K. K. BECK – The Revenge of Kali-Ra. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1999. No paperback edition.

K. K. BECK Kali Ra

   A friend and I have a special category of book we refer to as Dollar Store Wonders. You are all familiar with the various Dollar, .99 Cent, and $1.09 stores around the country, and have probably noticed occasional racks or tables of remaindered books lurking in odd corners with big round stickers announcing their bargain prices.

   They vary from over prints of bestsellers to celebrity bios to westerns, sf, fantasy, horror, thrillers, juvenile series, and even a few actual mysteries.

   It’s in the latter category that you are most likely to find one of the rare Dollar Store Wonders that make the hunt worth your time, a first class book that for some reason you missed entirely when it came out, and has now made its way to the last hope of new books before the second hand book store, the library sale, or the card table at the nearest garage sale.

   One such Dollar Store Wonder is K.K. Beck’s The Revenge of Kali-Ra.

   Beck gives the reader fair warning in the dedication to what she is up to:

    “This book is affectionately and respectfully dedicated to the memory of Sax Rohmer, the Baroness Orczy, H. Rider Haggard, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and all the others, who toiled ceaselessly for no reward other than vast fame and massive fortune.”

   In The Revenge of Kali-Ra Beck’s targets are broad ones — the overheated pulp work of Sax Rohmer and his ilk, and the overheated egos and money grubbing ways of Hollywood.

   The heroine of the book is Melanie Oakley, the personal assistant to movie star Nadia Wentworth, who has just discovered the novels of Valerian Ricardo, who made a fortune churning out the adventures of Kali-Ra, the Queen of Doom, a beautiful and evil seductress with a taste for the trappings of S&M, or as the hero observes, “a low rent Story of O.”

   Nadia thinks the time is ripe for Kali-Ra to stalk the screens of megaplexes all over the country and sets out to acquire the rights to Ricardo’s books. Which is the point at which the woodwork erupts.

K. K. BECK Kali Ra

   Nick Iverson is a great nephew of Ricardo’s who wants to know more about his family history. Lila Ricardo is the great man’s whacked out widow and Quentin Smith an unscrupulous lawyer for Maurice Fender who owns the rights to the Ricardo books and wants to cash in. In addition there’s Glen Pendergast, an academic who penned a study of the Ricardo oeuvre The Whip Hand: Issues of Gender in Genre in the Novels of Valerian Ricardo.

   Then there’s Gail and her daughter Callie, a more-or-less normal post-teenager with a penchant for running around near naked and impersonating Kali-Ra, her namesake. Of course they all end up at Nadia Wentworth’s exotic Hollywood mansion, and then one of the uninvited guests shows up dead and Internet fans of the masters works start stalking the night, and we’re ready for a wacky twist on Agatha Christie where nothing and no one is quite what we expect them to be.

   Among the many delights of the book are several overheated passages of Ricardo’s prose that are among the best evocations of the fractured prose stylings of the past you will encounter in many a day.

   It’s no easy thing for a good writer to write badly well, and Beck pulls it off with real panache. You may even find yourself wishing she had actually written a full novel of the adventures of Kali-Ra to accompany the book, or at least a short story. The brief passages are tantalizing.

    “I will always walk among you, often disguised as the humblest of serving girls, but in truth my power is constant and my slaves numerous and ever present. And even you Raymond Vernon, who mock me and pretend to think I can be stopped you are truly one of my slaves as well.”

   The Revenge of Kali-Ra is a truly funny book. The people are bright and brittle. and the humor barbed but never cruel. It’s a fast read full of attractive protagonists and eccentric everyone else and begs for a film treatment.

   Kali-Ra will rise again. You can’t keep a really good bad girl down.

K. K. BECK Kali Ra

   Beck had written fourteen books at the time of Revenge, including Murder in a Mummy Case, Young Miss Cavendish and the Kaiser’s Men, The Body in the Volvo, and four entries in her Jane Da Silva series. They are all bright and funny mysteries that combine real wit with appealing mysteries and a quirky but assured style that is among the most readable in the genre.

   K.K. Beck made her way into the mystery scene carving a niche of her own in the humor category. But where much of the humor genre is decidedly in the cozy tradition, Beck has always had a streak of Marx Brothers style insanity in her best work, a wry twist of the knife that lifts her novels to another level.

   Though her work falls in the classical style and form there has always been a hint of the screwball school lurking under the cozy surface. Beck goes for the quiet but knowing smile and the gentle laugh as often as not, but she is also likely to go for the belly laugh, the slapstick, knock down, roll in the aisle laugh. She also has an eye for the sharp barb, as in Nick’s Grandpa’s assessment of Nadia Wentworth:

    “Movie stars!” snorted Grandpa. “I don’t keep track of any of them. Nice pair of bazongas, though …”

   Although Beck comes from another tradition, the true screwball voice of Jonathan Latimer, Craig Rice, Dwight Babcock, Norbert Davis, and Richard Sale sings from her word processor. The Revenge Of Kali Ra is a romp, a playful send up of writers of popular fiction, Hollywood, and the grand old literature of the purple prose school.

   But I warn you, you may never read Fu Manchu or Sumuru with a straight face again — assuming you could keep a straight face the first time you read them. And for a Dollar Store Wonder it is a prize above rubies, or at least one heck of a bargain.