Cover image for A few minutes past midnight : a Toby Peters mystery
Title:
A few minutes past midnight : a Toby Peters mystery
Author:
Kaminsky, Stuart M.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.
Physical Description:
234 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"An Otto Penzler book."
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780786708628
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

This time out, in a raucous, new Hollywood thriller, private investigator Toby Peters -- who has cracked cases involving such classic movie luminaries as Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, and Mae West -- is gumshoeing for the legendary Charlie Chaplin.

Rudely awakened one midnight by a sinister visitor wielding a very large knife, Chaplin has been threatened with death unless he stops production on his latest project, a film in which a series of wealthy old women are married and then murdered for their money. Toby's discovery that six rich elderly women have recently died in the movie capital strikes him as no mere coincidence. To find the connection and to protect Chaplin as well as a few very vulnerable older women from deadly jeopardy, Toby again enlists the aid of eccentric dentist Sheldon Minck, wrestler-poet Jeremy Butler, and multilingual Swiss midget Gunther Wherthman. The results, as always, are wacky, surprising, and riotous.


Author Notes

Stuart M. Kaminsky is head of the radio/television/film department at Northwestern University in Illinois. He is also a writer of textbooks, screenplays, and mystery novels.

The more popular of his two series of detective novels features Toby Peters. Set in the 1930s and 1940s, the Peters books draw on Kaminsky's knowledge of history and love of film by incorporating characters from the film industry's past in nostalgic mysteries. Murder on the Yellow Brick Road (1978), for example, features Judy Garland while Catch a Falling Clown (1982) stars Emmett Kelley as Peters's client and Alfred Hitchcock as a murder suspect.

His other critically acclaimed series chronicles the cases of Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov. Kaminsky's detailed studies of Russian police procedure combined with aspects of life in Russia have earned the Series an Edgar nomination for Black Knight in Red Square (1984) and the 1989 Edgar Award for A Cold Red Sunrise (1988).

Stuart Kaminsky was born in Chicago in 1934 and died in 2009.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In December 1943, Charlie Chaplin is not the most popular man in America. He's never become an American citizen; he's a Communist sympathizer; and he has just married a much younger woman. When a man shows up at Chaplin's home wielding a knife, the actor hires private investigator Toby Peters. The trail leads to a serial killer who targets older women--which just happens to be the theme of a script Chaplin is hoping to film. Toby, with his crew of amateur assistants--among them a poetic ex-wrestler, a well-armed midget, and a dentist--finds himself drowning in false clues as the case becomes ever more muddled. Kaminsky is an Edgar-winning author of 60 mystery novels in four detective series. Toby Peters may be his best-known character and is arguably his most endearing. Peters is an everyman with bills, an ex-wife he still misses, a drab room in a cheap boardinghouse, and a surprisingly optimistic view of the future. He's a good guy with a sense of humor, and every appearance he makes is a welcome one. --Wes Lukowsky


Publisher's Weekly Review

It's a mystery how a rumpled, unprepossessing sort of private eye like Toby Peters has lasted long enough to save the hides of Hollywood stars such as the Marx Brothers and Bette Davis, literary luminaries William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett and even political powerhouse Eleanor Roosevelt. Nonetheless, the intrepid sleuth returns for a 21st outing, his first since 1997's A Fatal Glass of Beer. It's 1943, and a beleaguered Charlie Chaplin is in need of Peters's services. A strange man has threatened Chaplin, whose latest movie project, about a serial killer who woos, marries and murders older women, seems to have offended a real-life counterpart. A familiar supporting cast is on hand to aid Peters: massive Jeremy Butler, ex-wrestler-turned-poet; Sheldon Minck, inept dentist and inventor; and Gunther Wherthman, suave, multilingual little person. With broad humor more likely to invite smiles than laughs and a substantial framework of nostalgia (Kaminsky doesn't just throw names around, he really evokes the era), Peters and friends pursue a crafty killer. Older readers will enjoy references that may be obscure to younger ones. For example, Peters drives a Crosley that "runs on washing machine and refrigerator parts," a reference to the defunct Crosley Co. that manufactured radios, refrigerators and appliances as well as cars. In sum, the author's facile competence has produced an amusing story full of suitable heroics. (Aug. 1) FYI: Versatile and prolific, Kaminsky has written more than 70 novels, including ongoing series about Russian policeman Porfiry Rostnikov, Chicago cop Abe Lieberman and Jim Rockford of TV's Rockford Files. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One " It was a few minutes past midnight," Charlie Chaplin had told me sitting in an overstuffed chair in his living room.     He was wearing dark slacks, a white knit sweater, and tennis shoes. He twirled a tennis racket in his hands as he spoke. His thick, mostly white head of curly hair needed a trim. Chaplin looked at the racket and then turned his tired blue eyes to me before continuing in precise, clearly spoken words with just a hint of an English accent as he paced the living room of his house in Bel Air.     "I couldn't sleep," he continued. "I don't sleep at all well when I'm working on a new film or considering one for that matter. I happened to be sitting on the stairs near the Chinese gong on the first landing. I heard a knock. Distinct, five times, not loud. I wondered how my visitor had gotten past the gate. Given my recent problems, Mr. Peters, I've been rather more bothered by the press and the morbidly curious."     "Call me Toby," I said.     "I shall," said Chaplin not telling me what to call him. "Mr. Chaplin" would be fine for now.     He paused and looked at me, trying to decide if I was the right bill of goods. I had met him briefly once before while working on a case. I was surprised he had remembered my name and called me. Maybe I make a better impression than I think I do. Maybe. He was silent, studying me. I knew what he was looking at.     Seated in the chair across from him was a rumpled private detective with a battered face and flattened nose, a forty-eight-year-old wreck with dark hair beginning to show gray. A wreck with a bad back and some bills to pay.     I'm a good listener. I know how to keep secrets. I'm not the brightest you can buy, but I come relatively cheap and I don't give up on a client. I also know when to keep my mouth shut.     "I opened the door," Chaplin went on, apparently satisfied with what he saw. "There he stood, a slight man about forty years old, drenched, dark hair hanging over his eyes and in his right hand he held a singularly sinister and quite long-bladed knife, almost a sword really. I should have been afraid I suppose. The effect was worthy of theatrical appreciation--especially since there had been no rain. That was the perfect touch."     Chaplin was still pacing. He took a halfhearted overhand stroke with his racket. Fanny Brice or Baby Sandy could have returned it for a kill.     "I should have been afraid," said Chaplin, continuing to pace. "Perhaps at some level I was. But I was transfixed. It was as if I had been expecting him or someone like him."     "You have enemies," I prompted when Chaplin paused.     "Enemies," he said with a sigh. "You read the newspapers?" The question was accompanied by an arch of his right eyebrow.     I nodded.     "To say that I have enemies would be an understatement," he sighed. "Were my enemies to form a military unit, they would be quite a formidable military presence, at least in numbers if not in fighting ability."     He stopped, tucked his racket under his arm and began a countdown with his fingers. I fished the notebook out of my jacket, found my pencil that had already made its pointed way an inch into the lining, and began to take notes. I made a big "One" with a circle and a dash and waited.     "As you may know, I've just been married," he said. "My wife Oona, the daughter of ..."     "Eugene O'Neill," I supplied.     Chaplin nodded. I knew his Mexican divorce from Paulette Goddard had gone through about a year ago. I knew a lot of things about Chaplin.     "Oona is eighteen," Chaplin said. "I have had, shall we say, semi-public relationships with a variety of young women."     We shall say, I thought. Some of those women were as young as sixteen.     "There are people who have been most vituperative about my marriages," he said. "And particularly hostile toward my current one. Fans of O'Neill, religious fanatics, moralists who know nothing of reality or our relationship have condemned me. I very much love my wife. I anticipate a large family and a reasonably happy future with Oona should I survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the occasional soaking wet and knife-wielding lunatic at my front door."     "You told her what happened?"     He closed his eyes again for an instant, smiled, and shook his head "no."     "Fortunately, at the moment she is attending a family funeral in Connecticut," he said.     "So," he said, "let us list some of those who might wish me harm. We begin with the fanatic fans of my father-in-law who, between us and in the confines of this room, himself has had more than an occasional attraction to quite young women. I'm sorry." He bowed his head. "That was petty of me. Would you like some tea?"     "No thanks," I said.     "And so," he continued, "one finger down for his lunatic fans."     One finger went down for the fans of Eugene O'Neill who were to be counted among those who might not be happy with Chaplin.     "Next," he said, standing before me. "Joan Barry."     I knew about Joan Barry but I kept my mouth shut. He had become involved with her a few months after his divorce from Paulette Goddard became final.     "Miss Barry was a ... protégée of mine," he said. "A star-struck girl from Brooklyn. I was introduced to her by way of a letter of introduction from John Paul Getty who, as I understood it, knew her as a waitress. I tried to work with her, but she simply did not have the talent."     The way the newspapers told it--and they told it a lot--Barry, who was twenty-two or twenty-three, had had two abortions while she was with Chaplin. He'd dumped her a little over a year ago. She was pregnant again. This time she took Chaplin to court. Two months before this moment in Chaplin's living room, a jury had found against Chaplin despite the fact that blood tests proved he wasn't the father. The Los Angeles Times and newspapers around the world carried photographs of a glum Chaplin being fingerprinted.     "She came here, to this house, about ten or eleven months ago with a gun she had purchased in a pawnshop," Chaplin said. "I persuaded her to leave and filed an injunction against her and took her to court. She was given a train ticket out of town and a hundred dollars. She returned seven months ago, broke into this house and ..."     "And?" I prompted when he paused.     "Let's move on," he said. "As a matter of deep conviction, last year I addressed a meeting in Madison Square Garden in New York calling for a second front in Europe to aid the Russians. I demanded that England and the United States attack from the west while Russia fought desperately, her back against the wall. Many people thought it was not my place to make such a plea. I then spoke at Carnegie Hall saying, more or less as I recall, `Now is the best time for a second front while the Hun is so busy in Russia.'     "And then at an Arts in Russia Week dinner at the Hotel Pennsylvania I urged elimination of anti-Communist propaganda in the interest of winning the war. Since our allies do not object to our own ideas and form of government, I do not think it proper to object to theirs. While the attack on me came as no surprise, the level was overwhelming."     A second finger went down.     "That is for the fanatical anti-Communists who do not even recognize their own self-interest let alone the humanity of others. If Germany takes Russia, the Nazis will gain access to a new oil supply. This could result in extending the war for years. I'll try to be brief with the remaining seven," he said. "I've never become a citizen of the United States. I do not even consider myself English. I am, as I have said publicly and often, a citizen of the world. There are those who claim that while America has made me wealthy, I have no reservations about criticizing this country's policies even though I am not a citizen. Thus, I am that most dreaded of wartime creatures, a peacemonger. That is, I criticize all policies that do not lead to peace."     Even Stalin's? I wanted to ask.     His eyes were fixed on me as the third finger went down.     "Even those of Russia when appropriate," he said, reading my face. "I am not a communist with a small or large `c.' I belong to no party. I understand I shall be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of my views. It was my impression that a person was free to say what he or she thought in the United States as long as he did not cry `fire' in a crowded theater. But times change. In war, rights and principles are often forgotten or their existence suspended in the name of defense. It seems to me that we are most in need of those rights precisely when they are being most threatened. I was under the impression that it was those rights for which the United States and its allies were fighting. But I'm lecturing. Please forgive me. Shall we continue?"     I nodded.     "I was a supporter of Henry Wallace--an outspoken supporter. Enough said?"     I nodded again. A fourth finger went down. Wallace was not on the list of most beloved people in the United States.     "I have repeatedly declared that I am not a Jew," he went on. "Being Jewish is a matter of religion and conviction and, to some degree, heritage. My Jewish heritage is tenuous at best. I could simply be quiet. I choose not to be. There are people, not only Jewish people, who do not like my speaking out on such a delicate subject."     A fifth finger went down and he looked into my eyes. I looked back.     I was born Tobias Leo Pevsner. Jewish. I changed my name before I became a cop. My brother Phil, still a cop, is still a Pevsner. I didn't hide the fact that I was born Jewish. I just didn't advertise it. I didn't practice the religion and I didn't feel any connection to the tradition. I bought into the melting pot when I was a kid. It was a point of friction, one among many, between my brother and me.     "On to six," Chaplin said, looking from his now-clenched right fist to his left. "A man named Konrad Bercovici sued me recently claiming that I had stolen the idea for The Great Dictator from him, that he had submitted a proposal for a similar idea to me, and that I had returned it and then had made the film. I denied it on the stand, but my lawyers advised me to settle out of court. I did so with great reluctance. Expedience is sometimes essential in this one and only world."     "You think Bercovici ..."     "No, I do not," said Chaplin. "He seemed quite content with the settlement, as well he should have been. But there may have been those who knew him or of him who ... madness is often difficult to find by applying nonmad methods of thinking."     Finger six came down. Chaplin examined the four remaining fingers. His hands were small, delicate, and very clean.     "Since the outbreak of war," he said. "I have had hundreds of threats relayed by mail and phone, on the streets, and in the newspapers and on the radio. Mr. Westbrook Pegler seems particularly and morbidly interested in securing my deportation."     "You think Westbrook Pegler ...?"     "No," said Chaplin. "I think it possible that someone who reads Westbrook Pegler might not have the columnist's journalistic restraint."     Finger seven folded.     The words "journalistic restraint" were emphasized for the sake of irony.     "My career has been threatened," he said. "My convictions are unaltered. It is likely that if my career in this country is to continue I will have to fund my own projects. I have the funds though my resources have been strained. Before the war I could count on my production costs being covered by Japanese sales alone. Now, with much of the world market closed, to increase my working capital, I have considered accepting the lead in The Flying Yorkshireman , which Frank Capra has offered to me though I don't think I can work with any director but myself. I'm also trying to put together capitalization for a film version of Shadow and Substance , but I doubt if that will come about. There are people in the industry who want me to fail."     "Enough to kill you?"     "Enough to try to frighten me into oblivion or exile," Chaplin said, putting down finger eight. "The man with the blade at my door put on an arresting performance. Many of my Hollywood friends, including Harry Crocker and King Vidor, have abandoned me," he said with a deep sigh. "Regrettable. Inevitable as I can see now. But I can live with that. No, number nine comes from some statements I have made over the years concerning the use of the Negro as a source of easy humor in movies. I never laugh at such humor. They have suffered too much to ever be funny to me.     "Several times early in my career, and much to my regret, there were background players in blackface, particularly in several of the films I did at Essanay. And so there are people, bigots, who would gladly lynch me for my views on race. But then again those of the KKK ilk have a very long list."     The ninth finger came down. There was only one left, the pinky on Chaplin's left hand.     "I am working now on a film which I plan to call Lady Killer ," he said. "It was suggested to me by Orson Welles. The Tramp will be gone. I will speak. The film will deal with the plight of a working man who turns to murder to feed his family. He marries women and murders them for their money. A Landru, or Bluebeard tale."     "A comedy," I said.     "Of course," he said closing his eyes and bowing. "Which brings us back to the curious visitation I had last night. The wet man with the knife said that I should cease working on the film. He said that if I continued to develop it, he would return and kill me. His precise and colorful words were, as I recall, `I will skewer you.' And then he said something quite curious."     "What?"     "That I should stay away from Fiona Sullivan," said Chaplin, putting down his pinky, the game over.     "Who is Fiona Sullivan?" I asked.     He shook his head and said, "I haven't the faintest idea."     "Fiona Sullivan," I repeated.     "He pronounced the name quite distinctly," said Chaplin. "Repeated it, in fact."     "Long list of possible suspects," I said.     "Had I more fingers ..." Chaplin said with a smile. "I did know a stunt man named Webster Skeetchman who had six fingers on one hand. And Harold Lloyd, as the result of an accident while filming, has fewer than ten. I can't remember exactly how many. But then Harold seems to have no enemies."     "And you called the police?"     "Moments after the apparition disappeared," said Chaplin, unclenching his fists and playing with his racket again. "They seemed monumentally disinterested and the shabbily dressed detective who came to the door indicated that he considered the possibility that I was lying the most likely of options open to him. His imagination seemed remarkably limited. I had the impression that he considered the possibilities that I had been drinking or was using drugs or that I was in search of sympathetic publicity. He was the same officer who had come when Miss Barry entered my house unbidden on those two separate occasions."     "Anything else?" I asked.     Chaplin considered and shook his head.     "I will think about it," he said. "Do you have enough to begin your search for this man?"     "I think so," I said, rising. "There are a few other possibilities. He could be an actor trying to impress you or just a nut who doesn't like your movies."     "Possibilities," Chaplin agreed.     "I'll keep the options open," I said standing. "One last thing."     "Remuneration," Chaplin said.     "Right."     "Your fee?"     "Twenty-five a day, expenses and, in this case, another twenty a day for someone to watch you and your wife if she gets back before I find this guy."     "Yes, I see. I would prefer if that aspect of this business be done with discretion."     "It will be," I said, as Chaplin extended his hand.     "I assume you would like an advance," he said.     "Yes," I said.     An advance would be nice. Then I could eat, get gas for my Crosley, pick up a new windbreaker, and pay my landlady. An advance would be very nice.     "Will cash do?" Chaplin said, shifting his racket and reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.     "It will."     He counted off two hundred dollars in twenties and handed them to me. I pocketed them without a second count.     "I'll get back to you every day. My man, the one who'll be watching you, will introduce himself, stay out of your way, and keep his eyes open."     "That will be satisfactory. And now, Mr. Peters, I still have a friend or two and a brave face to show the world. And I have a tennis engagement."     I started across the room toward the front door.     "While I was counting," he said behind me softly. "I was reminded of the zeppelin sequence in Hells Angels . You know it?"     "Great movie," I said, turning back to him.     "Gripping sequence," Chaplin said. "First the Germans, hurrying to get away from the British planes, cut the line of the man in the observation car. Then, to lighten to load further in an attempt to outrun the British, the Germans unload most of their equipment. When that isn't enough, the enlisted men are ordered to jump out of the vessel to their death. Watching them step into the dark hole is unforgettable. And then one of the British flyers sacrifices himself by diving into the zeppelin. I identify with every one of those victims of war. I am haunted by that sequence. The brave and the innocent are the true victims of war."     "Pilots died making that movie," I said.     "I know," he said. "Making movies can be almost as dangerous as war."     He was lost in thought now. He gave me a private telephone number where I could reach him or leave a message. I wrote it in my book. I heard someone coming down the stairs when I went out the front door and crossed the driveway to my car. I had two hundred dollars to work with and too many leads. I'd need some help. I knew where to get it.     I hit the radio button. The Crosley backfired. It had been doing a lot of things it shouldn't have been doing for a few months now and it hated to come to life in the morning. It reminded me of me. I'd have to take it to No-Neck Arnie, the mechanic.     On the way back to my office going down Hollywood Boulevard, I listened to the end of Big Sister and caught the news. It was December 10, 1943. The announcer with the deep voice said that the war news was good. The nine-day "Battle of the Clouds" over Germany marked a major victory for United States and Canadian pilots. The Fifth Army was moving on Via Casilini. Bulgaria was getting ready to bail out on the Nazis. In the Pacific, Allied forces led by the Australians were clearing the Huan peninsula. MacArthur was seventy miles away across the Vitiaz Straits ready to come in and land. Meanwhile, U.S. planes had dropped 1,300 tons of bombs on New Britain in two weeks.     I caught the first two minutes of Ma Perkins as I pulled into No-Neck Arnie's, two blocks from the Farraday Building where I had my office. Excerpted from A FEW MINUTES PAST MIDNIGHT by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 2001 by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.