Samhain Publishing has just ushered in Check-Out Time, their third Renner and Quist occult mystery from the very talented pen of author Mark Rigney.
Longtime readers of my articles will recall my reviews of Rigney’s earlier work, The Skates and Sleeping Bear, which introduced me to his oddball double act.
Renner is a persnickety Unitarian minister, while Quist is a boorish ex-linebacker. Together, this unlikely duo team to solve occult mysteries. This latest addition to the quirky and delightful series takes our heroes from their usual Michigan stomping grounds to downtown Columbus, Ohio.
It seems a long-demolished hotel is doing its best to return to existence. It currently inhabits its original location in another dimension, complete with guests and staff from past decades somehow co-existing. These guests include such celebrated faces from the past as Amelia Earhart, James Thurber, Charles Dickens, and Marilyn Monroe.
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Angel’s Gate is the third entry in P. G. Sturges’s award-winning Shortcut Man hardboiled mystery series. The book sat on my night stand untouched for a week or so as I couldn’t shake the suspicion that it would mark the descent into formula that befalls most series. It would still be amusing and Sturges’s prose would still be engaging, but it would be the inevitable come down after the joy and freshness of the first two titles.
Early on in the book, there is a sequence where Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is hired by a client to find her sister who came out to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune ten years before and has since fallen off the map. It’s a familiar scene that immediately recalls Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, likewise a hardboiled mystery about Hollywood scandal and hypocrisy. That book was Chandler’s fifth and, while still essential reading, it lacks the freshness and vitality of his early Philip Marlowe mysteries.
I was certain I would feel the same way about Angel’s Gate. Happily, I was dead wrong.
The premise this time revolves around a highly successful movie director who disfigures and tortures a starlet during a drug-fueled sex romp and the lengths his handlers are willing to go to protect the director’s reputation and prevent bad publicity coming down upon his current production. Complicating matters is the fact that the starlet is one of a stable of nearly thirty nubile women that the reclusive and highly idiosyncratic movie mogul Howard Hogue has selected as his personal concubines. Hogue doesn’t share his women. Hogue is also the director’s producer. Early on, Sturges establishes the madness of big studio Hollywood as a house of cards just waiting for the Shortcut Man to blow it down.
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The late Leo McCarey is remembered by most film buffs today for his imitation Capra-corn, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way starring everyone’s favorite likeable cad, Bing Crosby as the sort of priest you’d find in a parish where the nuns looked like Ingrid Bergman. Turn back the clock a few more decades and McCarey was the finest comedy director in Hollywood capturing the very best performances from Laurel & Hardy, an aging Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers in their prime (when Zeppo was still part of the act). McCarey patented the chain reaction gag which tasked the comedy filmmaker with finding a way to consistently “top the topper.”
That was no mean feat. Once you get your biggest belly-laugh from the audience and then set out to find an even bigger laugh, you’re laying the groundwork for disappointment. Quite simply, no one can be that funny all the time. Yet McCarey managed it time and again and so did several other comedy directors who followed in his wake like Howard Hawks, a young Frank Capra (before sentimentality robbed him of his comic timing), Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Very few others have managed to scale those same dizzying heights since Hollywood’s Golden Age and the lost art of the chain reaction gag is one of the measures by which one may easily separate modern and classic comedy. Comedy, in its purest form, allows us to break the pain barrier and laugh.
Such ruminations on the art of comedy are entirely appropriate when discussing P. G. Sturges, a new talent who arrived on the literary scene last year with The Shortcut Man. It was easily my favorite book of 2011. It had everything going for it: a hardboiled mystery mixed with high farce, a keen ear for dialogue, and an even sharper wit in laying bare personal and cultural failings in modern society. Any book that makes the reader think, consistently laugh, and still keeps them riveted to discover the next twist the story will take is exceptional.
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