Shell Game by Richard Powell (1950)

William J. Stuart’s idea of a vacation walking along the Florida beaches searching of rare shells. This time though, he also stumbles on a woman. Valerie Wilson, isn’t interested in Stuart, or his shells, until a mysterious gray sedan appears. She’s then more than happy to accept his ride into town, only she’s doing the driving, and manages to shake the tailing sedan—and then Stuart. The police have no interest in his story, so Stuart sets off to find this mystery woman, and finds the body of a dead man instead. As she’s their chief suspect, now the police want to find Valerie too. Only she finds Stuart first, and wants his help. He’s soon pulled into the investigation, and Valerie’s impersonation—of his non-existent wife Betty…or is it Jean?

Powell’s style is a blend of hardboiled and witty playful banter—shall we call it softboiled? The story breezes along very well. The action is interspersed with more lighthearted scenes, and a great deal of rapid fire, witty banter, making for a well-balanced, entertaining mix.

Powell provides plenty of misdirection and manages to keep the murderer and their motive under wraps for a good deal of the story. But while the central mystery is the murder, there is much more involved here. Nobody is who or what they seem. And there’s no shortage of colorful characters. The Chief of Police is more interested in ticketing drivers for feeding slugs into parking meters, and selling raffle tickets, than chasing murderers. A detective from out of town, Al Leonard, is willing to offer the Chief his expertise, and a smooth line to Mrs. Stuart.  Valerie is a chameleon, constantly changing her story, as well as her appearance, to suit a situation. And the main protagonist, William J. Stuart, is an ordinary guy who is loath to take a risk, and far too honest for his own good. What he does have is a quick mind, a store of witty remarks, and a willingness to help. All of which makes him a unique and interesting narrator.

Shell Game is hard-boiled-lite, a not-so-tough-guy mystery that brings a smile to your face. And while I don’t intend to actively seek out more of Powell’s books, if I come across another I will definitely pick it up and read with pleasure.

Prior Rulings – Bev @ My Readers Block

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one book already read by a fellow challenger [Bev @ MRB]

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