Pulp Friction

As a rule, humor and mysteries do not go together often. It’s hard to laugh while people are getting bludgeoned, stabbed, shot and pushed off conviently high ledges.

But anyone who grew up with Tarzan, Doc Savage or Fu Manchu will recognize immediately who and what K.K. Beck is sending up in this inspired and funny comic-mystery novel.

Kali-Ra, a femme fatale with mysterious powers, a taste for bondage and an unquenchable desire to rule the world with adoring slaves at her feet — and who doesn’t want to do that at times — was the star of a series of novels by Valerian Ricardo, who lived a dissolute life on the Riveria on the proceeds, all the while hiding the fact that he was really Sidney Gundersen, formerly of Minnesota. When he died under mysterious circumstances in the late ’60s, he and his goddess were out of print and largely forgotten.

But you can’t keep the Queen of Doom down. Movie star Nadia Wentworth runs across the books and decides to make Kali-Ra her next project. But the project is cursed, possibly by the goddess herself. There are some who claim that they own rights to the series, including Ricardo’s widow, his nephew, Nick, and a trembling attorney working for a sleaze artist “who makes Sammy Glick look like Mahatma Gandhi.” Circumstances bring them together at Wentworth’s mansion in Hollywood, where really strange things start happening.

To say more would give away too much of the game. Beck displays an affection and affinity for the pulp era, an acidic tone for Hollywood back room deals and the ability to describe the foolishness people get themselves into when swept away by dubious beliefs. She’s also a dab hand at pulp prose as well; the book offers selections from the Kali-Ra books (“She laughed cruelly, a chilling but strangely exciting sound, like the pealings bells of some pagan temple.”) that would not look out of place in an H. Rider Haggard story. Or, as nephew Nick put it, “it read like a low-rent “Story of O.”

Such a story is best read without knowing too much about it, except to note And if you finish the book, go back and read the opening chapter again. Beck’s fiendishly clever tale still has one more twist in it. She’s thought of everything.