Two Old Favorites Return

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters mysteries were a pleasure I shared with my mother for years. I still have nearly all of them in paper copies, some from the old Doubleday Mystery Book Club (good paper, small print), and some in paperback (yellowed paper, even smaller print). I have e-book copies of the two I never did find in print. Recently the first one, Bullet for a Star popped up in an e-book sale, and I snapped it up (even though I have that one on the shelf).


The series starts in 1940. Toby Peters, ex-cop, ex-security guard at Warner Brothers, is a downscale private detective in Los Angeles, when a producer at Warner’s calls him to handle a blackmail payoff involving a photo of Errol Flynn and a very young girl. That wouldn’t surprise anyone, but Flynn says he’s never seen (or anything else) this particular young girl. And Toby soon finds out someone is willing to kill to get his (or her) hands on the negative, real or not.


Rereading Bullet for a Star is a bit of a time machine trip for me, back to 1977 when my mother, a great movie fan as well as a voracious mystery reader, and I first discovered Toby, and back to 1940, which Kaminsky renders in delightful detail. Kaminsky was a professor of film studies, and the Toby Peters series weaves together hard-boiled detective action, Hollywood history, and a sardonic sense of humor. At the end of Bullet for a Star Toby gets a phone call from a frightened Judy Garland, leading the way to the next book, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. These little teasers continued throughout the series.


The call from Judy Garland leads Toby to the M.G.M. lot and the sets for The Wizard of Oz, seldom used since a year has passed since the picture was released. But there Toby finds the body of a little person in Munchkin costume, something the studio would like to keep as quiet as possible. So Toby takes on the case, interviewing witnesses (Clark Gable and Victor Fleming), aided at one point by an enterprising young suspense writer named Raymond Chandler, harassed by his brother (an irascible LAPD lieutenant), and targeted by the killer. Next: the Marx Brothers. There are 24 books in the series, so it will take me a while to catch up.


Another mystery series that I have recently picked up in ebook form even though I have old paper copies on my bookshelf is Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy stories. As the series opens in Rest You Merry (1978), Shandy, a middle aged tenured professor at Balaclava Agricultural College, has overdone the Christmas decorations at his campus home and left town for the holidays, his form of protest over the annual “Illumination” festival. Feeling a bit guilty about his shenanigans, he returns to find Jemima Ames, wife of his best friend and chairwoman of the Illumination, dead in his locked house. Accident, or something more sinister?


Becoming a detective by necessity is a big change for Shandy, co-developer of the famous and profitable Balaclava Buster rutabaga, but an even bigger change results from the arrival of Helen Marsh, a distant connection of the Ames family, and just what our bachelor professor needs. Together, Peter and Helen investigate deaths, arson, and the mysterious thefts of old books from the long-ignored Buggins Collection. Add in a variety of eccentric faculty members and spouses, students dressed as elves, and a tipped-over bowl of fried marbles, and you have a delightful tale. There are ten books in the Shandy series, but MacLeod wrote many others as well.


Cheers to Mysterious Press and Open Road Media for making Toby Peters and Peter Shandy available again.

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