Jimmy Sangster was a moderately successful novelist in his day but is principally remembered now as a screenwriter and film director; from Hammer House of Horror (Curse of Frankenstein sw., Lust for a Vampire d.) to TV favourites (Banacek d., Cannon and Wonder Woman sw.). The re-release of his novels by Brash Books, all out of print for many years, reveals just how good a writer Sangster was. In December, I reviewed two of his spy novels from the 1960s. The Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange a flavour of the age and a foretaste of things to come; a drop of le Carré ’62 and Herron 2010s. Shock horror, the Brits and the Americans are just as dirty as the Russians and the Chinese!
This piece covers three private eye novels from the 1980s, Sangster treads in the footsteps of the hardboiled noir greats with his California-set James Reed PI stories. Reed is an Englishman abroad, which adds a frisson to the stories, the culture clash injects a lot of fun into the mix. Reed is divorced from movie star Katherine Long, in the settlement he got the beach house ($4M), which he rents out, that’s his sole source of income, and the attached lodge is his home. Reed is ex-Metropolitan police, he left under a cloud before becoming a minder and finding true, if temporary, love with a beautiful actress.
LA, 1985. Reed is reluctant to commit, it’s not easy identifying a body this badly beaten, but under pressure he identifies the corpse and they let him leave. The morgue drawer slides shut and Reed steps back into the sunshine, it’s another scorcher of a day. He drives home, packs a bag, collects his passport, leaves a note for his tenant, Wilding, and heads for the airport. Less than an hour later he’s on a flight to London. Now there’s nothing for him in California, and yet, only one week ago this was his permanent home.
A week earlier – James Reed jogs back across the beach, as he flops down on to the sand he sees the body washed up against one the piling of the main house. It’s been in the water a few days, he can’t even tell the sex. He calls the sheriff’s office and then tells Henry and Daphne Wilding. Wilding is over from England to turn his novel into a screenplay. Since James’s divorce the beach house rent, $10,000/month, sees him through. His own sally into the world of screenwriting was a flop, now he’s just drifting. Eventually the police and the coroner take the body away and James heads for his lunch with his ex Katherine. Beverly Hills:
“A total area of just over six square miles, with an electoral roll of barely forty thousand people, Beverly Hills boasted more than fifty banks, three hundred beauty parlors, and more than two hundred psychiatrists. It also contained some of the most expensive stores in the world, the most efficient police force in America, and highest-priced real estate. In Beverly hills there were very few recipients of welfare, so the city taxes are among the lowest in Southern California.”
James’ battered old corvette just about gets him there. Katherine is swimming naked in the pool, it’s distracting but she eventually gets around to the reason for inviting him over. Her daughter, Caroline, is in trouble – drugs. Caroline never liked James, even tried to seduce him to break up the engagement when she was sixteen, he doesn’t want to get involved but it’s hard to say ‘no’.
Back at the beach Katherine’s new fiancée Peter Manheim, mover and shaker, rings. He’s also got a job for James, someone is dealing drugs at his studios. James also thinks the police are keeping an eye on him but has no idea why, he pays his taxes on time and keeps his head down. Then Caroline turns up, she spoken to her mum and she’s come for the lecture, she says she’s clean, tries to seduce James again, then gives him a bull story about gambling debts. James is ready to throw her out but there is clearly something bothering her so he lets her stay the night. In the morning she’s gone. Events begin to spiral, like it or not James is stuck right in the middle of it all; sex, drugs and La La Land.
Sangster does a nice line in dry humour and the sharp dialogue is straight out of the hardboiled handbook. Snowball plays with Hollywood obsessions and tropes to great effect, there’s plenty of California PI cool and quiet subversion.
LA, 1987, yes, James came back from London. His expensive attorney, Patek Phillipe, watch and all, isn’t very reassuring, this is a serious matter, James could get five years. Simms doesn’t seem to be listening when James tells him he didn’t actually rape the girl. If James is acquitted it’s going to cost him a fortune, on the other hand if he loses there’s no fee. Naively James asks if that means the lawyer believes him?
“Meaning if you’re sent up for five years I probably couldn’t collect anyway.”
So what actually happened? There was a big storm brewing about 300 miles off the coast, particularly bad in Long Beach as far as the Ventura County line, the stretch of rich houses known as the ‘colony’. Mostly these days these people ignore the ex-husband of movie star Katherine Long but he’s a nice chap so he helps when the waves wash into their houses, rescuing their goods, shifting the Picasso’s, Hepworth’s and Warhol’s upstairs. The last house on the row looks to be empty, but a torch light catches a guy inside spark out on the wet floor. The door is open, as James approaches the guy rolls face down into the water.
As James carries him upstairs he can hear a woman singing, the drunk is a dead weight so he leaves him at the top of the stairs. He enters one of the rooms where a naked woman, ‘a natural blond’, is kneeling emptying a floor safe into a shower cap. She’s not bothered by James’s presence, she asks where Charlie is, as she’s naked James figures she must belong here. Charlie isn’t the drunk in the hallway so he has no idea where he might be. James decides it’s time to leave.
Four days later two cops are at James’s door. Charlotee, a mistake on the birth certificate that stuck, is claiming James Reed raped her. Naturally James doesn’t trust the local police so he starts looking for Charlotee Fisher to explain, she’s gone to ground, so has the owner of the house, Harold J Everly. Simms gets James to lay off Charlotee but he can find Everly if he wants. Old girlfriend Gloria is the girl to help, she’s the estate agent who sold Everly the house. James and Gloria are ‘reacquainting’ themselves, when Charlie shows up (he’s Charlotee’s brother). The interruption is going to cost James, Gloria isn’t the type to take a snub lightly but James has to deal Charlie, he wants to talk about his sister and the rape. James is in a corner, maybe there’s a way out but crossing James will cost Charlie and Charlotee. First he twist Everly’s arm a little:
“Would you consider yourself a hard case?” said Everly, after another long silence.
“I’m not a hard case, I’m just a vindictive bastard.” He walked back to his chair with his fresh drink. “That means if you can’t help me, I’m going to have to find another way. Some of it’s going to rub off on you.”
Plenty of play on that English sensibility of James, the wronged girlfriend, beat up old car, and a nasty case of blackmail. Sangster draws tropey characters then shades them in, creating nuance. The plotting is flawless in this twisty tale.
LA, 1989. James Reed is explaining to Stephen Wise that we don’t call them bodyguards in the UK, we call them minders. More importantly, they come in all shapes and sizes, Yasir Arafat’s requirements are hardly the same as a Hollywood starlet’s, for example. So James wants to know who’s the client and what does he actually wants before taking the job. The answers are vague, the client is a “Mr. Smith” from England and he wants to rent the house for three months, $15,000 per month plus $5,000 a month for other services, nothing too dangerous but total discretion and secrecy required. Smith has his own valet, cook and secretary, he just needs a little extra company from James.
That night James is trying to rustle up a date on the phone; not for James the one night stand, AIDS and all, dating is a bit tricky these days. Then he sees someone outside the main house, when James challenges him the man says it is none of his business, as it very much is, James gets angry. He tells the man to get lost then the iron grip of the man’s ‘helper’, Michael, holds him fast. Working on the principal that an Englishman’s home is his castle James puts up a fight, it doesn’t go well but they do establish that this is James’s home and not Jonathan Bradley’s, the fella Langer and Michael are looking for, so they leave. Back inside Gloria has returned his call, he’d better not let her down this time, oops!
Next day James calls Wise to sign the contract, for $60,000. He tells Wise he knows the man is Bradley, people are already looking for him, even though Smith/Bradley isn’t due in until tomorrow. That night Betsy Carmichael turns up looking for Smith/Bradley, she’s disappointed he’s not here yet. She about to leave when she spots Langer’s car down the road, she gets scared and stays. Let’s just say James takes advantage of the situation up to the point Betsy falls asleep drunk (there are still rules, sort of).
When Smith arrives, turns out his real name is Glessen, of “that” family, ex-Nazi supporters, loaded and some. Everyone is sure Langer is out to get Smith, they are former business partners. But when the trouble goes down, a blood bath at the main house, James is snuggled up with Betsy in the lodge. He didn’t make a very good minder but then no one said there was real danger here, nothing is quite what it seems to be. James is determined to find out what happened and that will mean coming back to the UK. This may be the most intriguing of the three stories, James Reed is well established and the writing is sharp and to the point. Hardball features plenty of dirty dealing, drugs, blackmail, sex, a tough LA cop with a good old Cumbrian name Applethwaite and the running jokes about Gloria and the car. Officer Cortes escorts James to the station:
“You worried I might give you the slip?”
“I’m worried your car’s not going to make it.”
Sangster is fully au fait with the hardboiled genre, these novels are a good fit in a long tradition. James Reed is a sarcastic, not too clean, not all the way dirty, anti-hero you can take to but still has the power to shock. Remarkably, Brash Books uncovered a fourth complete but previously unpublished James Reed novel last year which will be released next month. It will, of course, be reviewed here.
Paul Burke 4*/4*
Snowball, Blackball, and Hardball are all out now in paperback from Brash Books.