Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ellery Queen (Charles W. Runyon), The Last Score (1964)

Queen, Ellery (Charles W. Runyon), The Last Score, NY: Pocket Books 50486, 15 October 1964. 165 pp
______. The Last Score & Beware the Young Stranger, NY: Signet Double Mystery (AE1307), October 1978. 158 pp

For detailed information on EQ and a bibliography of works, please visit World's Best Detective Crime and Murder Mystery Books.

As is now common knowledge, though kept from the public for many years, "Ellery Queen" was composed of two men, cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (born Daniel Nathan and Manford Emanuel Lepofsky, respectively). Rather than creating a character, they created what has become essentially a brand, as the ever-churning EQ machine included innumerable novels, short stories, a still-running popular magazine, a TV series and several movies, along with a series of anthologies. Throughout the 1960s a number of young, up-and-coming writers ghosted as Ellery Queen. This was partly due to the fact that Lee suffered a series of heart attacks and was unable to work. Some of the ghosted novels were based on treatments that Lee had done, or at least begun.

The Last Score is considered among the strongest of these ghosted novels. It was written by little-known Charles W. Runyon (b. 1928), who wrote in a variety of genres, including three novels as Ellery Queen: The Last Score (1964), The Killer Touch (1965) and Kiss and Kill (1969).

In The Last Score, Adventure traveller and guide Reid Rance is approached by wealthy socialite May Gibson with a request to take her youngest daughter Leslie on a field trip through Mexico. Not wishing to babysit a seventeen year-old, Reid tries to evade the task, but alas cannot, since there would otherwise be no novel. While in Mexico he does his best to fend off the teen's sexy come-ons while teaching her proper behaviour south of the border, until one night Leslie disappears. It turns out she has been kidnapped, and Rance must go through one hell of a ride to get her back.

The novel is surprisingly well written, with solid prose, good character consistency and development, and an unusual amount of experimentation, which does lead to a certain amount of unevenness in tone, but also adds to the book's appeal. The first third of the novel is overly long and a little flat, as it consists of Reid fending off the feisty Leslie, yet once she is kidnapped we speed along through drugs, money, romance and a nice array of bad dudes (despite the acts of violence, I think real-life drug cartels would do much worse than this gang, and probably get away with it too). Surprisingly and even oddly, during the novel's last third the point of view shifts from Rance to Leslie's half-sister Karen Frankel, then to Leslie herself until finally, to cap off an exciting ride, for a few pages we are treated to the inside of El Delgado (the Thin One), our head bad dude, as Runyon escalates the drama with some stream of consciousness, wanting us to understand what has driven Delgado to the life he has been leading.

The novel's single greatest achievement, however, is Runyon's portrayal of a Reid high on some strong pot. Reid is forced to smoke while with the enemy, and his shifting thought processes are well recorded. Despite the accurateness of his descriptions and my assumption that Runyon has toked a little in his time, the novel does feature a clear anti-dope attitude, firmly entrenched in the belief that a little pot leads to a lot of heroin. There is a long lecture early on, with Rance doing his best to frighten the unconvinced Leslie away from her desire to try the stuff. Moreover, her kidnapping is a direct result of this desire. It is, of course, entirely possible that this anti-doping message was forced into the book by the publishers, so I won't speculate needlessly on Runyon's own opinions.

The Last Score presents us with a world of men. Reid Rance is a manly tough-guy with some good sense and a dash of sensitivity (and a cool name, though perhaps a little to Harlequin-esque). He falls not for the hungry, attractive Leslie but prefers the challenge of her older half-sister, sexy feminist journalist Karen Frankel. Other men are tough but lacking Rance's firmly established sense of morality, from the colourful bad guys to the deadly Delgado and the competent Mexican Lieutenant we meet later on. Rance is set up early on in contrast with his standard clients, all pretend men who want a week or so away from their urban nine-to-five selves in order to play tough toreador or crocodile hunter. Rance is the real thing, along with the heart of a noble gentleman.

And though the women can be feminists they remain mostly feminine. Karen learns to drop much of her feminist front and lets her hair down (figuratively as well as literally), becoming more and more feminine and clearly falling for good man Reid.

Credit goes to Runyon for including a few solid good Mexican men and therefore avoiding stereotypes, from Felipe, the youthful victim of the American dream, to the sympatheric cab driver Salvador and the focused Lieutenant who helps save the day. Moreover, [spoiler alert] we learn that villain El Delgado is actually American.

There are no real surprises with how the novel ends, but a quick and fun read it is. Shortening it down to novella length would make for a great read, but with the extra padding The Last Score remains an interesting contemporary exploration of the 1960s culture of marijuana as well as gender. Though nothing like a textbook, it's good to explore these themes in context of a little adventure story.

In addition, one of the great things about this book is the list of characters. Strangely though, some of them contain, or imply, spoilers. My three favourites:

Reid Rance: This travel agent's moment of truth lasted a lifetime.
May Gibson: Fate took care of her three husbands, but her daughters were another cup of tequila.
Karen Frankel: A cold cookie, but Reid crumbled her.

Overall some fine, fun stuff. 6/10


Anonymous said...

Charles Runyon is not dead. He lives in Lampasas, TX and teaches college English.

Casual Debris said...

Thanks for the info; I've removed his death-date. (Apologies to Mr. Runyon.)

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