(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ron Goulart defies categorization as a writer. His published works range from original novels and short stories to novelizations of motion picture and television scripts, from novels based on comic-strip characters to nonfictional studies of pulp magazines and cartoons, and contributions in existing series from Tom Swift to the Bobbsey Twins. Much of his best work is in the mystery and detective or science-fiction genres or, more usually, a combination of the two. His fiction is invariably satiric. The irreverent humor in his best work is worthy of Mark Twain; in his worst work, the humor is unworthy of an inept standup comedian.

Goulart’s characters, even main protagonists, are typically only superficially developed. All his stories unfold primarily through dialogue. He is a master at concocting startling opening sentences, which seize interest; this ability is perhaps a legacy of his career in advertising, where the emphasis is on capturing attention and drawing in the reader. The characters that cavort through his pages are outrageously bizarre parodies of familiar human types or well-known individuals. Even Goulart’s “straight” mystery and detective works contain situations as fantastic as anything found in science fiction.

The fictional worlds created by Goulart are seemingly without direction or purpose. The characters in his mad universe are as unpredictable as the inmates of any insane asylum. Goulart’s heroes (or antiheroes) are constantly engaged in struggles to impress some sane pattern on societies undergoing constant random metamorphoses. They usually succeed but often in ways more disturbing to the reader than the worlds they describe. Running throughout most of his stories is Goulart’s sometimes cruel and always impudent humor.

Most of Goulart’s straight mystery and detective fiction is set in Southern California. The area’s various arcane subcultures, as seen through Goulart’s eyes, bear a striking resemblance to his description of the through-the-looking-glass worlds of the Barnum System, in which many of his science-fiction stories take place. Those earthly locales are the settings for stories and characters reminiscent of fairy chess, a game in which the players make up pieces (complete with moves) as the game progresses. Such characters and situations permeate Goulart’s fiction. The Southern California of John Easy could be a planet in the Barnum System. In all of his works, Goulart holds up various unpleasant aspects of society and forces his readers to...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)