Created by Richard S. Prather
Richard S. Prather’s SHELL SCOTT was, without a doubt, the second most commercially successful private eye of the fifties (over forty million books sold!). He appeared in a long string of over three dozen Fawcett/Gold Medal PBOs, collections and countless short stories, and even lent his name to the short-lived Shell Scott Mystery Magazine. Carrying on in the screwball tradition of such eyes as Bellem’s Dan Turner and Latimer’s Bill Crane, the Scott stories were smirky, outlandish, innuendo-laden, occasionally alcohol-fueled, off-the-wall tours-de-farce that, depending on your point of view, were either a laugh riot, or a lot of adolescent, sexist swill and hackwork. The latter viewpoint seems to be the dominant one today, and Shell Scott seems to have slipped out of the public conciousness.
But Hollywood eye Shell, at 6’2″, with his teal blue suits, bristly white-blonde buzzcut and almost white eyebrows, broken nose and a chunk of his left ear missing, tooling around in a canary yellow 1941 Caddy convertible, is still kinda hard to ignore.
As originally envisioned, Scott was pretty much a typical disciple of the post-war Spillane school, a tough-talking, mean streets-walking grim alpha male with a P.I. ticket and a gun. It soon became apparent, though, that Sheldon was a little different from the other boys.
The 6′-2” ex-Marine didn’t so much go down those mean streets as strut. For one thing, Scott had remarkably little angst, and there were several other traits that must have raised a few private eyebrows back at the lodge.
Oh sure, Scott did the job, and the bad guys got theirs, and when the going got tough, Scott was more than willing to rise to the occasion. But the usual sex-and-violence was considerably lightened by a sort of goofy, relentless hedonism. Unlike so many other of his dour-faced compadres, Scott seemed to actually enjoy life, his main concern not so much vengeance or justice as keeping an eye open for the next good time. The next martini. The next babe. And, judging by the numbers, a lot of readers, both male and female, were more than willing to follow him on that quest.
And as the series progressed, the wisecracks and double-entendres multiplied and things just got wackier and wackier. In Way of a Wanton (1952) for example, Scott escapes the bad guys by swinging from tree to tree – au naturel — through a jungle movie set. But it was with the eighth book, Strip for Murder (1955) that Prather and Scott finally, truly found their niche.
Strip for Murder is a full-out hoot, a screwball masterpiece, a loopy romp that features our man undercover at a nudist colony and culminates with a naked Scott landing a hot air balloon in downtown Los Angeles (let’s see Lew Archer pull that one off!). From then on, almost anything went in the series.
The Wailing Frail (1956) kicks off with a woman answering the door Scott’s just knocked on as “nude as a noodle.”
In Gat Heat (1967) he attacks a gang of blackmailers armed with a crossbow.
In The Trojan Hearse (1964) he rides a wrecking ball through the wall of a building while in hot pursuit.
In The Cock-Eyed Corpse (1964) he disguises himself as a prop on a movie set, which gave rise to one of the most memorable lines in crime fiction when a thug exclaims “You won’t believe this but that rock just shot me in the ass!”
There were — as I mentioned earlier — lots of comely lasses in the Shell Scott books, most of them skimpily clad and obliging. And well-endowed, which inevitably got Scott’s attention. Despite all the nudge-nudge wink-wink, though, there was very little actual sex in the books. It was all off-stage, Scott too much the gentleman to kiss and tell. Though he didn’t mind looking and telling:
“…she’d just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the turn a long time ago…. she wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who’d invented cleavage.”
— Always Leave ’em Dying
“Her breasts were so full and firm and abundant that each of them might have been both of them”
— Everybody Had A Gun
“There was a lot of her already in the room before the rest of her got in”
— Everybody Had A Gun
“This was one lovely who looked as if she could be grateful to excess. And some excesses I’m excessively fond of.”
— Darling, It’s Death
“Lita was a gal so female that she made most other females seem male.”
— Take a Murder, Darling
Mind you, Scott did occasionally notice the world around him, particularly Los Angeles. He’s no Chandler, but…
“It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles. Often you can’t find City Hall unless you are in it.”
— Always Leave’em Dying
“I think they lease Rodeo Drive by the carat rather than front foot.”
— Kill Him Twice
Prather was the most successful P.I. writer of the 50s with the obvious exception of Mickey Spillane. In a Publishers Weekly book called 70 Years of Best-Sellers, there was a chapter on best-selling mysteries (i.e. mysteries that had sold a million or more copies). 150 books were listed. 16 of them, more than 10% of the list, were by Prather.
And he was also prolific in magazines. Prather’s work appeared in Shell Scott Mystery Magazine (naturally), but also Manhunt, Cavalier, Thrilling Detective, Menace, Justice, Accused, Suspect, Murder!, Ed McBain’s Mystery Book, Adam, Escapade, Man’s World, Swank, For Men Only, Tiger, Caper and numerous anthologies. Many of them were adaptions of current or soon-to-be-released Shell Scott novels, along with the occasional original short story.
- “The scarlet bikini which had covered a minimum of those eye-popping curves lay crumpled on the floor at her feet, and my eyes focussed on her as glassily as did the dead man’s. He was dead, all right. he had been shot, poisoned, stabbed, and strangled.
Either somebody really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I’d ever heard of.”
— Take a Murder, Darling
- “I have EVERY ONE of the Shell Scott books. I started reading Prather when I was about a jr in high school, 1959 or so, and his eccentric metaphors have since become regular parts of my own idiom; ‘He looked like a man with ten ingrown toenails’ or ‘her eyes were blue, like in black and blue.’ Yeah, Shell’s a sexist pig, but in the 60’s wasn’t everybody?”
— Charles Eisenhart
- “The Shell Scott books are sort of cock-eyed Spillane. Imagine Mike Hammer, transplanted to Hollywood, injected with a sunny disposition and a sense of humor, and you’ve got a pretty close approximation of Shell Scott.”
— Jim Doherty
- “I just wanted you to know that women appreciate Shell Scott/Richard S. Prather, too (but I hate Spillane). I started with The Wailing Frail, which I found in a used bookstore — the cover copy was so silly, I picked it up. I expected it to be the usual sexist claptrap, but found it to be a tongue-in-cheek masterpiece. I now own most of the Shell Scott books and am looking for the rest. By the way, I think Kinky Freidman owes a lot to Prather’s style. My favorite Prather line has something to do about mornings — he says that most people wake up in a sunny mood, but for him, no matter the circumstances, when he wakes up, it’s always midnight on Halloween.”
— Cathy Tacinelli
- “Been years since I read The Vanishing Beauty and all I recall is how different sounding it was from the ribald over-the-top of the later titles like Strip for Murder or Kill the Clown. As I worked through the series, I came to realize that the first half dozen or so Scotts are rather pedestrian; a new writer finding his voice. Interesting tidbit: Prather’s first Scott novel was on the stands the same month as the final issue of Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective. How’s that for a classic passing of the Hollywood PI torch?”
— Stephen Mertz (2014)
THE ULTIMATE TRIBUTE #1
- “Would it surprise you to hear… that my mother enjoyed the stories so much, she named me after Scott?”
— Shell Scott Bush
THE ULTIMATE TRIBUTE #2
- “…saw the post from Shell Scott Bush, and had to get in on the game. In my case it was my dad (who had all the paperbacks) who decided that the serendipity of his last name, his enjoyment of the tales, and his having a son was too much to pass up. So in February 1962, Shell Arthur Scott was born, named for my dad’s favorite fictional detective and his own father. Not that ol’ dad liked Prather’s creation better than his own dad, but wiser heads convinced him not to name me Arthur Shell Scott, realizing that my initials would cause me a lifetime of grief and embarassment. In my youth I would occasionally take one of my dad’s old paperbacks to school and sport it atop the pile of books I carried from class to class. Not many people get to show their world a widely-published book with their name on the cover.
And about twenty years ago I had business to conduct one day in an Atlanta office building. When I signed the lobby register, the security officer did a double-take, turned the register around for a closer look and asked, ‘Is that really your name?’ When I said it was he said, ‘I used to read detective stories about a man with that name a long time ago.’
— Shell (Arthur) Scott
- Case of the Vanishing Beauty (1950) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Bodies in Bedlam (1951) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Everybody Had a Gun (1951) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Find This Woman (1951) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Way of a Wanton (1952) | Kindle it!
- Darling, It’s Death (1952) | Kindle it!
- Ride a High Horse (1953; aka “Too Many Crooks”) | Kindle it!
- Always Leave ’em Dying (1954) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Strip For Murder (1955) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Wailing Frail (1956) | Kindle it!
- Slab Happy (1958) | Kindle it!
- Pattern for Murder (1958; aka “The Scrambled Yeggs”) | Kindle it!
- Take a Murder, Darling (1958) | Kindle it!
- Over Her Dear Body (1959) | Kindle it!
- Double in Trouble (1959) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
Co-written with Stephen Marlowe, featuring Chester Drum
- Dance with the Dead (1960) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Dig That Crazy Grave (1961) | Kindle it!
- Pattern for Panic (1961) | Kindle it!
Originally published as a Cliff Morgan novel.
- Kill the Clown (1963) | Kindle it!
- Dead Heat (1963) | Kindle it!
- Joker in the Deck (1964) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Cockeyed Corpse (1964)| Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Trojan Hearse (1964)| Kindle it!
- Kill Him Twice (1965) | Kindle it!
- Dead Man’s Walk (1965) | Kindle it!
- The Meandering Corpse (1965) | Kindle it!
- The Kubla Khan Caper (1966) | Kindle it!
- Gat Heat (1967) | Kindle it!
- The Cheim Manuscript (1969) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Kill Me Tomorrow (1969) | Kindle it!
- Dead-Bang (1971) | Kindle it!
- The Sweet Ride (1972) | Kindle it!
- The Sure Thing (1975) | Kindle it!
- The Amber Effect (1986) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Shellshock (1987) | Kindle it!
- The Death Gods (2011) | Kindle it!
- Three’s a Shroud (1957; three novellas) | Kindle it!
- Have Gat, Will Travel (1957) | Kindle it!
- Shell Scott’s Seven Slaughters (1961) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Shell Scott Sampler (1969) | Kindle it!
- “The Best Motive” (January 1953, Manhunt; aka “Death’s Head”)
- “Murder’s Strip Tease” (February 1953, Thrilling Detective)
- “The Sleeper Caper” (March 1953, Manhunt) | Kindle it!
- “Sinner’s Alley” (April 1953, Adam)
- “Hot-Rock Rumble” (June 1953, Manhunt; aka “Hard Rock Rumble”)
- “The Double Take” (July 1953, Manhunt; aka “The Blonde Twist”)
- “Squeeze Play” (October 1953, Manhunt)
- “Pattern For Panic” (January 1954, Manhunt)
- “Way Of A Wanton” (June 1954, Cavalier)
- “Butcher” (June 1954, Manhunt)
- “Blood Ballot” (November 1954, Menace)
- “Crime Of Passion” (December 1954, Manhunt; aka “The Barbequed Body”)
- “Code 197” (June 1955, Manhunt)
- “Nudists Die Naked” (August 1955, Manhunt)
- “Trouble Shooter” (January 1956, Accused)
- “The Build-Up” (June 1956, Suspect; aka “Wired For A Frame”)
- “Too Many Girls” (January 1957, Escapade; aka “The Live Ones”)
- “The Case of the Three Wild Blondes” (February 1957, Cavalier; aka “Dead Giveaway”)
- “Kill The Clown” (June 1957, Manhunt)
- “Babes, Bodies and Bullets” (April 1958, Cavalier)
- “Film Strip” (January 1960, Ed McBain Mystery Magazine)
- “The Morgue The Merrier” (October 1960, Cavalier)
- “The Bawdy Beautiful” (April 1961, Cavalier)
- “Sin Gang Blonde” (September 1965, For Men Only)
- “The Guilty Party” (1965, Come Seven, Come Death)
- “The Da Vinci Affair” (February 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magazine)
- “The Kubla Khan Caper” (April 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magazine)
- “The Bloodshot Eye” (June 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magazine)
- “Gun Play” (August 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magazine)
- “The Kubla Khan Affair” (April 1966, MSMM)
- “Blood Ballet” (September 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magazine)
Expanded & revised version of “Blood Ballot”
- “The Cautious Killers” (November 1966, Shell Scott’s Mystery Magaziner)
ALSO OF INTEREST
- Two Just Men: Richard S. Prather and Shell Scott (2020, by Graham Andrew)
Forthcoming from Wildside Press
- Exclusive Interview with Richard S. Prather
In possibly his last interview, Mrs. Executioner (Linda Pendleton) grills Prather. Far-ranging and occassionally long-winded, it’s nonetheless a fascinating look into the man behind Shell Scott.