The following edited excerpt is from Freelance Odyssey, or “We Don’t Want It Good — We Want It Wednesday”, the unpublished autobiography of W. Ryerson Johnson (1901-1995). Johnny’s remarkable writing career spanned an astonishing eight decades, from his first published short story, “The Squeeze,” in the March 20, 1926 issue of Adventure, to his last published tale, “No Tinsel, No Humbug,” in the September 1994 issue of Louis L’Amour Western Magazine.


   Pulp western tales were his primary fare, but he also wrote adventure stories, slick magazine stories and articles, men’s magazine stories, mystery novels and short stories, western novels, comic book continuity, and both young adult and children’s books. A partial list of publications to which he contributed: Collier’s, Coronet, This Week, Doc Savage, Phantom Detective, EQMM, and Hustler.

   I got to know Johnny fairly well during the last few years of his life. He and his wife visited Marcia and me on several occasions, and we corresponded more or less regularly. We also swapped inscribed copies of various publications; among the ones he sent me are several 20s and 30s western and adventure pulps such as Star Western and Cowboy Stories containing his rangeland novelettes.

   When Johnny told me he was writing his autobiography, I asked him if I could read the manuscript in progress and he obliged with a photocopy. Unfortunately it’s a rough draft which he intended to revise but never quite got around to, rambling and speckled with errors and inconsistencies, and with a few missing pages; it would require a considerable amount of editorial work to put it into publishable shape.

   Some chapters, however, such as this first installment of one on his relationship with Davis Dresser/Brett Halliday, can be printed with a relatively small amount of editing. A few others will follow as time permits, including those pertaining to his colorful pulp-writing days.

— Bill Pronzini

by W. Ryerson Johnson

   Dave Dresser came to town, a fresh breeze blowing out of the West. Breeze? Better say gale. Maybe, hurricane. Known to his readers as Brett Halliday, he wrote the popular hardback series featuring tough Miami private-eye, Mike Shayne.


   Dave had my name as chairman of the Pulp Section of the Author’s Guild, and he looked me up at our apartment at 110 East 38th Street. So different in surface ways, we vibed from that first hard hand-clasp and eye-flash contact. I’m low-key; I don’t make waves except as a last resort. Dave would make waves on a sunny-day millpond. He made big waves bigger everywhere.

   More than any other series writer I have known, Dave identified with his bigger-than-life storybook character, Michael Shayne. Shayne was lean and spare – a hard-bitten guy addicted to conflict. Tough and turbulent, but coming on amazingly gentle sometimes, sensitive and understanding. Ruggedly honest. As personal as you can get in your reactions to things. Nothing was as act-of-God to Shayne. Everything was an act-of somebody, and if it was a heedless or hostile act, somebody better look out. A direct action man, Shayne stormed around and got things done – if not in one way, then in another.

   Same with Dave.

   Mike Shayne put away a bottle of Martell cognac a day. So did Dave. They both woke up in the morning chipper as a young robin, head cocked for the dew-fresh worm. (The Martell people sent Dave a case of it one time in appreciation of the promotion he was giving their product in the Shayne novels.)


   Volatile was the word for Dave. One time at a party far long in alcoholic liberation I called him that. Volatile. I didn’t think it was a bad word. But Dave glared and hauled his fist back.

    “Did anybody ever land one hard on the end of your overhung jaw, Johnny?”

   (For the record, he didn’t.)

   When I first met Dave, his Michael Shayne was selling millions of copies. Shayne was one of the most successful detective series characters ever launched. And yet it was rejected by 22 publishers. They cited all kinds of reasons, from their opinion that the so-called hard-boiled school of mystery fiction had run its course and was dead, dead, dead, to just plain “unsaleable as written.” (Today, children’s book publishers are quite generally claiming that dinosaur books are “dead” – while teachers and librarians emphatically state they’re the liveliest titles on the racks.)


   In November 1951 a new writer’s magazine came out: REPORT TO WRITERS. Dave had an article about his series character in the first issue: “The Hard Times of Michael Shayne.” Before 1936 he had been doing half a dozen romance novels a year for the drugstore circulating-library trade. At $250 a book – no royalties.

   Then he wrote his first Shayne manuscript: Dividend on Death. It kicked around for several years before Henry Holt bought it. Holt printed five Shayne titles. None of them sold more than 3000 copies in hardback, with an unimpressive pick-up on a couple of titles in paperback reprint.

   Henry Holt bowed out.

   Dave pushed the titles around to half a dozen other publishers, and finally Dodd Mead bought. From the time the first Shayne novel appeared, it was a dozen years before it was making much money for anybody.

   Now it was roaring – so successful that Dave decided to do his own printing. Dodd Mead, after a lot of filling and hawing, apparently figured that part of the profit was better than no profit, and agreed to continue circulating the series.


   Dave put the books together and presented the complete package, jacket and all, to a printer. As I recall, he told me it cost him something like 32 cents to get a copy of the finished book off the presses. They sold in the hardback edition at $2.50. The novels were published under the Torquil imprint.

   Torquil was the name of Dave’s dog.

— To be continued.