Monday, May 2, 2022

Harry O (Harry O #1)

Harry O, by Lee Hays
No month stated, 1975  Popular Library

A well-regarded private eye TV series I’ve never seen, Harry O ran for two seasons and starred David Janssen as a former cop turned P.I. in San Diego. I was born the year season 1 came out, so obviously didn’t watch it at the time. And I don’t believe it was ever syndicated, given it only lasted two seasons. In fact I think I only discovered the show a few years ago when I was looking up any and all crime-based TV shows of the ‘70s. Well anyway, even though Harry O didn’t last very long, it still managed to get a pair of TV tie-ins, both written by Lee Hays, and this being the first of the two. Curiously the “#1” only appears on the cover and nowhere else in the book, but Hays did publish a second novel the following year. 

This is an original story, so far as I can determine, and I can only assume it captures the vibe of the TV series (which I’m sure is on DVD, and maybe I’ll actually watch it someday). Hays follows what I’ve learned to be the setup of the show: Harry Orwell, who narrates the novel for us, is a grizzled ex-cop with a bad back, given that he was shot there by a perp some years ago (which led to his retirement). Now he lives off his pension in San Diego, occasionally doing private eye work while not fiddling with his boat, The Answer. He isn’t Joe Mannix by any means; Harry is not at all an action-prone private dick, and usually keeps his gun rolled up in a towel in his house. He won’t use it in the entirety of the novel. In fact, Harry won’t do much of anything in the entirety of the novel. He does manage to score, though, so at least there’s that. 

Speaking of which, it’s interesting that Harry O was published by Popular Library, who seemed to corner the market on private eye series paperbacks in the ‘70s – they published Cage, Hardy, Renegade Roe, etc. Maybe an editor there just had a serious jones for this genre. But at least this one wasn’t misleadingly packaged like an action series, as those others were. Which is a good thing, because it’s mostly action-free. Harry O follows the template of practically every private eye story I’ve ever read: cynical P.I. is hired by a sexy broad who seems to have ulterior motives and soon finds himself in over his head, embroiled in a convoluted plot. So in other words there’s nothing new here, and if the TV series was the same then all the critical accolades are confusing to me. Harry even has the mandatory fractious relationship with the cops, in particular a former captain who has a grudge against him. He also has the mandatory friend on the force: Manny Quinlan, a character who seems to have also been on the show. 

Hays takes adavantage of the San Diego setting with frequent trips to Baja and Tijuana. In fact, there’s a lot of scene-setting in Harry O, to the point that it’s a bit egregious. I’d also say it’s there so as to pad the pages, as Hays doesn’t give himself much plot to work from. We meet Harry as he’s working on his boat; he never sails it in the course of the novel, so maybe that’s another schtick from the show. And in true “burned-out private eye” fashion, Harry ignores the constantly-ringing phone over in his house, just wanting to work on the boat despite needing a job. The caller ends up coming to him, and true to the template it’s a hotstuff babe. While the novel isn’t explicit in the least, there’s still a lot of that casual ‘70s “male gaze” as it’s now referred to – Harry seriously checks this chick out, practically oggling her as she walks by him – breasts, butt, face, etc. And she of course just makes a flippant remark about it, which adds to the charm. 

Harry makes her some coffee; he’ll make a lot of coffee in the novel. If Harry isn’t making coffee he’s checking the coffee to see if it’s still warm enough to drink; if not, Harry will heat it up. This is pretty much the majority of what our narrator does in the course of Harry O. Anyway, the pretty young lady is named Mary Alice Kimberly, and she was sent to Harry by Harry’s cop friend Manny. Her story is that her husband, who wants a divorce she won’t give him, has taken advantage of some land she gave him in Baja, and Mary Alice thinks her husband plans something shady there – to the extent that he’ll kill her to protect his investment. Harry doesn’t really believe her story and she takes off. 

This is of course where the plot thickens. Mary Alice calls Harry that night and begs him to come over to the office of another private eye, this one a sleazebag who specializes in dirty divorces. Well he’s dead, courtesy a bullet, and of course Mary Alice says she found him that way; she says her husband probably killed him. But now she herself is on the run from the cops, so Harry will spend the rest of the novel hiding her from his former friends on the force while trying to clear her name. So far as Mary Alice is concerned, her husband Arthur is involved in some shady business, so Harry heads down to Baja to check it out – oh, and another recurring bit is that Harry’s car is always in the shop. But he doesn’t like to drive, anyway. I mean there’s a part later in the book where Mary Alice is driving him back and forth to Mexico, and she asks Harry if he’d mind driving for a while, and Harry initially demurs! I mean some kick-ass hero! 

The novel comes to life with the appearance of Sydney Jerome; with his “neat mod suit” and “girlish figure” he’s clearly intended to be gay, not that Hays actually states it. He’s the larger-than-life shadowy figure expected in the private eye template, employing his own henchmen and talking “like a character out of Dickens.” He offers Harry a drink (Harry drinks liquour, at least) and tells him he too is involved with the deal, and is also looking for both Arthur and Mary Alice Kimberly. The plot further thickens when Harry’s again woken up in the middle of the night by a woman, but this time it’s Billy, the former stripclub dancer who was married to the murdered sleazebag private eye. This part seems to go nowhere – lots of dialog about the couple that doesn’t matter to the plot but fills the pages – until it leads to unexpected developments. 

As Harry O moves into its second half, things become a bit more tense; Harry himself is now trying to clear his name of murder. And also he manages to hook up with Mary Alice, who per the template throws herself at him. However Hays keeps this entirely off page. But at least Harry’s boat factors into it, as this is where Mary Alice has been hiding. But when Arthur Kimberly himself finally shows up, he warns Harry not to trust his estranged wife and tells Harry that Mary Alice is a “nympho.” Regardless Harry spends a lot of time with her, shuttling back and forth to Mexico. Our narrator literally just sits around while Mary Alice does the heavy lifting of moving the plot; it now develops that Arthur and Sydney were involved in a heroin smuggling scheme, and Mary Alice intends to foil Sydney by dealing him sugar down in Mexico. And through it all Harry just sits there while she does all the plotting and planning. 

Even the finale is underwhelming. Again true to the private eye template, the “climax” is mostly comrpised of expository dialog while various characters explain what exactly has been going on. There’s no real action; at one point Harry actually goes to get his gun, but finds that the towel he rolls it up in is now empty. Harry finally figures out how he’s been swindled, but even here his approach to it is rather humdrum. Hell, if I’m not mistaken he even makes more coffee in the climax, or maybe checks the temperature of already-made coffee. But there isn’t a big finale; instead, the villain just waits calmly while the cops head for Harry’s house. And we leave our narrator where we found him, working on his boat. 

The back cover of Harry O features several blurbs from various publications praising the show. Curiously, half of them (plus the blurb on the front cover) are all based out of Chicago, so Harry O must’ve been pretty popular there, even if it was set in San Diego. Some of the blurbs even go so far as to say Harry O is the best private eye show in history. I don’t know, though. At least judging from this paperback tie-in…well, I’d rather watch Mannix.


Johny Malone said...

Damn compassionate detectives.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

For your viewing pleasure, here's a link to where you can watch the second Harry O pilot film, "Smile Jenny, You're Dead."

The first--and in my opinion, lesser--pilot can be seen here:

And a fairly thorough story about Harry O and its development can be enjoyed here:


Marty McKee said...

What sets HARRY O apart from other TV private eyes won’t be reflected in a novel, and that is David Janssen. Most of the series plots are nothing special (with exceptions, such as the brilliant “Gertrude”), but they are expertly carried by Janssen’s patented world-weary nature. His banter with, first, Henry Darrow and later Anthony Zerbe is likely the strongest PI/cop relationship on TV, and that includes Rockford/Becker.

Glen Davis said...

I think I'm more of a Cannon guy myself.

Teutonic Terror said...

I really appreciate your reviews of TV tie-ins ... I had collected a huge number of them as a youngster, but traded them in for "more serious" literature as I got older, dismissing them as a youthful indulgence. More recently, I've regretted the trade-in, so I feel less guilty when I read your reviews stating that many of them were mediocre.

This Harry O novelization was one of my trade-ins.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone -- and thanks J. Kingston Pierce for the links to the Harry O pilot films! And Marty, I definitely see what you mean -- the actor would make a huge difference. As it is, Hays's novel just comes off like your typical P.I. tale with its world-weary narrator. And Teutonic Terror, I know just how you feel...20 years ago, before I got married, I took a HUGE box of books to a Half Price Books to "make room." I STILL regret trading them in!

dfordoom said...

The first season of Harry O was very very good indeed. Slightly quirky, but not in the same way as The Rockford Files. The second season was disappointing although watching David Janssen and Anthony Zerbe together was fun. The original Harry O pilot episode is superb, but it was too unconventional for network execs to be able to cope with.

The story of Harry O is a TV tragedy. If you look at the first pilot, then the second pilot, then the first season and then the second season you can see the remorseless pressure exerted by the network to remove every trace of style and originality from the series.