Sunday, July 17, 2011

Joe Puma is no ****-up

The Thrilling Detective Web site calls William Campbell Gault's Joe Puma "the fuck-up as P.I." I don't see that based on the five stories collected in Joe Puma, P.I.  

The same site says Ross Macdonald dedicated his last novel to Gault. That makes better sense. The stories have the same bitter attitude toward wealth, especially unearned, not to mention a whole lot of Chandlerian knightliness, plus compassionate description and dark, hard-boiled observation in about equal measure. We know that Puma is a knight, because he tells us in "Stolen Star" that "I was no knight."  As for the rest, we get:
  • "I can never find the proper comment for the wailings of the wealthy. I tried to put some sympathy into my smile."
  • "She lived in a beach shack south of there, out of the high-tax area."
  • "It was a clear and beautiful day, a day for loafing, but I didn't have a rich or talented wife."
  • "And if I told Duffy ... who would benefit? Not Gina Pastore and not Mrs. Alan Engle.  Justice might, but justice was only a word. The other two were people."
  • "Money is only unimportant when you have a bank full of it."
  • "You have to believe in somebody, Miss Pastore."
  • "There was one suit, right out of a Fresno bargain emporium..."
  • "His clothes were a bit frayed, but he wore them well."
  • "Charles smiled and said nothing, as good bartenders do."
  • "He had the kind of a face that looked naked without a number under it."
  • Of a high-class pimp who has gone into the movie business: "If a man can afford it, buying a small studio is a fine way to keep supplied with dames."
One odd bit was the description of "a short, fat man, and his language seemed a little pompous," odd, because Puma, in his role as narrator, says things like "We're all victims of our own environment to a degree, you know" and "Her toughness was not inherent."

Gault, writing these stories in the late 1950s, also peppered them with self-conscious popular culture references before the practice became widespread ("Sam reads too much Mike Hammer," "The rube sees too many movies.").
So, maybe I'll read some Ross MacDonald.  But first, some current crime writing from a country that figures in the Old Norse sagas.  
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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13 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Damn, n0w I'm going to have to figure out why I sa0d what I said. I think, though, it's because Puma does eventually fuck up, and ends up (SPOILER ALERT) murdered for his trouble. It's up to Gault's other series eye, Brock Callahan, to clean up the mess.

But I agree -- the five stories in the collection show Puma at his best -- and on his best behaviour.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, you have probably forgotten far more about Gault and Puma than I've ever read, so your opinion carries more weight than mine. I did like your hints that Gault had a much darker side.

I'd tried tp read Ross MacDonald before, probably after immersing myself in Hammett and Chander, but did not get far. Gault may prove a better entree; I started reading The Galton Case today, and I like it so far.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All right, now that I've read these five stories, what should I read next of Gault's?

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Downloaded and queued up. Thanks for the tip.

July 17, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Those quotes all sound like cliches. Of course, they may have been brand spanking new and clever at his time. But that cover is pretty disgusting. Anyway, it doesn't look like anything I would pick up. (Reading Ken Bruen's DEVIL instead. Much better lines in it).

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

The cover is a swipe from one of the Puma novels published by Fawcett. I recommend all of them. The first Puma novel was 1/2 of an Ace Double by "Roney Scott." In that one, Puma is a far from admirable character, and maybe that's what Kevin had in mind.

I like Gault's work a lot, and he was a great guy. He tuckerized me in one of the later Callahan novels, and I considered it quite an honor.

I'm a huge Ross Macdonald fan, too, but maybe you had to read his novels 50 years ago to enjoy them as much as I do.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

"the kind of face that looked naked without a number under it" that's my kind of detective story. I'll look for these.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, you could be right about the necessity of having read Ross MacDonald years ago (though I know people my age and younger who love his work).

I'm enjoying The Galton Case, but its occasional psychological observations make me wince. ("She walked away from me and her fear" and "There's a limit to what the human mind can endure" might have sounded good then, but they're psychobabble now. And sorry, but "I had a delayed gestalt" is not my idea of crime writing.)

Same with a reference to "commuters in their uniforms." That sort of social criticism does not date well. The man knew how to tell a story, though.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, both Gault and Ross MacDonald wrote for the pulps but also survived their heyday by many years. Having read Hammett and some of his immediate followers, Chandler especially, I find it interesting to see how American hard-boiled writing mutated in the late 1950s. (The Gault stories and The Galton Case date from 1957 through 1959, if I have my dates right.)

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., I think that line betrays Gault's origins. It's full of zest, a clever way of expressing a routine sentiment, just a wonderful line.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, I should add that I had not known the word tuckerize before, though I recognized the practice instantly. So thanks for enlarging my vocabulary.

July 17, 2011  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

Wilson Tucker is the guy who started the practice of using friends' names in books.

One chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation was titled "Ross Macdonald: The Private-Eye as Psychoanalyst."

July 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I looked up "tuckerize" right after you posted your comment and read about its origins. I see that Tucker wrote science fiction, and the examples in the article I read were all from sci-fi. One writer, maybe Larry Niven, tuckerized a bunch of sci-fi writer' names for names of gods, altering the spellings just enough so that the names looked exotic -- Rotn'bair for Gene Roddenberry, for example. Awful stuff, and I hope no crime writer ever takes this business about a Holy Trinity of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald to the point of making them gods in a story.

The old saw has it that Hammett's heroes were hunters, Chandler's knights, and Macdonald's social workers. But the social worker had definitely gone back to school for psychology by 1959. See my Monday post for more on this subject.

July 18, 2011  

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