WILLIAM CAMPBELL GAULT “Stolen Star.” Short story. Joe Puma. First published in Manhunt, November 1957. Reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (Carrol & Graf, 1988). Collected in Marksman & Other Stories (Crippen & Landru, 2003).

   I may have this totally wrong, but even though PI Joe Puma’s home base is southern California, I don’t remember many of the novels and other fiction he was in involving Hollywood and the world of glamorous movie stars, beautiful starlets, and famous directors.

   I think of him rather as a blue-collar kind of guy, so my sense is that his brushes with the film industry were at the lower ends of it: chiseling movie producers at independent studios, conniving agents, and the like. Maybe I’m wrong, but at least in “Stolen Star” he gets to bump elbows (so to speak) with some of the major players in the industry which keeps all those millions if not billions of entertainment money flowing into the L.A. area.

   And even that may be an exaggeration: “Laura Spain had been kidnapped. Laura wasn’t the youngest star in the business, but she still had her figure and enough looks to pull all the men over thirty into any theatre showing one of her pictures. […] The thing had a bad odor right from the first ransom note.”

   Or in other words, maybe Laura thinks she’s slipping. That her career needs a boost, however sketchy the plan may be.

   Even though he smells something wrong, Puma agrees to be the go-between in getting the money to the kidnappers. And he’s right. Things do not work out well, and making what goes wrong as right as he can is the rest of the story. As always in these early stories, written just after the pulps died, Gault’s prose is snappy and smooth and goes down awfully easily.

   I do wish, though, that he had let the reader know more what Puma learns when he learned it, and even then, there’s a bit of jump between knowing it and knowing exactly who did it and why. I hope I don’t sound overly picky about this. It’s a very good story.