The Toby Peters Affair by Greg Rucka
Stuart Kaminsky changed my life.
This is not hyperbole. This is not a rhetorical gambit. It's God's honest Truth.
Until I was ten years old, mysteries were, to me, Encyclopedia Brown and a handful of aborted attempts to read The Hardy Boys. I fought through The Tower Treasure, got a dozen pages into The House on the Cliff, and gave it up for good. I fared slightly better with Nancy Drew, but not much. While I enjoyed the idea of a mystery, the concept of it as a narrative form, I was bored to tears by the execution.
To hear my mother tell it - and I've asked her about it - she went into the now-passed-into-memory Cloak and Dagger Mystery Bookshop in Santa Barbara, California, looking to buy some new reading for herself, and maybe a book for me. She asked the bookseller for a recommendation for her ten year-old son. What she left with was Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, which she then blithely handed to me.
To this day, I wonder what that bookseller was thinking. My best guess is that he or she hadn't actually read the book, and was rather looking to make the sale. Hey, that one there, it's got a Wizard of Oz reference. That'll be safe.
So very, very wrong.
So very, very right.
There's a reason that the late Stuart Kaminsky was granted the title "Grandmaster" by the Mystery Writers of America in 2006. He was that good. He had an effortless, easy style that worked for whatever he was writing, be it Moscow and Rostnikov, or Chicago and Abe Lieberman, or - my personal favorites, the ones that literally changed my life - Tobias "Toby" Peters in 1940s Los Angeles.
And he was funny. Good God, but the books were funny.
I'm ten, and my mother hands me this book. On the cover there's a Munchkin with a tiny knife in his chest, and he's lying on the Yellow Brick Road. There's a thin thread of blood that's escaped, and now runs between the bricks. The Munchkin lies in a puddle of light, and the Yellow Brick Road bends away, into murkier shadows. You can just see the lamp itself on the right, but barely, hinting that this isn't Oz.
I stared at that cover for a long time. The title threw me. I was ten, I was a boy, and anything smacking of Oz also reeked of "girl," so I was wary. But that cover, I look at it today - it's to my right as I type this - and I can still remember the delicious sense of menace it gave me, the double-dog-dare to come inside.
"Someone had murdered a Munchkin."
And we're off.
The plot, in a nutshell, is this: Judy Garland hires private investigator Toby Peters to keep the murder of the Munchkin out of the papers. Toby learns that Garland's life is in danger. The bodies start stacking up.
Straightline enough. Except I'm ten, and aside from the fact that Raymond Chandler and Clark Gable also show up in the novel (I had heard of the first, had seen films of the second), what Toby uncovers isn't just dead Munchkins. No, no, see, because someone's been making porn films on the old Wizard of Oz sets.
And then Toby has sex in a dentist's chair.
And there's this little person - because the book teaches me that "midget" is insulting - named Gunther, who later will become Toby's best friend, and who is the most dignified, intelligent, kind man, and who unfortunately has a mustache like Hitler, and he's amazing. And Toby's brother, who's a cop, and hasn't abandoned the family last name of Pevsner, literally beats Toby up, like, for real, not like hey-we're-brothers-here's-a-wedgie. And there's Sheldon Minck, the dentist (it's his chair, see, they share an office, and no, Toby doesn't have sex with him). Toby himself is kind of a screw-up, too. He can't shoot worth a damn, but he doesn't ever give up, and he can't keep himself from mouthing off and getting pounded for it.
Then there's this line, this wonderful line that made me laugh out loud and made me almost cry, too, and that's when I understood what pathos was, and if you want to find it, you can read the book yourself. But it has the word “elephants” in it.
Writers are raised into being by books, plain and simple, and yes, rather obvious. Books live in only a few places, really. If we're lucky, they live in the homes where we're raised. They live in school, but our time to devote to them as opposed to education, is limited.
They live in libraries, still.
The indescribable joy of finding a whole shelf full of Stuart Kaminsky novels in the John Steinbeck Public Library... it was the same feeling as unexpectedly, hope-against-hope, seeing the best friend you thought you were saying good-bye to forever.
Memory blurs edges, but I still remember those books, the hunger with which I devoured them. I remember gasping at the reveal in You Bet Your Life, and grinning at the way Kaminsky played on my expectations in The Howard Hughes Affair. I remember going deeper into the library to learn about who these people were, these people that, I understood, were real, even though Toby was not.
Looking back, of course, I can see that I was precocious as hell. A lot of what Kaminsky was doing, a lot of what Toby was up to, I barely understood. A lot of the subtlety of the novels was wasted on me at age 10. And one would think that, perhaps, that speaks badly of the novels, rather than informs the ignorance of the reader.
When my wife and I first got married, and were very, very poor, we would read to one another in the evenings. I read her all - every last one - of the Toby Peters novels that had been published at that point.
They not only held up. They were better than in memory. They were just as fun as when I'd first discovered them, they were just as gleeful and energetic and flawless.
I don't know how Kaminsky did that. I really don't. I don't know how he managed to tell so many wonderful stories about Toby and all his misadventures and never let the gimmick get away from him. Einstein, W.C. Fields, MacArthur, Hammett, Mae West, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Salvador Dali, Bela Lugosi… all of them springing to life with style and reverence, all of them touched with humanity. Rereading them, as I have several times since, the heart that lays within each novel is that much more apparent, and there are still times when Kaminsky, and Toby, can choke me up.
I don't know how he did that.
But I am so very, very grateful that he did.
Greg Rucka is the acclaimed writer of nearly a dozen novels and countless comic books. He's currently writing The Punisher for Marvel, and his next novel, Alpha, will be released by Mulholland Books in May. You can find Rucka's website at this link.
Sixteen of Kaminsky's Toby Peters novels are currently available from MysteriousPress.com--and there are more on the way. You can find our current lineup of Kaminsky's books at this link.
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