My Bouchercon 2014 panels: Roy Huggins
Fortunately, two of the portions are superb, easily justifying Max Allan Collins' assertion that Huggins was "a fine crime writer, and he may have become one of the giants of the genre had he not gone Hollywood." But, Collins goes on, "had he not gone Hollywood, we would not have 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files."
One often encounters the largely spurious distinction between storytellers and wordsmiths. Huggins was both. His writing is full of narrative or descriptive bits that would be routine but for Huggins' verbal twists, his knack of imparting a sense of foreboding to even the most trivial observations. His protagonist, a private investigator named Stuart Bailey, is knocked unconscious and — stop me if you've heard this before — comes to in a motel room to discover he's alone. "Nobody lived in this room anymore," Bailey thinks, and that packs a melancholy punch that, say, "Harvey and Muriel were gone" or "the room was as empty as the feeling in my gut" just can't match. (The story has Bailey falsely suspected of murder, on the run, on his own, short of just about everything a man needs to survive. I'll give my right arm if that's not The Fugitive in embryonic form.)
The first story similarly demonstrates Huggins' flair for enlivening by verbal power alone a routine P.I. fiction set piece, in this case that of the slightly seedy investigator — in Los Angeles, naturally— reflecting wryly on the joys and hazards of his profession:
"Sunset Strip us a body of County territory entirely surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, a mile and a half of relentlessly contemporary architecture, housing, restaurants, bistros, Hollywood agents, and shops where the sell is as soft as a snowflake and just as cold."Find me a word-picture of L.A. this side of Raymond Chandler better than that one. And how about Bailey's observation that "if a private investigator keeps an open mind and avoids drafts he can learn an awful lot about his fellow man."? I like creative twists on de rigueur crime-fiction scenes, and I love avoids drafts.
The third story-portion of 77 Sunset Strip is a piece of high-concept piffle, a strained English-style country-house mystery adapted to mid-century Los Angeles with a ludicrous solution and a touch of 1950s techno-paranoia thrown in. But the first two parts of the book are so good that the letdown in Part Three hardly matters.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014