SHOOTING STAR (1958) by Robert Bloch

Bloch_Shooting-Star_aceReprinted by Hard Case Crime a few years back, this was Robert Bloch’s one and only private eye novel – so of course, given his inclination towards the tongue-in-cheek, he made it a book about an investigator with only one eye! It’s set in Hollywood and it seems that the author did not hold it in very high regard. So how does this story of the scandalous murder of a cowboy movie star actually hold up?

I offer this review as part of Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s celebration of all things 1958 over at his Past Offences blog; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“I thought, This is a hell of a place to die.”

Mark Clayburn lost his eye in an accident – and by the time he got out and settled his hospital fees, his literary agency and most of his friends were gone too. It seems that in Hollywood nothing is worse than financial failure and Mark is having to start out again, at the bottom, making ends meet any way he can. Thus, when approached to re-open the investigation into the six-month old murder of popular cowboy star Dick Ryan, he accepts the lure of several thousand dollars in fees and dusts off his old private eye licence. Ryan was a popular star of B westerns and beloved by children (think Hopalong Cassidy and you’re basically there) – however, he was not so well liked by his colleagues as he was mean, ungrateful and an inveterate womaniser. On the night of his death he fired his chauffeur and threw out his girlfriend (co-star Polly Foster) after getting into a fight with Tom Trent, who played the villain in his film series.

“The middle of nowhere isn’t such a bad place to be”

Bloch_Shooting-Star_hccThe next morning Ryan was found shot once in the head and several more times in the groin – and to make matters worse, reefers were found strewn everywhere. Mark’s old friend Harry Bonnock owns the syndication rights to the series but can’t sell them to TV until Ryan’s reputation is restored. Within minutes of taking the case, Mark is getting messages warning him off and reefers are planted in his apartment – even friends in the police tell him to walk away, while Trent is downright hostile. After dining with Mark at Chasen’s, Polly claims to know a secret but before divulging it she gets shot too – and any reservations Mark may have had evaporate as he vows to avenge her murder. Why is he so set on solving it? Is there a link to his accident, perhaps?

“… the novel is one of the dozen or more of my worst”  – Robert Bloch in Once Round the Bloch (1993)

Why is Bloch so hard on this book? His amusing dismissal of it in his autobiography is relegated to a footnote and is in fact all he says about it. Well, first off I should say that I found it to be a perfectly respectable paperback, utterly professional in plotting and style, with the first person narration peppered with the author’s trademark mordant humour (such as when a funeral is compared to a splashy Hollywood epic). The villain is fairly well-hidden (though yes, it’s the least-likely suspect syndrome), there is some well-executed action as Mark goes several rounds with a couple of thugs and the revelation of the narrator’s personal angle is quite nicely woven in too. However, even a Bloch fan such as myself must admit that Shooting Star is a bit pedestrian and predictable, trundling rigidly along hardboiled genre lines without trying very hard to amend the standard template. Mark is likeable enough as a slightly unwilling PI but the plot is just too formulaic to make much of an impression unfortunately, while the sermons against the use of pot, which recur with undue frequency (though this may have been a way of spicing up the plot at the time), certainly date the book.

“Now I’m clean again. And I’m going to stay clean. After this is over, after I finish with you.”

A respectable outing, to be sure, but neither the plot nor the characterisation is up to Bloch’s usual standard. This is certainly made very obvious when compare with his next novel, one that would forever change his reputation – a little something entitled, Psycho … To learn more about the book, and the other Bloch novel, Spiderweb, that HCC reprinted it with, see what the mighty Admiral Ironbombs had to say about them both at his Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased blog, here.

I submit this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘murder method in the title’ category with several victims being shot to death:


***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Friday's Forgotten Book, Hollywood, Robert Bloch. Bookmark the permalink.

71 Responses to SHOOTING STAR (1958) by Robert Bloch

  1. Thanks for the nod, Sergio! Great review and very much agreed, a perfectly serviceable and decent novel if not up there with Bloch’s standard. I remember liking the other half of the double a bit more.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I do have to say I think that’s solid dark humour to have his PI have…one eye. But that aside, I know what you mean about ‘staying within the lines.’ Sometimes it works well and still gives one a really good reading experience. Other times the result ends up feeling a bit derivative. Still, I’d guess this one, which he didn’t like so well, is still better than a lot of other ‘bests.’

  3. TracyK says:

    Very interesting post, Sergio. I haven’t read anything by Bloch and I should find something of his to read soon.

  4. Colin says:

    I bought the HCC double over the summer, and left it behind at my parents’ place! So it will be a while before I get to it now. It sounds like a solid if unremarkable book, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • As an edition it is definitely good value (though I wish the covers were better, an unusual complaint given the usual wonderful Hard Case crowd of illustrators) – looks like the other title, Spiderweb, is much more like vintage Bloch. But yes, a really solid piece of work none the less, and the whole thing about his having only one eye is nicely explained as part of the overall plot too.

      • Colin says:

        I like the idea of these doubles, It’s nice that the practice hasn’t entirely died out.
        On HCC, I picked up the recently published Sam Fuller title just last week.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Till date I have read 3 novels by Bloch: Psycho, Terror and The Todd Dossier. I have also read The Best Of Robert Bloch, a short story collection. I am not inclined to read this book after your review. I have now decided to read The Scarf which I have already obtained.

    • I think The Scarf is very good (a great debut in fact) – can’t wait to see what you make of it Santosh. I’ve not read Terror yet and it sounds not too dissimilar from Shooting Star actually …

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Actually, Terror is dissimilar from Shooting Star. It involves stealing of a bronze statue of Hindu Goddess Kali from a museum. The culprit then kills three people by strangulation with cord in the name of Kali, just as the members of the Thuggee cult did in India in the past till they were eradicated in the 1830’s. One of the victims is the aunt of the protagonist. The book is good and suspenseful though not in the same class as Psycho.
        It is , however, out of print and it will be difficult to obtain a copy. I have a torn and tattered copy (with pages all yellow) purchased long, long back and that too from a second-hand pavement shop. In fact, I had decided to throw it away, but then I found that it would be extremely difficult to get a replacement.

  6. Skywatcher says:

    I do remember reading this years back, and from what I recall my opinions were pretty much in line with yours. The reason that this is less memorable than stuff like THE SCARF or PSYCHO is probably because he was less emotionally invested in it. After starting his writing career as an imitator of Lovecraft, he gradually found himself more interested in abnormal psychology and the dark side of human nature. The fascination for the private-eye genre wasn’t there. He was a professional, and could turn his hand to most genres, but his heart wasn’t really in this, and you can tell.

    • Thanks Skywatcher – I think you’re right – and it’s shame because it’s not like he could;t have taken his interest in abnormal psychology and turned it to the PI genre after all – i don;t want to be too harsh because I did enjoy it, but it’s a bit forgettable all the same.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Those covers!!!!!!!!!!

  8. neer says:

    I haven’t read much of Bloch ,only one book in fact though I have a couple of his on the shelves. I think he wrote a couple of screenplays for Star Trek. Cat’s Paw wasn’t much to write about. Thanks for the review Sergio.

    • Hello Neeru – yes, Bloch did a lot of screen writing (cinema and TV) in the 60s and 70s especially. His best Star Trek script was probably Wolf in the Fold, one of Bloch’s many treatments of the Jack the Ripper mythology.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Bloch had a lot more fun with the tv series THRILLER (the Boris Karloff-hosted US series, rather than the later British one). Though I’d still like to see the episode of BUS STOP that adapts Bloch’s own short story “I Kiss Your Shadow”…Stephen King loved it publicly in DANSE MACABRE.

        • I have never seen that Bus Stop episode either and only know it thought the King book (which, for me, in its day was as big an eye-opener in the filed of horror as Symons’ Bloody Murder for crime and mystery). The thriller episodes are all available on YouTube, though clearly uploaded illegally from the high quality DVD releases – he did several of the various Hitchcock TV series too, but you’re right, Thriller was probably his best venue.

          • Todd Mason says:

            As I’ve noted in my blog, Les Daniels and his LIVING IN FEAR did essentially everything DANSE MACABRE did only better and came along for me at precisely the twig-bending moment in the early-mid 1970s. BUS STOP was a surprisingly important series and I’m a little surprised none of the revivalist channels here in the US (nor Canada’s Trio a decade back or so) have yet dusted it off.

          • I suppose because Bus Stop only lasted one year – no idea if there might be rights issues to do with the Inge original perhaps? And must get the Daniels as I don’t have that yet – not sure when I read the King but it must have been circa 1981 I suppose?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Nah, I doubt it’s a matter of the Inge play, or anything other than the programmers of the various revivalist stations don’t remember the series and if they do, don’t think audiences will.

          • But that’s so … depressingly likely …

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Speking of Jack the Ripper, the first story in the book The Best Of Robert Bloch is Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper, a really brilliant story.

        • I agree Santosh, very much his ‘signature’ short story, adaptad many. many times too – Bloch and Harlan Ellison even did a kind of sequel to it with their Dangerous Visions stories ‘Toy for Juliette’ and ‘Prowler in the City on the edge of Forever’ – here is the adaptation for Thriller, the series Todd was discussing:

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Thanks for the link. I did not know about this TV episode. I’ll certainly see it..

          • Bloch didn’t write the screenplay but it’s well-done on the whole and also one of the too few excursion into directing by the great Ray Milland

          • Todd Mason says:

            “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” not only has been one of the more plagiarized stories yet written, but it also (before PSYCHO) was an early major story hung like an albatross around Bloch’s neck, much in the same manner that “Streetcorner Man” (“El hombre de la esquina rosada”–boy, the WordPress or Apple spellchecker is as annoying as hell) was an eventual bother to Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightfall” to Isaac Asimov, and “Microcosmic God” to Theodore Sturgeon (or “The Purple Cow” to Gelett Burgess)…the work the thoughtless enthusiast would constantly cite as the Best Work Ever from the writer in question, rather than simply the first story (or poem) by each which reached a large audience, the important and influential work that helped make the reputation of the writer…but hardly the best much less the only thing they should be remembered for…

          • So true Todd – and yet one wouldn’t want to deny the joy of discovering it for the first time, either, even if it is via Thriller or Star Trek!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Well, here we go:

          • Fantastic – you is da man – and directed by John Newland too – great pairing!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Newland was a producer of BUS STOP…and much of the best (such as the nifty transitions notable particularly early in the episode) and worst (the generally overheated feel of the production) of this episode is part and parcel of other Newland work I’ve seen…I can certainly see how this had an effect on King and his eventual work…

            Meanwhile, it’s hard to suggest that “Yours” isn’t a very good story…simply not the work Bloch should be judged by…I’m in deep need of sleep, but going on to watch the Altman-directed Tom Wicker adaptation episode of BUS STOP is tempting…

          • I must look at some of these episodes on Sunday Todd – never seen one before – thanks chum.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Among the episodes up on YT at the moment are a small handful directed by Robert Altman, one of which is scripted by Howard Browne from a story by Altman, Roy Huggins as executive producer, a fair number of other notable folks in front of and behind the cameras. Really, averaging better than a number of the more trotted-out series, in just the two I’ve seen so far and the opening segments I’ve looked at to see who’s working what on them…nothing that knocks me over so far, but better than good enough.

          • Huggins was technically the creator of the show, right? I wonder of he used his ‘John Thomas James’ writing name. I really like a lot of his shows and hope to pick up some of his novels, but in the back of my mind is always the sad knowledge that he named names to HUAC which always tarnishes his work for me … haven’t read the (pricey) biog of him yet.

  9. I think Robert Bloch was a better short story writer than he was a novelist. “That Hell-Bound Train” is one of my favorites. I have a copy of that ACE Double you display in your review.

    • Thanks George – the Ace edition is preferable to the HCC cover (which si the one I have) – Hellbound Train is one of his best, I completely agree.

      • Todd Mason says:

        However, the likes of AMERICAN GOTHIC and NIGHT-WORLD and THE KIDNAPPER and the novella THE DEAD DON’T DIE! are all very fine indeed…as is that obscure novel about the motel manager…

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Yes, That Hellbound Train is a brilliant story. It is available in The Best Of Robert Bloch. I also have it in comic book form in 3 issues published by IDW in June, July and August 2011.

        • Never seen the comic book adaptation – used to love comic books growing up but it’s an artform I left behind.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Santosh Iyer should supplement his BEST OF with its companion, SUCH STUFF AS SCREAMS ARE MADE OF, also from Ballantine, and a retrospective of mostly Bloch’s horror and suspense fiction (even as the BEST OF leaned into his fantasy and sf work as much as possible while not minimizing the horror).

          • Thanks for that Todd – I’ve tended to avoid some of the ‘best of’ compilation as I have so many of the original paperbacks but there it is very tempting to start checking what I do and do have spread across probably about 20 paperbacks – and there is a series of uniform collects out there, yes? I thinking of the ‘The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch’ series which got to three volumes at keast – no idea how complete that might be …

          • Todd Mason says:

            THE SELECTED STORIES was a remarkably random Selection of brilliant to not bad fiction, fraudulently and typo-riddenly reprinted as THE COMPLETE STORIES in paperback…Not Recommended, particularly in the three-volume set that Citadel wanted to match up with their COMPLETE STORIES of Philip Dick set…a Complete Bloch would’ve run to about thirty volumes rather than three. Yeah, copies of PLEASANT DREAMS and BLOOD RUNS COLD are almost as satisfying as the two Ballantine retrospectives, which have the advantage of being reasonable but by no means comprehensive surveys of his short-fiction career so far by the mid-late ’70s.

          • I did wonder – thanks Todd – Oh, and I’ve ordered a copy of the Daniels from the dreaded Amazon – seems like the edition put out by Da Capo in the 80s was updated, so I’ve gone for that one – that make sense?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Can’t hurt, though much more of the history will be familiar to you than it was to young me at the time…and a few of the errors obvious even to young me, such as assuming Roddenberry had anything to do with THE OUTER LIMITS, will probably be fixed in the updated version, even with the less-good cover…

          • One always forgets about the tendency for errors like that to creep into all books of this that of that vintage as therw were so few reference works to check against. Yeah, the cover is an issue but I figured it was the right way to go …

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    You’ve been on quite a noir/private eye kind of kick this late summer/fall, Sergio! Great reviews–fortunately, the noir/private eye leanings tend to mean I’m not adding a whole bunch to my TBR list. 🙂

  11. Richard says:

    I liked it better than you did, but then I wasn’t analyzing it regards structure, lines, or comparing it, I just whipped through and enjoyed. Then I went on to something else (a Pronzini, I think).

  12. Sergio, it’s curious that Bloch should belittle his own novel which makes it all the more reason to hunt down this and other books by him. With only one eye, Mark Clayburn sounds like a pirate investigator. I like the HCC covers though I’d be lucky if I see them in my parts.

  13. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished reading The Scarf. Though I agree that it is a superb book, I do not rate it higher than Psycho. You have included The Scarf in Top 100 Mystery Books, but I would have selected Psycho instead.

    • That’s mighty quick reading Santosh, bravo! Really glad you liked it too – you may well be right when comparing it to Psycho, though I really like it but also suspect I was also trying to avoid picking his best-known work as everybody else does. Night World is another that I liked a lot at the time and must re read.

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