See The Red Blood Run, by Niles N. Peebles
May, 1968 Pyramid Books
A “private cop” ventures into the underground world of LSD in this Pyramid PBO, which was the first of two books to feature P.I. Ross McKellar. About author Niles N. Peebles barely anything is known; the two McKellar novels are the only books published under his name, but after some digging I discovered that Peebles also ghostwrote a book that has become legendary with the Alcoholics Anonymous crowd: Dr. Bob And The Good Oldtimers (1980).
In true private eye fashion McKellar narrates the story for us; he’s New York City born and bred and operates out of Manhattan. He’s “close to forty years old” and is not married, though he was once – and has vowed never to be again. He doesn’t carry a gun and his sleuthing is carried out more so by following leads and visiting suspects; in other words, you won’t find any Mike Hammer action here. He’s also such a New Yorker that he’s never learned to drive, and he’s not too ashamed to admit it. He’s also more of a gentelman than you’d expect, given the genre, and for the most part just comes off like a regular guy.
The back cover copy oversells the lurid quotient of the book. Sad to say, there just isn’t much of it; McKellar does okay with the ladies but Peebles always cuts away from the sleaze. The back cover also overhypes the “psychedelic” nature of the book, in particular spotlighting a part where “the needle jabs in” and McKellar is dosed with LSD against his will. I’ve never heard of LSD being taken this way but what the hell. At any rate it sends him off on a “Love is Truth” sort of quest rather than any sort of lysergic hellhole nightmare, so even that part isn’t too lurid, more’s the friggin’ pity.
McKellar is promptly hired by lovely, svelte Alexandra Justin, a high-class socialite currently engaged to Robbie Quigley, president of a local Anti-Vice union. I had some problems with all this…the whole Quigley-Alexandra relationship is hard to buy, and plus methinks Peebles could’ve given his hard-assed, anti-“filth” politician a tougher name than “Robbie.” But anyway the case Alexandra wants to hire McKellar for is this: Quigley’s wild child niece Lydia, whom Quigley has served as guardian for since Lydia’s parents died, has gone missing, last seen with the beatniks and hippies and other drug addicts in the gutter of the East Village.
Alexandra wants McKellar to find Lydia, bring her home, and keep it all out of the papers – it would be a political nightmare for it to be discovered that straight-shooter Quigley’s own niece is a doped-up hippie. McKellar takes the job, mostly because he’s also taken with Alexandra, and wonders often what she’s doing with a chump like Quigley. McKellar has heard of the man and doesn’t like him, though honestly McKellar comes off like such a straight-shooter himself that you wonder what his problem with the guy is. It would be one thing if McKellar himself was presented as a dopesmoking, acid-dropping PI (now there’s a novel!), but in truth he’s pretty bland.
Lydia has been hanging around a hippie named Muzzy, who fancied himself a psychedelic artist. Now both of them are missing, and McKellar gets leads on them from Leon, a fellow psychedelic artist. But when McKellar heads to the hovel Leon says the two were shacking up in, he finds a pair of corpses. It turns out though that this dead couple is not Muzzy or Lydia, but some random hippies who were crashing there and OD’d. Here we get another reminder that McKellar isn’t your typical hardboiled PI, as he refrains from looking at the corpses in the morgue, unable to stand such sights.
McKellar’s search takes him around the grungy environs of the East Village, and being a lifelong New Yorker McKellar informs us how the place has just been given a fancy new name by the hippies who congregate there. We get a lot of New York info in the novel, as McKellar walks around a lot and informs us what is where. In this way the novel is a time capsule of a long-gone Manhattan, much in the same way that the ‘70s novels of Len Levinson are. An interesting thing though is that McKellar isn’t as cynical about this psychedelic New York as one might imagine; indeed he treats most people with respect, even if he finds their ways odd.
In the course of his investigation McKellar mostly visits a psychedelic art museum, an LSD retreat in the woods, and a couple grimy tenement buildings occupied by dirty hippies. So we don’t get the psych-pop jet-set vibe of similar Pyramid cash-ins of the day, like Fun City, though there is a part later on where McKellar attends a mod party at a socialite’s place…and he literally runs away from an orgy taking place therein. Instead of sleaze, we get lots and lots of exposition about LSD research and mind expansion and whatnot. This is mostly courtesy a character named Jed, owner of that psych art place, Contra Galleries. McKellar takes the opportunity to hit on Naomi, pretty brunette Contra employee and former stewardess. He also finds the time to romance Alexandra Justin, and while McKellar scores with the latter, Peebles is not one to elaborate.
The scoring takes place when McKellar gets a lead that takes him upstate New York to a retreat started by an early LSD pioneer named Dr. O’Meara (gee, I wonder who that could be??). Muzzy and Lydia were frequent visitors of the place, but aren’t there now. Time for more LSD exposition courtesy the good doctor, though up here they’ve moved beyond LSD into more legal methods of mind expansion. This entails film projections and light shows and the like; later in the book McKellar watches a psychedelic “happening,” complete with Warhol-esque art films, rock groups, and more psych light shows, all of it put together by an Abbie Hoffman-esque rabble rouser named Lennie Burns.
Anyway McKellar has to bum a ride from Alexandra to that upstate retreat, and on the way back they give in to their mutual attraction and engage in some hot off-page lovin’. Meanwhile Muzzy and Lydia turn up dead, found in Leon’s place, another OD. This time there’s a suicide note courtesy Muzzy. Leon’s jailed under suspicion and McKellar takes up his cause, figuring something’s not right about all this. As he continues poking around he’s “jabbed” by that LSD syringe in the sequence excerpted on the back cover…a sort of brief deal where McKellar, realizing he’s been dosed with acid, stumbles around and gawks at New York and realizes the profound truth that “Truth is Love” and “Love is Truth.” It’s to Peebles’s credit that this sequence isn’t too goofy.
There really isn’t much action per se; even the LSD “jab” is courtesy someone who bumps into McKellar from behind on a darkened street and then takes off. The finale is more of a tense deal, with McKellar thinking the Contra Galleries owner was behind a sort of LSD-importing scheme and killed Muzzy and Lydia for various reasons. Actually the finale is pretty goofy; trying to entrap him, McKellar bluffs a story to Jed, the gallery owner, that co-worker Naomi was using her old stew job to run drugs…then it turns out that’s really what was happening! McKellar hides in the closed store while the two confront one another, and meanwhile Naomi has come with a gun to take out Jed; in a seriously lazy reversal, Naomi is suddenly revealed to be a cold-blooded killer slash LSD drug-runner.
Only…it gets goofier! Even though Naomi, shot by Jed and near death, admits to having killed Lydia and Muzzy…McKellar still doesn’t buy it, and confronts Robbie Quigley. Then Quigley admits he killed them! Once again McKellar stands by while someone else shoots the villain for him…seems McKellar doesn’t do his own villain-shooting or car-driving…then grills Quigley some more while he dies. Unsurprisingly, Alexandra breaks it off with McKellar soon thereafter…I mean it’s one thing to have an affair while your fiance is alive, but once your investigation has outed him as a murderer and gotten him killed, that’s where she draws the line.
As mentioned McKellar returned in another Pyramid paperback the following year, Blood Brother, Blood Brother, but it seems to lack any of the psychedelic stuff of this one and seems more of a generic detective sort of deal.