Shell Scott in Tokyo, or Who Says You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Lurid Cover?

October 17, 2009


There is an English-language bookstore in Tokyo’s main book district, Jimbocho, that specializes in fiction of the fifties and sixties, the sort with lurid covers featuring buxom scantily-clad women and hunky musclemen in torrid embrace. I often stop by to have a look at their new offerings, if for no other reason than to ogle the cover art. As I perused the 50% discount bin in front of the store a few days back, I ran across a book entitled Always Leave ‘Em Dying, from a detective series I had not thought about in years: Richard Prather’s once-iconic novels featuring smart-alecky LA detective Shell Scott. For those not familiar with the series, Shell Scott is a larger-than-life (much larger, actually) character who can crack one liners like Kelsey Grammer, usually several times per page, without missing a beat in dispatching the bad guys or reeling in the babes. He is anything but an undercover operative (other than with the aforementioned babes); with his bristly snow-white crew cut and eyebrows, and his 6’2” of imposing military bearing, he stands out in any crowd. His favorite car is a Caddy convertible, from back in the days when a Cadillac was still a status symbol, and his lucky numbers are 36-25-35. Enormously popular in their day (some forty million books sold from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, outsold in the genre only by Mickey Spillane), Richard Prather and Shell Scott seem to have been consigned to the discount racks nowadays, victims of the passing years and the insidious creeping Political Correctness that has held the Western World in its death-grip for the past decade or more. For the Shell Scott novels are anything but politically correct: Scott is an unrepentant womanizer, a hard drinker, a hard driver, a hard fighter, and an alpha-dog of the first order. As the cover blurb notes: “He’s a guy with a pistol in his pocket and sex and violence on his mind…”

Narrated in the first person, the books offer up the protagonist’s wry (some might say hopelessly adolescent, but they would be in the PC crowd, therefore wrong) observations on women (“She wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who’d invented cleavage just for fun.” Or, how about “She smiled with plump lips, red lips, beautiful lips that undoubtedly had said yes much more often than no.”), bad guys (“He looked like a man with ten ingrown toenails.”), and his hometown (“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, but this was one of those mornings when you spring out of bed nearly overwhelmed by oxygen.”). His adventures find him, by turns, serving as an extra in a movie (he plays a rock, sort of), riding a wrecking ball in pursuit of crooks, and going “under-uncover” at a naturist colony (shortly after which he lands a hot air balloon in downtown LA…in the nude!).

Perhaps the closest living relatives to Shell Scott are his spiritual successors Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais’ hip current-day gunslinging detective duo. LA private eye Cole also drives a vintage car (a Corvette, not as imposing as a Caddy, but certainly lots faster), and cracks wise with the best of ‘em, while Pike handles the paramilitary piece, seeing off the villains with precision and finesse. They bring a modern sensibility to the action/adventure/humor continuum stirred up some five decades ago by Richard Prather and Shell Scott. Still, it would be awfully difficult to imagine either of them descending naked into downtown LA in a hot air balloon…


A heartfelt thank-you goes to my brother and childhood partner-in-crimes Thane Tierney, whose unparalleled collection of Richard Prather novels provided the subject matter for the photos. As it turned out, the cover of the book I bought in Jimbocho was too far gone for a good pic, and Thane came through in record time with pics of some of the finest Shell Scott covers.