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Richard S. Prather, 85; author of Shell Scott mysteries in '50s and '60s

March 08, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Richard S. Prather, whose mystery stories about Shell Scott, a former Marine turned private investigator, were set in Southern California, died at his home in Sedona, Ariz., on Feb. 14. He was 85.

The cause was complications from pulmonary disease, author Linda Pendleton, a friend of Prather, said this week.

Prather, who also wrote several novels under the pseudonyms David Knight and Douglas Ring, won a lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 1986. He was best known, however, for his Shell Scott mysteries from the 1950s and '60s about a former Marine who kept his hair in a military buzz cut and was missing part of an ear that got shot off during his years in the service in World War II.

Prather introduced his popular character in his 1950 novel "Case of the Vanishing Beauty." More than 30 others followed, all of them paperback originals.

Unlike the hard-boiled heroes of more typical pulp detective novels, Shell Scott had a wry sense of humor that got him through his stranger assignments.

In "Strip for Murder" he investigated a homicide in a nudist colony. Other books in the series show Scott threatened by zombies or spying on X-rated movie makers.

Prather's choice of book titles -- "Three's a Shroud" and "Slab Happy" among them -- tipped off readers to his sense of humor. He was more interested in writing about mystery than murder, he said in interviews.

He wrote his books in a single draft and had as many as three novels published each year in his heyday. The stories were "constantly comic and fresh," according to the summer 1994 issue of Armchair Detective.

For most of his writing career he lived in Southern California, moving from Laguna Beach to La Jolla, Fallbrook and San Clemente before he went to Scottsdale, Ariz., and eventually settled in Sedona.

"Prather was enormously well known in the '50s and '60s, but in more recent decades he fell into obscurity because of the dated flavor of his books," said Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, an imprint that features both vintage and contemporary pulp mystery novels. Prather's "The Peddler" (1952), one of his few novels that do not feature Scott, was reprinted by Hard Case Crime last year.

A number of Prather's novels have been reissued as e-books.

Prather was born Sept. 9, 1921, in Santa Ana. He attended Riverside City College for a year before he joined the U.S. merchant marine, in which he served from 1942 to 1945.

He later worked as a clerk at March Air Force Base in Riverside County before he made fiction writing his full-time job in 1949. He continued writing a book nearly every year until the late 1980s.

Prather's wife of more than 60 years, Tina Hager, died in 2004. His survivors include several cousins.

Contributions in his name can be made to the University of Wyoming Foundation, 1200 E. Ivinson Ave., Laramie, WY 82070. Enclose a note indicating that funds should go to the university's American Heritage Center, Manuscript Collections.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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