One of the things I love about the late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s novels is their general lack of sociopaths. I first encountered the sociopathic villain in the novels of John D. MacDonald, whose work I also love. It was fresh at the time. Since then sociopaths have been done to death. As mysteries have moved from being puzzles framed by characters to thrillers framed by monsters, authors have offered up an increasing number of semi-human, sociopathic serial killers for their intrepid heroes to blow away, to the cheers of the audience.
Kaminski, like all mystery writers of the later Twentieth Century, had the opportunity to go that route, but he didn’t do it. He continued to write approachable books, populated by people we could recognize. Even the villains were people like us, who’d made one or many bad choices and gotten out of their depth, some enjoying it, some not.
The seriocomic Toby Peters mysteries, of which I’ve reviewed several already, are set in Los Angeles before, during, and after World War II. Toby is a small time, low-rent PI who somehow ends up handling problems for many of the greatest celebrities of the time. In Now You See It it’s Blackstone the Magician, who was an extremely big deal just after the War, when this story is set. Actor Cornel Wilde also plays a small part.
Harry Blackstone hires Toby Peters to protect him. There’s an amateur magician named Marcus Keller who has threatened to destroy Blackstone for some unspecified offense, or just out of general envy. He’s vague about what he plans to do, but he says he’ll destroy Blackstone before the eyes of the world. When Keller finally plays his “trick” it turns out to be more horrible than he planned, and Toby is faced with the challenge of saving the magician from a murder charge.
All Toby’s colorful stock troupe of eccentric friends and allies are on hand and doing their funny stuff, but Now You See It had one change that pleased me a lot. Toby’s brother Phil, formerly a Los Angeles police detective, has retired from the department and gone into business with his brother. Phil’s dangerous temper, which has led him to punch Toby more than once in the past, is now turned to protecting him, which I found heartwarming.
Sadly, this was to be the last Toby Peters book, published the same year the author died.