Columns


FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Usually I try to have my column finished by the end of each month so it can be posted around the beginning of the next, but having a February column ready by late January proved impossible. Reason One: To my surprise and delight, a book of mine that came out last year, a little trifle called Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law, was nominated for an Edgar by Mystery Writers of America, which meant that first I had to decide whether at my advanced age I wanted to come to New York late in April for the Edgars dinner, and second that I had to find a decent place to stay that wouldn’t cost me a pair of limbs that I still need.

   Reason Two: I was recently asked to write something for the 75th anniversary issue of EQMM, which comes out next year, and have been spending time trying to cobble something together that would be worthy of the occasion. I’m happy to report that the piece is coming along nicely.

   Reason Three: I’m also trying to put the final touches on another book — one that has nothing to do with our genre and wouldn’t be nominated for an Edgar even if pigs started to fly — and last-minute glitches have been gathering on the horizon like Hitchcock’s birds.

   Reason Four: Keep reading.

   Reason Five: I simply couldn’t think of anything relevant to the genre that I wanted to say, so finally I decided to give up the idea of a February column and shoot for March. Bang.

***

   A number of years ago I devoted part of a column to a Stuart Palmer story, now more than 80 years old, which begins at a St. Patrick’s Day parade on which the APRIL sun is shining down. I couldn’t imagine how that howler got past any editor but at least took comfort from the fact that the story never appeared in EQMM and therefore that the gaffe didn’t get by the eagle eye of Fred Dannay, probably the most meticulous editor the genre has ever seen.

   A week or two ago I stumbled upon another Palmer story for which I can’t say the same. “The Riddle of the Green Ice” first appeared in the Chicago Tribune (April 13, 1941) but was reprinted in Volume 1 Number 2 of EQMM (Winter 1941-42) and included in The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (Jonathan pb #J26, 1947), a paperback collection Fred edited.

   In the first scene the display window of a jewelry store on Manhattan’s 57th Street is smashed and the thief gets away. Palmer specifically tells us that the robbery took place on a “rainy Saturday afternoon”. A few pages later he gives us a scene that occurs on the following Monday, which he solemnly assures us is “four days after the shattering of the jewelers’ window….”

   Yikes! How in the world could an eagle-eyed editor like Fred Dannay have missed that? Palmer’s story also appears in Fred’s collection The Female of the Species (1943), and sure enough the same gaffe pops up in that printing. Double yikes!!

***

   In another column dating back a few years I wrote that of all the authors Anthony Boucher reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the 1940s, Ray Bradbury, who had just died, was probably the last person standing. Recently I learned I was wrong. Surviving Bradbury by several years was Helen Eustis, author of the Edgar-winning novel The Horizontal Man (1946), who died on January 11 of this year at age 98.

   Well, technically perhaps I wasn’t wrong. The book was published during Boucher’s tenure at the Chronicle and he mentioned it a few times, for example when MWA awarded it the best-novel Edgar, but he never actually reviewed it for the paper. I wonder who did. Except for her later novel The Fool Killer (1954), Eustis never wrote anything else in our genre. Our loss.

***

   For anyone like me who began seriously reading mysteries in the Eisenhower era, the name of John Dickson Carr was then and still is one to conjure with. He’s been dead since 1977, but no one has yet come close to taking over his position as the premier practitioner of the locked-room and impossible-crime type of detective novel.

   We never met but I remain eternally grateful to him not only for giving me countless hours of reading pleasure, but also for telling his readers that in a small way I reciprocated. In the last full year of his life he reviewed my first novel for his EQMM column (March 1976) and called it the most attractive mystery he’d read in months.

   Since his death he’s been the subject of at least two major books: Douglas G. Greene’s biography The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) and S.T. Joshi’s John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (1990). Now those volumes are about to be joined by a third. James E. Keirans’ The John Dickson Carr Companion will run around 400 pages and include an entry for every novel, short story and published radio play in the canon and just about every important character in any of the above, not to mention sections on such subjects as Carr-related alcoholic beverages, automobiles, weapons, London landmarks and Latin quotations.

   How do I know so much about this as yet unpublished book? Because I’ve been asked by the publisher (Ramble House) to run my aging eyes over the book in pdf form and make any corrections I think it needs. That, amigos, is Reason Four behind the absence of a February column. I don’t know precisely when the Companion will be ready for prime time, but my best guess is a few months from now.

***

   I haven’t finished going over the entire book yet but there’s one Carr-related literary incident that I’m willing to bet Keirans doesn’t mention. To know about it you have to have read the published volume of the correspondence between the Russian emigre novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and the distinguished literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). Nabokov — or, as Wilson called him, Volodya — was fond of mystery fiction; Wilson — or, as Nabokov called him, Bunny — hated it.

   In a letter dated December 10, 1943 and addressed to Wilson and his then wife, novelist Mary McCarthy, Nabokov indicates that he’d recently read a whodunit entitled The Judas Window. The title of course is that of the novel published in 1938 under Carr’s pseudonym of Carter Dickson, but Nabokov’s letter seems to indicate that he thought the book had been written by McCarthy.

   “I did not think much of [it], Mary. It is not your best effort…. [T]hat lucky shot through the keyhole is not quite convincing and you ought to have found something better.” How could such a mistake have happened? Wouldn’t the Dickson byline have been on any copy Nabokov might have read? However it happened, you’d expect that either Wilson or McCarthy would quickly have corrected Nabokov’s misapprehension.

   But in fact there’s not another word about the book anywhere in the correspondence, and the editor of the collection of letters, Prof. Simon Karlinsky, was unfamiliar with detective fiction and printed Nabokov’s words without comment. Somehow I wound up with a copy of the first edition of the correspondence (Harper, 1979) and wrote to Prof. Karlinsky with a correction. In the revised and expanded edition (University of California Press, 2001), both Carr and I are acknowledged in footnotes to the Nabokov letter.

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 13:
Barbershops and Magazines
by Walker Martin


NOTE: The following may contain risqué and objectionable memories, but it also explains some of the factors and events that led to me being a pulp magazine collector.

   In 1956 and 1957 I worked in a barber shop as a teenager in high school to earn some money. I needed more than my $1.50 weekly allowance to buy the SF digests and paperbacks. So every Saturday evening I would show up at the barbershop and clean it. The barber paid me a $1.50 for a couple hours work which consisted of dusting, sweeping, cleaning the mirrors, and waxing the floor. Easy work.

   But the interesting thing was the guys who would show up after hours to have their hair cut by appointment only. Officially the shop was closed at 5:00 pm but many working men couldn’t go during the day to have hair cuts, so the barber worked after hours only by appointment.

   These guys were a rough group and they didn’t want to read The Saturday Evening Post and True which were out for the women and men with their sons to read during the day. One of my responsibilities was to take care of the magazines in the back room and put them out Saturday night for the after hours men.

   The pulps were dead by 1956 but the men’s magazines were thriving. The back room had copies of Playboy, Nugget, and other similar titles. Many of the men were WW II and Korean war vets and they loved the men’s magazines showing Nazis partying with nude girls on the covers.

   Nothing really objectionable but hot by 1950’s and 1960’s standards. I once asked the barber why he didn’t have these magazines out during the day and he laughed, saying that the mothers would raise hell if they saw their kids looking at pictures of girls without clothes, etc.

   As a 14 year old, I was fascinated by these magazines and often looked through them quickly in the back room. Sometimes I stayed too long and the barber and his friends would start yelling at me to come back and sweep the floor. They laughed and wanted to know what I was doing back there. I can’t even repeat some of the stories I heard them talking about.

   To just give you a flavor of the risqué discussions I will mention that they had a rating system for the girls that would perform oral sex. The best was a girl who had a set of false teeth she would take out and put on the dashboard of the car. I guess having no teeth made her the best performer. The only problem was that several of the men thought this was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing during the sex act.

   Handling and quickly looking through these magazines made me into the fiction magazine collector that I am today. I started collecting back issues of digest SF and crime magazines. Then I soon started collecting the pulps. Mainly the SF titles like Astounding, Unknown, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, etc.

   Years later, I started to collect Playboy, Nugget, Rogue, and some other titles. The fiction and some of the jazz music articles are still of interest but the photos of girls look pretty tame by today’s standards.

   Next door to the barbershop was a small second hand bookstore run by an old man. He had tons of pulps piled up but all I was interested in was the SF magazines and the men’s magazines. He eventually died and all the magazines were thrown into garbage trucks. The store became a candy shop selling penny candy.

   What happened to Jerry the barber? He died an early death from cancer. He was a smoker and only in his 40’s. The funny thing was that when my father was dying from cancer, he told me one day to ask Jerry to come out to the house and cut his hair. I never thought of barbers making house calls but I guess they do for ill and disabled people.

   Shortly after, Jerry asked me how my father was doing and I had to tell him that he had just died. He was surprised and apologized and soon offered me the weekend job of cleaning his shop. I guess he felt sorry for me because I went from being a normal kid to just about complete silence. Reading SF was my only real enjoyment for a couple years.

   So Jerry died in his 40’s just like my dad. His barbershop is some type of office now. I eventually stopped smoking at age 32. One of the reasons being what I had seen with my father and Jerry the barber.

   It’s hard to believe all the above happened 60 years ago. But I’m still collecting old magazines!

NOTE:   To access earlier installments of Walker’s memoirs about his life as a pup collector, go first to this blog’s home page (link at the far upper left), then use the search box found somewhere down the right side. Use either “Walker Martin” or “Collecting Pulps” in quotes, and that should do it.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In the latter part of what is now last year, three women died, all of them in their nineties. Two were well-known mystery writers, the third was married to one of the best-known mystery writers of all time. Her name had been Rose Koppel, and she had been widowed for less than a year when she was invited to attend a New Year’s Eve party in Larchmont, New York and introduced to the only unattached man at the gathering, a man in his late sixties named Frederic Dannay whose spouse had also died recently.

   Something clicked between them and they began dating immediately. It was only somewhat later in their courtship that he told her that he was better known under the pen name of Ellery Queen. They were married in November 1975 at New York’s Plaza Hotel, although the marriage almost had to be postponed when the rabbi scheduled to perform the ceremony suddenly died of a heart attack.

   It’s not going too far to say that Rose saved Fred’s life. Fred and his cousin and collaborator Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971) had been fabulously successful writing as and about Ellery Queen, but Fred’s life had been far from a happy one. In 1940 he had been driving to Long Island to visit his mother when a car without lights and driven by a drunk, who turned out to be an AWOL serviceman without a license or insurance, hit his Buick head-on, leaving it unrecognizable.

   Fred had been so seriously injured that Walter Winchell on his national news program actually announced him as dead, and he had to spent months in the hospital recovering. That was a picnic compared to what happened next. In 1945 Fred’s first wife died of cancer, leaving him with two small children to raise. He married again a few years later and he and his second wife had a son who was born with brain damage and died at age six. In the early 1970s that wife also died of cancer. Fred began dating a woman he had known for a long time, and she too was diagnosed with cancer.

   Look at the photograph of him, taken around this time, that you’ll find on page 162 of my book Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection. Doesn’t he look like a character created by Cornell Woolrich, like a man without hope, waiting for the merciful release of death? Is it any wonder that when he and Rose met she found him so depressing and humorless? “I had never imagined such devastating loneliness,” she said. That is what Rose saved him from. Their marriage endured until his death, over the Labor Day weekend of 1982, at age 76.

   After they were married Fred and Rose seemed to be always together, and it was a rare occasion when I saw him without her at his side. She had been living in an apartment on 72nd Street in New York City since the early 1950s and insisted on keeping it after marrying Fred, a wise decision since it gave them a place to stay when they came into town for dinner or an MWA function or a show.

   She returned there after Fred’s death. On December 6 of 2014 she joined him. “Her death was quick and as painless as possible,” her daughter told me, “and my brother was there when she died… I was so lucky to have had a mother who could still recognize me and communicate with me and tell me she loved me every time we talked on the phone or saw each other.”

   Her memories of Fred did not die with her. Her account of My Life with a Man of Mystery (2010) includes a great deal of fascinating material on their meeting and courtship, their married life, their trips to California and Japan and Israel and Sweden, and his last days and death.

   I was there for a few of the events she describes, like the banquet at New York’s Lotos Club celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Ellery Queen novel (The Roman Hat Mystery; 1929), and the occasion when Fred was awarded an honorary Ph.D., but for many of them her account is the only one we’re going to have.

   Clearly she misunderstood or misremembered a few things Fred told her, giving his best-known mystery anthology the title 101 Years of Entertainment, conflating a landmark EQMM story set in the black ghetto (Hughes Allison’s “Corollary,” July 1948) with another landmark story about all but openly gay characters (Philip MacDonald’s “Love Lies Bleeding,” November 1950) and telling us that the tale was published in 1943.

   But to most of what she describes Rose was a witness, and no one who loves Ellery Queen will want to miss her testimony. Her book doesn’t seem to be available on Amazon.com, but anyone interested in purchasing a copy should get in touch with Rose’s daughter, Dale Koppel. I’d prefer not to post her email address here, but leave a comment or contact Steve directly, and he’ll send it on to you.

***

   Of the two women mystery writers whose deaths occurred in the second half of last year, the one who died more recently was P.D. James, to whom I said goodbye in my December column. I didn’t find out until too late for that column that another of the great women of the genre, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, had died back in August at age 97.

   I didn’t know Dorothy well but had read her novels and stories with great pleasure, and both of us were among the speakers at the centenary symposium honoring the births of Fred Dannay and Manny Lee that was held at Columbia University in 2005. The last time I saw her was on a boat in the Hudson River, the site of an elegant MWA cocktail party which, in her late eighties or early nineties, she had driven from her home in Sneden’s Landing on the Palisades to attend. She and I and Ed Hoch and his wife sat together.

   Her most successful and perhaps finest novel was her third, A Gentle Murderer (1951). Late in life she told an interviewer that the idea for the book came to her when she noticed a man on the New York subway:

   “He had the look about him of St. Francis in dungarees. He had a package and it looked the shape of a hammer and I thought, ‘He could kill with that.’… I saw him get off the subway and I followed him. I saw him go into a large church called St. John of the Cross, around 56th Street and 8th Avenue.”

   A few months later A Gentle Murderer was finished. Interspersed with her novels were 20-odd short stories, most of them first published in EQMM and collected in Tales for a Stormy Night (1984). Apparently her last work of fiction was the 2007 short story “Dies Irae.”

   She had had to move to an assisted living facility about three years before her death but even after falling and breaking her hip she seemed to be doing reasonably well considering that she wasn’t that far from her own centenary.

   The lights go out, the lives go out. A new year begins. How many more?

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Usually this column deals with work by others: novels, stories, movies, whatever. This month, for starters anyway, it deals with me, or more precisely my latest book. Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law is a hefty tome that brings together various pieces I’ve written over the past quarter century on law-related fiction, films and TV.

   I admit up front that a few of the book’s chapters, for example the one on “Telejuriscinema, Frontier Style,” have nothing to do with the detective-crime genre, unless you include in that genre all sorts of TV Western series from The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid to Kung Fu.

   But many of the pre-Production Code movies that get picked apart in “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” belong to the genre in one way or another — even if I eccentrically insist on calling them juriscinema — and there are long individual chapters on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and Erle Stanley Gardner, the lawyer storytellers who dominated what I eccentrically insist on calling jurisfiction from the tail end of the 19th century until Gardner’s death in 1970.

   There’s also a chapter on the three versions of the Cape Fear story, beginning with John D. MacDonald’s 1958 novel The Executioners and proceeding through the two vastly different movies called Cape Fear: the 1962 picture with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.

   Also included are my takes on the fascinating if almost completely unknown court-martial film Man in the Middle (1964), with Mitchum playing a sort of Philip Marlowe in khaki, and on the equally obscure The Penalty Phase (1986), one of the last films directed by Tony Richardson, with Peter Strauss starring as a liberal judge faced with the nightmare of having to release a psychopath who raped and murdered seventeen young girls.

   The publisher of this volume is Perfect Crime Books, which also put out my Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013), and I see on the Web that it’s been submitted for Edgar consideration to MWA.

***

   Did anyone notice? In the previous paragraph I referred to Arthur Train (1875-1945) as a lawyer storyteller but not as an author of crime or detective stories. Why? Because Train himself insisted that he didn’t write in that genre and had little interest in it. But many of his stories about attorney Ephraim Tutt and his entourage have to do with trials for murder or other serious crimes, and at least a few of them seem to me, and not just to me, to deserve a place in the genre we love.

   The earliest of these is “The Hand Is Quicker Than the Eye,” the fifth tale in the Mr. Tutt series, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post for August 30, 1919, and collected in Tutt and Mr. Tutt (Scribner, 1920). Ephraim also operates as both lawyer and sleuth in a number of other tales first published in the Post and later included in one or another Scribner collection, for example “The Acid Test” (June 12, 1926; Page Mr. Tutt, 1926) and “The King’s Whiskers” (December 30, 1939; Mr. Tutt Comes Home, 1941).

   My own favorite among the Mr. Tutt stories that include significant detection is “With His Boots On” (September 12, 1942; Mr. Tutt Finds a Way, 1945). That’s the one I chose a number of years ago when Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine editor Cathleen Jordan asked me to select and introduce a story about Ephraim for its Mystery Classic reprint series.

   Ms. Jordan thought the tale was seriously flawed — although she died before she could explain her reasons to me — and instead we settled on “‘And Lesser Breeds Without the Law’,” which struck me as only marginally crime fiction. This is one of a very few tales in the series that the Saturday Evening Post rejected. Why? In the 1920s another magazine owned by the same publisher had serialized a Zane Grey novel that was not only sympathetic to what were then called American Indians but ended with the Navajo hero marrying the white woman he loved.

   So many benighted readers were so outraged that the publisher adopted a new policy: NO MORE POSITIVELY PORTRAYED REDSKINS! EVER!!! That policy was still in force when Train submitted his story, which was set on New Mexico’s Cocas Pueblo reservation and anticipates the treatment of Native Americans that we tend to identify with Tony Hillerman. The tale appeared as an original in the Train collection Mr. Tutt Comes Home (1941) and never came out in a magazine until AHMM for February 2002.

***

   Not quite that long ago, when I was commissioned to write an essay on the poetry-crime fiction interface for the Poetry Foundation website, I decided that this column was the ideal place for material (of which there was a bunch) that wound up on the electronic cutting room floor.

   In recent years I haven’t run across any items that would justify reviving the old Poetry Corner feature, but now I have. Remember the world-famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)? One of his classic early poems was “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a work consisting of twelve lines divided into three stanzas, written in 1888 and first published two years later.

      Rex Stout, who needs no introduction here, considered Yeats “the greatest poet of the century.” (I assume he meant the 20th century.) In August 1943, a few years after Yeats’ death, Stout wrote “Booby Trap,” fifth of the Nero Wolfe novelets, which appeared in American Magazine for August 1944 and was included in the Farrar & Rinehart collection Not Quite Dead Enough not long afterwards.

   It’s one of the very few tales in the saga where Wolfe is working without pay as a civilian consultant to Army Intelligence and Archie Goodwin has become a major in the same branch of service. The hijacking of industrial trade secrets shared with the military for war purposes leads to the murder of a captain and a colonel, the latter taken out by a powerful hand grenade right in G2’s New York headquarters.

   The tale like so many of Stout’s is hopelessly unfair to the reader, with Wolfe fingering the culprit by the lazy old expedient of setting a trap and seeing who springs it, but for sheer readability it still holds up nicely after almost 75 years.

   All well and good, you may be saying, but where’s Yeats? Good question! In Chapter 4 Archie finds a sheet of paper containing a typed copy of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which for no earthly reason whatsoever is printed in the text. Its only plot significance is that both Wolfe and Archie immediately notice that it was typed on the same typewriter that produced an anonymous letter earlier in the story.

   Sharing that information with the reader didn’t require printing a line of Yeats’ poem, let alone the complete work. We know from John McAleer’s Rex Stout: A Biography (1977) — which misleadingly states that Stout quoted only the first “three stanzas” —that Yeats’ U.S. publisher raised a stink when the story appeared in print. Here’s how Stout explained to his Farrar & Rinehart editor.

   “I am an ass. When I was writing ‘Booby Trap,’ out in the country, I phoned somebody at Macmillan to ask if it would all right to quote that poem … and was told that it would be. But I made no record of the conversation, I don’t know the date that it took place, and I don’t know whom I talked to. Beat that for carelessness if you can, and let me know which jail I go to.”

   McAleer doesn’t tell us how the matter was resolved, but most likely Stout had to pay Macmillan some money. The poem must still have been protected by copyright in 1944, but it’s been in the public domain for decades and can be found online in a few seconds. On YouTube you can even hear Yeats reading it.

***

   The city of Ferguson is about 15 miles and 20 minutes’ drive from my home in St. Louis’ Central West End. While I was working on this column, Ferguson exploded. Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about the events and I see no reason to add to them except to quote a passage from Ellery Queen’s non-series novel The Glass Village (1954) where the protagonist reflects “that man was a chaos without rhyme or reason; that he blundered about like a maddened animal in the delicate balance of the world, smashing and disrupting, eager only for his own destruction.”

***

   If Thanksgiving week was a sad time for reason and common sense, Thanksgiving Day was especially sad for our genre. P.D. James, one of the last great English detective novelists, died peacefully at her Oxford home. She was 94 and still thinking about writing one more novel. Peace be upon her.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.

   A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.

   Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.

***

   For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.

   Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.

   There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.

***

   A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.

   According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.

   Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.

   If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.

   But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).

   The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.

Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.

***

   Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.

   I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.

   But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.

   Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 12 :
Rereading UNKNOWN and UNKNOWN WORLDS
by Walker Martin


   Why reread? I’ve known several readers and collectors who bluntly state that they seldom or never reread stories or books. They argue that there are too many new books waiting to be read, sort of the like the old saying, “So many books, so little time.”

   I love to reread but only my favorite books and stories. And only the ones that I consider to be outstanding or great. There is nothing more exasperating than to reread a book and realize that it was not even worth reading the first time. Not to mention the waste of time. That’s why I’ve always noted on a slip of paper the date read, my grade, and comments about the book. Then, decades later, I can tell at a glance what I thought of the book and whether it is worth a second reading or not.

   So aside from the enjoyment of rereading an outstanding book, why read it again? Some books demand a second (and a third and a fourth) reading because they have several layers and levels of complex meaning that you might want to explore and investigate. Also a book read in your twenties may reveal additional meanings when you reread it many years later. There have been books that I read as a young man that I didn’t have the proper maturity to truly understand but as an older reader, I now find them to be indispensable.

   Every reader has their favorite books that they have reread. Some of mine are:

         War and Peace — 3 times.

         Moby Dick — 3 times.

         The Sun Also Rises — 5 times.

         Under the Volcano — 5 times.

   In the different genres I’ve several books that I’ve reread:

   In science fiction: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination. Also the novels of Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg; the short stories of J.G. Ballard and Theodore Sturgeon.

   In the detective and crime genre: the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and Ross Macdonald.

   In the western field: the novels of Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, Elmer Kelton. Lonesome Dove is maybe the best western I’ve ever reread.

   I also have reread stories in the pulp magazines. Many literary critics make the mistake of lumping all the pulps into one sub-literary category. They think all the pulps published mediocre and poor action fiction of very little redeeming literary value. They are wrong. There is such a thing as excellent pulp fiction, and I’ve tried to point out some examples in this series on collecting pulps.

   Of course, I absolutely agree with Sturgeon’s Law which in simple terms may be explained as “90% of everything is crap.” This is a good thing to say to anyone who criticizes your tastes in reading matter. For instance if they sneer at your love for detective, SF, or western fiction, then you can state Sturgeon’s Law, which I’ve found to roughly apply to just about all forms of literary endeavor.

   In other words, I’m always looking for that less than 10% that I hope will be worth reading and rereading. As I reread my notes spread throughout thousands of books and fiction magazines, I see I’m now at a good point in my life where I’m reading mainly the good 10%. Sure, every now and then I make a mistake or blunder and find myself reading the 90% crap, but after so many years of reading, I’m getting pretty good at avoiding the stuff that is not worth reading.

   A couple months before the August Pulpfest convention, one of the committee members, knowing my love for the magazine Unknown, asked me if I would participate on a panel discussing the title. This made me think about Unknown and how I had started collecting and reading it so many years ago.

   When I first started to think about collecting it, I was just a teenager and had very little money. I had enough to buy the SF digests and paperbacks but a set of Unknown back in the 1950’s cost around $50, a sum that I never had until years later. Back then, just about all pulps were a dollar or less, a fact that is hard to believe now.

   Finally in 1963, while attending college, I managed to put aside $50 and I started scouting around for a set of the 39 issues. All I could pay was $50 but everyone I contacted wanted more. I even contacted the Werewolf Bookshop in Verona, Pennsylvania (this bookstore advertised in many of the digest SF magazines) and I still have the letter dated September 3, 1963. I stapled it into my Unknown book where I noted my thoughts and comments on the magazine. The owner stated that he had contacted three fans and only one was willing to sell and he wanted $200 for his set.

   Back in 1963 this was an outrageous sum, and it’s lucky I did not send money to the Werewolf Bookshop. It seems the owner was in the habit of sending you anything he had if he did not have the books that you ordered. Then when you complained about receiving books that you didn’t want, he would ignore your letters and keep your money. If I had sent him $200, there is no telling what he would have shipped me. Except that it would not have been a set of Unknown. I have read about and even met fellow collectors who fell victim to this scam.

   Fortunately, I eventually bought a set from Gerry de la Ree, a SF collector and dealer who lived in New Jersey. For decades in the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, Gerry mailed out monthly sale lists listing SF pulps, digests, books, and artwork. He wanted only $50 and I now had the complete set. I read several stories in scattered issues, but college and then being drafted into the army delayed my project of reading the complete set.

   However, by 1969 I was discharged and I spent six months of doing nothing but reading. I didn’t even look for a job, and I loved living in my mother’s house drinking beer and reading all day. She must of thought she raised a bum, but she was wrong. She raised a book collector and reader.

   I started reading from the first issue, March 1939 and I read each issue, every story, every word, until the end in October 1943. That’s 4 1/2 years and 39 issues. Over 250 stories ranging from novel length to short story. John W. Campbell, the editor of both Unknown and Astounding, estimated that the 7 by 10 inch pulp size issues contained 70,000 words of fiction and the 8 1/2 by 11 inch format contained 110,000 words.

   That means I read over 3 million words of fiction in 1969 when I started my project of reading the entire set. I forget how long it took me but since I was not wasting any time working, I probably read close to an issue every day or two. I then recorded my thoughts in a standard English composition notebook. I think they still make these things, black with white speckles and it says “Composition” on the front cover. With over 100 pages I could devote two pages to each issue, listing each story and author along with a grade and my comments. At the end of each year, I did a summary listing my favorites.

   During the Pulpfest panel, I read some of my comments from this notebook and a couple collectors asked me if I had such books for each magazine that I collected. I used to but I eventually switched to the system of putting a slip of paper in each magazine or book with my comments, grade, and date read. I have thousands of books and magazines with these annotations tucked inside each copy. I still have a few of the notebooks, with the Unknown comments being the most extensive. I see I have one on Weird Tales where I read and noted my reactions to reading three years of issues, 1933-1935.

   So to prepare for the panel, I reread only the stories that received an outstanding rating back in 1969. We often think that we were a different person 45 years ago and for the most part we probably were. I was in my twenties back then and ahead of me were all the usual things like getting married, raising a family, starting a career, buying houses, etc. Of course this series of essays deal with my collecting experiences. So what did I think at the age of 72 looking back on my younger self praising and exclaiming over the stories in Unknown?

   As I reread story after story, I was impressed again at the literary quality of the magazine. I guess that’s why I’m writing about the magazine again in 2014, only instead of just comments meant for my older self, I’m now writing for other collectors and readers and encouraging them to read and reread Unknown.

   What were the outstanding novels? Lest Darkness Fall and The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote the superior Harold Shea novels with Fletcher Pratt. Death’s Deputy and Fear by L. Ron Hubbard; Hell Is Forever by Alfred Bester; Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; None But Lucifer by H. L .Gold and de Camp.

   Among the shorter fiction, we have several novelettes by Henry Kuttner. I believe these stories represent the first quality fiction by Kuttner. Jane Rice also had several stories and when the magazine died in 1943, she almost stopped writing because Unknown was her favorite market. One of the sad things about Unknown ceasing publication was the fact the Jane Rice had a 33,000 word short novel that was scheduled for a future issue. But the manuscript has been lost by Street & Smith and Rice did not keep a copy. Anthony Boucher, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon also had many shorts.

   But despite all the excellent fiction in Unknown, the magazine can best be described and explained by simply looking at the art of Edd Cartier. He is Unknownwith its gnomes, demons, and fantasy figures that defy description. I once had a chance to buy an original Unknown cover painting by Cartier. In the 1980’s, someone was walking around one of the Pulpcon conventions with the painting but he wanted $2,000 for it. At the time I had bought many cover paintings but the highest price I ever had to pay was $400. One of my collector mistakes. I should have dug up the money somehow because it’s worth a fortune now.

   Cartier dropped out of fantasy and SF illustration sometime in the early fifties but I did manage to meet him around 1990 at Pulpcon in Wayne, NJ. Rusty Hevelin was running Pulpcon and he said Edd Cartier would be available to talk to one night. But it would be for only a special group of pulp collectors who Rusty would choose. Fortunately, I was one of them and it remains a Pulpcon highlight that I still remember all these years later.

   Speaking of Cartier brings up what I think of as one of John W. Campbell’s mistakes. With the July 1940 issue the cover art was discontinued. Campbell must have looking to attract more readers with a literary style cover showing a more bland, sedate listing of stories. Maybe he thought the illustrations too garish on the covers. But the lack of any cover art at all just made the magazine seem a puzzle to many newsstand browsers. One of the big reasons for cover art is to grab your attention while you are looking at scores of magazines. Without cover illustrations the magazine just was lost on the stands. Where do you put it? This experiment was tried by previous pulps like Adventure and The Popular Magazine, and it was never successful.

   I’ve owned several sets of Unknown during the last 50 years and it is still possible to pick up issues. After the panel a couple collectors told me they wanted to start collecting it and I told them to keep looking through the dealer’s room at Pulpfest because I saw several issues for sale. Usually the price is around $20 but I’ve seen higher and lower prices. Ebay also has issues.

   At present I own two sets, one is the usual individual 39 issues and one is a bound set in 14 hardcover volumes. There is an interesting story about this bound set. I only paid $400 for it at Pulpcon a few years ago and neither the dealer or me noticed that it had a signature in the first volume. When I got home I was amazed to realize that I had John W. Campbell’s personal bound set of the magazine. It was inscribed as follows, “To George Scithers, who worked hard for this set”. Signed John W. Campbell. I’ve worked hard for certain sets of magazines, so I know what he means.

   The magazine is not really rare because so many SF and fantasy collectors loved the magazine and saved their copies. It is probably the most missed of all the pulp titles. In the letter columns of old SF magazines, it is often referred to as “the late, lamented Unknown.” For several years after it ceased publication due to the war time paper restrictions, letters in Astounding kept asking when the title would be revived. Evidently Campbell intended to start it up again when paper was available. But that was not until 1948 and then Street & Smith killed off all their pulps except for Astounding in 1949.

   So Unknown remained dead but several magazines were influenced in the 1950’s. Fantasy Fiction lasted four issues in 1953; Beyond Fantasy Fiction lasted ten issues in 1953-1955; and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is still being published, has often printed Unknown type fiction.

   If you are not a collector but you still want to read some of the best fiction, there are several collections available:

UNKNOWN WORLDS: Tales From Beyond, edited by Stanley Schmidt and Martin H. Greenberg (Garland Books, 1988) This is the biggest and best collection. 25 stories and 517 pages.

RIVALS OF WEIRD TALES, edited by Weinberg, Dziemianowicz, and Greenberg. (Bonanza Books, 1990) Among stories from other magazines, there is a section of 11 stories from Unknown, amounting to 200 pages.

THE UNKNOWN, edited by D. R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1963) This paperback has 11 stories and story notes.

THE UNKNOWN FIVE, edited by D.R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1964) Another collection from Bensen.

UNKNOWN, edited by Stanley Schmidt (Baen Books, 1988) Nine of the longer stories and 304 pages. Paperback.

HELL HATH FURY, edited by George Hay (Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963) Seven stories in hardback.

OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, by A.E. Van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (Powell Publications, 1969) This paperback has seven Unknown stories by Van Vogt and wife.

   And finally there are two full-length studies of the magazine:

THE ANNOTATED GUIDE TO UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWN WORLDS, by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz (Starmont House, 1991) This is an excellent study of all aspects of the great magazine. A total of 212 pages with a long essay about the magazine, followed with detailed story annotations on every story, a story index, an author index and much more! Highly Recommended.

ONCE THERE WAS A MAGAZINE, by Fred Smith (Beccon Publications, 2002). Each issue is discussed plus author and title index.

   So ends my rereading of Unknown and I hope to return someday. I guess we shall never see a revival of the magazine. I noted over a dozen pleas from readers in Astounding, all asking when Unknown would be revived, but the October 1943 issue was the last one. A digest issue was planned and discussed in the October issue but an order for additional paper reduction came and Unknown was a victim of WW II.

REST IN PEACE: Unknown and Unknown Worlds.

NOTE:   To access earlier installments of Walker’s memoirs about his life as a pup collector, go first to this blog’s home page (link at the far upper left), then use the search box found somewhere down the right side. Use either “Walker Martin” or “Collecting Pulps” in quotes, and that should do it.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In the late Fifties and early Sixties private eye series on TV were a dime a dozen. One of the lesser known of these was released on DVD by Timeless Media not long ago and, never having watched it back in 1960 when it was first run, I decided to check it out more than half a century later.

   CORONADO 9 was a 30-minute syndicated series, released by Revue Studios, largely shot on location in San Diego and elsewhere, and starring 6’5″ Rod Cameron (1910-1983) as PI Dan Adams, a big beefy guy who conjures up images of a pro football player in middle age.

   What makes the series unusual is that its directors and writers went out of their way to avoid the tried-and-true elements we tend to associate with the PI genre except for the chases and fights, which we also associate with Westerns, and of course for the first-person narration, although almost every episode cheats with scenes outside the narrator’s presence. Adams is so untypical an eye that, assuming he has an office, we literally never see him in it.

   The main reason the series attracted me is that 16 of its 39 segments were directed by William Witney (1915-2002), the Hitchcock of the action film and my best friend in Hollywood. When it comes to visual excitement, most of Bill’s are not on a par with his great cliffhanger serials (one of which starred a much younger and leaner Rod Cameron) and Western features and episodes of TV series like BONANZA and THE WILD WILD WEST and THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, but the best of them are very good indeed.

   Whenever he could take over a locale and shoot his climax there, he did it with glee, commandeering a Coast Guard cutter for “The Day Chivalry Died” and the San Diego Zoo for “Obituary of a Small Ape,” just to give two examples. My favorite among Bill’s dozen-and-a-third is “Hunt Breakfast,” which despite its unintelligible title is a near-perfect film equivalent to those Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels that are central to the Fifties experience for many of us. In this episode Adams tries to save a friend and his family whose home has been invaded by three bank-robbing psychos, and the Witney visual fireworks run neck and neck with the violence.

   Of the 23 episodes not directed by Witney the most deserving of mention are at least four which were apparently shot on location in New Orleans and helmed by Frank Arrigo (1917-1977), who usually worked in Hollywood as an art director.

   The segments which take place overseas seem to have been filmed on the Revue back lot with help from stock footage and process plates. I certainly don’t believe that Arrigo shot “Film Flam” in Algiers, or “Caribbean Chase” in then newly Communist Cuba!

   Among the actors who appeared once or more often in the series are John Archer, Richard Arlen, Al Hodge (early live TV’s Captain Video), DeForest Kelley and Doug McClure. The veterans of Witney’s Western features and earlier TV films whom Bill found roles for in CORONADO 9 episodes include Jim Davis, Faith Domergue, Patricia Medina and Slim Pickens.

   Featured in two segments not directed by Witney is Lisa Lu, a well-known Asian actress best known over here as Hey Girl in HAVE GUN–WILL TRAVEL. A friend of mine who recently interviewed her tells me that in her eighties she is still acting.

   As so often when Timeless Media releases a TV series, there are a few technical problems with the transfer of CORONADO 9 to DVD. But if you can snag it for a decent price—it’s listed on Amazon.com for $17.99, and someone on the Web claims to have found it at Sam’s Club for $12.88 — it’s worth having.

***

   No one would rank Rod Cameron with the great cinematic PIs, like Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, Ralph Meeker in KISS ME DEADLY and Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN. But Liam Neeson comes within shouting distance as Lawrence Block’s recovering alcoholic and off-the-books investigator Matt Scudder in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, which is based on Block’s 1992 novel of the same name and came to theaters a few weeks ago.

   Directed and written by Scott Frank and filmed noirishly in Brooklyn where the novel takes place, the movie has garnered mixed notices to date, with the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times going so far as to call it torture porn. I’ve seen nothing on the Web or in print that attempts to stack it up against the novel (except for one cyber-comment that I stumbled upon as I was finishing this column) so I might as well do the honors.

   Since the book is narrated by Scudder, nothing can happen outside his presence, although Block cheats a bit in the first chapter where lovely Francine Khoury is abducted on a Brooklyn street and, after payment of $400,000 ransom by her narcotics-trafficker husband, is returned cut up into fresh meat.

   Unrestricted by first-person narrative, Scott Frank shows us the psycho kidnappers at work here and later in ways Block couldn’t. The novel takes place in 1992, the film in 1999, so that we’re treated to a few allusions to the Y2K panic, which has nothing to do with the plot, and also to the sight of pay phones on the streets of New York City, which do figure in the plot and still existed, I assume, at the end of the 20th century but are rarae aves in today’s cell phone era.

   The film’s climax is something like Block’s but also quite different, in ways that I won’t reveal here. Between beginning and end Frank touches base with Block only on rare occasions.

   A host of the novel’s characters make no appearance: Scudder’s wealthy call-girl lover, the teen-age computer hackers, the various cops Scudder hits up for information. Although one of the perps’ victims in the novel survives her ordeal and gets to talk with Scudder, in the movie there are no surviving women. Indeed two important male characters make it through the novel alive but wind up dead in the film, and several other men in the movie, like the obese groundskeeper and the DEA agents, have no counterparts in the book.

   The bloody incident that made Scudder a boozer is never mentioned in the novel but is dramatized for us in a flashback at the movie’s start, with the difference that Scott Frank morphs it into the catalyst for Scudder’s giving up the sauce and joining AA.

   The streetwise black teen who calls himself TJ has a big role in both novel and movie but Frank’s version of the character unlike Block’s is a vegetarian and a victim of sickle cell anemia, although Frank mercifully spares us the rhyming patter and much of the it-be-rainin-out jivetalk of TJ according to Block.

   Ironically enough, two of Frank’s alterations in the storyline seem to have been expressly rejected by Block. Late in both versions comes a scene in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where a million dollars, much of it counterfeit, is exchanged for the 14-year-old girl who is the psychos’ latest victim.

   In the novel the exchange comes off without incident, and Scudder specifically tells the girl’s family (on page 269 of the hardcover edition) that “it’s crazy to get into a firefight in a graveyard at night”. That craziness Scott Frank embraces, letting the bullets fly and the cars screech and crash away as in a thousand other action flicks.

   After Block’s badguys have fled the cemetery, TJ tells Scudder (on page 286): “[I]f this here’s a movie, what I do is slip in the back [of the psychos’ vehicle] an’ hunker down ‘tween the front an’ back seats. They be puttin’ the money in the trunk and sittin’ up front, so they ain’t even gone look in the back. Figured they’d go back to their house…an’ when we got there I just slip out an’ call you up an’ tell you where I’m at. But then I thought, TJ, this ain’t no movie, an’ you too young to die.”

   Well, what Scott Frank wrote and directed is a movie and that’s exactly what his TJ does and how Neeson as Scudder finds the perps’ home base.

   What Larry Block thinks of the picture I have no idea. It does capture something of the spirit of the Scudder series, and Neeson’s performance is excellent, thanks in part to his wisely not attempting a New York accent.

   Most of Frank’s innovations help make the movie cinematic in ways that the dialogue-driven novel wasn’t and couldn’t have been. In the same league with THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP and CHINATOWN it isn’t, and the moments of extreme violence, especially to women, are integral to the storyline but may turn off potential viewers. (I saw it with a Vietnam veteran who later told me he had to close his eyes during some scenes.)

   To anyone wondering whether to see it or not, all I can say is: Hit the Web, do your homework, make (or as the Brits would say, take) a decision.

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