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