A Few Minutes past Midnight (Toby Peters Series #21)by Stuart M. Kaminsky
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.
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"It was a few minutes past midnight," Charlie Chaplin hadtold me sitting in an overstuffed chair in his living room.
He was wearing dark slacks, a white knit sweater, and tennisshoes. He twirled a tennis racket in his hands as hespoke. His thick, mostly white head of curly hair needed atrim. Chaplin looked at the racket and then turned his tiredblue eyes to me before continuing in precise, clearly spokenwords with just a hint of an English accent as he paced theliving room of his house in Bel Air.
"I couldn't sleep," he continued. "I don't sleep at all wellwhen I'm working on a new film or considering one for thatmatter. I happened to be sitting on the stairs near the Chinesegong on the first landing. I heard a knock. Distinct, five times,not loud. I wondered how my visitor had gotten past thegate. Given my recent problems, Mr. Peters, I've been rathermore 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 theright bill of goods. I had met him briefly once before whileworking on a case. I was surprised he had remembered myname and called me. Maybe I make a better impression thanI think I do. Maybe. He was silent, studying me. I knew whathe was looking at.
Seated in the chair across from him was a rumpled privatedetective with a battered face and flattened nose, aforty-eight-year-oldwreck 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 notthe brightest you can buy, but I come relatively cheap and Idon't give up on a client. I also know when to keep mymouth shut.
"I opened the door," Chaplin went on, apparently satisfiedwith what he saw. "There he stood, a slight man aboutforty years old, drenched, dark hair hanging over his eyesand in his right hand he held a singularly sinister and quitelong-bladed knife, almost a sword really. I should have beenafraid I suppose. The effect was worthy of theatrical appreciationespeciallysince there had been no rain. That was theperfect touch."
Chaplin was still pacing. He took a halfhearted overhandstroke with his racket. Fanny Brice or Baby Sandy couldhave returned it for a kill.
"I should have been afraid," said Chaplin, continuing topace. "Perhaps at some level I was. But I was transfixed. Itwas 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 righteyebrow.
"To say that I have enemies would be an understatement,"he sighed. "Were my enemies to form a military unit, theywould be quite a formidable military presence, at least innumbers if not in fighting ability."
He stopped, tucked his racket under his arm and began acountdown with his fingers. I fished the notebook out of myjacket, found my pencil that had already made its pointedway an inch into the lining, and began to take notes. I madea big "One" with a circle and a dash and waited.
"As you may know, I've just been married," he said. "Mywife Oona, the daughter of ..."
"Eugene O'Neill," I supplied.
Chaplin nodded. I knew his Mexican divorce fromPaulette Goddard had gone through about a year ago. Iknew a lot of things about Chaplin.
"Oona is eighteen," Chaplin said. "I have had, shall wesay, semi-public relationships with a variety of youngwomen."
We shall say, I thought. Some of those women were asyoung as sixteen.
"There are people who have been most vituperative aboutmy marriages," he said. "And particularly hostile toward mycurrent one. Fans of O'Neill, religious fanatics, moralistswho know nothing of reality or our relationship have condemnedme. I very much love my wife. I anticipate a largefamily and a reasonably happy future with Oona should Isurvive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and theoccasional soaking wet and knife-wielding lunatic at myfront door."
"You told her what happened?"
He closed his eyes again for an instant, smiled, and shookhis head "no."
"Fortunately, at the moment she is attending a familyfuneral in Connecticut," he said.
"So," he said, "let us list some of those who might wishme harm. We begin with the fanatic fans of my father-in-lawwho, between us and in the confines of this room, himselfhas had more than an occasional attraction to quite youngwomen. I'm sorry." He bowed his head. "That was petty ofme. Would you like some tea?"
"No thanks," I said.
"And so," he continued, "one finger down for his lunaticfans."
One finger went down for the fans of Eugene O'Neill whowere to be counted among those who might not be happywith Chaplin.
"Next," he said, standing before me. "Joan Barry."
I knew about Joan Barry but I kept my mouth shut. Hehad become involved with her a few months after his divorcefrom Paulette Goddard became final.
"Miss Barry was a ... protégée of mine," he said. "A star-struckgirl from Brooklyn. I was introduced to her by way ofa letter of introduction from John Paul Getty who, as Iunderstood it, knew her as a waitress. I tried to work withher, but she simply did not have the talent."
The way the newspapers told itand they told it a lotBarry,who was twenty-two or twenty-three, had had twoabortions while she was with Chaplin. He'd dumped her alittle over a year ago. She was pregnant again. This time shetook Chaplin to court. Two months before this moment inChaplin's living room, a jury had found against Chaplindespite the fact that blood tests proved he wasn't the father.The Los Angeles Times and newspapers around the worldcarried photographs of a glum Chaplin being fingerprinted.
"She came here, to this house, about ten or eleven monthsago with a gun she had purchased in a pawnshop," Chaplinsaid. "I persuaded her to leave and filed an injunctionagainst her and took her to court. She was given a trainticket out of town and a hundred dollars. She returned sevenmonths 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 inNew York calling for a second front in Europe to aid theRussians. I demanded that England and the United Statesattack from the west while Russia fought desperately, herback against the wall. Many people thought it was not myplace 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 secondfront while the Hun is so busy in Russia.'
"And then at an Arts in Russia Week dinner at the HotelPennsylvania I urged elimination of anti-Communist propagandain the interest of winning the war. Since our allies donot object to our own ideas and form of government, I donot think it proper to object to theirs. While the attack onme came as no surprise, the level was overwhelming."
A second finger went down.
"That is for the fanatical anti-Communists who do noteven recognize their own self-interest let alone the humanityof others. If Germany takes Russia, the Nazis will gainaccess to a new oil supply. This could result in extending thewar for years. I'll try to be brief with the remaining seven,"he said. "I've never become a citizen of the United States. Ido not even consider myself English. I am, as I have saidpublicly and often, a citizen of the world. There are thosewho claim that while America has made me wealthy, I haveno reservations about criticizing this country's policies eventhough I am not a citizen. Thus, I am that most dreaded ofwartime creatures, a peacemonger. That is, I criticize all policiesthat 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, readingmy face. "I am not a communist with a small or large `c.' Ibelong to no party. I understand I shall be called before theHouse Un-American Activities Committee because of myviews. It was my impression that a person was free to saywhat he or she thought in the United States as long as he didnot cry `fire' in a crowded theater. But times change. In war,rights and principles are often forgotten or their existencesuspended in the name of defense. It seems to me that we aremost in need of those rights precisely when they are beingmost threatened. I was under the impression that it was thoserights for which the United States and its allies were fighting.But I'm lecturing. Please forgive me. Shall we continue?"
"I was a supporter of Henry Wallacean outspoken supporter.Enough said?"
I nodded again. A fourth finger went down. Wallace wasnot on the list of most beloved people in the United States.
"I have repeatedly declared that I am not a Jew," he wenton. "Being Jewish is a matter of religion and conviction and,to some degree, heritage. My Jewish heritage is tenuous atbest. I could simply be quiet. I choose not to be. There arepeople, not only Jewish people, who do not like my speakingout on such a delicate subject."
A fifth finger went down and he looked into my eyes. Ilooked back.
I was born Tobias Leo Pevsner. Jewish. I changed my namebefore I became a cop. My brother Phil, still a cop, is still aPevsner. I didn't hide the fact that I was born Jewish. I justdidn't advertise it. I didn't practice the religion and I didn'tfeel any connection to the tradition. I bought into the meltingpot when I was a kid. It was a point of friction, oneamong many, between my brother and me.
"On to six," Chaplin said, looking from his now-clenchedright fist to his left. "A man named Konrad Bercovici suedme recently claiming that I had stolen the idea for The GreatDictator from him, that he had submitted a proposal for asimilar idea to me, and that I had returned it and then hadmade the film. I denied it on the stand, but my lawyersadvised me to settle out of court. I did so with great reluctance.Expedience is sometimes essential in this one and onlyworld."
"You think Bercovici ..."
"No, I do not," said Chaplin. "He seemed quite contentwith the settlement, as well he should have been. But theremay have been those who knew him or of him who ... madnessis often difficult to find by applying nonmad methods ofthinking."
Finger six came down. Chaplin examined the four remainingfingers. His hands were small, delicate, and very clean.
"Since the outbreak of war," he said. "I have had hundredsof threats relayed by mail and phone, on the streets,and in the newspapers and on the radio. Mr. WestbrookPegler seems particularly and morbidly interested in securingmy deportation."
"You think Westbrook Pegler ...?"
"No," said Chaplin. "I think it possible that someone whoreads Westbrook Pegler might not have the columnist's journalisticrestraint."
Finger seven folded.
The words "journalistic restraint" were emphasized forthe sake of irony.
"My career has been threatened," he said. "My convictionsare unaltered. It is likely that if my career in this countryis to continue I will have to fund my own projects. I havethe funds though my resources have been strained. Beforethe war I could count on my production costs being coveredby Japanese sales alone. Now, with much of the world marketclosed, to increase my working capital, I have consideredaccepting the lead in The Flying Yorkshireman, which FrankCapra has offered to me though I don't think I can workwith any director but myself. I'm also trying to put togethercapitalization for a film version of Shadow and Substance,but I doubt if that will come about. There are people in theindustry 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 theblade at my door put on an arresting performance. Many ofmy Hollywood friends, including Harry Crocker and KingVidor, have abandoned me," he said with a deep sigh."Regrettable. Inevitable as I can see now. But I can live withthat. No, number nine comes from some statements I havemade over the years concerning the use of the Negro as asource 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 inseveral of the films I did at Essanay. And so there are people,bigots, who would gladly lynch me for my views on race. Butthen again those of the KKK ilk have a very long list."
The ninth finger came down. There was only one left, thepinky on Chaplin's left hand.
"I am working now on a film which I plan to call LadyKiller," he said. "It was suggested to me by Orson Welles.The Tramp will be gone. I will speak. The film will deal withthe plight of a working man who turns to murder to feed hisfamily. He marries women and murders them for theirmoney. A Landru, or Bluebeard tale."
"A comedy," I said.
"Of course," he said closing his eyes and bowing. "Whichbrings us back to the curious visitation I had last night. Thewet man with the knife said that I should cease working onthe film. He said that if I continued to develop it, he wouldreturn and kill me. His precise and colorful words were, as Irecall, `I will skewer you.' And then he said something quitecurious."
"That I should stay away from Fiona Sullivan," saidChaplin, 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. "Idid know a stunt man named Webster Skeetchman who hadsix fingers on one hand. And Harold Lloyd, as the result ofan accident while filming, has fewer than ten. I can't rememberexactly how many. But then Harold seems to have noenemies."
"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 shabbilydressed detective who came to the door indicated that heconsidered the possibility that I was lying the most likely ofoptions open to him. His imagination seemed remarkablylimited. I had the impression that he considered the possibilitiesthat I had been drinking or was using drugs or that Iwas in search of sympathetic publicity. He was the same officerwho had come when Miss Barry entered my houseunbidden 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 tobegin 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 nutwho doesn't like your movies."
"Possibilities," Chaplin agreed.
"I'll keep the options open," I said standing. "One lastthing."
"Remuneration," Chaplin said.
"Twenty-five a day, expenses and, in this case, anothertwenty a day for someone to watch you and your wife if shegets back before I find this guy."
"Yes, I see. I would prefer if that aspect of this business bedone 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 formy Crosley, pick up a new windbreaker, and pay my landlady.An advance would be very nice.
"Will cash do?" Chaplin said, shifting his racket andreaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
He counted off two hundred dollars in twenties andhanded them to me. I pocketed them without a secondcount.
"I'll get back to you every day. My man, the one who'll bewatching you, will introduce himself, stay out of your way,and keep his eyes open."
"That will be satisfactory. And now, Mr. Peters, I still havea friend or two and a brave face to show the world. And Ihave a tennis engagement."
I started across the room toward the front door.
"While I was counting," he said behind me softly. "I wasreminded of the zeppelin sequence in Hells Angels. Youknow 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 ofthe man in the observation car. Then, to lighten to load furtherin an attempt to outrun the British, the Germans unloadmost of their equipment. When that isn't enough, theenlisted men are ordered to jump out of the vessel to theirdeath. Watching them step into the dark hole is unforgettable.And then one of the British flyers sacrifices himself bydiving into the zeppelin. I identify with every one of thosevictims of war. I am haunted by that sequence. The braveand 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 dangerousas war."
He was lost in thought now. He gave me a private telephonenumber where I could reach him or leave a message. Iwrote it in my book. I heard someone coming down thestairs when I went out the front door and crossed the drivewayto my car. I had two hundred dollars to work with andtoo many leads. I'd need some help. I knew where to get it.
I hit the radio button. The Crosley backfired. It had beendoing a lot of things it shouldn't have been doing for a fewmonths now and it hated to come to life in the morning. Itreminded me of me. I'd have to take it to No-Neck Arnie, themechanic.
On the way back to my office going down HollywoodBoulevard, I listened to the end of Big Sister and caught thenews. It was December 10, 1943. The announcer with thedeep voice said that the war news was good. The nine-day"Battle of the Clouds" over Germany marked a major victoryfor United States and Canadian pilots. The Fifth Armywas moving on Via Casilini. Bulgaria was getting ready tobail out on the Nazis. In the Pacific, Allied forces led by theAustralians were clearing the Huan peninsula. MacArthurwas seventy miles away across the Vitiaz Straits ready tocome in and land. Meanwhile, U.S. planes had dropped1,300 tons of bombs on New Britain in two weeks.
I caught the first two minutes of Ma Perkins as I pulledinto No-Neck Arnie's, two blocks from the Farraday Buildingwhere 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.
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The fiery red alicorn-dragon mix tapped her foreleg on the counter, awaiting her cup. <p> A slightly-chipped, ceramic mug clinked down before her. <p> She smiled sweetly and placed four bits down, accepting the drink. She sipped the liquid contents with relish, eyeing the clock. <p> The large hand overlaid the small hand, already slipping away from the 12 o' clock position. <p> Midnight... <p> Her mind slippdd to her student, Black Midnight, as she finished the drink and set it back down on the counter for the owner to collect it. <p> Her azure eyes roamed away from the clock, sighting Game Guide jabbing her hooves frusturatedly at an arcade game nestled in the corner. <p> The canary yellow pacstallion was either killed or eaten by Pinky the ghost. <p> Taken by the pink ghost... <p> Sweet Death shook her head and looked to Game Guide's coltfriend, Blacor, who was studying a book most furiously. <p> His gail twitched methodically and Sweet death's vision lost focus. <p> She shook her head again and looked up at the plaster ceiling, her wings ruffling on her back. <p> Nopony could sleep. <p> Not since the six had been kidnapped... <p> A singular though played over and over in her mind, making her flinch. She pushed it away quickly, her eyes showing a hint of panic. <p> Suddenly, a harsh scream ripped through the silent air outside and a crack of thunder reminded Sweet Death of the present storm. <p> Everypony crowded to the window, searching for the source of the scream. <p> Only blackness showed... <p> The single thought crowded Sweet Death's mind again, ringing through her head. <p> "Kill... Kill..." It sang like a deadly symphony, "Kill... Kill.... Kill...."
Mr. Kaminsky is one of the best cosy mystery writers in the business. His Toby Peters mysteries take place in the late 30's and early 40's. Lots of old movie, song, war and product trivia. He also wraps his mysteries around some old well known movie actor. The mysteries give you enough clues so you are miles ahead of Toby Peters in solving them. I especially like these mysteries as I was born during Herbert Hoover's presidency. Mr. Kaminsky's books are all great.
I have been reading the Toby Peters series (and everything else Kaminsky writes) since my junior year in high school (1988). This series has always been my favorite but the last few that have been written I have found too formulaic, i.e. simple plots and not as much attention given to the further development of the cast of regulars. After taking a break from Toby for a while Kaminsky brings him back with a more involving story. The main plot is just clever enough to keep the reader guessing and rough times are projected on the horizon for his Brother Phil and his family. All in all a light, enjoyable read.