by Francis M. Nevins

   The news was no surprise. His wife had prepared me several days earlier: “His heart and kidneys are failing. We have brought him home from the hospital… I think he won’t live much longer.”

Ray Browne

   He was 87 when on Thursday, October 22, he died. You may never have heard of Ray Browne, but I had known him for forty years and he wonderfully shaped my life and that of every other mystery writer of the last four decades who sported academic credentials.

   To begin explaining what he accomplished for us I must go back 75 years. A brilliant young man named William Anthony Parker White had completed his academic work and was more than eminently qualified to become a professor at any university in the country, but he chose not to.

   Why? One main reason, as his widow explained long after his all too early death, was “that he was surrounded by people who took no interest in contemporary popular literature, but at the same time were trying to research the popular literature of a few centuries back.”

   Instead he decided to become a professional writer. And, because there were already 75 authors named William White, he chose to adopt a pen name: Anthony Boucher.

   Academic contempt for anything contemporary and popular was still alive and well thirty years later. In my college years, which roughly corresponded with JFK’s presidency, there wasn’t a single “popular culture” course in the entire curriculum.

   I vividly recall one of my professors bewailing the fact that William Faulkner was forced by a Philistine reading public to support himself by writing for (**yucch!**) the movies. Carolyn Heilbrun, a young professor of English at Columbia University, had begun writing mystery novels but had to do it under a pseudonym (Amanda Cross) because, as she explained years later, she would never have gotten tenure if her colleagues had known of her sideline.

Ray Browne

   This was the academic environment when Ray Browne came into the picture. With a Ph.D. in English and Folklore and twenty years of university teaching under his belt, he moved from Purdue to Ohio’s Bowling Green State University and, with the support of the administration, launched the movement that made it academically respectable to teach and study popular culture (a term it’s said he invented).

   If aging memory serves me, I met him in 1969. We hit it off immediately. He invited me to write for the Journal of Popular Culture, which he had launched at Bowling Green two years earlier, and after he founded the Popular Culture Association, he encouraged me to attend annual meetings. (Both my first presentation for the PCA and much of my writing for the JPC dealt with a writer I was entranced by then and still am today: that great mad genius of 20th century American fiction, Harry Stephen Keeler.)

   Knowing that countless colleges around the country were beginning to offer courses on mystery fiction, and that I knew a bit about the subject, he asked me to put together a book of readings for publication by Bowling Green University Popular Press. The result was The Mystery Writer’s Art (1970), which remained in print for well over 20 years, long after I thought it had outlived its usefulness.

A few years later the same press published Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974), for which I received an Edgar. By that time I was a professor myself, having accepted a position at St. Louis University School of Law which I kept until retiring 34 years later.

   I had also begun writing mysteries of my own but, thanks to the influence of Ray Browne and a handful of like-minded colleagues of his who had made popular culture respectable, I didn’t have to use a pen name.

Stuart Kaminsky

   It was also thanks to Ray and his cohorts that universities began hiring professors to teach courses on movies, science fiction, mysteries and countless other “popular culture” subjects. One of those young academics was Stuart Kaminsky, who was born in 1934 and grew up in Chicago.

   Drafted into the Army, he served as a medic in France and developed Hepatitis C, which plagued him for the rest of his life. After completing graduate work he began teaching film and film history at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

   His early books dealt with directors like John Huston and Don Siegel. In 1977 he published Bullet for a Star, the first of two dozen novels set in Hollywood’s golden years and starring PI Toby Peters.

   Need I mention that, thanks to Ray Browne and company, he too never needed a pseudonym?

   I can’t remember where I first met Stu, but we did a lot of Bouchercons and Midwest MWA programs together. My most vivid memories of him come from the summer of 1986 when we were both among the guests at an international festival on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

   It was in Stu’s hotel room that I met the great French director Claude Chabrol, and the three of us were among the festival guests who, a day or two later when none of us were on duty, piled into a couple of vans and were taken to San Remo for a tour of the castle of Cagliostro.

   On the way back we stopped at a country inn whose kitchen staff, with no prior notice (this was before the cellphone era), put together perhaps the finest lunch I’ve ever eaten. One course after another without end, as if we’d all died and gone to culinary heaven — Mamma Mia!

Stuart Kaminsky

   A few years after our Italian junket, Mystery Writers of America awarded the Edgar for best mystery novel of 1988 to A Cold Red Sunrise, Stu’s fifth Rostnikov book. Soon afterwards he left Northwestern and took a position at Florida State University, where on top of teaching and administrative duties he began a third series, this one about sixtyish Chicago PI Abe Lieberman.

   In 1994 he left academia to write full-time, as if he hadn’t been doing more than that while still holding his day job. A few years later, while serving a term as president of MWA, he created Florida process server Lew Fonesca and started his fourth and final series. MWA named him a Grand Master in 2006.

   Early in 2009 he moved from Sarasota to University City, Missouri, where I hang my own hats, to await the liver transplant which his half-century-old hepatitis had made necessary, but 36 hours after arriving he suffered a stroke which disqualified him for the transplant. He died in a St. Louis hospital on October 9, at age 75.

   Thanks to the success of Ray Browne and his colleagues at bringing contemporary popular culture into higher education, any number of us — Stu and I and Jeremiah Healy and Bill Crider, just to name four off the top of my head — have been able openly to lead double lives as professors and mystery writers. Who could have dreamed of that back in the presidency of JFK?

   They gave so much while they were with us. Now let them rest.