Richard S. Prather’s The Cockeyed Corpse, published by Gold Medal Books in 1964, is a genre-bending extravaganza, showcasing the author’s immense talent for hardboiled absurdity. Essentially, it’s a backstage-nudist-Western-cum-murder mystery, the very premise of which is indicative of Prather’s eccentric narrative style. Fourteen years and twenty-five books (including one collection of novellas, and one of short stories) after his initial appearance in 1950’s Case of the Vanishing Beauty, detective Shell Scott is in need of a vacation—badly. A fortuitous phone call from an old friend, Ben Freedlander, brings him from L.A. to Arizona to investigate the “accidental” death of a young starlet on a movie set. Enticing as the work is, it is Freedlander’s mention of four other young actresses that need Scott’s protection that sends him packing.
Arriving on the set of The Wild West, little does Scott realize how “wild” things will get: a couple of hoods are waiting for him at the train station with guns blazing; some big-shot gangsters from L.A. have taken up residence in the same ranch as the movie’s cast and crew; and the movie, it turns out, is one of those “nudie” flicks which have been gaining popularity, and of which Scott is a big fan. Vying for Scott’s attention over the investigation are the surviving four actresses—Delise, Zia, Choo-choo, and April—all of whom are invariably topless throughout most of the novel. And, of course, Scott shows more than ample interest in the quartet.
Prather seems less concerned with building suspense than inventing increasingly humorous situations that pair the detective with the unclothed actresses. Perhaps surprisingly, the novel is actually scant on the lurid details which dot the pulps like so many periods and commas; instead, with cartoonish exaggeration, Prather describes Scott’s ogling eyes, which are always threatening to pop out of his face on every other page. There’s something almost slapstick about his excessive libido, which at one point finds him running off to save the girls with neither gun nor shirt—leaving him feeling simultaneously both compromised and embarrassed.
Overall, The Cockeyed Corpse, Prather’s twenty-sixth Shell Scott book, feels both fresh and lively. The plot is riddled with moments of hilarity (such as when Scott, dressed up as a boulder, seemingly performs a one-man re-enactment of Macbeth’s final battle) and memorable descriptions (such as “big, lumbering Dodo, the Twentieth-Century diplodocus”). Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
Describing hiding in close quarters with the four actresses: “I was getting electrocuted in a Finnish sauna. Inside my skull was a sparkling radiance, a kind of glowing incandescence, like radioactive oatmeal…”
Describing his new cowboy clothes: “I do like a little color in my garb, but…Actually, I looked as if I were giving off cosmic rays. If I got near any cows they’d probably moo at me and give pasteurized milk from then on.”
“Then I got my two guns, slipped the Colt .38 into its clamshell holster under my fringed buckskin jacket, and dropped the pearl-handled six-shooter into the holster on my hip and stuck Clyde’s nine-shot automatic in my pants packet, and put on my white sombrero. All I needed was a horse—but that I could do without. Instead of a horse, I ran to my Cadillac. There was no point in overdoing this thing.” (This wonderfully over-the-top description reminds me of the finale of Christa Faust’s Money Shot in which the main character dons the most garish stripper attire in preparation for the big showdown. Faust is an admitted Prather fan, and her novel, released earlier this year by Hard Case Crime, is highly recommended to anyone who likes Prather’s work.)
“I guess to anybody, under any circumstances, to see a gun poking out of a rock would jar you, but I thought Farmer was going to have a hemorrhage, a bowel movement, and a seizure, all at once. I pulled the trigger.”
“Except this time all four of the gals were dressed in ‘city’ clothes—low, plunging, décolleté and all that, and I mean all that.”
And my favorite passage of all: “They had all followed Delise automatically, after the fashion of startled and stampeding turkeys. Well, not turkeys. Chickens, maybe? Plucked. That’s not it, either. But turkeys or chickens, they were all naked as jaybirds such being their apparently near-permanent condition, and I knew that even if I got shot in the head this instant, I would carry a tremendous vision with me into the next world. I will not describe it. I cannot. Nobody could. But I’ll give you a hint: For the last twenty yards of my sprint I forgot all about guns behind me, and was not in any sense whatsoever running away from anything.”
It is moments like this that remind me why I love reading Richard Prather: when even the author has to stop a moment and marvel at the fantastical situation in which he has placed Shell Scott. Truly, it’s a sight to behold.