Friday, January 09, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Double Take,” by Roy Huggins

(This marks the 38th installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but largely forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)

I heard about this hard-boiled, 1946 detective novel long before I managed to procure a copy. As crime-fictionist Max Allan Collins has noted in a few places (including here), The Double Take provided its author, future television writer and producer Roy Huggins, with source material for at least two of his small-screen detective series: 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964) and City of Angels (1976-1977).

Initially, it seems that the former show owes this book the greater debt. Los Angeles private detective Stuart Bailey, the star of The Double Take (as well as a few short stories Huggins saw published during the post-World War II years), was also the principal sleuth in 77 Sunset Strip--though, as he was portrayed by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bailey was a classy cut above the gumshoe Huggins originally conceived, becoming a former government agent, fluent in foreign languages and quite familiar with the cut of a bespoke suit. In fact, though, the under-appreciated City of Angels shows more obvious influences from The Double Take. Set in L.A. during the Great Depression, it featured a perpetually down-on-his-luck private eye, Jake Axminster (played by ex-M*A*S*H co-star Wayne Rogers), whose ditzy secretary also ran a switchboard for call girls and whose chief nemesis--the crooked, overweight, and cigar-chomping Lieutenant Murray Quint (played by Clifton James)--got most of his exercise threatening Axminster with a truncheon. Those basic characters, plus an incident from The Double Take, where Bailey buys himself a bit of protection by having a quick report done on his health, all eventually found their way into City of Angels.

None of that takes away from the enjoyment of reading The Double Take, however. This is one shiny little gem of a tale, borrowing from the mid-20th-century pulp-fiction traditions and influenced by Raymond Chandler’s literary pretensions, but suggesting that Roy Huggins might have had a bright future in penning detective novels, had he not chosen instead to put his talents to work on the aforementioned TV shows 77 Sunset Strip and City of Angels, as well as The Rockford Files, The Outsider, and so many others.

The plot starts out looking deceptively simple. Ralph Johnston, a late-30s advertising exec with lofty political aspirations, hires our man Bailey to poke around in the history of his “quiet, refined” young spouse, Margaret. It seems that some unidentified male had dialed him up recently, inquiring as to “how much it would be worth for him to keep quiet about my wife.” It put Johnston on edge. He tells Bailey what he knows of his ever-lovin’s background and asks him to check out her past. Quietly. Just in case. Just to be sure there’s no real potential for blackmail there.

Well, of course it takes no time at all for Bailey to begin turning over rocks that should have remained inert and raising questions that nobody’s too thrilled to answer. The picture our hero starts putting together of the former Margaret Bleeker shows her to have been coldly ambitious and coquettishly fetching (“Luscious as a pomegranate, and twice as acid,” to quote one former associate). She is apparently an ex-showgirl who traveled under the stage name “Gloria Gay” before trying to re-create herself as a college coed and prime marriage material. Bailey’s probe, though, also leads to his being clobbered over the head, tailed (not so covertly), and falling under suspicion by Lieutenant Quint and his fellow cops. Later, his life is threatened, he wakes up in bed with a curvaceous, naked young blonde (heck, some guys have all the luck), and the wife he’s investigating disappears, leaving a dead ex-friend behind. It’s enough to make even the toughest private dick wonder why he got out of the sack that morning.

But Stu Bailey, or at least author Huggins, has a wit that won’t quit. Like so many American crime novelists of the mid-20th-century, he stacked up cynical observations like they were cordwood.

Here, Bailey cools his heels while he waits to be summoned into an audience with a wealthy marine biologist:
Doctor Cherkin left me in a large room at the front of the house. I had been in cozier and more inviting rooms--the fossil room at the New York’s Museum of Natural History, for instance. ...

I heard a sound behind me like a butterfly sighing and turned around. There was a dark-haired, dark-eyed little thing standing in the vaulted doorway. She was wearing a black uniform that looked suspiciously like silk and I got the impression she would flit away if I did anything unusual like blowing my nose.
Later, in one of my favorite sections, the P.I. is picked up by a fast-driving young woman who’s his ticket into an exclusive club:
I had showered, changed into a dark blue suit, eaten some pork and beans, and was strapping on my shootin’ arm when Irene Neher called. She would be coming by for me as soon as she could make up her mind whether to wear her yellow dress or just nothing at all. I told her it was a warm night and it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Twenty-five minutes later she was at the lobby phone downstairs.

I said, “Anyone who drives here from Brentwood in twenty-five minutes I’m afraid to ride with. Lock up your car. We’ll take mine the rest of the way.”

She was a lovely young thing, standing beside a low-cut Cadillac convertible, the dim light from the entrance-way softening the hardness about her mouth. She was wearing a cornflower blue dress under a nice set of furs--the furrier probably closed the sale and then retired. The hair was somebody’s eight-hour day, and it was as theatrical as a glob of grease paint. But I liked it. And there was nothing synthetic about the deep golden glow of her skin. I thought I could smell her all the way over the steps. From there she smelled nice.
Although The Double Take was published originally by William Morrow and Company in 1946, Huggins or maybe some now long-forgotten editor seems to have diddled with the dates mentioned in the 1959 Pocket Books paperback edition I own. Perhaps to capitalize on 77 Sunset Strip, and bring this book more in line with that show’s debut, the time-frame for this novel has been updated. There are mentions of things happening in the early 1950s, for instance, which wouldn’t have existed in the original novel. Those are only slightly jarring, however. And understanding the commercial motivation behind such alterations makes them altogether acceptable. Especially in a novel that has as much going for it as this one does. Sure, there were occasions when I felt a bit left behind by the onrush of investigative discoveries, or disoriented by the profusion of characters introduced; but I also remember feeling that way sometimes while watching The Rockford Files and Baretta, another Huggins production from the 1970s. Stick with it long enough, and you finally manage to catch up. Only, in the case of The Double Take, to have your expectations blown by this story’s conclusion, which demonstrates that even the smartest guys can be awfully damn dumb now and then.

I’m sorry that there’s only the one Stuart Bailey novel in existence (which was apparently filmed in 1948 as I Love Trouble, a picture I’m going to have to find and rent in the near future.) While Roy Huggins was as susceptible as any other crime-fictionist of his generation to falling back on gritty clichés, he had a generally tight, visually oriented storytelling style that didn’t depend for its reader engagement on the convenient extraction of loaded guns every five or six pages. It would’ve been interesting to see what he might have accomplished, had he stuck with novels rather than turning to a life of crime dramas. But then we would presumably have missed out on watching Jim Rockford and Tony Baretta and, of course, Richard Kimble from Huggins’ original The Fugitive series. And that would’ve been more regrettable still.

Sacrifices must sometimes be made.

READ MORE:Forgotten Books: The Double Take, by Roy Huggins,” by Evan Lewis (Davy Crockett’s Almanack).


Vince said...

I Love Trouble isn't readily available on video as far as I know, but it has screened at Noir City. Franchot Tone makes a surprisingly effective wisecracking gumshoe.

Scott D. Parker said...

Man, those quotes had me grinning from ear to ear. They're priceless, especially the museum one. I will be on the lookout for this one. But, in the mean time, I might just find some old Rockford Files episodes. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Lee Goldberg said...

Sounds like Roy was more than a little influenced by Richard Prather & Shell Scott. I wish I had thought to ask Roy about that when we discussed the book in my 1998 Archive of American Television video interview with him. You can find it on YouTube.


Anonymous said...

I have a poor quality bootleg dvd of I Love Trouble and despite the terrible quality of the images, I enjoyed the film alot and thought it really captured the spirit of the novel. By the way, Roy Huggins did the screenplay also.

Anonymous said...

Huggins pre-dates Prather's Shell Scott, so the influence is the other way round. Huggins adapted THE DOUBLE TAKE for most of his various series, ROCKFORD doing it twice I believe, CITY OF ANGELS, too; I believe MAVERICK did it and many more. For me, the CITY OF ANGELS connection makes the book more interesting (Lt. Quint is a more benign figure, as I recall).

pattinase (abbott) said...

Some of my favorite TV shows here so I'd like to try the book.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Your memory is correct, Max. In The Double Take, Lieutenant Quint (who in that book is given no first name) has a slightly contentious relationship with Stuart Bailey, but doesn't bear anywhere NEAR the grudge toward him that Quint in City of Angels harbors toward Jake Axminster. I loved Clifton James' portrayal of a fat and fractious Quint on the series. I wish he'd had more time to develop it.


Eddie said...

The "I Love Trouble" adaptation of "The Double Take" is pretty good. It took some effort, but the good guys at Sony agreed to strike a new print for Noir City a couple of years ago. The titles were missing from the original negative, so it wasn't a restoration by any means. But it's pretty amusing. Huggins is a huge figure on pop "crime" culture, so it's always nice to see him getting his due. Lee, I didn't know about that interview you did with him! Fantastic! Kudos for getting that all down on video.

princeminski said...

Ditto. She’ll Scott was significantly later.