How Dennis Tafoya and Richard S. Prather keep it fresh
Some days the USPS knows just what to do. Monday's delivery brought an advance reading copy of Dennis Tafoya's The Poor Boy's Game and a package from a friend that included Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott novel Gat Heat.
I would not normally associate Tafoya's harrowing urban trips with Prather's light-hearted, action-packed hedonism, but early, brief glimpses suggest that each provides an answer to that favorite Detectives Beyond Borders question, How do authors keep their material fresh?
I've twice heard Tafoya read from The Poor Boy's Game, and this brief exposure suggests that he reinvigorates that old standby in which a character takes a drug- or alcohol-addled, barely-in-control trip through a dangerous urban environment, usually streets, bars, or both. I'll know more once I read the novel, but in the portions he read, Tafoya is emotionally invested in the character taking the trip. And that saves the scene from cliché, that and the sheer weight of the character's dissipation.
In Prather's case, the convention the author reinvigorates and pokes fun at is one he had made his own: that of the over-the-top description of usually pneumatically endowed women. This bit of Always Leave 'em Dying will serve as a fair example:
"...she'd just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the turn a long time ago.... she wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who'd invented cleavage.”That's why the opening of Gat Heat is so much fun. The book appeared in 1967, when the Shell Scott franchise had been around for more than fifteen years. Prather, presumably, had to strike a balance among giving the readers what they had come to expect, making each book different enough from what had gone before to keep the readers buying, and maintaining his own interest in a character who had been around a long time.
Readers of Gat Heat who knew their Prather and their Shell Scott must have delighted in such lines as: "You could say she was so thin she had to wear a fat girdle" and "Her complexion was the delicate tint of poisoned limeade." They could enjoy the lines for their own sake, they could enjoy the fun Prather had at his own expense. And the lines work as references to the author's more familiar descriptions. Prather's usual descriptions are present by their absence.
So much for theorizing. How do your favorite crime writers reinvigorate conventions that in lesser hands might have seemed stale?
© Peter Rozovsky 2014