K is for … Stuart Kaminsky

The prolific mystery writer and academic Stuart Melvin Kaminsky was born in Chicago in 1934 and spent most of his career as a professor of film. Eventually he would spend 16 years teaching at Northwestern University before becoming a Professor at Florida State, only turning to full-time writing in 1994. By then he was already a remarkably prolific author of mysteries of various types. The first to be published was Bullet for a Star in 1977, which introduced eccentric gumshoe Toby Peters and launched a series of two dozen novels in which the low rent hero gets mixed up with celebrities of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kamisky also turned out several stand-alone suspense thrillers, a series set in Communist Russia and much more besides.

Below I offer a brief overview of Kaminsky’s contribution to the mystery genre over the decades as part of Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter K.

In some ways, Kaminsky’s place here at Fedora is absolutely essential – he was a prolific writer of all kinds of crime novels (psychological, suspense, thrillers, spy fiction as well as the hard-boiled mysteries he is best known for), and won the Edgar for best Mystery novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, a police procedural set in Siberia. But, he also had a long career as professor of film. If you want to get a sense of just how well he knew his stuff, get the Criterion DVD of The Killers in which Kaminsky gives a lecture on the origins of Film Noir that is as lucid a summary of this most evanescent of styles as you will find anywhere. But the main reason I am eulogising him is because his best novels are the series featuring shambolic shamus Toby Peters (the names of Kaminsky’s two sons incidentally), which ably combine excellent plots with vivid descriptions of California in the 1940s and a firm knowledge of film (which, as we know, holds the secrets to all life’s mysteries).

Using a technique better known (and respected) in ‘straight’ fiction by such writers as E.L. Doctorow (most notably with Ragtime), Kaminsky superbly blends real and fictional characters in a totally convincing way. So many people try this (including such fine authors as Peter Lovesey and George Baxt, who initiated his own amusing ‘celebrity sleuth’ series), but as far as I am concerned he is the only one to have truly succeeded in the crime and mystery genre. Hi great success was in the ability to generate a convincing series using this approach thanks to his strong ear for dialogue, solid grounding from thorough factual research and some highly ingenious plots. Oh yes, and he is extremely funny as well.

Most recently he had published several TV tie-in novels featuring characters from CSI and the classic 1970s detective Jim Rockford created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J Cannell, which I am sure are good, solid works, but still … Much better to go with his original creations such as Toby Peters (24 volumes), Inspector Rostnikov (16), tough Chicago PD officer Abe Lieberman (10) and his last series, featuring Florida process-server Lew Fonesca (6) as well as his dark stand-alone thrillers When the Dark Man Calls and Exercise in Terror.

He died unexpectedly in 2009. In all he wrote some 70 books – well worth making an effort to get all of these, though my favourites remain the Toby Peters series. They are currently published by the Mysterious Press – for details, go to their website here: http://mysteriouspress.com/authors/stuart-kaminsky

Here is a complete list of the series, with the star ‘supporting players’ appended.

  1. Bullet for a Star (1977) – Errol Flynn
  2. Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1977) – Judy Garland
  3. You Bet Your Life (1978) – The Marx brothers
  4. The Howard Hughes Affair (1979)
  5. Never Cross a Vampire (1980) – Bela Lugosi
  6. High Midnight (1981) – Gary Cooper
  7. Catch a Falling Clown (1981) – Alfred Hitchcock, Emmett Kelly
  8. He Done Her Wrong (1983) – Mae West
  9. The Fala Factor (1984) – Eleanor Roosevelt
  10. Down for the Count (1985) – Joe Louis
  11. The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1986) – John Wayne
  12. Smart Moves (1986) – Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson
  13. Think Fast, Mr. Peters (1987) – Peter Lorre
  14. Buried Caesars (1989) – General MacArthur
  15. Poor Butterfly (1990) – Leopold Stokowski
  16. The Melting Clock (1991) – Salvador Dali
  17. The Devil Met a Lady (1993) – Bette Davis
  18. Tomorrow Is Another Day (1995) – Clark Gable
  19. Dancing in the Dark (1996) – Fred Astaire
  20. A Fatal Glass of Beer (1997) – WC Fields
  21. A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001) – Charlie Chaplin
  22. To Catch a Spy (2002) – Cary Grant
  23. Mildred Pierced (2003) – Joan Crawford
  24. Now You See It (2004) – Harry Blackstone

A typically fine interview by J. Kingston Pierce (of The Rap Sheet) with the author can be found here: http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/kaminsky.html

The author’s homepage can be found at: www.stuartkaminsky.net

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This entry was posted in 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Alfred Hitchcock, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Friday's Forgotten Book, George Baxt, Los Angeles, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Scene of the crime, Stephen J Cannell, Stuart Kaminsky. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to K is for … Stuart Kaminsky

  1. Sergio – Such an excellent choice of K! Kaminsky certainly made many contributions to the genre and you’ve given a nicely informative background on him. Thanks. And I agree 100% about his use of dialogue and humour, and that’s not easy to achieve.

  2. Skywatcher says:

    The ROCKFORD FILES books are excellent. Kaminsky got the first person narration absolutely right. You could almost hear James Garner speaking the lines. On top of this, the stories were well told and intriguing. It’s the nature of ‘tie-ins’ to fade away rather quickly, but I do hope that these don’t, as they stand up perfectly well as novels in their own right.

    Whilst I’ve only read fragment of his full output, I do enjoy Kaminsky’s work, although I’ve only read one of the Toby Peters books (the Cary Grant one, which I enjoyed). Kaminsky seems to be one of those popular American authors, such as Bill Pronzini, who have a very low profile in the UK. Whilst I can and do use the internet to order books, it would be nice to be able to walk into my local bookstore, pick up one of his novels, take a look, and they buy it and take it home to read. I’ll read him because I read blogs like this. What incentive is there for someone who doesn’t know about Stuart Kaminsky to order one of his books from the internet? His books need to be more available in the high street.

    • Thanks very much for the info about the Rockford books – I will definitely seek them out as I loved the show and enjoyed the reunion films made one a half decades later too. I feel your pain about the lack of availability here in the UK. Very few of Kaminsky’s books have ever been published in the UK, it is absolutely maddening I agree. I used to have to buy them as imports in Maxim Jakobowski’s Murder One (when they still had a physical shop). I actually read a lot of these in Italian initially. I’m not an e-reader yet but at least the Mysterious Press editions are all available for electronic delivery.

  3. Valli says:

    Kaminsky is a new author to me. Celebrities in mysteries sounds interesting. I am going to try his books. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hello Valli, thanks for the contribution – I’ve been a fan of his work for about 30 years so I’ll admit to being far from unbiased, but I have never read a single book of his that wasn’t solidly plotted and well thought out – always a good read.

  4. TracyK says:

    I saw last night that you and I had featured the same wonderful author. You always do such a good job on your posts.

    The more I read about Kaminsky, the more impressed I am. You reminded me about the Kaminsky special feature on the The Killers DVD set, which we had just purchased in late June and haven’t even watched yet. It had totally slipped my mind. (That is what happens when you get old …)

    I am glad to read the comments on the Rockford Files books. I have not tried those or the CSI series, but I will seek them out now. I love Rockford (and James Garner, for that matter). Maybe I will have a personal challenge to read all of his books. Have you read any of the film-related biographies?

    • Hi TracyK – great minds think alike! I have read some of hi film books and have his biography of John Huston on my shelves – they are not intensely critical in their approach, which makes them very accessible but best of all they are also pretty reliable. The DVD incidentally is a great buy with lots of wonderful supporting material beyond the three versions of the Hemingway story. Hours of great filmmaking.

  5. Patrick says:

    And he also wrote some Batman stories! Actually, those are the only ones of his stories I’ve read so far… but out of fear of a Batman-overdose on my blog, I’ve held those reviews back. (I intend to read all the stories in the four books I own, and write reviews on my blog, but I don’t want that to become the blog’s main focus either.)

    I’ll definitely have to read one of his books, so– waaaait a minute… “The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance”? With John Wayne? A nod in the title to my favourite Western of all-time??? To the Kindle store at once!

    • Hope you enoy it Patrick – and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great Western, no doubt about it – it’s just about to come ou on Blu-ray in Europe and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. The book has nothing to do with that film though … It’s available from Mysterious Press here.

    • PS greatly look forward to your review as I;ve not read any of the Batman stories he wrote. Loved the Nolan movie incidentally, though I have a sneaking prefernce for the second in the trlogy though it’s a close-run thing.

  6. Sergio, wow that’s a lot of books that Kaminsky wrote in such a short period of time. I look forward to reading a few of the Toby Peters series.

  7. Yvette says:

    Great post! I LOVE Stuart Kaminsky’ – most especially, like you, the Toby Peters books. I’ve read every single one except the Joe Lewis and maybe one other and only because I couldn’t find them. The cast of characters in this series is SO funny and SO unique. Anyone who hasn’t read these is missing out on some terrific writing, plotting and characterization plus some laugh out loud fun. I like to say that Kaminsky invented comic noir. Being that it’s summer, these make perfect hot weather reading.

    Two of my very favorites are the book with Salvador Dali and the one with Albert Einstein. Another is the one in which the President’s dog, Fala, is stolen and Eleanor Roosevelt hires Toby to get him back. Another is the Joan Crawford travesty, MILDRED PIERCED. Too much!

    Oh and the one with Charlie Chaplin which, I think, was the first one I read.

    • Thanks very much Yvette – availability is an issue and in fact I still only have some of these in Italian worse luck. But I will track them down eventually, even if I have to succumb to e-reading, which is probably inevitable at this point …

  8. Yvette says:

    Oops, it’s Joe Louis, of course.

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