Monday, 18 May 2020

Death out of Focus

Author: William Campbell Gault
First Published: 1959
File size/Pages: 778/KB / 182pp
Ebook Publisher: Prologue Books
Ebook Date: December 2011

William Campbell Gault, sometimes known as Bill Gault, is probably best known for his two crime fiction series; one starring retired NFL footballer, Brock Callahan and the other P.I. Joe Puma. He is also strongly associated with a number of juvenile books he authored that have popular sports, such as American football, basketball and motor sports, as their background theme.

As well as these, Gault wrote a number of straight up standalone crime titles during the late fifties. Death out of Focus was published in 1959, and uses the Hollywood movie business as its central device. Prologue Books reprinted it in both paperback and eBook format in 2011.

Gault was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1910. As a writer he contributed to a large number of magazines, particularly covering sports, and was regularly published in seminal crime pulp, Black Mask. He won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1953 with the novel, Don't Cry for Me, and was still being recognised thirty years later when he won the 1983 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Paperback Original with The Cana Diversion.

Death out of Focus centers on the story of Steve Leander, a motion picture director, who is being courted by Harry Bergdahl, a producer of lesser quality films. He is tempted to sign on to direct the movie; its the late fifties and the picture business is suffering due to the popularity of television. On top of this, Leander (following a successful run of pictures) finds himself with a beautiful wife, expensive home, and living beyond his means. Bergdahl says he has half the money to finance the project already in the bag from Texan backers, and just needs to secure the rest once they get started. Steve decides its too good an opportunity to pass up on; he is confident he can turn the lack-lustre script into something better, and with his directing skills, turn the story into a hit.

Bergdahl's nephew, David Sidney, is the scriptwriter. He's a young man with some talent, but Leander decides to help him finese his work - there is also a leading man already in the bag, Hart Jameson. Little known by the public, but a star in the rising according to sources, Jameson has been insured for a massive $500,000 by the producer. As a result the insurers send round an investigator to check up on the state of the film - something Leander doesn't appreciate while he is trying to work; he also doesn't mince his words with the insurance rep, Mr. Tomkevic when they first cross paths.

Steve decides to bring in one of his own players in the form of actress Laura Spain. She nearly nabbed an Oscar from one of their early films together, but has since gone off the boil and is desperate to show Hollywood she isn't just a former alcoholic and a one trick pony. Its through Laura that Steve learns of gossip circulating the crew that Jameson is planning to "have an accident" that will put him out of the picture and thus invoke an insurance claim. The director starts to suspect that Bergdahl's reputation for always finishing a project might be taking an illegal route, and his own status in Tinsel Town could suffer irrevocably.

Desperate to nip anything in the bud, Leander visits Jameson at his home to get the truth. The actor is clearly entertaning a woman, but she is out of sight in his bedroom and allows the director in to talk. Jameson teases Steve about killing himself, but ultimately promises to turn up for work in the morning - he apprecaites just how much the movie will do for his career.

In the morning Leander has an early visit from Dave Sidney who informs him that their leading man was killed soon after his visit last night. He apparently committed suicide by driving off a cliff close to his home. That same morning, Steve gets an unwelcome visit from the police as well as insurance investigator, Mr. Tomkevic. It seems that both Bergdahl and Leander are are now highly suspected of foul play to bankroll their film.

Death out of Focus was an enjoyable novel. I wouldn't describe the story as an outright 'crime' fiction piece, as it didn't have some of the elements that I'd more commonly associate with one. Steve Leander is acting as a detective, but in a very subtle way. He has to balance his desire to make a good film, with his growing concern for the mysterious circumstances surrounding Jameson's death and his wife's distrust that builds as the plot thickens. Was it a murder? Was it just an accident? Did Harry Bergdahl have anything to do with it? Am I involved in something that is going to ruin me? These are all the questions he is trying to piece together whilst juggling the demands of making a motion picture - a good one as it turns out.

Gault keeps the details of the actual film at arms length. You don't now what type of film it is, and you don't get any scenes from the film being played out in the prose. Strangely, I liked this. It's not what's important to the reader, so its relegated to background.

The characters are all very well drawn. There are more of them than those I've mentioned above and all are relevant to the story and add more levels of suspicion to the plot. Gault's writing flows off the page exceedingly well. His dialogue is brilliant, it reads like it was recorded from a real conversation between real people. Steve Leander is great - as the book gains momentum he becomes more and more aggressive and caustic to his friends and family.

If you want a book with action, either gun play or physical endeavours, you are not going to be satisfied. Leander isn't a tough cop or a savvy private eye. There are no femme fatales (well, possibly with one exception) and no gun-totting gangsters. But I liked it more for that fact alone. It was a pleasant change to read about a man under a lot of pressure who has to use his brain to achieve results.

This wasn't a classic by any means - I'm sure there are better efforts by Gault, but maybe this, for me,  was a case of reading the right book at the right time. I was hooked and entertained from the first chapter. Recommended.

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