Practically a lifelong Rat Pack fan, my favorite member has flip-flopped over the years. In my teens I started buying Sammy Davis Jr. albums (and enjoyed his 1969 TV movie, The Pigeon, in which he played a private eye), and was taken with Frank Sinatra films (Tony Rome, The Detective, Von Ryan’s Express, etc.) and Dean Martin westerns (Five Card Stud, Rough Night in Jericho). I never liked Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies, but his long-running TV variety series finally earned him the title of my overall favorite. That show really struck me as the closest we ever came to seeing the genuine Dino.
I finally decided that Sammy was the greatest entertainer who ever lived. Frank was ... well, Frank. Joey Bishop--never my favorite of the bunch--was nevertheless the hub of the wheel and the arranger of the stage act that made the Rat Pack famous as a group. I didn’t like Peter Lawford, and that probably shows in the way I have used him in my Rat Pack series of mysteries. No apologies. They are my books. But Dino--well, more people than just me have pronounced him the coolest Rat Pack member ever.
In 2005, after writing a series of police procedurals built around Joe Keough, a New York City homicide detective transplanted to St. Louis, Missouri, I decided I wanted to do something different. I have long had the habit of watching the 1960 Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11, whenever it’s on (and now own my own copy). So watching it again one day, I got the idea of building a book--and then a series--around the making of that picture. This would enable me to use my favorite entertainers in a novel, set in my favorite town (Las Vegas), and at least part of my research would come from the simple fact that I had lived through the 1960s. However, I didn’t want to use one of the Pack as my protagonist. I needed more freedom to have my main character do whatever I wanted him to, so I created former Brooklynite Eddie G (Gianelli), a Sands Casino pit boss who becomes the “go-to guy” for the Rat Pack in Sin City. As it turned out, Ocean’s 11 found its place at the core of the first and second entries in this series, Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime (2006) and Luck Be a Lady, Don’t Die (2007).
Writing these books is the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. I use song titles as the roots of the book titles, and not only use Frank, Dino, Sammy, Joey, and Peter as players, but bring in other famous entertainers from that period, too--some of whom are considered “extended” Rat Packers--for cameo appearances. I’ve tried to be as factual as I can with the time period and the story settings. If I say that Frank, or Dino, or Sammy was in Vegas, or at Lake Tahoe, at the time, then they were there. If I say Sammy liked guns, he did. If I say Dino was friends with Marilyn Monroe, then he was. And if I say the love of Frank’s life was actress Ava Gardner, well, that’s true too.
As I worked on the first two books I found myself looking forward to the time when I’d be able to bring Marilyn into the series (book #4: You're Nobody ’Til Somebody Kills You, 2009) and, finally, my dream goddess, Ava Gardner (the newly released book #5: I’m a Fool to Kill You, published by Severn House).
Coming up with the title of this Ava novel, set in 1963, was easy. Frank wrote the lyrics to the song “I’m a Fool to Love You” specifically for Ava. It just needed one word changed, and it worked.
The plot is almost factual. Ava was worried at this point in her life about growing old, about her career. She was living in Spain, drinking and carousing, and had just come off making a film with Charlton Heston--55 Days at Peking--during which Heston did say that her behavior was “the worst I’ve ever seen from a colleague.” And Ava did fly to Vegas to see Frank, and became upset when she saw that his ex-wife, the former Nancy Barbato, and their children were there. The rest is pure fiction, but my depiction of Ava (shown on the left)--which critic Vince Keenan describes as “earthy, seductive, foul-mouthed, and fearful of aging”--was as realistic as I could make it.
The basic plot of I’m a Fool to Kill You is this: Ava suffers a blackout, and then wakes up in a hotel bed beside the body of a low-level gangster. At Frank’s request, Eddie G and his buddy from Brooklyn, Jerry Epstein, take on the task of proving Ava didn’t kill anybody, no matter how it may look.
As usual there are plenty of cameos in these pages--from one-liners to full scenes--this time by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Johnny Carson, George C. Scott, as well as mob boss and famous Frank buddy Sam “Momo” Giancana. Frank and Dino represent the Rat Pack here, with Sammy appearing in only one scene (set in Chicago, because Sammy was in Chicago at the time). We get a brief encounter with Joey, and there’s no Peter at all (for by this point, Peter was on the outs with Frank).
Ava Gardner was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. My buddy, Eddie G, obviously feels the same way, and is completely entranced when he meets her. Neither of us understands why, in the 1953 film Mogambo--which starred Clark Gable, Gardner, and Grace Kelly--the Gable character would even have looked at Grace Kelly, when Ava’s “Honey Bear” was around.
I’m a Fool to Kill You is the first Rat Pack book with my new publisher, Severn House, and it features a big change in the cover art after four books with St. Martin’s Press. Severn had put me on a six-month schedule, so the next book--Fly Me to the Morgue--will be out in the UK in March, and in the United States in July. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
* * *AND THERE’S A CONTEST, TOO: To celebrate the publication of I’m a Fool to Kill You, author Randisi has generously consented to give two free copies of his new novel away to always-deserving Rap Sheet readers. If you would like a shot at winning one of those, all you have to do is e-mail your name and snail-mail address (no P.O. boxes) to email@example.com. And please be sure to write “Rat Pack Mystery Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, January 31. Winners will be chosen at random, and their names will be listed on this page the following day.
Sorry, but this contest is open only to U.S. residents.
READ MORE: “Last of the Pulp Writers,” by Jedidiah Ayres (Ransom Notes: The B&N Mystery Blog).