17 June 2013

Adolescent Sexist Swill?

by Fran Rizer

I became a latchkey child at age ten when my mother went to work out of the home for the first time.  I immediately thought it would be nice to cook dinner for my family before Mom and Dad got home from work, so I learned to cook; however, I was never fond of washing dishes.  My mother washed pots and mixing bowls as she went along, but I tended to pile them up on the counter and wash them right before my parents were due home.

Shell Scott, but he was
better looking in my
ten-year-old mind.
The solution to having to do all that dish and pot washing was that my friends came to my house after school.  If I would swipe a  novel from one of my father's bookcases and read it aloud to them, they would do the dishes, set the table and damp-mop the kitchen while I read. They'd be finished and gone home in time for me to return the book to Daddy's office before he got home from work.

It would be ridiculous to try to tell how many books we went through including the complete works of O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe, but I want to tell you about one my favorites.  We read Mickey Spillane, and that was hot stuff in those days, but then we discovered some old paperbacks by Richard S. Prather.  They were about Shell Scott, the second most commercially successful private eye of the fifties with over forty million sales (second only to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer).

At six feet, two inches tall, ex-marine Shell Scott stayed forever thirty years old.  His bristly white-blonde buzz cut  and almost white eyebrows off set the fact that his nose had been broken and a chunk of his left ear was missing, but my girlfriends and I thought he was hot!  He drove a yellow Cadillac convertible, and I wonder if subconsciously that had anything to do with the first car I ever bought in my own name being a yellow Austin Healey convertible.

As originally envisioned, Shell Scott was typical of the post-war Spillane character Mike Hammer.  They were both private investigators who talked tough and carried guns,but Shell Scott offered more than Mike Hammer.

The usual sex and violence was lightened in Shell Scott's adventures by
what's called "a sort of goofy hedonism."  He enjoyed life with a main concern toward looking for the next good time though he did end up serving justice and vengeance like the others.  He just had more fun doing it.  We adolescents loved it!  The wisecracks and double-entendres got wackier and wackier and delighted us kids more and more as Prather increased them and we grew old enough to understand them.

In Way of a Woman (1952) Scott escapes the bad guys by swinging from tree to tree through a movie set--as we say in the South--nekkid as a jay bird in that scene, and boy, we kids pictured and discussed that.  Strip for Murder has been described as "a full-out hoot."  Scott goes undercover at a nudist camp and ends the book landing a hot air balloon in downtown Los Angeles--nekkid again, of course.  The Cock-Eyed Corpse (1964) found Scott disguising himself as a prop on a movie set, which led to the memorable line:
"You won't believe this, but that rock just shot me in the ass."

Prather was also a very successful magazine writer with many stories published in major mystery periodicals of the time.  Some of them were excerpts from Shell Scott novels while others were straight-out short stories.  He and Stephen Marlowe co-wrote Double in Trouble, but Marlowe's report on writing with Prather didn't make it sound easy.  (I'm saving that for my next blog which is about co-writes.)

The Thrilling Detective Web Site described the Shell Scott stories as "smirky, outlandish, innuendo-laden, occasionally alcohol-fueled, off-the-wall tours-de-force that, depending on your point of view, were either a real hoot, or a lot of adolescent, sexist swill and hackwork."  Not having read a Shell Scott since adolescence, I wonder if my fascination with him and Prather's stories were because of the genuine appeal of the second best-selling PI writer of the '50s or because I was an adolescent who enjoyed sexist swill and hackwork.

Tell you what I'm going to do--gonna read some of those books again, from a more mature, far more mature, point of view.  I'll let you know how much difference the decades make.  Meanwhile, if you've read Prather, let us know what you think or tell us about a literary figure you loved in your youth.

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you!


  1. When I was 11 years old, I discovered James Thurber. I thought he was absolutely brilliant and that I was just too, too grown up reading and appreciating him. Little did I know I was playing the role of the sophisticate woman he skewered so ruthlessly and well ("sophisticate" being no compliment in Thurber's mind) ... Maybe *don't* go back and read the books again, Fran. Some things should keep the golden aura they had when we were young. :-)

  2. I never read Shell Scott, but I sure read Mike Shayne, and loved him. And James Bond - in fact, I got suspended from class for reading James Bond's "From Russia With Love" in junior high! Also The Saint - I haven't re-read any Mike Shayne (try and find him today!) but I did run across some of the Simon Templar books - and boy, they were disappointing. A little too glib and precious. But I read James Thurber around 11, too, and I still love him - not for his skewering of sophisticates, but for his take on everything from language (Hollywood rewrite of Antony & Cleopatra: "I am mending, Egypt, mending") to his childhood.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous and Eve.
    Both of you mentioned James Thurber who was also an early favorite. Didn't he write the story about the unicorn in the garden? Whether he did or not, it's a favorite of mine!
    Eve, I was suspended from class in the seventh grade for reading THE TIN DRUM behind a history book.

  4. An addition for Anonymous: I'm going to take your advice and reconsider if I want to go back to Shell Scott. How terrible if he did turn out to be adolescent sexist swill!

  5. Doc Savage was one of my favorites. I thought they were classics. But I'm taking Anonymous's advice and not testing that theory by re-reading them.

    As for adolescent sexist swill--I think I may have just penned one of those.

  6. David,
    Just hope that if your new one is adolescent sexist swill, it sells as well as Prather's did!

  7. Oh my, Fran. We are true sisters. I was 11 or 12 when my dad handed me "I, JURY," my Mickey Spillane. Of course I loved it. But next was Shell Scott and I fell in love. Hopelessly. I never got to meet Richard Prather, but we corresponded several times. Then we had an argument. He swore he had met me at a Chicago Bouchercon. I swore I had never been to Chicago. He got mad because I would not admit meeting him. He kept saying he had met me. I knew I had not met him. He quit writing me after that. And the sad thing was I had really wanted to meet him.

  8. Oh my, Fran. We are true sisters. I was 11 or 12 when my dad handed me "I, JURY," my Mickey Spillane. Of course I loved it. But next was Shell Scott and I fell in love. Hopelessly. I never got to meet Richard Prather, but we corresponded several times. Then we had an argument. He swore he had met me at a Chicago Bouchercon. I swore I had never been to Chicago. He got mad because I would not admit meeting him. He kept saying he had met me. I knew I had not met him. He quit writing me after that. And the sad thing was I had really wanted to meet him.

  9. Jan, we truly are like sisters in our shared experiences. I have an interview with Stephen Marlowe who co-wrote a book with Prather. Marlowe doesn't make Prather sound too easy to get along with. I'll round up the info for you to get to it and send it by email. Funny that you corresponded with Prather. I'd rather have corresponded with Shell! I did meet Mickey Spillane though--interesting, I might blog about it sometime.

  10. While I haven’t read Shell Scott or Mike Shayne, after reading your blog post I find it interesting coincidence that my family currently lives in a house where we get a lot of mail for the previous occupant, whose name was Richard S. Prather. Hmmm…….

    The fiction of my adolescent years was usually either Heinlein or Alistair MacLean. I found Ice Station Zebra on a rotating book rack in the lobby of a small motel we were stranded in when our car broke down on vacation. The story made my head spin, and I ate his books up after that. The one and only time I’ve been eternally grateful for a breakdown. LOL

  11. A girl Tom Sawyer! And an Austin Healey! I read many of those same stories, and yes, I liked the sexist swill– but you can find sexist swill in Shakespeare. Funny, my parents didn’t think much of comic books, but they didn’t mind us reading that sexist swill at all… maybe because they and my aunt were too busy reading them too.

  12. Dixon, that is so kooooooool that you get mail addressed to Richard S. Prather since he did live in Arizona part of his life. Can we assume it's the same Prather?
    Whoever lived in the house I live in before me must have been named "Occupant."
    Change of subject: I was with my grandson Saturday night when the discussion turned to sci fi. They talked about all these people I've never read, and I would tell anyone I don't read sci fi nor fantasy. I say that now, but I did read a lot of Heinlein in my early years and loved some of them.
    Leigh, I'm glad to learn I'm not the only child of a family that read some of that sexist swill. Remember that I swiped these books from my daddy's bookcases that also held a whole lot of classic literature. I have no idea what they thought of comic books because they didn't interest me.

  13. I never got.to meet Spillane. kept going.to Bcons be missed and vise versa. I did get to be I. documentry. that Max Allen Collins where Max inter iewed mystery wrjters who had been influenced by him. MAC said Spillane.really liked what I said. spillane, prather.Hammet.Ross mc donald & john d macdonald were my early idols because I wanted to write P.I. stories. my favorite thing to.read. I also loved perry mason & earle G. wrote the Donald Lam, Bertha Cool detective agency. I didnt care for the brainy guys like Sherlock & Nero wolfe back then. I loved the rough & tumble sexy swill guys.

  14. I did also meet Stephen Marlowe & there seemed to be some egos bumping between he and Prather. I. also never got to meet John D. I loved his Travis Mcgee books.

  15. I must have been about 13 when I stumbled upon and started reading Thorne Smith! I have a collection of Prather's Scott short stories but haven't read it yet!

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  17. i read prather's slab happy then i read spillane's the girl hunters. i found both novels great and noticed both writers seemed similar as well as the characters of scott and hammer. if you enjoy crime mystery hard hitting books, you can't go wrong with two of the best in that field.
    i write my stories for fun on a typewriter to remind me of the glory days of paperbacks of spillane, prather, fleming, chandler etc.


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