FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
On Christmas morning I finished proofreading my next book — which has nothing to do with mystery fiction and won’t be described here — and, with time on my hands, began reading a pile of randomly chosen short stories in the hope that at least one would generate an item for this column. I was not disappointed.
In addition to her well-known Albert Campion stories, Margery Allingham (1903-1966) wrote a few dozen non-series shorts, most of them for English newspapers. I’d read only a couple of these but, finding one in Thomas F. Godfrey’s anthology English Country House Murders (1988), decided to give it a whirl.
“The Same to Us” has to do with a jewel robbery at posh Molesworth Manor during a house party whose guest of honor is Dr. Koo Fin, “the Chinese Einstein” and creator of the Theory of Objectivity (obviously a take-off on Einstein’s Relativity hypothesis). What brought me up short was Allingham’s remark that “already television comedians referred to his great objectivity theory in their patter.”
Come again? Television comedians? In a story that was first published in 1934 and clearly takes place during that “long weekend” between World Wars? I realized at once that I’d stumbled upon yet another specimen of Unconscionable Updating, where an author tries to make an old story seem up-to-the-minute.
But could I prove it? My shelves didn’t happen to include a copy of the London Daily Express for May 17, 1934, in which the tale had first appeared, but I did have The Allingham Minibus (1973), where it was first collected. No help: the same TV comedians pop up there.
Luckily I also had Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for January 1950, in which Fred Dannay had reprinted the tale long before its book appearance. There I found what I take it Allingham had written: “….and already music-hall comedians referred to [Dr. Koo Fin’s] great ‘objectivity’ theory in their routines.” My guess is that the change was made after her death.
Among English writers perhaps the most unconscionable updater was John Creasey (1908-1973), who wrote countless thrillers set in London during World War II and then later, when he’d become rich and internationally famous, revised them to get rid of the war atmosphere and sold them as contemporary novels.
Two examples of the harm he did to his own work will suffice here. In Chapters 12 and 13 of Inspector West Regrets (1945) Roger West and his sergeant find themselves in a gun battle with gangsters that takes place in two connected air-raid shelters dug into the earth in the adjoining backyards of two houses in parallel streets. In the revised version of 1965 the bomb shelters become conventional garages.
In Holiday for Inspector West (1945) as first written and published, Roger and a contingent of cops lay siege to a gang headquarters in a complex of arches supporting a wartime railway bridge and intended to shelter Londoners bombed out in the Blitz. In the 1957 updated version that setting too becomes a casualty.
Anyone interested in reading these two novels the way Creasey originally wrote them, plus three others from the WWII years, should hunt down Inspector West Goes to War (2011), a handsome coffee-table book with an introduction by — oh hell, how did you guess?
There have been updaters on our side of the pond too, among them that kafoozalus of wackadoodledom Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967). One of the earliest examples of a youthful specialty of his, which most of us call short novels or novelettes and he liked to call novellos (no doubt with the accent on the first syllahble) was originally titled “Misled in Milwaukee.”
Keeler wrote this 26,000-word novello in 1916 and sold first publication rights for a whopping $65 to the Chicago Ledger, where it appeared as a 5-part serial (23 June-21 July 1917). As the year of publication tells us, Prohibition was still in the future at the time this tale first appeared. Five years later, as “The Search for Xeno,” it was included in the December 1922 issue of 10-Story Book under the byline of York T. Sibley — a bit of deception Keeler thought prudent because the editor to whom he sold the reprint rights was himself!
(Between 1919 and 1940 he spent his afternoons editing the magazine while devoting mornings to writing dozens of the long, convoluted and sublimely nutty novels for which he is famous, or perhaps le mot juste is notorious.)
The 1922 version is the earliest that survives and was used as the text for the presently available edition of the tale, first published by Ramble House in 2003 as a separate volume and, two years later, as part of the collection Three Novellos,both graced with an introduction by — oh hell, you guessed it again!
This version keeps what I assume was the original description of what protagonist Clint Farrell sees as he approaches Milwaukee by rail. “Outside in the darkness, great breweries slid past the train, their square-cut buildings, dotted with tiny windows, looming against the pink-tinged sky from the foundries, their gigantic grain and hop silos illuminated by sputtering, brilliant lights strung up and down the concrete cylinders.”
But, since this time the year is 1922 and Prohibition is in full swing, Farrell quickly learns that the man he’s looking for works at “the Southern Wisconsin Near-Beer Company on East Water Street, near Grand.”
That wasn’t the last time Keeler fiddled with this tale. Sometime in the late 1950s or early Sixties, long after all his English-language publishers had dumped him, he completely rewrote it — eliminating the 1916-era shirt collars that are crucial to the plot, replacing the near-beer with drinks that weren’t ersatz, and splicing in some references to the atomic bomb and other feeble attempts to update — and, retitling it “Adventure in Milwaukee,” included it with two other novellos in a package he sent to his Madrid publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. Señor Reus passed on this one, saying — assuming he spoke Keeler Spanglish! — “We no wan’ theez novelitos, my fr’an.” The threesome remained unpublished until that incomparable loon sanctuary Ramble House got into the act early in the 21st century.
Even Ellery Queen was not immune to the updating bug. In EQMM for March 1959 Fred Dannay reprinted “Long Shot,” a Queen story that takes place in Hollywood and was first published in 1939. This time around, the names of all but one of the Tinseltown luminaries who attend the big horse race have been changed.
Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are fused into Sophia Loren, Al Jolson is replaced by Bob Hope, Bob Burns (remember him?) by Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford the second time by Marilyn Monroe, and Carole Lombard by Jayne Mansfield. Who’s the only star with enough name recognition to survive the update process intact? Clark Gable.
Any number of writers have played the updating game but the only one I know of who defended doing so was John D. MacDonald (1915-1985). Back in the early Eighties I and a few others who admired John’s early work persuaded him that we should put together a large collection of his pulp stories, along the lines of what I had done a decade earlier with Cornell Woolrich’s stories in Nightwebs (1972).
With John’s help we got hold of photocopies of just about every published tale of his salad days, mailed them back and forth to each other with comments, and ultimately winnowed the list down to thirty.
These we submitted to John, who axed three of them but was satisfied with the other 27. The result was not one sizable collection but two: The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).
But before these 27 stories were republished, John insisted on updating — not all but some of them — and, in his Author’s Foreword, defended the practice vigorously. Most of his changes, he said, had to do with “references which could confuse the reader. Thirty years ago [i.e. back in the early 1950s] everyone understood the phrase ‘unless he threw the gun as far as Carnera could.’ But the Primo is largely forgotten, and I changed him to Superman.”
Where a particular story was “entangled with and dependent upon” the years following World War II when the tales were written, he wisely chose not to update. But where a story “could happen at any time,” he did.
“I changed a live radio show to a live television show. And in others I changed pay scales, taxi fares, long-distance phoning procedures, beer prices, and so forth to keep from watering down the attention of the reader. This may offend the purists,” he concedes, and it did indeed bother all four of us who edited the books (Marty Greenberg, Jean and Walter Shine and myself), but John of course outvoted us. Someday I’d love to see those collections in print yet again, with every story restored to the way he first wrote it. That’ll be the day!
If John’s rationale for updating ever had any validity, I submit that it has none at all in our high-tech era. To use his own example, anyone who sees the word Carnera and is baffled need only Google the name, as I just did, and find more than 600,000 references in less than a second. Do we live in amazing times or what?