Book Review: Catch a Falling Clown: A Toby Peters Mystery by Stuart Kaminsky

Title: Catch a Falling Clown: A Toby Peters Mystery

Author: Stuart Kaminsky

Format: Paperback edition by Penguin Books

Published: originally 1981, Penguin Edition 1984

catchafallingclown
Before wading off once again into the land of reviews, a bit more clarification about me that should be added here, for those who are on this great literary adventure of my opinions with me either as new readers or as someone who read the first review I did last week.  Although I consider myself a voracious reader who can read anything and everything that has words pressed against paper, either literal or digital, I, like most beings of the human variety, have preferences.  Those predilections tend to veer toward reading works that have a mystery or crime at their core.  They also, more often than not, have to do with books in series, or at least books that feature characters that have appeared in books previous or will appear in books future.  Again, not anything against stand alone books or dramas, science fiction, etc., because I do love my Genre Fiction.  I just have a jones for one Genre more than the others.   And the author of Catch a Falling Clown is one of the reasons why.

Stuart Kaminsky, although known for several books and characters, is near and dear to many a mystery fan’s heart for his creation, Toby Peters.  Set in 1930s and 40s Los Angeles, Toby is a semi hard boiled private detective with a policeman brother who he has a rather rocky relationship with and a penchant for getting cases from and involving the famous and infamous of golden Age Hollywood.  Everyone from John Wayne to Errol Flynn to General Douglas MacArthur, Toby has done work for, crossed paths with, and in some cases kept out of jams that would have ended their lives and careers.  In Catch a Falling Clown, well known circus clown and star Emmett Kelly hires Toby when the circus is in town to come out and investigate a death, what Kelly believes to be a murder.  Of an elephant.  Of course, once Toby is involved, murder sort of catches on and spreads like a bad cold to circus members of the human variety and Peters finds himself not only having to figure out who has it out for the circus, but also to prove that he isn’t the murderer he’s looking for!

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters series appeals to me for all sorts of reasons.  First, I am a major aficionado of the time period and of the type of detective that Peters is.   One of the great things about how Kaminsky crafts Toby Peters is that he is what a hard boiled detective in the real world would be like.  He has back problems, is haunted by a mad clown in his nightmares, and functions day to day in and around dysfunction, sometimes of his own creation.   Yet he’ll also push the limits, pound the pavement, fight with both fists, and demand people do what they don’t want to if need be, even if it kills them.  That is the biggest pleasure I get from reading a Toby Peters book, that sense of reality in the lead character.

Another big positive for the Peters series is that Kaminsky, a Professor of Film, uses his great knowledge of Hollywood and movies to make the Peters stories extra special.  Not only does Toby come across as someone of flesh and blood, but Kaminsky adds gristle to the bone of the legends of entertainment and history that we all love.  In Catch A Falling Clown, we literally see the man behind Emmett Kelly’s famous clown face and he becomes three dimensional.   Also, a particularly British and rather corpulent director makes an appearance in the tale as well and Kaminsky renders him quite efficiently.  The fictional characters, from the snake lady who Toby ends up having a rather strange relationship with to the corrupt and angry policeman out to get Peters, are all well defined and yet each have their own quirks that add to their realism without making them stereotypes or pastiches.

Another fantastic part of this book is something that is present in every Toby story from Kaminsky, and that is Toby’s supporting cast.  From his best friend, who also happens to be a dwarf who had been in the Wizard of Oz, a wrestling poet, a rather inept dentist, to his often angry, usually cranky cop brother, the characters that regularly recur in Toby’s life always add dimensions to each story and in this one, get actively involved, which makes for fun reading.

All in all, Catch a Falling Clown is a good, solid read, an acceptable entry into the Peters series.  It was not my favorite of Toby’s tales, primarily because of a slow build up, something that isn’t normal for a Kaminsky book of any stripe, and then a twist at the end that, while quite brilliant, left me slightly disappointed. Having said that, Toby’s time on the other side of the law as a fugitive about midway through gave the book a sparkle and pace that definitely engaged right until the end and was pure Kaminsky.  So, five out of six bullets for me, or for you Book in the Bag types, a good, strong four out of five pages.

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