark seems to be the point of this series. His boss, Lobbe, won't tell him why he's there, or who his enemies might be, or what the implications of his success or failure are. All this, I guess, is meant to be the mystery, as deWitt (and the hapless reader) struggle to figure it out. Near the end, things finally started popping, and came to a reasonably satisfying finish. But it was a rocky trip.

I was expecting good things, being there was a Spy in the title. But he was a letdown. Yeah, we meet an annoying little 3-foot Motanian, but he's not really a spy. He's just there for the occasional not-quite-funny joke, and to participate in some of the pointless captures and escapes. The book would have been better without him.  

The novelette I referred to reminded me of one of the wartime stories Richard Sale wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. And Rabe's cockeyed portrayal of corrupt Motana reminded me of Norbert Davis's Mexico in The Mouse in the Mountain. But Sale was more compelling, and Davis much funnier.

I have it on reliable authority that the third and last Manny deWitt novel, Code Name Gadget, goes easy on the attempted humor and gets down to business. I'm hoping that's so.


Barry Ergang said...

I've had a copy of this one and CODE NAME GADGET for years. I tried one of them once--can't recall which--and couldn't get into it. I may try again some day, if only because I've enjoyed some of the crime novels Rabe is best known for. But your review doesn't have me wanting to rush to the shelf to grab it.

Evan Lewis said...

Sorry. I tried pretty hard to like this one, but it wasn't meant to be.

George said...

I liked Peter Rabe's early work. He got too cute with his later works like THE SPY WHO WAS 3 FEET TALL.

Unknown said...

Agree with George, Rabe was at his best in his 1950s gangster novels for GM, which Donald Westlake liked so much. When I wrote Westlake a fan letter in 1970, admiring the Parker novels, which were mostly out of print by then, he recommended Rabe. "There, I've given you another writer that you won't be able to find," he said. Over the next couple of years, I was able to scrounge a fair number of Rabes in used bookstores and (of all places) a church rummage sale.

Rick Ollerman said...

Rabe tried to do something specific with his DeWitt trio and he himself thought the resulting humor too "arch." It simply doesn't work as humor. The plots are somewhat clever and intricate and the constantly changing nature of DeWitt's relationship with his boss is interesting but the humor tends to place a drag on the action if you let it. My advice would be to ignore anything that resembles a joke and just read on. This isn't Rabe going downhill, it's more of an experiment that just didn't quite work out, though I've found the books work better on repeated readings.

If you really want to see what Rabe could do with a serious spy novel, read his "Blood on the Desert." That one should leave you wanting more.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've got a kid's book called 003 and a half. Pretty good un