Wed 1 Jun 2016
by Francis M. Nevins
If I had gone to New York for this year’s Edgars dinner, I would have known a few weeks sooner. As it was, I read the news in the program booklet, which reached me in the mail a few days ago. Among the MWA members who died in 2015 was one I knew. His name was Charles Runyon. To friends he was Chuck.
He was born in rural Missouri in 1928 and died last June, a few hours short of his 87th birthday. He was well-known in the science-fiction field and also as a writer of paperback crime-suspense novels like THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED (1965) and the Edgar-nominated POWER KILL (1972). My first contact with him was more than three decades ago, probably in the year that will be forever linked with George Orwell. His first story for Manhunt had been adapted into an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and I wanted to include it in my anthology HITCHCOCK IN PRIME TIME (1985), which brought together twenty tales that had served as episodes for that long-running series, with each author who was alive and willing being offered a bonus if he or she would write an afterword for the book. (For those who were unwilling or dead I did the honors.) Chuck was both alive and willing and contributed by far the longest afterword of the twenty.
A few years later, on my way back from a gig somewhere west of St. Louis, Chuck invited my late wife and me to stop off in the small Missouri town where he was then living and visit with him. We did. I remember it was a Sunday morning. While I was using the facilities, Patty started asking Chuck about his work, and when I came back to the conversation she told me excitedly that Chuck had just told her he’d ghosted three of the paperback originals published in the Sixties as by Ellery Queen.
For me this was tremendous news. I had been trying to track down the authors of all those faux-EQ paperbacks but was still missing some. Suddenly out of the blue, three more pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place. Patty: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
The Queen paperback originals had come about during the years when Manny Lee, whose function in the partnership had been to expand his cousin Fred Dannay’s lengthy synopses into novels, was suffering from writer’s block. At the same time the literary agency representing the cousins was looking for ways to expand the Queen readership beyond the confines of formal detective fiction. The result was an arrangement whereby other clients of the agency would be paid a flat fee per book to write paperback novels — standalones, without Ellery or the other Queen series characters — to be edited by Manny and published as by Queen.
It was a terrible idea, which Fred Dannay strongly opposed, but in view of Manny’s situation and the large family he had to support, there seemed no alternative but to agree. Between 1961 and 1972 a total of 28 books ghosted by nine authors were published under this arrangement. In order of their assumption of the Queen byline, the authors were Stephen Marlowe (1), Richard Deming (9), Talmage Powell (6), Henry Kane (1), Fletcher Flora (3), Jack Vance (3), Chuck Runyon (3), Walt Sheldon (1), and Edward D. Hoch (1). Jack Vance (1916-2014) was the longest-lived of the nine but Runyon was the last man standing.
He had authored a few paperback original crime novels for Fawcett Gold Medal and some hardboiled stories for Manhunt when he took on the Queen mantle, debuting with THE LAST SCORE (Pocket Books pb #50486, 1964), which Anthony Boucher in the Times Book Review (January 24, 1965) rightly called “a straight-out adventure thriller.” Tough tourist guide Reid Rance is hired to chaperon a wealthy teen-age sexpot on a journey through Mexico, a country with which Runyon was intimately acquainted. When the girl is kidnapped and held for ransom, our macho protagonist doesn’t bother to notify the authorities but launches a one-man war against the abductors. The background is vividly evoked, the descriptions of a marijuana “high” ring true, and despite some implausibilities in the slender storyline this is a model of men’s-magazine adventure fiction. “Good violent excitement,” said Boucher, “tightly told.” But — an Ellery Queen novel???
Runyon brought another macho action yarn under the EQ umbrella in THE KILLER TOUCH (Pocket Books pb #50494, 1965). A tough Florida cop, tormented by a wound and his guilt at killing a teen-ager in line of duty, comes to a tropical island resort where a gang of thieves headed by a doom-haunted sadistic intellectual has just moved in after pulling off a diamond robbery.
The writing is vivid, the incidents lurid, the climax rushed, and Runyon crams in enough torture scenes, sex teasing and carnage to satisfy the most rabid. Was Boucher turned off by all the bloodletting? For whatever reason he chose not to review this one.
Roughly four years passed before Runyon sailed under the EQ flag for the last time. KISS AND KILL (Dell pb #4567, 1969) is a tornado-paced novel of pursuit and menace complete with sex, sadism, machismo and a psychopathic creep. When a young Chicago housewife vanishes after returning from a tour of — here we go again! — Mexico, her distraught husband and a local PI take up the trail and soon discover that everyone else on that tour has either disappeared or suffered a violent death.
About halfway through the book the action shifts to south of the border and the two urban male protagonists, joined by a woman photographer from St. Louis, become instant experts at guerrilla warfare against professional killers. But neither this implausible development nor the recycling of tough-guy fiction’s most overused climactic “surprise” diminishes the pure headlong storytelling drive that makes Runyon’s ultimate men’s-mag adventure unputdownable. Boucher didn’t review this one either but not by choice: he had died the year before it came out.
From the Runyon file in one of my cabinets I discovered something that thanks to old age I had totally forgotten: Chuck and his wife had actually stayed with Patty and me around Christmastime one year, and we had hosted a little party to introduce him to some other St. Louis-area mystery writers. Several of his novels are on my shelves, a few of them inscribed to me, probably during his visit. If those who are interested in the books he wrote under his own name follow this link to Steve’s primary Mystery*File website for an interview conducted several years ago by Ed Gorman. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Chuck’s life and work. I only wish I had known him better.