The March 1980 edition of ‘Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine’ (MSMM) featured a “New Novelette” by reliably great Texas writer James Reasoner called “Death and The Dancing Shadows.” The story was later reprinted in the essential 1987 collection, “The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction,” and it’s also now available as a stand-alone story on Kindle for a buck. Since I count myself as a Reasoner superfan, I was excited to read it.
This was one of five “Markham P.I.” stories that Reasoner wrote during the 1980s. Markham is a Hollywood-based private eye who serves as a troubleshooter for clients - mostly in the entertainment industry. This time around, Markham’s client is aging movie cowboy Lucky Tremaine who’s being blackmailed by an unknown adversary. The blackmailer has a sex tape starring Lucky’s beloved 18 year-old granddaughter, and he wants $10,000 or he’ll release the tape to the world. (Evidently this story was written before sex tapes were a door to wealth and fame as a reality TV star.)
The more Markham learns about the situation, the more cause for concern arises. The granddaughter is a student at USC, but she’s been missing for three days. Markham endeavors to find the missing girl and identify and neutralize the blackmailers. All of this eventually leads to a murder that Markham is also obliged to solve. He’s a P.I. with a lot to do, and only a handful of “Novelette” pages to get it all done.
An average reader of private eye stories will probably see the first big plot twist coming, but the subsequent twists were legitimately surprising and made for an exciting read. This is a testament to Reasoner’s writing talents as he clearly has been both a student and a practitioner of pulp fiction mystery writing for his entire life.
“Death and The Dancing Shadows” ends with a satisfying conclusion answering the one remaining mystery left unsolved in the story. As a hero, Markham is a decent character but is largely indistinguishable from many other fictional American private eyes. This could have just as easily been a Mike Shayne, Peter Chambers, or Johnny Liddell story, and if you’re a fan of that type of thing, there’s a lot to enjoy here as well.
Mostly, it’s cool that this “Novelette” has stood the test of time and is still available for purchase at a reasonable price 38 years after its original publication. There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking here, but it’s a solid private eye mystery and an easy recommendation.