Reprinted 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”
The 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: