Review by Annabel
Daniel Klein has featured at Shiny New Books once before, back in our early days when Victoria reviewed his 2014 non-fiction book Travels With Epicurus, a gentle overview of philosophy and musings about growing old as the 73-year-old Klein spent time in Greece contemplating his age, since followed up with two more volumes of philosophy and memoir.
However, before then he was writing novels, and between 2000 and 2004 Klein penned four crime novels featuring Elvis Presley as an amateur detective! Being fairly recent, they aren’t Dean Street Press’s usual reprint fare, but I am so glad that they’ve brought them back into print, for the two I’ve read so far are wonderful and I’ve acquired the others in the series now. All four have wonderful punning titles on Elvis songs, the other two being Viva Las Vengeance, and Such Vicious Minds!
To have the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as your lead is an audacious move, but Klein has picked a particular period in Elvis’ life which could really fit this kind of distraction. Elvis is recently returned from Germany after his spell in the US Army, he’s missing his late mother Gladys, he doesn’t get to see his fiancée Miss Priscilla much, Graceland feels empty yet is always full of old friends and hangers-on. Incidentally, I reviewed Bethan Roberts’s novel Graceland about young Elvis and his mother here, and it takes us up to Gladys’s death and his imminent departure for Germany, worried that his career will disappear when he gets back. And yes, his career has yet to pick up, there are only the movies which he no longer enjoys really, so Elvis is at a loose end.
In the first book, Kill Me Tender, Elvis is asked to write a condolence note to the family of a fourteen-year-old girl who’d been president of one chapter of his fan club. Only the previous week, the seventeen-year-old from another branch had died too.
“Lord, God!” Elvis put a hand across his eyes. He could feel tears suddenly welling up for this poor child who probably did nothing worse in her life than listen to rock and roll after school with her friends. These sneak-up tears were starting to become a problem too, just like the sleeplessness. Sometimes it felt like a whole lifetime of choking back tears was starting to catch up with him. […]
[…] “You know when that funeral is, up there in Maury?”
“Today,” Arthur replied. “About now, actually.”
“I think we should pay our respects,” he said.
Elvis discovers a small black community riven with grief over Lucybeth’s death. He suspects foul play when he hears from Dr Billy Jackson, a talented but unqualified doctor who ministers to the townsfolk, that she’d never been ill. With the help of Dr Jackson and his nurse Selma, whom Elvis is very attracted to, Elvis begins to investigate, often battling against the bigotry and resentment of those who don’t want him there. Add in some confusion added by an Elvis impersonator (yes!), and Colonel Tom trying to track down the singer-gone-AWOL, Elvis will have to have his wits about him to find the killer before more girls are murdered.
The Elvis that Klein depicts is a lovely young man, Godfearing and good-mannered, with a strong sense of morals. He has yet to become the jaded addict of later years. Elvis has the common touch and demonstrates this ability to put people at their ease, even in this black community. His affair with Miss Selma is sincere and deeply felt too – sadly it can’t last, but the reader is on their side. (This ability to fit in was also apparent in Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis – which I adored too – in its homage to all the black music Elvis grew up with.)
In the second book of the series, Blue Suede Clues, we move on to 1963 and we’re on set with Elvis and Ann Margret and filming of Kissing’ Cousins has just wrapped. Elvis is contacted by an old army friend, now in prison for the murder of a young actress on the MGM lot while he a stuntman. “Squirm” Littlejohn insists he is innocent.
This time, Elvis will get charged with murder himself, and be under the constant threat of photos being published of him and Ann Margret. Evading those who want to throw the book at him with the help of Squirm’s alcohol-sodden Freud-quoting lawyer, this mystery will take him from the studios and the backstage world of the stuntmen and corrupt studio execs down to a lab in Mexico looking for answers. It’s cleverly plotted, and the reveal is satisfying.
I read in an interview with Klein (see here) that Elvis was a voracious reader of true crime books and had a real interest in the law and justice, which was the spur for writing the mysteries. These books are hugely entertaining, well-plotted and fast-moving at just over 200 pages each, and they have a super sense of time and place. Most of all, I think Klein has done his hero justice in his depiction of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I couldn’t help myself from falling in love with him!
Annabel is co-founder and an editor of Shiny, and is obviously an Elvis fan.
Daniel Klein, Kill Me Tender; Blue Suede Clues (Dean Street Press, 2022). 201-203pp.each, paperback originals, .