This is another in the series of posts wherein I make a determined attempt to read and review the books from the Shelf of Shame, which is to say in the staggeringly tall to-read pile next to my nightstand.
I acquire books for all kinds of reasons, but today I want to talk about the impulse buys.
Most of them boil down to “I think this might be good, and that price is so cheap I can’t pass it up.” (Like Dacre Stoker’s Dracula sequel.) Other times, like with certain seventies comics or men’s adventure novels, I think, “This can’t possibly be good but I probably will enjoy its particular flavor of badness.” (For example, Skull the Slayer or The Liquidator.)
And sometimes a book is so weird that I have to see it for myself. Like the ones featured in today’s column. The George Kennedy mysteries.
Yeah, that George Kennedy.
Naked Gun, Cool Hand Luke, a fistful of Airport movies… you know, George Kennedy. Portly actor who was in everything at some point. He even led a Magnificent Seven once.
Apparently, he also starred in a couple of paperback mysteries.
Which is not, in itself, weird. Well, okay, it’s weird, but not as weird as you might think. Real celebrities starring in fictional adventures have been A Thing since the 1940s. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry both had a number of westerns written about them.
Nor was it just cowboys. The Whitman Authorized Editions had all sorts of then-current Hollywood stars getting involved in fictional adventures aimed at the youth market.
As you might guess from the titles, the celebrity was embroiled in a mystery of some kind– usually a Scooby-Doo style fake haunting. The wartime books often featured Nazi smugglers. “I’d have gotten away with it, too, if not for that meddling Ginger Rogers!”
Gradually the Whitmans morphed into a more standard series of tie-in hardcovers, the TV Favorites line. But they still did the occasional celebrity fictional novel.
And usually they were mysteries. I have no idea why, but I’m guessing they were deemed either the easiest kind of story to write, or the easiest plot to plug a Hollywood personality into. (Probably the latter.) Most tie-in paperback series went there, it was the default. Even characters that normally had nothing to do with any kind of detective or action story would find themselves trying to solve the mystery of the haunted lighthouse, or whatever.
As a general rule, these were hacked-out, work-for-hire books done by career paperback guys who made their living on sheer volume. Rarely if ever was a real crime writer involved. (Though Richard Deming did some nice work on crime tie-in stuff like Mod Squad, and western stalwart Steve Frazee did a couple of Whitman western tie-ins trhat were far superior to the shows they were based on.)
I have said these were usually Scooby-Doo style mysteries, and it’s always been kind of metatextually amusing to me when the two forms collided in The New Scooby-Doo Movies, a show that featured Scooby and the gang teaming up with other famous characters, both fictional and real. If the Wold Newton people counted these the shared-universe continuity becomes impossible… but I have to admit Earth-Scoob looks like a groovy place to hang out.
But this is getting rather far afield. The point is, mysteries featuring a Hollywood celeb as an amateur sleuth were actually rather common from the forties up through the late sixties or thereabouts. But this was all licensing stuff, a cash grab on the level of posters or action figures or whatever. Nine times out of ten, the celebrity involved never saw the things. No one really thought of them as real books and most are justly forgotten… well, except by weirdos like me.
The Kennedy books, however, are a different sort of thing altogether. First of all, George Kennedy wrote them himself. Without any sort of ghostwriter or anything like that. They don’t tie in to any current project, they’re not promoting anything. They’re just straight mysteries….
…starring George Kennedy. Himself, the actor. Who’s suddenly put in the middle of a murder mystery he has to solve.
I have no idea how I had never heard of these until a month ago but the concept filled me with glee. Especially when I read that Kennedy had not just put himself in the story but also a bunch of other real-world celebrity types. Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, Jimmy Stewart, Mariette Hartley…
…okay, he had me at Mariette Hartley. That was when I HAD to have them.
Mariette Hartley, you guys! How could I not?
There were two of them, I discovered. So I invested nine dollars and the pair arrived a month or so ago. The first one, Murder on Location, is about a series of killings on a troubled western picture called The Godless.
So how does Kennedy stack up as a writer of mysteries?
Not great, not awful. He makes some amateur mistakes– telling the story in the first person until he plots himself into a corner and has to shift the focus to events he could not have possibly witnessed, using the narrative hail-Mary of “this is how I heard it…” to solve the problem. Not a deal-breaker, certainly, but it’s always awkward. The plot is very much an old-school Agatha Christie whodunit, but told in a sort of faux-Spillane narration that’s just… well, it lacks polish, to say the least. And certainly passages like this would never fly today.
That said, it’s not ALL bad. Kennedy wisely chose not to make himself the sleuth, but rather the old Hollywood hand helping out fictional creation ex-cop-turned-actor Mike Corby, who’s the actual crime solver. And all the stuff about the business of moviemaking itself is rock-solid. (It amused me to see that Kennedy was crushing as hard on Mariette Hartley as we all were back then. Because come on, guys. Mariette Hartley was awesome. Still is, in fact.)
Kennedy’s descriptions of what is basically work-related drudgery on a movie set have a delightful feeling of inside baseball and it’s clearly drawn from life. The plot is somewhat hampered by the fact that you know it has to be one of the fictional personalities that’s the guilty party, and the whole thing kind of falls apart at the end– there’s just too many dead bodies to suspend disbelief, and the solution is ridiculous.
But the thing that simultaneously appalled and tickled me is the sheer Mary Sue-ness of the whole thing. Who’s the actor on set everyone looks up to? Kennedy. Who’s the wise father figure everyone goes to for advice? Kennedy. Who’s the one tapped to finish the picture after the director is killed? Kennedy. And so on. After the murderer is caught and the movie’s finished, we are told in the epilogue that it won a bunch of Oscars. Because of course it did. Someone tells Kennedy he should have gotten the Oscar for Best Director instead of the murdered guy it was posthumously awarded to, and Kennedy modestly brushes it off. Because he’s that good of a guy.
It’s all done with humor and a relatively light touch, but it’s certainly not literature. I don’t know that I’d even rank it as a good mystery. But it’s fun, and you get the feeling Kennedy is having a sort of prolonged in-joke with all his real Hollywood friends making cameo appearances in the novel.
So it was with mild optimism that I turned to the second of these, Murder On High.
No Mariette Hartley in this one, sadly, but it does have Jimmy Stewart… and it’s a riff on the Airport movies. In fact the plot could almost be lifted from an Airport movie in itself.
Mike Corby is back as the nominal sleuth/hero, and Kennedy is once again the old Hollywood hand who knows everyone and everything. The story is, if anything, even more implausible than the first one, but it’s a little better-constructed. The pacing is improved and the narration is less cringe-worthy; you can see that Kennedy had learned some things from doing the first one. But he still has to shift to the third-person for things he couldn’t have seen himself, and the murderer’s body count is still ridiculously high, especially considering most of the action is in mid-air on a flight that’s only hours long. But everything fun about the first one is fun in this one too.
Am I glad to have them in the library? Yeah, I think so. Am I recommending them? Not really, certainly not at the collector prices they seem to go for. But if you run across one at a flea market or library sale for a buck or two, sure.
I had thought this was a unique phenomenon until my Junk Shop colleague John Trumbull reminded me of Richard Belzer’s similar efforts, featuring the real actor and comedian, Richard Belzer, getting involved in crime-solving. His even appeared in hardcover.
But Belzer worked with a ghostwriter on his. I read the first one years ago and thought it was just okay– not particularly memorable, certainly, or Trumbull wouldn’t have had to jog my memory. Really, Belzer missed a bet by not doing books about Detective John Munch. I’d have been all over THAT action.
Anyway. That’s two more down from the Pile. Back next week with something cool from the Shelf of Shame.
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