Friday, February 06, 2015

Pierce’s Picks: “Poor, Poor Ophelia”

An irregular alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Poor, Poor Ophelia, by Carolyn Weston (Brash):
One of my earliest experiences with small-screen police procedurals was watching The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977). That weekly ABC-TV drama featured veteran motion-picture actor Karl Malden as Lieutenant Mike Stone, a seen-it-all-and-done-it-twice cop with two decades of experience as a member of the San Francisco Police Department, who’s paired on the homicide beat with a much younger, college-educated partner, Steve Keller (played by Michael Douglas). What I didn’t know at the time was that the series was inspired by a 1972 novel titled Poor, Poor Ophelia, by Carolyn Weston, who went on to produce two other novels featuring the same characters, Susannah Screaming (1975) and Rouse the Demon (1976).

Of course there are differences between what Weston brought readers and what Hollywood delivered. The author’s stories were set in Santa Monica, California, rather than the Bay Area. And her pair of homicide detectives were Sergeant Al Krug and Detective Casey Kellog, rather than Stone and Keller. Other than that, though, the plots of Poor, Poor Ophelia and the 1972 pilot film for The Streets of San Francisco are remarkably similar--as I realized by reading Brash Books’ new paperback reprint of Ophelia.

The novel kicks off with the chance discovery, “out beyond the breakwater,” of the body of a deceased and pale-haired woman, “about twenty,” dressed in a “sodden dark brown pants suit.” Her name is Holly Jean Berry, and around her neck is a “cheap link necklace” from which dangles a plastic-covered business card belonging to a Beverly Hills law firm. Specifically, it advertises the services of David J. Farr, a “longish-haired, beautifully barbered, Bill Blass-tailored” corporate attorney with that practice. Summoned to identify Holly’s corpse, Farr contends he had only minimal contact with her, involving an auto accident and a minor marijuana possession charge. The truth, however, is that Farr encountered Holly Berry at a party not long before her demise, and then proceeded to spend a sexually charged weekend with her at his apartment. Now that her body has been found in the ocean, he’s worried what the police might make of that fling, so (foolishly) he conceals it, hoping Krug and Kellog will shift their attention from him to somebody else, maybe Holly’s “junkie” brother, Delbert, who is missing. But the circumstances of the victim’s death--she was killed by a whack to the head, possibly by a karate blow, and her wrists are chafed, as if they’d been bound with adhesive tape--ensure that the cops, especially the more bull-headed and intuitive Krug, won’t fail to scrutinize any leads. And Farr is a giant lead on two legs, for he just happens to train at a local martial-arts studio.

Weston does an excellent job here of following both the cops and Farr, as they all try to re-create Holly’s final days. The handsome lawyer with the yellow Jaguar struggles to tamp down his anxieties and keep up with his job, while doing his best to convince Krug and Kellog that Holly had, at the end, feared some unknown assailant was trying to kill her. The detectives, meanwhile, explore Santa Monica’s drug and rock scene, searching for Del Berry as well as a stolen set of keys and a mysterious uncle who had been asking around about the Berry siblings. Much is made of the generation gap between Krug and Kellog, their mentor-rookie relationship sometimes distracting them from a clearheaded focus on the case’s clues. The fact that Farr is of a similar age as Kellog might be the reason why the latter seems more sympathetic to the lawyer’s protestations of innocence. (Interestingly, in the Streets of San Francisco pilot, it’s the elder Lieutenant Stone who gives Farr the benefit of the doubt, instead.)

Although this tale was penned during the Nixon administration, aside from an occasional mention of hippies and what are now considered “vintage” TV programs, Poor, Poor Ophelia (the title taken from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet) doesn’t feel particularly dated. I’ll be curious to learn whether that’s also true of Weston’s other two Krug-Kellog yarns, both of which are set to be published by Brash Books between now and August. After relishing Ophelia so, I’m looking forward to reading those, too.

(Brash also has in the works new novels in the Krug-Kellog series, being written by Robin Burcell [The Kill Order]. I’m told the first of those should be out sometime before Christmas.)

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For most of you reading this, it will have been a very long while since you last sat before the 1972 Streets of San Francisco pilot. So allow me to embed it below. In addition to the appearances by Malden and Douglas, this 90-minute teleflick features It Takes a Thief star Robert Wagner as Farr and Kim Darby--a fixture of small-screen dramas during the 1960s and ’70s--playing Holly Berry. Take my advice, though: Read Poor, Poor Ophelia first. It’s worth your time. Then watch the TV adaptation to see how director Walter Grauman and his screenwriter, Edward Hume, handled the story Weston gave them.


TracyK said...

I am glad you highlighted this. I knew the connection to Streets of San Francisco but did not know that the pilot aligned so much with this book. We will have to watch it again -- after I read this book. We started watching the Streets of SF episodes available through Netflix about two years ago and we are just now about to get the last disc available there.

Storme said...

Watched "Streets" regularly back in the day. Carolyn's book brings the detectives back to life. A good read.