The Chicago Review of Terrible Books: Kill the Clown

When I looked at the gathering again, almost all of the heads were turned toward me. Nearly two hundred pairs of eyes stared at me. The band stopped playing suddenly. I knew it was a forlorn, a dismal hope, but I tried to stretch my painted grin wider and hop clownlike down the last few steps, but the cause was long lost. And I knew it. I knew I wasn’t going to make it. In the silence Barracuda yelled again, harshly, “Kill that clown! It’s Shell Scott!”
In 1962, Fawcett Publications, the creators of Captain Marvel and "Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang,” published Kill the Clown, a Shell Scott mystery by Richard S. Prather. Part of their Gold Medal Books line of newsstand paperbacks, Kill the Clown is pulpy, poorly written, both passively and actively sexist, needlessly violent… And goddamned amazing. Kill the Clown While you were reading the description, Shell Scott impregnated your wife. In the plot, “the privatest eye in town” Shell is hired by a seductress with “red hair like combed fire” (her name’s Doris) to find evidence that mobster Frank Quinn framed her brother for murder. To do this, Shell has to infiltrate Quinn’s costume party dressed as a clown, making his way past a rogue's gallery of Doodle, Blister, Shadow, Speedy, Nevada, Hacker, Hal the Cad, Pizza Jim, Larry Bourne and “beetle-browed Tiger McGoon.” Now you might think I’m going to go off on the fact the story had a goon named McGoon, but I would actually like to draw your attention to a sadder specimen. Larry Bourne. Poor, boring Larry Bourne. A life among Pizza Jim, Tiger McGoon, Hacker, Shadow, Blister and… Larry. Moving on. There are five women in the story who get more identification than “the blonde” or “a sharp-looking red-headed tomato.” They are Doris Miller, Lolita Lopez, Maude Quinn, Vava Voom! (complete with exclamation point and italics) and a costume shop employee only known as Marie Antoinette. Shell bones Lolita, implied bones Marie Antoinette, almost bones Doris (a lot) and Vava Voom! strips for him because--and this is plot-relevant--Shell stole a beret. The only woman who doesn’t fall for Shell’s charms is Maude Quinn, whom the text specifies over and over again is unattractive. Shell’s method of seduction appears to be showing up. And being a masculine fantasy audience surrogate. The only thing Shell seems to love more than the ladies is home electronics, with long passages appearing out of nowhere describing in great detail the early-1960s technology used in the masculine fantasy audience surrogate game. Shell Scott doesn’t just sneak blackmail photographs of the mob underling hoteling it up with the boss’ wife. He takes a Yashica Lynx 35mm. camera with an f-1.9 lens, a cassette of Kodak IR135 35mm. infrared film, the “standard flash attachment for the Lynx” and GE 5R flashbulbs. “With this film, and the lens set at f-4.5, and a shutter speed of about 1/50 of a second, I could take satisfactory pictures in the complete absence of visible light,” said the man who elsewhere would say “I had already seen enough to peel my nerves open like used artichokes” and “she batted big long dark lashes at me like a gal waving two flags in a Spanish fandango.” In fairness, Prather didn’t seem to be going for great literature in his clown crime adventure. It’s pretty crystal clear “all the men have square jaws and the women large breasts” mid-century man fantasy. Richard Prather would write 41 Shell Scott books between 1950 and 1987. Titles include The Scrambled Yeggs, Everybody Had a Gun, The Meandering Corpse, Three’s a Shroud, Shellshock and my personal favorite, Dig that Crazy Grave. A Shell Scott novel unfinished at the time of Prather’s death in 2007 was published posthumously in 2011. Prather’s papers are kept in the Richard S. Prather Manuscript Collection at the University of Wyoming. He was happily married for 58 years and, hey all you tortured artist-writer types out there, the author of the line “she was clearly the best argument against girdles since volleyball in nudist camps” was more successful and beloved than you will ever be. And good for him. Shell dresses as a clown, breaks men’s jaws in a single punch except when the narrative demands a more drawn-out fight and, at one point, escapes from Blister and Shadow by convincing them that their boss is on a game show called “Slob For A Day.” It's as sexist and offensive as anything else in paperback at the time, but at least had the good sense not to take itself seriously. Shell Scott is like if James Bond discovered joy. Do I recommend Kill the Clown: An Original Gold Medal Novel? No. It's too dumb, too cookie-cutter and dated. But I'll be damned if I'll say I didn't enjoy it. Paul Dailing writes f’realsies at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, a stab at literary journalism in the vein of the 1920s Chicago Daily News column “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” He's appearing on April 2 at the Chicago History Museum and has an upcoming project that will knock your socks off. Until he can go public with it, he's referring to it only as Operation Scalded Armadillo. Read past Chicago Review of Terrible Bookses: Know a terrible book that should be featured? Tweet it and #terriblebook to @1001chicago.
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Paul Dailing