Leave to the Europeans the quaint drawing room murders, the goings on at weekend homes in the country and the other plodding formats that often end with the guilty party -- who often does not appear by name until the last third of the book -- fingered by some upper-class social dilettante.
Even Sherlock Holmes, the most recognizable of all detectives, belongs to the same pseudo-aristocratic strata of Old World gentry who used to run the world.
The American detective -- hard-nosed, cynical, and scrupulously honest like some knight of old -- defines the genre for the rest of the world. The golden age of such characters is long past. They belong to another era, as do most the pulp magazines where their exploits could be found.
The tradition lives on, however. Stuart M. Kaminsky, the Edgar-winning author of more than 70 novels, keeps it very much alive through the adventures of Toby Peters, one of three series characters to whom he currently gives life.
"A Few Minutes Past Midnight" (Carroll & Graf, 2001, 234 pps., $24.00) is the latest adventure of the gumshoe to the stars.
It is close to Christmas, 1943, and Peters has been retained by Charlie Chaplin to find and protect him from a man who wants to kill him unless he abandons his latest film project. The film, a dark comedy tentatively titled "Lady Killer," is the story of a modern Bluebeard who kills his wives for their money.
Film aficionados will recognize the plot as being that of a late Chaplin film "Monsieur Verdoux." As is the case in other of the Toby Peters' stories, the mystery closely parallels the plot of a film project his celebrity client is involved with. This book is no exception, as the hunt for Chaplin's menace involves similar threads to those that eventually appear in the finished film.
In "A Few Minutes..." the fictional Chaplin eventually changes the title of his project to "Monsieur Verdoux" as homage to Mrs. Plaut, Peters' deaf landlady who insists on calling Chaplin "Mr. Voodoo" when the detective hides the star in his rooming house.
Kaminsky tries to give the story the flavor of a Chaplin film, full of unexpected turns and generally odd occurrences of which the protagonist is usually the unwitting victim. It works much better on the screen than it does in print. Part of the reason is that in this book, the central characters of Peters and Chaplin have to share too much screen time with others.
The colorful characters that populate Peters' world of Los Angeles during World War II make their appearances. In this book, they are generally a liability to the successful execution of the story.
Rather than develop the relationship with Chaplin or further add to the Peters character, Kaminsky seems to want to provide each of the regulars with a brief appearance. While "No Neck Arnie" the mechanic, wrestler-poet Jeremy Butler, dentist Sheldon Minck, ex-wire Anne - the thrice-married love whom Peters cannot abandon - and the others are all entertaining, some of their appearances in the book seem forced, as though Kaminsky worried that series fans might notice that one or more were missing, even if they do little to advance the story.
The other casualty of this approach is that the marvelous period tone of the other books in the series is markedly less evident. Typically, Kaminsky flushes out the Hollywood-ness of the setting in astonishing precise detail, down to the atmosphere of restaurants, fight cards, and the old radio shows Peters listens to while driving from place to place. In "A Few Minutes..." that period exposition is sacrificed in exchange for the almost ritual appearance of the supporting cast - as though the both could not occur simultaneously.
Kaminsky has been writing this series since the late 1970s, when Peters handled his first case for Errol Flynn. In the ensuing years, he has worked for the three Marx Brothers, Gary Cooper, Mae West, Albert Einstein and other notables from the period. Most of the books detail the rich color of the period in bold strokes. "A Few Minutes Past..." is pale pastels by comparison. It is a worthwhile read, but not nearly the best of the bunch.
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