Fireball is the previously unpublished fourth novel in Jimmy Sangster’s LA private eye series featuring James Reed. It’s as sharp a piece of 80s California hardboiled as anything from the period, a real treat for fans of the genre. Fireball is, perhaps, the best of a very good series (the previous three novels were reviewed here). James Reed is a darkly comic creation, he’s no Marlowe but you can’t help liking him, his Britishness as a foil to the LA mode creates a delightful culture clash. This story of black mail and murder is twisty and, as with the best of them, the poetic ending is very satisfying indeed. The main characters are rounded and complex and those passing through are always sketched with an eye for detail that enriches the novel. Thirty something years after it was written Fireball still has the power to shock, the violence can be abrupt and nasty, but nothing is gratuitous. It’s gritty and real and there’s a darkness here in the easy manipulation and double dealing of the characters, that chills at times.
James Reed, is a cynical roguish ex-cop with a past. He will leave a damsel in distress and think twice before putting his own neck on the line but, of course, he has that essential honest core that the best anti-heroes exhibit. Fans of the MacDonalds, John D and the great Ross, will appreciate that. I suspect that experience as a screen writer honed Sangster’s storytelling, as a keen observer of Hollywood/LA there were plenty of ‘real life’ characters types populating the pages of Fireball.
James has no idea why he’s received an invitation to the West Malibu Tennis and Racquet Club. Of course, he intends to ignore it, but then he’s passing by so why not. When he sees the young hunky manager, Paul Menzies, he remembers the guy. They saw off an East LA gang of kids trying to get into an exclusive party a few weeks ago. Menzies with youthful bravado, James, wiser and older, with gun in hand. James likes Paul and he also likes Mrs Megan McCoy, who turns up for her tennis lesson as he’s leaving.
After that chance encounter Megan McCoy calls James, Paul told her that he might have a property to rent, James wants rid of his current whiny tenant anyway. He got the house as a divorce settlement from his Hollywood star wife, Katherine Long, value $4M+, the rent’s been his income ever since. Megan and James meet up but there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding; he wants to rent the main house, she’s just looking for a small hideaway. While James has his back turned Megan is beaten, she doesn’t want any police involvement. James wraps his arm around her, comforts her, but he’s convinced Megan is playing him with her story about her jealous ex-husband doing it. He drops her back at her hotel and borrows her car, his own is temperamental, a running joke. By the time he returns the car in the morning Megan has been attacked and strangled. Luckily James has an alibi but Lieutenant Micklehaus doesn’t seem to like him, he’s a wise old head and he knows James is holding out. It’s true James doesn’t mention Paul Menzies or that Megan stashed an envelope in the car the night before. When the police let him go he finds two callers at his house. Bill and Gary want to know where that envelop is, their unnamed boss is keen to get it. These two are professionals, they will torture James if necessary, and so it begins. . .
Full of surprises, written in taut clean prose with snappy dialogue and plenty of wit. Jimmy Sangster is a talented writer, he gets the LA shamus, points up some of the absurdity of Tinseltown and revels in the cross cultural experience, ex-pat Englishman James versus the sun baked Californian masses, habits and assorted tough guys. It’s a great read but there’s more:
Some books have a story attached to them, Fireball is one such. Film director/screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) published three very good Californian PI novels, Snowball, Blackball and Hardball, in the late 1980s but Fireball was never published. If not for publisher Lee Goldberg, Brash Books, Fireball might still be languishing in a vault at de Montfort University in Leicester. Brash acquired the rights to Jimmy Sangster’s novels, his spy and crime stories, unaware that a full manuscript, printed on dot-matrix paper, existed among Sangster’s papers. When they did find out author Stephen Gallagher kindly copied it and sent a PDF to the US for transcription. Now Brash Books are able to bring us the hitherto unseen Fireball. I tackled all four James Reed PI novels over Christmas, an experience I savoured; the running jokes, the decent character arc, interesting bit part players and tight well plotted mysteries. Sangster really got American hardboiled but the touch of British humour give the work it’s originality.
Reed was better known as a screen writer and director. He’d been there for the early days of Hammer House of Horror directing Lust for a Vampire with Barbara Jefford and, his good friend, Ralph Bates. Also writing the screenplays for Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing in the titular role and Christopher Lee as the creature (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews (1958, d. Terence Fisher), Deadlier Than the Male, a spy spoof with Richard Johnson and Elke Sommers (1966), and The Legacy with Katherine Ross and Sam Elliott (1978, d. Richard Marquand). James directed two more films, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and Fear in the Night (1972), and one of the Banacek films. His screenplay credits run from two versions of his own novels Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange (1969/70) to Wonder Woman, Cannon, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and B.J. and the Bear. That list is not exhaustive.
Jimmy was born in Kinmel in Denbighshire, North Wales, at sixteen he began working as a clapper board boy and after military service joined Exclusive Studios in 1949 which later became Hammer Horror. Working as a production manager he was asked to write a script for the follow up to The Quatermass Xperiment, although he didn’t consider himself a writer the offer of extra money swung it and X The Unknown was born. When his script The Siege of Sydney Street became a film Sangster got an uncredited cameo role as no less than the Home Secretary of the day Winston Churchill. Over the years Sangster worked with Bette Davis, George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Dean Jagger, Keith Michell, Sheila Hancock, Barbara Stanwick and a who’s who of British cinema.
The James Reed LA private eye series were in the moment, referencing topics from property tycoon Donald Trump to AIDS. Snowball, Blackball and Hardball were all published at the back of the eighties, a TV series was optioned, sadly never made, sales were good, it was going so well. So why didn’t Fireball get published? A cunning plan did for Sangster. He figured the larger the advance the more the publisher was committed to making the novel sell – marketing, publicity etc. If it didn’t sell the publisher would feel the pain. As Lee Goldberg tells us this might have worked for Elmore Leonard or Ed McBain but… The publisher refused to increase the advance so Sangster’s New York agent told the publisher ‘to take a jump’, she’d sell it elsewhere but no publisher stepped up. It was Brash Books who came through decades later.
Paul Burke 5/4
Fireball by Jimmy Sangster
Brash Books 9781732422681 pbk Feb 2020