Stark House will publish its first three-fer this summer – three Gold Medal novels long in need of reprinting. I wrote the introduction to Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed, a masterful suspense novel that puts Runyon in the top ten of GM writers in such company as Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Richard Stark, Malcolm Braly and a handful of others.

Stark House

   At the time I wrote the introduction I was told that Runyon was dead. Not so. He’s very much alive, and here’s an interview I recently had with him via email.

   [Note: This interview previously appeared in three installments on Ed’s blog. Links at the end of this M*F blog entry will lead you to a complete bibliography of Charles Runyon’s fiction and an article he has written about a book that’s never been published, Dorian-7.    — Steve]

● The obvious mystery to those who were following your career – when did you stop publishing and why?

   In 1980, Jove published my novel, The Gypsy King, which I thought represented my highest effort, a cut above the genre SF and mystery novels I had been publishing. I was never content with working at the level of my last published work, but at the same time I wasn’t sure which way to go with my future work. To fill in the time while deciding, I went back to the University of Missouri and picked up a Master’s in Creative writing, in case I might need to work before my sales picked up again.

   However, the hiatus stretched on, and teaching did not blend with writing as well as I had hoped. Writing was still my preferred profession, but the path back to publishing was a rocky one, and nobody laid down a red carpet for me any more than they had at the beginning. Somehow the word got out that I had “passed on” in 1987, and the thought intrigued me, much as it once intrigued Tom Sawyer. What if I tried to reenter the field, not as an older writer reentering the field after a long lay-off, but as a fresh new face with reams of new ideas? However, thanks to you, Ed, that experiment has now been abandoned, or left to others to carry out.

● Can you give us a sketch of your life?

   A rough sketch would show the young writer growing up on a farm in Worth County, Missouri, the most insignificant county in a not-too-significant state. I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave the farm like most boys, but ran away from home at age 16 to work on a ranch in West Texas.

   So we come full circle; 60 years later I am back in Texas. The intervening years included army service in Korea, Germany and Indiana, J-school at Missouri University. I just missed a job on the National Geographic and instead went into industrial editing. It was either that or poetry which paid nothing. While working for Mr. Rockefeller’s old outfit in Chicago an agent to whom I had been paying readers’ fees for five years – Scott Meredith – suddenly started making sales.

    I lost no time in quitting my job and announcing that I was now a full-time writer. With a new baby and no income, I borrowed a lakeside cabin and sat down to write my first book. After sending it off to my agent, I took off for the West Indies, found an almost deserted island, and lay back to await the gentle shower of royalties. It didn’t quite happen that way, but it was only a few months before the book sold to Ace; my reaction was to charter a yacht and take the wife and kid on a tour of the islands. I returned to New York suntanned but broke, still expecting the gilded life of a best-selling writer.

● How about a sketch of your publishing career? Was writing something you’d always wanted to do?

    Since I was about 8 years old, and realized how easily (comparatively) words came to me. Before that I wanted to be a doctor, until somebody told me you had to go to school for endless years. I was already making preparations when in High School I took typing; the only other “boy” in my class was a pianist.

● Do you recall your first sale?

    Of course; it was a short story called “First Man in a Satellite” to Super Science Fiction in 1958 – almost fifty years ago! This was about the time the Russians sent up Sputnik so I was undeservedly credited with being a harbinger of the Space Age. I got a personal rejection from John W. Campbell [editor at Astounding SF], with his signature slanting across the bottom of the page as if tracing the path of a tumbling tumbleweed. He disparaged the whole idea of a midget in a space ship, adding that Lester del Rey had already done it – better. Editors didn’t care about writer’s sensibilities in those days. I still treasure the letter.

Super Science

● Which gave you more satisfaction as a writer – science fiction or crime novels?

    It’s the sf novels and stories that I remember with the most affection. The crime stories and novels were more neatly wrapped up, while the sf novels and stories open onto worlds of other plot possibilities.

● What was the genesis of The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed?

    I was making notes for the book while spending the summer in my old home town of Sheridan, a place with an almost one-to-one correspondence to the Sherman of the book. The characters were pulled from the scenery of my past, specific incidents belonging to a real person could be welded to a fictional person without the need to improvise more than details of the plot. It was very liberating and exhilarating, to find that I could shape my own reality, as long as I kept it within the realm of the believable.

    Actually, the story is not as bizarre as it may seem; my home town is near the little town of Skidmore, famed as the home of the hog-stealer, arch-bully, pedophile and murderer MacElroy, who was finally “executed” by a shotgun blast in full view of thirty townspeople. Not a single one of those citizens stepped forward to identify the shooter. Someday, I may get around to doing that book.

Prettiest Girl

Prettiest Girl is invariably likened to the novels of Jim Thompson but when I reread it recently my take was that there is a fundamental difference between your book and just about anything Thompson wrote. Your killer in control of himself – unlike many of the Thompson protagonists who seem hard-wired to be at the mercy of themselves – and he’s even a bit droll and sardonic at times. In other words, he can stand back and look at what he’s doing objectively.

   The cumulative effect of this subtly but powerfully underscores his madness. Given the verities of paperback originals, this was an original approach. Did you think of it that way? Or are you even conscious of your writing decisions? Evan Hunter always said that he tried not to analyze what he was doing. He was afraid it would hamper his spontaneity.

    I will have to read some of Jim Thompson before I comment on the difference between us. I always write in a close autobiographical style, even though I often change the pronouns to third person. When I finish a book, I always feel like a hollowed out lobster, all meat and flavor taken out, and nothing but dry pulp left inside.

    That’s the reason I usually get in a few weeks of total leisure between novels; the creative energy needs time to rise to a level where I can begin pumping again. I think Evan Hunter is right in not analyzing his methods; the creative imagination is a shy, faery creature, and doesn’t like the cold light of appraisal.

● Sometimes you sound almost dismissive of your crime fiction. Your science fiction seems to be your true love. Are you unhappy when people say they prefer your crime fiction to your sf?

    No, I just assume that these are non-sf-readers by nature. As long as I could treat these crimes as merely head games, I could get considerable pleasure out of working out the problems. Having been a police reporter, I had a good grasp of the routine and the jargon, as well as tons of material.

    But I can date exactly when my preferences changed; in 1967 my younger brother was murdered, and the whole messy scene got involved with the stupidity of Vietnam and the decay of the courts, with the result that the murderer walked out of the courtroom smirking. This was too similar to the stuff I had been doing, and although I had many projects in the works, I never felt good about doing that sort of killer-oriented thing again.

Death Cycle

● You’ve written some of the most remarkable opening chapters in suspense fiction. The first five thousand words of The Dead Cycle, for instance, put me in mind of The Doors’ “Riders on The Rain.” Except that where the song is from the innocents’ point of view, this is from the Riders pov. There’s a mythic quality – almost of the old west – of the robbery gone wrong, an elderly clerk shot dead by one of the Riders, and them now desperately trying to get to the Mexican border.

   This is so much more realistic than much of the neo-noir we see today because the turf is real and you know this turf, the small-town Midwest. But it’s the underbelly of the Midwestern small town you usually use. Was this intentional given that it’s the setting of so many of your Gold Medal novels?

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m really a fiction writer. The motorcycle story was based on an unusual honeymoon my wife and I took, riding double on a Harley through the back roads of Mexico in 1957. Add another couple, a murder, a stash of cash and some loose gash and you get The Death Cycle. It was fun to write, and to know that every bone-rattling jolt on that old Harley was paying off in hard core realism.

The Black Moth, which is set on a college campus, is a notably different private eye novel in that the protagonist is a PI masquerading as a professor. But even here, in a more refined setting than you usually use, the writing stays hard as hell. Your books are proof that tough guys don’t have to swagger or be violent to prove that they’re tough. They’re hard asses and no less so when they don academic robes. Was Black Moth based on your early experiences teaching college courses?

    At the time I wrote The Black Moth I had never taught a college English course, but it definitely foreshadowed my later career. The idea was to have a series of vicious murders taking place amid the mannered politeness of an exclusive girl’s finishing school. And in Columbia Missouri, where I did my journalism study, there was Stephens College, the very model of such a school. My undergraduate years of dating Stephens girls paid off in some interesting characters and loads of verisimilitude. One of the fallacies of the lay person is that you can “create” characters out of whole cloth. With me, it’s more of a cut-and-paste.

Black Moth

● What was your best career experience?

    Winning a nomination for the Edgar Allan Poe award of the MWA for Power Kill.

● What was your worst?

    Having Lancer Books go belly-up just after publishing my novel of the occult, Dorian-7. I wish I’d been warned about their shaky finances. I wrote an article on the subject, “The Curse of Dorian-7,” but I never tried to get it published. [The article appears here, its first time in print.]

● You mentioned that you’ve been writing a science fiction trilogy. Have you given any thought to a crime novel?

    Many thoughts, backed up by notes, bits of dialogue, and in a few cases, almost-finished works that never quite made it to the marketplace. I’ll take another look at the material and see what I have that is timely and appropriate, if you’re interested in looking at it.

● Do you read contemporary writers? If so, name a few you feel are notable.

    I read Stephen King’s Cell, on the recommendation of my students, and found it admirable in many ways, but to me the most nearly perfect practitioner of the horror field is Peter Straub. Houses without Doors is my most recent sampling, but my all-time favorite is Ghost Story. I also enjoyed Superstition.

    John Updike’s suspense novel, The Terrorist, brings out his talent for deft characterization and subtle plot turnings, as well as being as timely as the morning paper. John Grisham is another old-timer who’s still eminently readable; The Painted House is one I recommend. Taking the whole field as my bailiwick, I’ll mention Trial, by Clifford Irving, Skins of Dead Men by Dean Inge, and Acceptable Losses by Irwin Shaw. I’d also recommend The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. Though it’s not a genre novel, it’s a fascinating story and well-written.

● Which of your novels would you most like to see reprinted and why?

    There are at least three that might go down well with today’s readers. The Last Score was rushed to completion as a work-for-hire, for Manfred Lee and Fred Dannay, and published under their byline of Ellery Queen. I still have a paternal affection for the book, and would like to see it reprinted under it’s “rightful” parentage.

Object of Lust

   Also, there was one I wrote under the nom de plume of Mark West, which was published under the unforgettable title: Object of Lust. Another rush job, done to the background music of a wolf growling outside the door, but I think it’s worthy of another shot at the gold ring. If you recall the old limerick beginning: “There once was a hermit named Dave …” you’ll have an idea of what it’s about. And finally there’s my first one, The Anatomy of Violence, which still holds my interest despite a klutzy romantic element.


Charles W. Runyon: A Bibliography

The Curse of Dorian-7