One of the best parts of reading vintage paperbacks from the Mid-20th Century is bearing witness to how societal norms of behavior have changed. From the expression of brutal racial stereotypes to slapping women when they become hysterical, we’ve come a long way as a culture over the past 60 years. So, when I read the back cover of Talmage Powell’s “Start Screaming Murder” from 1962 and saw that the story finds hardboiled private eye Ed Rivers “consorting with midgets and freaks,” I needed to know more.
Between 1959 and 1964, Powell wrote five paperbacks starring Rivers, one of the many hardboiled fictional heroes that arose in the wake of Mickey Spillane’s commercial success with his Mike Hammer series. The Ed Rivers novels can be enjoyed in any order, and the series is now available as affordable eBooks for today’s readers.
Rivers is a wisecracking agent for the Tampa office of the Nationwide Detective Agency. After coming home one evening to find a sexy, three-foot woman named Tina in his apartment, Rivers explains to the reader that Tampa is a winter home for many carnival workers, so the town has a lot of “little people” waiting for their employers to get back on the road in the Spring. Anyway, Tina is a hot little dish who hires Rivers to protect her from a sap-wielding admirer - a former carny - who won’t take no for an answer. Tina can’t go to the police because she’s worried about negative publicity affecting her ability to give up the carny life and segue into Hollywood productions.
To his credit, the author resists the impulse to make Tina into a cartoonish joke because of her size (the way, say, classic pro-wrestling always did). Instead, Tina is a fully-realized character with intelligence, feelings, and aspirations. She’s a woman who needs the help of a protector, and Rivers is there to play that role for her.
“Start Screaming Murder” begins as a classic manhunt tale with a stalwart, but flawed, hero hunting a villain for the purpose of kicking his ass and delivering a warning to stay away from little Tina. It pretty quickly becomes a murder mystery - the kind where the hero needs to solve it himself to clear his own name and reputation. The action later evolves into part maritime adventure infused with some Cuba intrigue.
Overall, what we have here is a better-than-average private eye novel consistent with the genre conventions of 1962. It’s not going to be the best book you’ve ever read, but it’s an enjoyable diversion for a few hours. I’d even re-visit more Ed Rivers novels if in the mood for a straight-up P.I. story. Recommended.
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