Now You See It
Published by Carroll & Graf Publishers
240 pages, 2004
And for His Next Trick...
Reviewed by Yvette Banek
Some writers have the knack for creating fictional worlds that are so much fun to enter, that upon getting our hands on one of their books, we plunge right in with gleeful anticipation, eagerly setting aside real-life responsibilities. Stuart M. Kaminsky is just such an author, and his charmingly churlish (and begrudgingly middle-aged) 1940s Los Angeles private eye, Toby Peters -- making his 24th appearance in Now You See It -- is the kind of likable character with whom most readers will enjoy sharing all sorts of outlandish adventures.
Since the 1977 debut entry of this Tinseltown series -- Bullet for a Star, which featured that eternal swashbuckler, Errol Flynn, among its zany cast of characters -- each of Kaminsky's Toby Peters books has included almost "as many stars as there are in the heavens," to borrow a line from director Cecil B. DeMille. In Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1977), for instance, which revolved around the killing of a "munchkin" from The Wizard of Oz cast and also introduced a new series co-star, self-employed Swiss translator Gunther Wherthman, we also got -- yeah, you guessed it -- Judy Garland in a plum role. Three years later, in Never Cross a Vampire (currently out of print, for reasons that remain excruciatingly short-sighted), readers were offered the actor who will always be Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi. In Dancing in the Dark (1996), detective Toby shared the stage with that inimitable dandy and splendid dancer, Fred Astaire. In To Catch a Spy (2002), the perpetually suave and gorgeous Cary Grant lent a hand, and in 2003's Mildred Pierced, Kaminsky made the resourceful actress Joan Crawford a murder suspect. Oh, and let's not forget one of the funniest books in the Peters pantheon: The Melting Clock (1991), which began with surrealist painter Salvador Dali romping about in a rabbit costume. Obviously, Kaminsky has no shame, and that's how we like him.
As the action gets started in Now You See It, the time is June 1944. World War II continues to rage across Europe and the Pacific, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is well into his third activist term in the White House (but is less than a year away from dying in office) and Toby Peters is "pushing fifty," still divorced but dating a waitress -- Anita Maloney, with whom he'd gone to high school -- and still not handsome. As he assesses his dolled-up self in a mirror, Toby muses:
The stiff in the mirror looked like the uncomfortable bodyguard for a mobster. The tux was black and pressed. The black bow tie had been tied perfectly by Anita. My shoes were shined. My hair was brushed back and glistening with Vitalis. It was my face that gave me away. It was the middle-aged face of an ex-boxer who had taken at least eight or ten too many blows to the face. I had never been a boxer, but I had lost more than my share of battles. My nose was flat. My cheeks were rough, and you didn't have to look too closely to see a small white scar over my right eye and another one just left of my chin. It was a good face for someone in my business.
Taking cameo turns through Now You See It are a young Anthony Perkins, comic Phil Silvers and the dashing Cornel Wilde, fresh from his role in A Thousand and One Nights (which helps account for his well-honed dexterity with a sword in one scene). But Toby's client here is the flamboyant magician Harry Blackstone, most famous for his flying light bulb illusion, whose career and reputation are threatened by murder, mayhem and more than a modicum of professional jealousy. No matter that Kaminsky's plot, in the end, doesn't really make sense; just sit back and enjoy another bumpy ride through the mad, mad, mad, mad world of Toby Peters and his competitively eccentric cohorts. Hey, you might even learn something, since every chapter of this novel begins with a short magic how-to culled from the Blackstone, The Magic Detective radio show, which aired from 1948 to 1950 and starred Ed Jerome as Blackstone.
One change veteran Peters readers will notice here is that the low-rent P.I. now has a partner: his irascible elder brother, former L.A. homicide cop and recent widower Phil Pevsner. (Toby's real moniker is Tobias Pevsner, but he changed his last name long ago -- a raw bone of contention between the two brothers.) The firm of Peters and Pevsner, Confidential Investigations, hopes for a less chaotic record of crime solving than Toby was able to achieve on his own, but don't bet the farm on it.
Early in this tale, Toby outlines the preparations he and his sibling have made to protect their client during a performance in Los Angeles' renowned Pantages Theater:
... Blackstone definitely had a problem. My brother Phil and I had been hired to take care of the problem before it killed the World's Greatest Living Magician. ... At the stage door, we had posted Jeremy Butler, the huge, bald, 250-lb. former wrestler and present poet who was our landlord at the Farraday Building. Jeremy had been a professional wrestler. He was over sixty now, but I didn't think there were many people on the planet who could get past him without the use of a gun or a very large sledgehammer, and even then Jeremy might not go down. I wasn't expecting anyone with a gun or a sledgehammer, but both my brother in the audience and me behind the curtain, wearing a bright blue marching-band uniform complete with white epaulets and big brass buttons, were armed. Phil could shoot. So could I. The difference was that Phil was likely to hit what he was shooting at. History told me that I was most likely to shoot an unarmed bystander or myself.
It seems that Calvin Ott (stage name "Marcus Keller"), a "third-rate parlor magician" and a wealthy, influential member of the Los Angeles Friends of Magic, has issued a challenge to Blackstone, inviting him to a black-tie dinner ostensibly in his honor, during which Ott intends to show up the World's Greatest Living Magician with a unique illusion of his own devising. Meanwhile, someone has threatened to disrupt Blackstone's show at the Pantages, if the famed purveyor of prestidigitation doesn't reveal the secrets of his most dazzling tricks. After the giant buzz-saw illusion goes awry during Blackstone's Pantages performance; a seedy gumshoe named Robert R. Cunningham is found shot to death, his last words being "Wild on Thursday"; and Cunningham's show-dancer girlfriend is subsequently shot by a guy with a beard and turban, Toby must figure out how to best protect his client, and also fend off LAPD Detective John Cawelti, thick in mind and body, who would settle for pinning everything on Toby.
Once more, our hero can rely on his troop of outlandish irregulars for help -- or something like it. In addition to the aforementioned Gunther Wherthman and Jeremy Butler (who's married to a zaftig ex-printer of soft-core pornography, Alice Pallas Butler), we see the return in Now You See It of fumbling, near-sighted dentist/inventor Sheldon Minck, who last time out shot his wife in a park with a crossbow and lived to tell about it. Shelly has recently hired an elderly "screenwriter" of dubious distinction to follow Toby and company, in order to pick up ideas for a mystery/thriller screenplay based (to some vague degree) on Shelly's life, Dentist in Disguise.
And what would a Toby book be without the detective's perpetually confused boardinghouse landlady, Irene Plaut? ("Mrs. Plaut, more than a little hard of hearing and often in audio contact with a world the rest of us couldn't hear, believed that I was two things," Peters explains in these pages, "a book editor and an exterminator. She did not think the combination odd and had once told me that the long-gone Mr. Plaut had once been a prospector, stagecoach driver and tree surgeon at the same time. ... 'Mr. Peelers,' she said, looking up at me. I had long ago decided not to correct her. 'It is I,' I said.") Generally oblivious to the criminal cases on Toby's plate in these books, Mrs. Plaut stays busy dreaming up creative meals from rationed wartime foodstuffs and writing the biography of her quirky family, which Toby -- in his imagined capacity as editor -- is expected to read and remark upon at her every beckoning. In Now You See It, her new chapter of that work-in-progress, titled "Wooley and the Bear," recounts Mrs. Plaut's brother Wooley's adventure at the London Zoo, where he encountered a talking bear. I leave it to you to read and believe, or not.
Toby eventually arrives at the truth behind the threats to Blackstone's life, but not before another couple of murders are committed, a kidnapping further gums up the works, Cawelti accuses Peters of everything and anything under the sun, and brother Phil's famous temper is pushed to the limits of human endurance. This pattern of confusion and madcap action, followed by the light finally dawning on Toby (more or less) is a hallmark of the Peters series, and it works just as well here as in any of the previous 23 installments. There's even a twist near the end, when Toby must learn to trust his friend Minck's questionable dentistry skills, which adds considerable delight to this yarn.
Florida author Kaminsky (who's also the creator of three other series -- does the man never sleep?) has a truly inspired gift of the outrageous, and he spares readers no lunatic plot turns, no matter how demented they might be. Yet Toby Peters remains, at heart, a good and decent man set loose in a world gone to hell in a hand basket. I love this about him. And though I'm very fond of all Kaminsky's series, the Peters books are closest to my heart. There's just something about inspired lunacy that speaks to me. It'll be interesting to see what this author has up his sleeve next. | January 2005