Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My Bouchercon 2014 panels: Roy Huggins

First things first: The book 77 Sunset Strip is not a novel, its cover billing as "An original suspense novel by Roy Huggins" to the contrary. Rather, it is portions of three stories, two published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946, one in Esquire in 1952, linked by the flimsiest, most cursory narrative thread imaginable and published as an "original" novel in 1958, which just happened to be the first season of the Huggins-created television series 77 Sunset Strip.

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.
Max Allan Collins will discuss Roy Huggins on a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, Calif., next month. The panel is called "Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras," and it happens at 3 p.m, Friday, Nov. 14.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

I definitely want to be on hand for that panel discussion.


October 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I will look forward to seeing you; I think this one is going to be fun. We may have to barricade ourselves in the room so we can go for two or three hours.

I have learned much, and I bought a few old paperbacks unrelated to the panel on my expedition to Port Richmond Books last week. And I may have to try to track down some of Roy Huggins' TV shows.

October 21, 2014  

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