Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Funnies

Of course we all have different ideas of what constitutes funny, but I like to think there are others out there with my own particular sense of...shall we say, quirky humor. Uh-oh, perhaps not the best word to choose. The minute someone says they have quirky humor, my eyes roll immediately to heaven. It's happened so many times to me: a person tells me they have that sort of humor and then they go on to prove that what they really mean is they have no sense of humor whatsoever. And well, you know, a person with no sense of humor is kind of hard to take. Humor is king as far as I'm concerned - life would be unbearable otherwise. I really do enjoy laughing but I know that not everyone understands or likes the same sort of humor.

In the film, WHO KILLED ROGER RABBIT? the cartoon rabbit in question is married to va-va-boom Jessica who is cartoon human and stacked - remember? Well when she's asked why on earth she'd marry a rabbit, she replies: "He makes me laugh." Yeah, I completely get that.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand - which is? - funny books.

Do you mind laughing out loud while reading? I don't. Have you ever howled with laughter while reading in a public place? I have. Did it bother me that people stared and edged slightly away? Nope. Would it bother you? Then DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING BOOKS IN PUBLIC. You have been warned.

I'm keeping the list short by just talking in specific detail about two books today. Down the line, I hope to add to the list because I do read a lot of books that make me laugh...uh, in a good way.

ONE FOR THE MONEY by Janet Evanovich.
Everyone, more or less, knows or has heard of this but no list of funny books would be complete without it. First in a popular, L-O-N-G running series now up to book sixteen -, though, in my opinion not as funny as books two, three and so on - still, you should begin at he beginning. Believe me, it's quite funny enough. (Book one is also slightly more violent than the rest if memory serves.) I've read all the books in this series except the very latest and can report that, as usual, some are better than others but, of course, you'll have to judge for yourself. The one thing they ALL have in common is a general sense of weird wackiness.

Stephanie Plum is the wise-cracking star of this slightly tacky show, she's the original and totally lovable Jersey girl. An ex-department store lingerie buyer, Stephanie is unemployed and down on her luck after ridding herself of her sneaky, philandering husband. Somehow, she cleverly (or not) finagles her cousin Vinnie a Trenton, N.J. bail bondsman, into putting her to work as the world's most inept bounty hunter. (Yes, a bit of blackmail is involved. It seems that Vinnie has a thing for ducks, but let's not go there.) This is, by the way, the sort of book/series you probably won't find so funny if you didn't grow up in or near a city and never met these types of characters (more or less) in some form of your reality. I know people who simply do not 'get' this humor. Yes, they exist. I am not one of them.

What happens next to Stephanie forms the basis of the following fifteen or so, books. This is definitely a larger than life series set in a world of sleazy, often icky criminals, in a Trenton that no longer exists, if it ever did. One thing about the books that both helps and hinders, is that while everyone around Stephanie and her loopy, hilarious family (Grandma Mazur alone, is worth the price of admission), changes over the course of the books, the Plums remain the fixed point in a changing world.

Possibly why the series may be coming to an end. I mean, there's really no place left to go with Stephanie. But that's really neither here nor there if you're just getting acquainted with the books. Reading them of course, may be dangerous to your health, I once fell off my bed laughing while reading. I won't warn you again.

BULLET FOR A STAR by Stuart Kaminsky.
This is the first in the often hilarious Toby Peters detective series of books by the late Stuart Kaminsky. Kaminsky (admittedly one of my favorite writers ever), died last year and a light went with him that's for sure. He was a prolific writer of many wonderful mysteries. I liked most of his other work, but for me, the Toby books are the shining light, mostly because they are just so damned funny. (His three other series are more serious mystery/detective stories.)

The Toby books are set in the black and white b-movie world of 1940's Los Angeles and feature a guy who is really a private eye by default. He's a kind of lovable (there's that word again), small time, hard-nosed, schlemiel who refuses to grow up. His ex-wife (whom he still loves) is forever calling him a Peter Pan and, unfortunately, she's probably right.

Toby (real name Tobias Pevsner) Peters a detective to the stars. He's gotten the reputation for being able to keep deep, dark secrets under his fedora and for this reason alone, he's often hired by movie stars and/or studio people to help solve Hollywood mysteries. In each book in the series, Toby generally interacts with one, two or three movie stars or celebrities of the times. For instance, the first book features Erroll Flynn who hires Toby when he, Flynn, is threatened and his studio wants to keep it all hush-hush. In later titles, i.e. the second book, MURDER ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD which features Judy Garland, Toby takes on all sorts of laughingly weird cases in which Hollywood types figure prominently. Why he never gets rich is hard to explain but Toby does say he rarely gets steady work. That helps explain his general seediness, I suppose.

Toby has a brother, Phil Pevsner, an L.A. cop, who dislikes Toby and often demonstrates his dislike by physical means. I don't like Phil, he is a bully, but I put up with him. His wife is dying of an unspecified disease and you have to make allowances. Toby does, though it doesn't stop him goading Phil and setting off his famous temper. It's a strained, hard-to-define relationship at best.

Toby lives in a Hollywood boarding house run by a conveniently deaf old lady named Mrs. Plaut. (Love that name!) She persists in calling him Mr. Peelers no matter how often Toby tries to explain that his last name is Peters. She is a four foot something dynamo who, among other things, has been writing an account of her family's rather strange history for years. I adore Mrs. Plaut and in another life, I wouldn't mind being her, even if she is 83. Toby's seething patience with her is a joy to behold - one of several reasons why I like him so much. His best friend and willing cohort, is Gunther, a dignified, learned and sartorially splendid Swiss who happens to be a dwarf. Gunther works as a free-lance interpreter (he speaks several languages), often for the government. He, too, lives at the boarding house.

Toby's other cohort is the sartorially disgusting dentist Sheldon Minck. I'm sorry to refer to Shel as disgusting but yeah, he is. His professional and personal habits are nothing short of criminally disgusting. Toby rents a cubbyhole office from Shel in a downtown L.A. office building owned by Jeremy, a wrestler/poet who occasionally serves as Toby's back-up. Shel is so incompetent (as a dentist and human being) that your heart just goes out to anyone who is foolish enough to wander into his office for any sort of dental activity. I mean, I shudder at the very thought. He doesn't live at Mrs. Plaut's thank goodness. Shel (who reminds me of nothing more or less than the Pillsbury dough boy gone to seed) has a wife, Mildred - she hates Toby and won't have him in the house.

Okay, that's the recurring cast of crazies. But you have to remember that a world war is being fought during this time so there's a kind of dark cloud hovering over everything. But reading about Mrs. Plaut dealing with wartime home-front shortages, the coupons and such, the fake butter, is very funny stuff.

Some of my favorite books in the series are, HE DONE HER WRONG which features Mae West, SMART MOVES which features Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein, THE DEVIL MET A LADY which features Bette Davis, MILDRED PIERCED (get it?) which features Joan Crawford as a suspect in a murder, THE MELTING CLOCK which features artist Salvadore Dali, HIGH MIDNIGHT which features Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway and so forth and so on. There are a bunch of other books in the series, it's great fun hunting them down. Some of the actors and/or celebrities involved are, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Bela Lugosi, the Marx Brothers...well, you get the idea. Stuart Kaminsky was a professor of film at Northwestern so he knew practically everything there is to know about movies. He not only wrote mysteries, he wrote anthologies, essays and opinion pieces on books, film and writing. As I said, he was prolific.

If you have any sort of affection for 1940's movies and characters, you will love the Toby books, I hope, as much as I do. Plus you will have a great time. If noir can ever be described as ha-ha funny, then this is the series that proves it.

Of course there are varying degrees of hilarity and it all depends on your own sense of humor, but these are books worth taking a look at when you're in the mood for a good read and a good laugh.

One other thing: some of the Kaminsky titles may be hard to find as a few go back several years, but if you look in the library or on the secondary market online or elsewhere, you should have little trouble. Plus I suspect that there might be a re-issue in the works.

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