Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: THE DEVIL MET A LADY (1993) by Stuart Kaminsky

Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly meme hosted by Patti Abbott at PATTINASE. Take a look to see who else is participating and what 'forgotten' books they're talking about this week.

My author choice today is Stuart M. Kaminsky who was a film professor and prolific writer of four (4!!) mystery series and several stand-alone books and screenplays. He passed away in 2009, but left behind lots of great reading and re-reading. Please go to fantastic fiction site to see the entire listing of Kaminsky's work.

Of the four series (each distinctly different from the other in tone and style and setting), my favorites are the Toby Peters books set in the L.A. of the 1940's. They're a curious mix of humor and noir detective action, a kind of send-up of Chandler and Hammett, combining murder, movie stars and personalities of the times with a recurring cast of oddball characters. The star of the show is Toby Peters (aka Tobias Pevsner) a divorced, has-been, rumpled, disaffected detective who has never quite gotten the hang of being a grown up.

Toby, wittingly or unwittingly has been mixed up in cases involving Judy Garland, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Bela Lugosi, Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers, Joan Crawford and even Eleanor Roosevelt , Salvadore Dali and Albert Einstein - just to name a few. He meets everyone in his seamy little business since word gets around that he can be trusted to keep a secret.  If you are an old film buff and a mystery maven - like me - you will love these books.

In THE DEVIL MET A LADY, it's Bette Davis's turn to need the somewhat crumpled services of Toby Peters, Private Eye. So, with the help of his best friend, Swiss midget and natty dresser, Gunther Werthmann, the stumbling (and cowardly) interference of Sheldon Minck, a dentist for whom anesthetics are anathema - Toby rents the storeroom section of Shelly's large and unsightly office as his own little private eye domain - and occasionally the intimidating muscle of retired wrestler and current poet Jeremy Butler, Toby is on the job.While back at the boarding house where Toby lives, the infuriatingly endearing and mostly deaf little old landlady, Mrs. Plaut continues to commandeer Toby's war-time food rations, write her memoirs (which she insists that Toby edit) and deliver imprecise phone messages from Toby's clients whom she assumes are writers and people needing the services of a bug exterminator. (She thinks Toby is a combo book editor and exterminator named Mr. Peelers and nothing Toby does can change her mind.)

This time out, Toby has been hired by Bette Davis's husband as Davis's bodyguard, when threats are made against her life. For part of this time, Toby is forced to share a seedy hotel room with Davis. Here's what happens:

It was close to twenty four hours later that I announced to Davis that I had to go out for a while, and she announced that she was going mad, mad, mad in the small room of the Great Palms [hotel], listening to "The Romance of Helen Trent" on the tinny Arvin.

"Okay," I said, after she had almost calmed down. "I'm going. Bolt the door after me."

"I would prefer to go with you, you know."

"Someone would recognize you"

....Six hours later I was back and knocking at the door. I was bruised, limping, and in no mood to talk about it. She opened the door after I identified myself, didn't seem to notice my demolished state, and went back to the bed without asking where I'd been.

I didn't volunteer my story then, but I'll fill you in on it...a little later. For now I'll tell you that I had found what I was looking for but I paid the price in cracked ribs.

I took off my shirt, locked myself in the bathroom with the Atlantic, and poured myself the closest thing the Great Palms could offer to a warm bath to soothe my wounds....I kicked off my shoes and got in the tub. The running water eased my aching legs and I learned from the Atlantic that one of President Roosevelt's chief attributes was his 'political sagacity'; that, in spite of something called the Baruch Committee Report, the rubber problem was not solved; and that the navy had begun to acknowledge the gravity of the submarine menace.

About two in the morning I hung up my trousers on a hook, hitched up my boxer shorts, and turned off the bathroom lights. Then I tiptoed to the sofa, turned away from Bette Davis's gentle snoring, and covered my head with a tiny tasseled pillow.

The next sixteen hours were among the worst in my life and that includes the night I once spent in a cage with a gorilla.

Two nights alone in a hotel room with Bette Davis had driven me to the edge of the cliff of insanity. I was hanging on with my fingertips and wondering if there was any fee I could charge her husband that would make up for this.

Davis did not feel like reading the Atlantic. She got bored with the radio by nine in the morning, and conversation did not come easily. She had confiscated my only pair of pajamas half an hour after we had walked into the room., and spent most of her time lounging around smoking or looking out the window with her arms folded and an impatient scowl on her face.

Our conversations consisted of her requests to call her sister, her mother, William Wyler, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Howard Hughes. I said no. She insisted. I said no. She got loud.

"At least let me call Farney. He must be worried sick."

Farney, Arthur Farnsworth, was her husband and my client.

I said, "Go ahead and call him. Call 'em all. While you're at it, you might as well call Wiklund and Jeffers and their two wind-up, broken-nosed robots."

"Your nose is also broken," she said triumphantly.

"Smashed flat, " I corrected. "I earned it. You want to call your husband or 'G.E. News Time', go ahead." I pointed to the phone. "Be my guest and the guest of whoever the switchboard operator is downstairs."

"You give up too easily," she said, turning her back on me. "I despise weak men."

A good mystery and a fun book. Almost all the Toby Peters books are. I love the series. I've read every one except the one with boxer Joe Louis. That seems to be a hardest one to find.

The trade paperback cover.
I've managed to find a few of the hardcovers in used books stores over the years and my library, luckily, has a reasonably good supply of the earlier books.


  1. I'll try it. I still like the banter in the Stout books, and in The Thin Man.

    But always good to try.

  2. Stuart Kaminsky is an underrated writer. I've enjoyed all of his novels.

  3. Kathy: I think you'll like these, especially since you like vintage films. They're a lot of fun. But his other series are good too.

  4. George: i couldn't agree more. He's terrific!

  5. A fun series. The title of this one, as I recall, refers to Satan Met a Lady, a strange adaptation of The Maltese Falcon starring Davis and Warren William. The role of the falcon was played by the Horn of Roland.

  6. Evan: I knew that about the title, but I didn't know about the Horn of Roland. Whatever that is. HA!

    My favorite Toby Peters title: MILDRED PIERCED.

  7. Are there films of Kaminsky's books?

    Mildred Pierced! What a riot!

  8. Kathy: No films of the Toby books. It's a shame. They'd make some fun movies. Yeah, I love MILDRED PIERCED. HA!

  9. Take pity on me and tell me what to read here. I like dry wit, sarcasm, whatever.

  10. Kathy, these are among my favorites from Kaminsky's Toby Peters books:


  11. Thank you for this spot!
    I love Stuart Kaminsky and particularly his books about Toby Peters, but I always felt like I was the only one on earth to read them! It's comforting to see that you appreciate them too!

  12. I don't know many people who read the Toby Peters books either, Aline. Nice to meet another. Long live dear Mrs. Plaut! :)


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