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


   I spent a goodly chunk of April on the road, driving to the east coast with many stops along the way, then taking Amtrak from New York to Salem, Massachusetts, where I visited Bob Briney’s grave and conferred with the attorney handling his estate.

   He drove me out to Bob’s house, which I hadn’t seen in almost 22 years, and together we went through some of his files. Among them were several manila folders containing letters to Bob from me, hundreds of them, dating as far back as the late Sixties.

   Recently I received a huge package in the mail which turned out to contain those letters, returned to me by the attorney. Since then I’ve spent several hours re-reading them. A strange and sort of spooky experience, almost like going back in time to the decades when I was young and, judging from all the projects I was involved in, bursting with energy.

   After a few years of corresponding with Bob I got into the habit of passing along to him some of the dreadful lines I had encountered in my reading. Care to sample a few? Here’s one from Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Monocled Monster:

   “It was a dark and narrow corridor down which the nurse led Barry Wayne. Cork-paved, his feet and hers made no sound.”

   And another from the king of Malapropia, Michael Avallone:

   “Widows who see bachelors like you suddenly running around with women is the curiosity that kills all cats.”

   To commemorate the current celebrations in London I offer this exchange of dialogue from William Ard’s The Sins of Billy Serene:

   “Jesus Christ,” Gino said hollowly, “you’re a whore.”

   “And what’d you think I was — Queen Elizabeth?” she asked tartly.

   From John Ball of In the Heat of the Night fame:

   “The two blacks sprinted out of the store … running like maddened eels.”

   Finally a gem that would have bedecked my own novel Corrupt and Ensnare (1978) if I hadn’t caught it in time. Loren Mensing reflects that Incident A and Incident B “bore the earmarks of the same hand.” At the bottom of the letter in which I shared this gaffe with Bob I found in his handwriting: “And the handiwork of the same mind, no doubt.”

***

   More than forty years ago I copied for Bob the following paragraph, which is supposed to be the first-person narration of an educated woman. “Sweet, dear, impossible man. I wonder who he’s making love to now. I wish it were me. I have the education and breeding to appreciate a gentleman like he is.” Anyone want to guess who perpetrated it?

***

   I don’t usually go back to old columns of mine months later but a few weeks ago for some unfathomable reason I revisited one that was posted in January 2011. Part of it dealt with a radio director named Fred Essex, now in his nineties, who in a memoir talked about having directed an episode of The Adventures of Ellery Queen in which Ellery was played by Carleton Young, the guest armchair detective was comedian Fred Allen, and the murder “was committed in a radio studio that was supposedly rehearsing a crime program.“

   The problem, as I pointed out, is that there’s no known episode during Young’s tenure as EQ where Ellery solved a crime in a radio studio and no episode at any time where Fred Allen was the armchair sleuth.

   Among those who happened to read my column was Fred Essex himself, who insisted that his memory hadn’t played him false. In August of last year, Queen expert Kurt Sercu gave us the answer to this conundrum. What Essex remembered was not an EQ episode with Fred Allen as guest sleuth but an episode of The Fred Allen Show (June 6, 1943) which featured an EQ spoof skit with Carleton Young himself playing Ellery and Allen and a couple of his comedy characters as armchair detectives. Vielen Dank, Herr Sercu!

***

   When a writer trying to come across as an authority on the mean streets makes a mistake that his most sheltered readers catch, the egg on the guy’s face just won’t rub off.

   In putting together last month’s column I caught a classic howler of this sort in one of the earliest stories of Henry Kane. In “The Shoe Fits” (Esquire, ??? 1947; collected in Report for a Corpse, 1948) private richard Peter Chambers tells us about a gangster who had taken over a top spot “directing traffic from Old Mexico to California, hashish traffic, call it marijuana….”

   No, you did not dream you read that. Kane thinks hash and pot are the same substance! At least he did in 1947 when very few were drug-savvy.

***

JAMES ELLROY Brown's Requiem

   Among the treasures of my library are two signed mint copies of James Ellroy’s first novel, the paperback original Brown’s Requiem (Avon, 1981), which I first read back in the Eighties.

   Its protagonist and narrator is Fritz Brown, a lover of classical music (German Romantic composers exclusively) who after being kicked out of the LAPD became a repo man and occasional PI. The plot is a Chandleresque labyrinth — a beautiful cellist, a serial arsonist, golf caddies, corrupt cops, a welfare racket — but the style is closer to Bill Pronzini and, with its dysfunctional family and ceaseless journeys into the past, the mood is closer to Ross Macdonald.

   Anyone expecting the telegraphic non-sentences and epic bloodletting of the later Ellroy will be surprised to discover that Requiem is coherently written and minimally violent, although when it comes the violence is pretty gory.

   There are some laughably self-indulgent moments, as when Brown treats us to a farrago of irrelevant anecdotes about caddies (or, as they call themselves, loopers) and later — twice in five pages! — to a loony poem he’s composed in a dream.

   But it’s a powerful read, and offhand I can’t recall any other non-series PI novel that deserves to stand on the same shelf with Stanley Ellin’s 1958 classic The Eighth Circle. Which, thanks to the alphabetical proximity of their names, is just where it stands in my library!