McGee Wannabes: Ron Ely’s Santa Barbara Sleuth Jake Sands

Down in my basement I have stacks of way too many books that I will never read. Lately, I’ve been culling dozens of volumes and sallying forth into the hood to leave them in Little Free Libraries here and there. When I’m done, I hope to have cut the mass of tomes by half or two-thirds. What remains will be my essentials, including my collection of JDM titles—somewhere north of sixty now. Another, smaller collection is dedicated to various McGee Wannabes. I intended this late summer to write about Bob Morris or Charles Knief or John Lutz. But instead my eye settled on something a little more obscure.

Back in the mid-’90s an author named Ron Ely published two mystery novels with Simon & Schuster, featuring a sleuth named Jake Sands who operated in Santa Barbara, north of L.A. Oddly, there was never a third book—three-book contracts being customary for authors of debut series. The two whodunits by Ely were subsequently reissued in paperback by Worldwide Library. If the author’s name seems vaguely familiar, it means you’re of a certain vintage. Because Ron Ely is an actor best known as TV’s Tarzan in the mid-’60s. (He’s apparently acting again, after a long hiatus.) Here’s the young Ely in loincloth.

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There’s plenty enough about Jake Sands to call him a McGee Wannabe. He’s kind of a salvage consultant, kind of a sleuth. He operates in a gorgeous, semi-tropical setting on the ocean. He’s tall and tough. His story is told in first-person and he has plenty of opinions (though not as many as Trav). He’s suffered terrible losses, including the murders of his wife and son. He doesn’t work a regular job. He’s tenacious and quickly bounces back from injuries and hard knocks. He has an old, eccentric friend with whom he talks things over. He doesn’t live on a boat, but he has a fancy condo right across from the beach, on top of the commercial building he owns. He sallies forth to avenge and find out the truth about dark matters.

In his second and final adventure, East Beach, Jake becomes entangled in a whodunit. As part of his daily rounds, he stops at the beach volleyball courts at East Beach, where he runs into a young woman named Julie who waitresses at a breakfast joint he’s fond of. They know each other slightly. They exchange some banter, even some flirting—it happens she looks awfully good in a bikini. And Jake encounters an Aussie volleyballer who appears to sense him as moving in on Julie, whom he seems to be claiming.

Well, as any young lady who becomes close to a Trav-like hero can tell you, it’s a dangerous place to be. And so it proves for Julie the waitress. Soon she turns up murdered. But who would want to kill such a nice, pretty girl? And why?

As a retired investigator and former military special ops guy, Jake determines that he’s going to get to the bottom of things, with Julie’s desolated parents as his informal clients. At about the same time, someone locally had bought a lottery ticket that would pay out 40 million smackers. And that winner, of course, was Julie—who had been picking the same six numbers for quite some time. The ticket isn’t in Julie’s effects, so the motive for murder becomes clear. Jake sets to sleuthing around the diner where she worked, her apartment, the store where she bought her lottery tickets, the night club where she hung out, the beach volleyball scene. It’s the latter locale that he focuses on, to the point of getting himself back in shape to play with the beach’s big boys. One of them is the Aussie, known to be strong and dangerous. He’s the one Ely wants us to focus on; though, of course, it’s not that simple.

From there Jake follows a Byzantine route to enlightenment, ID’ing a whole raft of suspects and accomplices—including some folks involved in drug smuggling—as the body count keeps mounting.

Jake has a couple of brushes with disaster along the way. First, a car sideswipes him in the street. An accident, a warning, or a failed murder attempt? And when he comes home late one night and stands out on his balcony, leaning on the rail, an interloper in black attacks him and heaves him over the edge. Fortunately for Jake, a canvas awning just above street level breaks his forty-foot fall. Of course, a couple of broken ribs do nothing to stop his campaign.

For the endgame, Jake finally corrals the murderer—who’s just made his last kills—and engages with him in brutal hand-to-hand combat in the dark, on an embankment over a railroad track. Just as he sent Jake over the edge, our killer goes over, too. As the bad guy lies paralyzed and helpless on the rails, Jake leaves him to the tender mercies of Julie’s father.

∗ ∗ ∗

I’m on record here noting that my favorite McGee Wannabes are Geoffrey Norman’s Morgan Hunt (four books) and Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford (at 22 books and counting). They come closest to the superb writing and storytelling that JDM brought to bear in the McGee adventures. Ron Ely’s two Jake Sands novels just aren’t in that league.

But, like other McGee fans, I can never get enough of books that aspire to telling Travis-like tales. If I see something with a tough-guy/sleuth hero who operates in a tropical climate and is a rugged individualist with lots of strong opinions and preferably tells his story in first-person… Well, I’ll give it a try. So I’m happy to have read these books.

I see that Ely hasn’t put out e-book or POD editions. If he’s reclaimed the rights, he ought to do so. And if he’s feeling particularly energetic, he ought to even consider reviving his Santa Barbara sleuth. I know that I would gladly buy Kindles of new Jake Sands stories.

P.S. Even though there are no e-book versions of Ely’s yarns, I just noticed (a few days after my original post) that Amazon has audio book versions read by Ely himself. You can listen to samples for free. As befits a seasoned actor, he does a really nice job. No idea if these are recent or older.

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