Stuart Kaminsky's Tinseltown 'tec brings the 1940s to Technicolor life
1 INT. A SEEDY OFFICE IN L.A. (1943) – DAY
A man in his mid-forties sits behind a desk in a cramped office. He is TOBY PETERS—medium height, wiry, and with a face that shows even more signs of ill-use than his suit.
As the CAMERA PUSHES IN we hear...
This is a job for a lazy man with muscles and not too many brains. The pay stinks, I get hit a lot, and I eat badly. So why do I do it? Because every once in a while, it makes me feel really alive. ￼ ￼￼￼￼￼
Philip Marlowe may have owned the mean streets of Los Angeles, but it is Toby Peters who holds the deed to Hollywood. The downtrodden, broken-nosed hero of 24 humorous murder mysteries written by Stuart M. Kaminsky, Peters is not your typical 1940s detective. He works out of a room sublet from an incompetent dentist, which he describes as “probably the only office in California where you could get your teeth filled and your runaway grandmother found in one visit.” He’s more of a wiseass than a streetwise philosopher. He’s a terrible shot, admits he’s not the smartest shamus in the phone book, and usually gets the worst out of a fight (“You look like Daffy Duck in one of those cartoons where Bugs Bunny blows him up,” his friend Anita informs him after one encounter). Peters isn’t even his real name; it’s Tobias Leo Pevsner.
But he possesses a quality that is invaluable when dealing with the rich and famous: he can be trusted to keep a secret.
Toby first got his close-up in Bullet for a Star (1977), a fast, funny B-movie of a novel set in 1940, in which Toby is invited to Warner Bros., where he once worked as a security guard, to deal with a blackmailer who has an incriminating photo purporting to show Errol Flynn in flagrante delicto with an underage girl. The blackmail case turns into a murder case, and Toby is assisted in solving it by the likes of Peter Lorre, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart.
Over the next 27 years Kaminsky turned out Toby Peters books at an amazing pace, drawing on public figures not only from Hollywood, but also from sports, politics, and the arts to populate the stories.
Stuart Kaminsky. Photo: Luc Valet.
These included Judy Garland (Murder on the Yellow Brick Road), the Marx Brothers (You Bet Your Life), Howard Hughes (The Howard Hughes Affair, which found Basil Rathbone acting as Toby’s assistant), Bela Lugosi (Never Cross a Vampire), Gary Cooper (High Midnight), Emmett Kelly (Catch a Falling Clown), Mae West (He Done Her Wrong), Eleanor Roosevelt (The Fala Factor), Joe Louis (Down for the Count), John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance), Albert Einstein (Smart Moves), Peter Lorre (Think Fast, Mr. Peters), General Douglas MacArthur (Buried Caesars), Leopold Stokowski (Poor Butterfly), Salvador Dali (The Melting Clock), Bette Davis (The Devil Met a Lady), Clark Gable (Tomorrow Is Another Day), Fred Astaire (Dancing in the Dark), W.C. Fields (A Fatal Glass of Beer), Cary Grant (To Catch a Spy), Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierced), and magician Harry Blackstone (Now You See It).
The only copy of Mae West’s sizzling autobiography goes missing in He Done Her Wrong. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
In each of the books, Toby is aided (and sometimes hindered) by a regular supporting cast of characters that includes the dapper, diminutive Swiss linguist Gunther Wherthman, who had played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz; Dr. Sheldon Minck, the butcher dentist who delusionally believes he’s an artist in enamel; mountainous Jeremy Butler, a former wrestler and poet who owns the office building; and Irene Plaut, Toby’s comically deaf landlady, whom he describes as “somewhere between seventy-five and ninety, with the constitution of [prizefighter] Primo Carnera and the energy of Ray Bolger.” The police are chiefly represented by Toby’s older brother, Lieutenant (and later Captain) Phil Pevsner, who has severe anger management problems, particularly around Toby, and Sergeant John Cawelti, who hates them both.
As time went on, the breezy lightheartedness of the early books was toned down, and Toby Peters’ adventures became a little more serious and weighty. One often-employed device was to open a novel at the story’s climax point, with Toby facing the unidentified murder, and then step back and recount the action from the start that led up to that moment. In nearly all of them, Toby’s next client contacts him at the very end of the book as a teaser for the follow-up adventure. One aspect of the series that never changed, though, was its cleverness. Kaminsky’s skill at plotting, misdirection and, in particular, setting clues was often breathtaking. A case in point was the trick he pulled in Catch a Falling Clown (1982), which also featured Alfred Hitchcock...as a suspect! Without giving anything away, the author’s handling of such a recognizable figure was one of the neatest twists of modern mystery fiction.
What makes the Toby Peters series stand out from the pack even more is that the author was also a genuine authority on Golden Age Hollywood and its stars, whom he depicts as the people they were, not simply the personas they played. In Never Cross a Vampire (1980), for instance, Toby comments on client Bela Lugosi’s oversized sense of drama, even off-camera: “Lugosi caught my eye, a massive false smile on his face, and nodded toward the door in a way that would make it clear even to the Frankenstein monster that he wanted out.”
Toby Peters wakes up with a headache, a body on the hotel-room bed and a gun in his face—held by John Wayne—in The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance.
A cinema professor at Northwestern University, Kaminsky had already published several nonfiction books about Hollywood by the time he undertook Bullet for a Star, his first novel. He continued to write nonfiction books and somehow found the time to turn out three other long-running mystery series featuring Inspector Rostnikov (whose 1988 adventure A Cold Red Sunrise earned Kaminsky an Edgar for Best Novel), Lew Fonseca, and Abe Lieberman. He also wrote tie-in novels for The Rockford Files and CSI: New York, a few film and television scripts, and even some graphic novels.
By Now You See It, which was published in 2004, some surprising changes had taken place in Toby’s life. It is set in 1945, five hard years after Bullet for a Star, and he is now partnered with his slightly mellowed brother Phil, who resigned the LAPD after the death of his wife. The fact that no new client turns up on the final page to cue the next adventure indicates this was intended to be Toby Peters’ last case, even though Kaminsky went on to write several more books for his other series. Stuart Kaminsky died in 2009 at age 75, having received the MWA’s highest honor, its Grand Master Award, three years earlier.
The great thing about mysteries set in the 1940s is that they never get old. The great thing about the adventures of Toby Peters is that an author who knew and loved the workings of Golden Age Hollywood was happy to share that knowledge and love with the rest of us. ￼￼￼
MUSIC SWELLS AS WE...FADE TO BLACK
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼A STUART KAMINSKY READING LIST
Toby Peters Novels
Bullet for a Star (1977)
Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1977)
You Bet Your Life (1978)
The Howard Hughes Affair (1979)
Never Cross a Vampire (1980)
High Midnight (1981)
Catch a Falling Clown (1982)
He Done Her Wrong (1983)
The Fala Factor (1984)
Down for the Count (1985)
The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance (1986)
Smart Moves (1986)
Think Fast, Mr. Peters (1987)
Buried Caesars (1989)
Poor Butterfly (1990)
The Melting Clock (1991)
The Devil Met a Lady (1993)
Tomorrow Is Another Day (1995)
Dancing in the Dark (1996)
A Fatal Glass of Beer (1997)
A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001)
To Catch a Spy (2002)
Mildred Pierced (2003)
Now You See It (2004)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #125.