Henry Kane’s Marla Trent – The Private Eyeful – from his 1959 one-shot crime novel featuring a then-rare female private eye, was re-issued a year later in new cover art, but then presumably vanished into PBO limbo, the publisher and/or readers not interested enough to turn it into a series.
But the almost impossibly accomplished and attractive blonde bombshell did, in fact, return a couple years later, though only as a costar this time in another of Kane’s Peter Chambers private eye novels (there being about thirty titles in that series, I think).
Kisses Of Death came out in 1962 from Belmont Books, a step down in terms of publishers. Like many of Kane’s novels, the case that opens the story turns into something else altogether. Here, a frantic Mrs. Valerie Kiss demands to see NYC P.I. Pete Chambers early on a Saturday morning, certain she’s being blackmailed. He joins the stunningly lovely former actress at an office address he knows well: None other than Marla Trent Enterprises. Marla Trent, New York’s infamous ‘private eyeful’, is much too successful to try to milk the very married Mrs. Kiss out of a few bucks over some compromising photos of her in the sack with a bartender boy toy, though she had been hired by Mister Kiss to follow the cheating wife. But while Mrs. Kiss, Chambers, Trent and her assistant Wee Willie Winkle try to figure out what’s going on, the Mister’s busy taking a head-first header from a high-rise window and commits suicide.
Case closed? Hardly. Months later (and the book spans more than a year and half by my count) a hushed-up investment bank robbery lures in both Chambers and Trent, hired to work as a team (under Chambers lead) to track down nearly nine million dollars stolen just as the Kiss’ marriage ended in that gruesome landing on the Midtown asphalt. In fact, Mrs. Kiss’ none-too-secretive affairs, the peekaboo bedroom photos and even the suicide may all have been part of an elaborate plot to cover up one of New York’s biggest heists ever.
Kane’s Marla Trent is only a costar here, albeit a prominent one, with wisecracking Pete Chambers occupying center stage for most of the novel, including a puzzling subplot dealing with a gorgeous South American doctor the P.I.’s anxious to bed. The complex case takes Chambers, Trent and Winkle to the west coast and ultimately overseas, where the reader is treated to some fairly exciting gunplay in a couple climactic scenes (well-earned, since the reader endured the preceding chapters’ maddening maze of clues, interrogations and Pete Chambers’ seduction routines).
Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful, bows out of Kisses of Death and crime fiction history on a frustrating note, arriving at Chambers’ pad, all fetchingly attired in a sleek summer blue dress and matching white pumps and handbag, to pick up her share of their fee and finally make good on the preceding 180+ pages of flirtation. Black Russians are her specific drink of choice to lose her inhibitions, and apparently, she’s already had a few before arriving. Insisting that Chambers take a symbolic bath, “like washing off all that’s gone before,” Marla changes his bachelor pad’s bedsheets (?!), gets out of her clothes, sips yet another Black Russian and waits for the P.I. But she’s soon reaching for her things once the freshly bathed Pete Chambers admits that he bedded their original client (and the novel’s eventual villainess) early on in the case.
She sat her Black Russian on the bar. “You lied to me, you bastard, didn’t you? You’re a cheap little man after all, aren’t you? You told me you’d never been with that bitch.” She stepped into her shoes, wriggled into her blue dress, buttoned all the buttons. “Men will never understand women.” She took up her little white bag. “Thanks for the check, and thanks for nothing.” She came to me and kissed my forehead. “It’s been most instructive.” Then she left like a lady without slamming the door.
I don’t know if men will ever understand women, and definitely don’t know if Henry Kane ever did. Since Kisses Of Death is a Peter Chambers novel and not the “Private Eyeful’s” story, a few more pages follow so the P.I. can bump into a beautiful witness briefly introduced midway in his investigation, and thus, end the novel in suitably swingin’ early sixties style, those freshly changed bachelor pad sheets about to get wrinkled.
Kisses Of Death is no better or worse than Private Eyeful, and no better or worse than countless other coastal private detective standalone and series novels from the mid-fifties through early sixties. Soon enough, British spies would make so many NYC and L.A. P.I.’s passé. As for Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful? While the Ficklings’ Honey West would make it to TV screens and appear in a few more novels, the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genres would only see a handful of other female detectives and some sexed-up adventurers and ‘lady spies’ for nearly twenty years till Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others finally reinvented everything.
So, where did Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” finally go? Evidently, she slipped back into those white pumps to sashay off into PBO obscurity, yet another mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoe’ who’d have to wait for the field to evolve.