M*F READERS FORUM: THE SCARLET LETTERS
It was Marv Lachman who gave the letter column for the print version of M*F its name, and as you see, I’ve carried it over to the on-line version as well. Comments and feedback of any kind are always welcome. Whether it’s an additional insight into something someone has said, a difference of opinion, an error of fact, or even a typo, both I and the various contributors to M*FOL would like to hear from you.
BILL PRONZINI (September 2005)
I think M*F On-Line looks fine and is just as pleasurable to read as the print version.
Very much enjoyed the Greenleaf material and Al Hubin’s reviews of obscure British mysteries. One minor point in re Hal Pink: It’s true that none of Pink’s novels was published here in book form, but he was published in the U.S. A handful of his short stories appeared in such magazines as Mystery (The Illustrated Detective Magazine) and S&S Detective Story in the early 30s. Pretty good stories, too.
Steve: There’s nothing like a comment like that to prompt a checklist. I’ve come up with three stories from US magazines, but if someone more knowledgeable than I knew more about the British pulps than I do, I would expect the list to be a whole lot longer.
The Blond Raffles, Mystery, February 1934.
Bat Island, Mystery, March 1934.
The Fires of Moloch, Detective Story Magazine, September 1939.
PETER SPIEGELMAN (October 2005)
I very much enjoyed Ed Lynskey’s interview with Stephen Greenleaf. I have long been an admirer of Mr. Greenleaf’s work – the quality of his prose, his narrative style, the sense of place he creates, and most of all his characters – Tanner foremost among these.
I think he is a vastly under-appreciated writer (I should probably say vastly under-read, as I can’t imagine anyone reading a Tanner novel and not recognizing it for the treasure it is), and I’m pleased to know he's still working, even if it’s not at Tanner any longer. In my crime fiction pantheon – the writers whose work influenced my own and/or inspired me to write – he’s up there with Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, James Lee Burke and a handful of others.
At the risk of sounding like a fanboy (which, I suppose, I am), I would very much appreciate it if you could pass this along to him. Many thanks – and, again, nice interview.
BARRY ERGANG (October 2005)
I finally had a chance to look at the new online edition of Mystery*File. Haven’t looked at it all yet, but did read with pleasure Bill Crider’s article about Marvin H. Albert. I was glad to see the Nick Quarry titles get some recognition. My father regularly devoured Gold Medal and other such “pulp” novels when I was a kid, which introduced me to characters including Shell Scott, Chester Drum, Matt Helm, Tony Costain and Bert McCall – and Jake Barrow. I read three of the six Barrow books back then, and have since managed to re-collect four of them via eBay auctions.
It was also a great pleasure to read Ed Lynskey’s article about Stephen Greenleaf, a writer who, though critically acclaimed – and deservedly so – never received the reader recognition he merits. Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald have been “literary heroes” of mine since I discovered them when in my teens. When I first read Greenleaf, I felt almost heretical in telling friends that he’s at least as good as his esteemed predecessors and that in some ways he surpasses both. It’s a shame that he doesn't plan to continue the Tanner series.
Greenleaf deprecates his short story “Iris,” but I've always thought it one of the most beautifully written and moving short mysteries I’ve ever read.
From a followup email:
The interview with Mr. Greenleaf revealed some interesting parallels to my own life, though a couple I already knew from his novels: e.g., Tanner drinks Ballantines Scotch, my own preferred brand, and is a jazz fan, which I've been since I was eleven or twelve. Like Mr. G, though not at as early an age – I was probably around 12 – I became hooked on the Perry Mason novels. (After reading 13 in a row, I couldn’t read another for many years.) For a long time I thought I too wanted to become a criminal lawyer and a writer like Gardner, but eventually gave up the idea of a legal career when reality set in: I wouldn’t be solving murders like Mason, which was the entire appeal. Subsequently, I too became enamored of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, started reading Prather’s Shell Scott novels (still have ’em all) and Stout’s Nero Wolfe books (have all but one). I probably haven’t read as many Ross Thomas novels as Mr. G, but I’ve read and enjoyed a number of them, especially those starring Quincy Durant and Artie Wu.
I never got in trouble at school for bringing in titles with racy covers – and believe me, I brought in loads of ’em! There’s nothing like walking down crowded corridors in the 8th and 9th grade with a Gold Medal paperback among your books, its lurid cover on view for all to see. It’s not that I flaunted them, you understand; I didn’t. I simply didn't care if anyone saw them because my folks knew I read them and didn’t disapprove.
Mr. Greenleaf said the nicest review he ever received was from a Pennsylvania woman who posted it at Amazon.com. I’m not a woman, but I am from Pennsylvania, and I once posted the following review (one of the few I ever posted there) at Amazon.com:
Another gem by the best hardboiled private eye novelist yet!, August 28, 1997 Reviewer: A reader.MARV LACHMAN (October 2005)
Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald have not only found their peer in Stephen Greenleaf, they’ve found their superior. As an unabashed fan of Chandler’s, I must concede, however reluctantly, that Greenleaf is not merely the successor to the hardboiled detective tradition established by Chandler and the others, but the finest practitioner the field has seen yet. The John Marshall Tanner mysteries are marked by the kind of crisp, literate, and often poetic prose usually associated with “mainstream” literary works; fully-fleshed characterizations; acute observations; topical issues; and complex, plausible plots.
Another stellar entry in the series, False Conception finds Tanner embroiled professionally and emotionally in the lives of a wealthy couple unable to have a child except through surrogacy. When the surrogate mother he’s approved for his clients disappears, and he sets out to find her, he unearths some wrenching secrets about all of them – including himself.
This is the kind of great read whose overtones will resonate within you long after you’ve finished it.
In regard to Mike Grost’s take on Helen Reilly, although her series detective is Inspector McKee of the NYPD, her books are not really police procedurals. There is the occasional procedural detail, but more often McKee acts like the amateur detective of his era. I had no problem getting to write about Reilly in my book A Reader’s Guide to the American Novel of Detection. The author of the companion volume in the series on Police Procedurals seemed happy to let me do Reilly.
I found few hardboiled (Black Mask) elements in the thirty-plus Reilly books I read. Therefore, by a process of elimination, she fits into the HIBK school, though 15 years after reading her I can’t remember any first-person narrators. However, there were many female protagonists in danger in books such as Dead Man Control (1936), Murder on Angler’s Island (1945), Murder at Arroways (1950) and Follow Me (1960).
The article I cited by Jon L. Breen in The Fine Art of Murder has a good discussion about Reilly and the police procedural. It is a complex subject. Many admirers of Ed McBain (I can't stand the 87th Precinct books myself) think of his novels as “archetypal procedurals” – and feel books have to be like them to be “real procedurals.” Reilly is not much like McBain. But this is no reason to throw McKee of Centre Street out of the history of the police procedural.Now, forty years on, I am still doing some television work but would have time to write if only ... If only thrillers had not moved on into areas from which I feel excluded either through lack of knowledge or lack of interest. But I’m pleased that Marv enjoyed the two that exist.
GERALD SINSTADT (October 2005)
In Marv Lachman’s column which I discovered on your website, he was close with his guess. At about the time Whisper in a Lonely Place was published, I began working as a football commentator and presenter in British television, and found that it paid (a) more and (b) more quickly than writing books. To see one’s name on the spine of a book does more for the ego than for the mortgage.
JIM DOHERTY (November 2005)
Two things about the interview Ed Lynskey did with Dorothy Uhnak were particularly interesting to me. I always figured that Christie Opara was, at least partly, autobiographical. However, since Christie was PD and Ms. Uhnak was Transit (at the time two separate autonomous forces), I had no idea that Ms. Uhnak had ever been assigned to the DA’s Squad. I thought everyone on the DA’s Squad was NYPD; I didn’t know there were any TA cops assigned.
I also was surprised to learn that the real impetus behind Ms. Uhnak’s novel Law and Order was The Godfather. I’d always supposed that she began breaking for the big “blockbuster” best-seller money because of the success of Joseph Wambaugh. Still, when one considers the whole “multi-generational family saga” aspect of the plot of L&O, the seeds of The Godfather, rather than The New Centurions or The Blue Knight, are much more obvious.
Steve: If I may, I’d like to clarify the point you brought up. May I assume that the interview confirms your belief that the Opara novels were strongly autobiographical?
Jim: Perhaps “strongly” is a bit too emphatic. I certainly thought that a young woman attempting to succeed in a male-dominated profession like law enforcement, who had been created by a young woman who had succeeded in that profession, had to be at least partially autobiographical.
I’d also heard somewhere that Ms. Uhnak had been involved in some case (the one that got her the top police award in NYC) where she’d acted as the bait to trap a criminal preying on women. My recollection is that the criminal was a mugger, rather than a serial killer. Nevertheless, I figured that experience had been fictionalized in The Bait.
I was surprised to learn that she’d been assigned to the DA’s Squad, which made the Opara series even more autobiographical than I’d supposed.
Steve: I am unsure myself of the connection between the Transit Police and the D.A.’s office, but Uhnak made it seem like a natural progression.
Jim: In the five counties comprising NYC, the DA of each borough has two types of investigators working for him. DA’s investigators have full law enforcement power and authority, but are employed directly by the DA’s office. In addition, the NYPD assigns a squad of detectives to work out of each borough’s DA’s office. This unit is called the District Attorney’s Special Investigations Squad, or, more simply, the DA’s Squad.
My impression was that detectives assigned to the DA’s squad were exclusively NYPD, but, apparently, based on Ms. Uhnak’s comments, detectives from the NY Transit Authority Police could also be assigned to the squad. Of course, now that Transit’s been absorbed into the NYPD, it’s a moot point.
PostScript (Steve): For purposes of comparison, here is the timeline involved for several of the books mentioned above:VINCE KEENAN (November 2005)
Dorothy Uhnak, The Bait, Simon & Schuster, 1968.
Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Putnam, 1969.
Joseph Wambaugh, The New Centurians, Little Brown, 1970.
Joseph Wambaugh, The Blue Knight, Little Brown, 1972.
Dorothy Uhnak, Law and Order, Simon & Schuster, 1973.
Thanks for the heads up about Lee Goldberg’s Gregory Mcdonald piece – and thanks for publishing it. It’s great to have these interviews back in circulation.
At the risk of losing what little credibility I have, I’ll admit that I’ve always enjoyed the 1985 film version of FLETCH. It’s broader in tone than Gregory Mcdonald’s novel but surprisingly faithful to its plot. Screenwriter Andrew Bergman preserves a good deal of Mcdonald’s dialogue and contributes a few choice lines of his own. It’s very much a Chevy Chase movie, but a good one.
FLETCH LIVES, on the other hand, is a travesty. As I remember, the studio opted not to base the sequel on any of the Mcdonald novels because they wanted the Fletch character to continue working at the newspaper that employed him in the first film. Naturally, in the opening scenes of FLETCH LIVES, Fletch inherits a Southern mansion – and promptly quits his job. Ah, Hollywood.
As for Johnny Depp’s adaptation of Mcdonald’s THE BRAVE, eight years after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival it has never been released in the United States, either theatrically or on commercial home video. Import DVDs of the movie are available, however. I’ve never seen it.
Steve: For a wide range of opinions on THE BRAVE, the imdb website has a ton of them, most of them from viewers outside the US. It does not sound like a Hollywood film at all. That may not be bad.
MICHAEL Z. LEWIN (November 2005)
Thanks for letting me know about the review you did of Night Cover, and for paying attention to such a venerable volume.
As for your questions, Powder was not in the first three Samson books, but he has appeared in the five later Samson books including the current one, Eye Opener.
Adele appeared in Samson’s first seven novels as his woman friend – so she was in her relationship with Samson during Night Cover. I doubt I mentioned it. That was her issue and the book was Powder’s.
In the new book Adele appears, but she is no longer Samson’s amour. She also had her own book, And Baby Will Fall (Child Proof in the UK). I think Samson was in that; Powder may have been mentioned.
The subsequent Powder novels have included Samson but not, as far as I recall, Adele. Powder has also appeared in another Indianapolis novel, Underdog, and two short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine – “Night Shift” and “911.” The latter was earlier this year.
Mind you, I haven’t exactly read the books lately, so if I’ve gotten details wrong here and there, I won’t faint.
Steve: Not identifying Adele Buffington as being involved with Samson at the same time she had her brief affair with Powder is what you call “her issue” and what I considered considerable constraint on your part. Other authors may have made quite a to-do about it, intensifying the relationship between the three of them immensely, but in very usual ways.
As I said earlier, Adele was Samson’s woman friend from the beginning and through the first seven novels. Your concern is that she got close to Powder briefly. Well, Samson might have been upset, at least for a while, if he’d ever known about it, but she would never have told him, and neither would Powder. Adele’s subsequent relationship with and affection for Samson was unchanged; how she handled it or justified it was her business.
I might have gone into that more if I’d ever written more books about her but, for various reasons, that didn’t happen and is unlikely to happen now. Depending, of course, on the size of the check you’re offering me to write them. I think it would have to be pretty large...
MARCIA TALLEY (November 2005)
Thanks for letting me know about the review of This Enemy Town, Steve.
To answer your question about the transition, here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Mystery Writers of America on surviving to write another day (or something to that effect).
As for your doubts about the accuracy of FBI procedure in This Enemy Town, according to the Special Agent in charge of the Annapolis office with whom I worked closely while writing the book, that is exactly how they would do it. I, too, am a great fan of Law and Order (all three iterations), but I don't think real FBI agents are terribly impressed with the way they are portrayed on the show.
Steve: Actually I don’t watch much TV, but maybe I have read too much fiction to realize fact when I see it. Thank you for the correction, and why did I know that that’s exactly what would happen? I am never dismayed at proven wrong, though, as I have had a lot of experience at it.
But I hope you don’t mind if I follow up on this a little. Once the agents from the FBI came in, yes, absolutely, I will agree that correct procedure was followed, even if they showed a little more forcefulness than I’d have thought necessary.
In general, though, if you were in a situation like this, wouldn’t you expect to be questioned about another witness’s story before the FBI squad came swooping down on you as you were sleeping quietly at home? Even if someone told the FBI that they saw you at the scene of a crime, wouldn’t they, um, politely ask you, someone previously known to have a good reputation, to come in for questioning? Or make an appointment to stop by your house sometime when it’s convenient? (Keeping an eye on the escape routes, perhaps, to make sure you really didn’t decide to make a run for it?)
That’s what didn’t happen, and that’s what didn’t feel right to me. At the moment, I’m still thinking about it. What more can you tell me to convince me I’m wrong?
Marcia: You know, Steve, my head’s so deeply into the next Hannah Ives mystery, Through the Darkness, due to my editor in a couple of weeks, that most days I can’t even remember where I put my car keys, let alone where my head was over a year ago when I was finishing up This Enemy Town.
I do know that when crimes are committed by a civilian against a military person on a federal reservation some very interesting jurisdictional issues often arise. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service always investigates; they can prosecute the case themselves, or they can turn what evidence/interview tapes/notes they have over to the FBI who takes it from there.
My sources indicated that it was unlikely that the FBI would re-interview suspects/witnesses already interviewed by NCIS, unless they thought the case made by NCIS was weak. Both my sources at NCIS and the FBI told me that without an alibi for the time of the crime, Hannah’s strong motive, and the fact that her fingerprints were on the murder weapon would be all they would need to move forward with an arrest. The witness would be frosting on the cake, but not essential for an arrest warrant. So, I went with that.
You don’t want to get in trouble on a federal reservation, by the way. Even a parking ticket can earn you a summons to appear in federal court. Ask my husband.
Steve: That I will certainly take your word for! Reading through the your article (below) on your “transition period” between publishers, it’s amazing how many obstacles had to be overcome before Hannah Ives was finally able to continue her mystery-solving career. What happened is a fascinating story in itself. Thanks for sending it on to me.
Marcia (from the MWA article mentioned above):
In 1999, I couldn’t have been happier. I’d just won the Malice Domestic grant which led to a three book deal with Dell and the publication of my first mystery novel, Sing it to Her Bones. Dell published the next two books in my Hannah Ives series all the while they were being acquired by Bantam which merged with Doubleday which was consumed by Random House which was eventually swallowed up whole by Bertelsman. When the dust settled, Dell’s venerable paperback original mystery line had pretty much evaporated, and dozens of mystery authors, myself included, found themselves without contracts.
My agent stuck with me, fortunately, and encouraged me to do what just about everyone else was doing – write a standalone. I balked, as I was attached to Hannah Ives and the series and didn't want her to “die.” Everyone, and I mean everyone, told me that it was impossible to move a series from one publisher to another because the new publisher wouldn’t have the backlist. So, for an entire year, I felt like The Proposal Queen of the Western World, churning out synopses and three sample chapters of a novel set in the Bahamas (“books set in foreign countries don't sell”), one set at the Naval Academy (“not gritty enough”), and even another series (“too cerebral”). But I never gave up on Hannah – proposals for books 4, 5 and 6 were tenderly filed away in a drawer.
One day, my agent called and said he’d heard that A Major New York Publisher had just paid good money for a collaborative serial novel about golf a la 1969’s Naked Came the Stranger and the more recent Naked Came the Manatee, a spoof perpetrated by Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry, among others, in 1996. We both agreed that a mystery novel about golf written by a dozen different people would be about as exciting as watching paint dry. I thought it would be fun to persuade thirteen women to collaborate on a serial novel set in a luxury health spa and give a percentage of the profits to breast cancer research.
St. Martin’s Press agreed, and Naked Came the Phoenix was off and running. Nevada Barr wrote the first chapter, passed it to Nora Roberts who picked up where Nevada left off, moved the story forward, handed off to Nancy Pickard and so on and so on until it was left to Laurie King to tie up all the loose ends (brilliantly!) in Chapter 13. Phoenix was so much fun that we followed it with I’d Kill for That, set in an exclusive gated community and featuring another star-studded cast of writers including Kathy Reichs, Linda Fairstein and Anne Perry.
Those serial novels saved my life, so to speak, because they kept my name out there while I was “between publishers.” They also may have been responsible for several invitations to write short stories for what I’ve been calling “themed” collections like Death by Horoscope, Death by Dickens, and Much Ado About Murder. In “Too Many Cooks” for Much Ado, I planted tongue firmly in cheek and retold the tale of Macbeth from the viewpoint of the three witches. Happily, that story won both the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award in 2003. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that two days after winning the Agatha, my present editor at Morrow/Avon -- who had always believed in Hannah Ives, too – called my agent with an offer to buy the next three books in the series.
So, I'm happily awaiting the release in September of This Enemy Town (murder during a Naval Academy production of the dark and bloody musical Sweeney Todd) and am working on the sixth book in the series. I’ve also been active in Mystery Writers of America, helping to found the Mid-Atlantic Chapter. I’m current president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
The moral of the story is: Keep writing. Reinvent yourself, if necessary. (I never thought I’d be a short story writer, for example, but I think there’s more than a dozen out there now.) Keep going to conferences. Keep active in professional organizations like MWA and Sisters in Crime. Networking is critical.
BILL PRONZINI (December 2005)
Regarding the question that you brought up in your Ken Pettus review, I don’t know anything about Knightsbridge, other than the fact they bought out PaperJacks (or morphed from PaperJacks, I’m not sure which) and reissued the three two-in-one volumes in 1990 without any additional payment to me. Very poor distribution on these, even in the San Francisco area, which is why used copies are so scarce. And why Knightsbridge only lasted a year or so.
The three “Nameless” doubles are those you listed: Dragonfire/Casefile, Hoodwink/Scattershot, Labyrinth/Bones.
JEFF FALCO (January 2006)
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this, the question of who was rewriting JDM’s old pulp stories and selling them to Manhunt. I don’t know the answer, but I have two thoughts. First of all, in the interview, JDM states that the “clown” was "selling them to Manhunt: he does not state that they were ever actually published. They may have been sold, the plagiarism discovered and consequently never published.
The other idea, assuming the stories were in fact published, concerns JDM’s statement that the clown changed the “point of view,” which means that if JDM’s early pulp stories were written in the third person, the clown reworked the stories so that they were told in the first person, or, of course, vice versa. I’m afraid I do not know which person JDM generally used for his early pulp stories, but this may be the beginning clue to discovering the copyclown.
Steve: I asked and received a reply back from Len and June Moffett, who published The JDM Bibliophile for a long time, beginning even before The Armchair Detective came along, and no, they do not know who the culprit is either. There are stories about MacDonald that they have not yet told, they say, but this is not one of them.
Jeff, your second point is well-taken, and it’s one I made yesterday myself on another forum. It will be either a matter of luck or sheer endurance, but it appears more and more that the only way the mystery is going to be solved is by somebody doing pretty much along the same lines as you suggest
Someone who is familiar with JDM’s short fiction from the late 40s onward is going to have to start reading the early Manhunt’s. Someone with a good memory, or a even better set of notes. Someone who can spot a repeated (but somewhat altered) plotline, and maybe it could be done.
And of course, Jeff, if your first thought is true, it would mean a lot of reading to no avail. Unless someone enjoys reading early Manhunt’s, that is, which – on the other hand – many of us do. Volunteers? (I’m not being too serious here, I don’t think.)
DAVID HEWSON (January 2006)
Thanks for the interesting and kind review of The Sacred Cut. You’re absolutely right about the one very obvious graphic and violent scene. If the book ever makes it to a movie it will be one of the first things to go. Were I writing the book now, and not in early 2003, it would get cut too.
The thing is... Writers always start series with more blood and swearing than they like, for reasons most of us don’t actually understand. What was worse for me was that the first three books in the Costa series were produced under the continuing shadow of 9/11, the Afghan war then the Iraq war. A pretty violent start to this great century of ours.
Things like that affect me; the same goes for some other writers I know, whose work during that period is more violent than normal. Not many people notice this. A little while back one of our national newspapers here in the UK wrote a piece decrying the level of violence in modern fiction, and citing A Season for the Dead among a list of titles it used to support its thesis.
The piece seemed baffled by how much blood there was in the books that came out between 2002 and 2004. You wonder if the person writing it ever managed to take a look at the news pages. Writers are affected by the state of the world – at least this one is. I doubt many people wrote great fairy stories in Hitler’s Germany.
It’s always nice to read a review by someone who’s actually taken the time to read a book properly. As a former newspaper journalist, I hate to say this but that often isn’t the case with the press. The web is definitely stealing some ground on decent book reviews these days. Thanks again for yours.
If it’s of any interest to readers, you can read a few honest words about the genesis of these books at my website, www.davidhewson.com.
MIKE GROST (January 2006)
I am enjoying the new on-line Mystery*File very much!
On Native American sleuths, comic books featured an early outstanding example. Pow-Wow Smith was the sheriff of the frontier community of Elkhorn, an area that had both Native American and white residents. The stories ran from 1949-1961, so kids in the US were reading about heroic Indian lawmen in the 1950’s far more regularly than grown-ups!
Smith was Sioux. He first appeared in Detective Comics #151, January 1949. Writer: Don Cameron. Art: Carmine Infantino.
There are some notes on him in my comic book web site http://members.aol.com/MG4273/westernc.htm#Pow.
Smith even solves an impossible crime in one of the tales, “The Return of the Fadeaway Outlaw” (1959). I have been keeping track of comic book stories that feature impossible crimes. There is a list, with links to longer comic book articles on the sleuths, at http://members.aol.com/MG4273/comicmys.htm.
Many of these have explanations that are a touch science-fictional. These might not pass full muster as what prose mystery writers would call genuine impossible crime tales. Still, these tales are lots of fun, and show a great deal of admirable imagination. Some of the best stories are from that most delightful of mystery comic books, Big Town: http://members.aol.com/MG4273/bigtown.htm. Big Town is a comic book that should be much better known to mystery fans.
Steve: Even though I always enjoyed Pow-Wow Smith as a boy, I had not thought of him in years. I will most certainly add him to my list of Native American detectives. I also have owned some Big Town comics, but that was later on, when I was collecting Golden Age comics and not necessarily reading them. If only I had saved all of the comic books I have had over the years!
TONY SIDES (January 2006)
I was very interested to read Doug Bassett’s article in which he compared Donald Hamilton’s character Matt Helm with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. I’ve read most of both series and never thought of them in the same breath before, except in the sense Doug mentioned of tending to read or re-read a number of each of them in a row, and to then lose track a little of plots because of the formula approach.
One apect of Helm – and some other Hamilton books – is a focus on the necessity for ruthlessness, which has a sceptical, pragmatic, Cold War patriotism to it. McGee, however, seems too cynically conscious of the foolishness and venality of people and politicians to take the ideology or perceived danger of the Cold War anywhere near as seriously – even in order to debunk them.
DOUG BASSETT (January 2006)
I think Tony is right, the Helm’s are more political than the McGee’s. There are genre reasons for that: the Helm’s are spy adventure stories first and foremost, which necessarily implies the battle of good and evil in a political context, while the McGee’s by design are far less tied to formula constraints.
There are character reasons, too. The Helm’s are essentially ruminations on the question “how can I be a good man in a bad situation,” and one of the answers Helm tells himself is that he’s sinning, essentially, for God and country. The McGee’s, though, ask “what does it mean to be a good man? A bad man?” and that seems to me to necessitate an inward journey removed from the political sphere.
I have no idea what Hamilton’s or MacDonald’s personal politics were. As I was writing the above paragraph, though, it occurred to me that things are more complicated than they might appear at first glance. Helm might be fighting the Cold War, but the villains in the books are just as likely to be rogue agents, or independent operators, or former friends, or even his own agency, as they are to be Soviet agents. “How can I be a good man in a bad situation?” Look a bit deeper at the stories and you’ll see that one aspect of the “bad situation” is that the demarcation lines between “good” and “evil” are a lot more murky than they first seem.
Whereas McGee has no problem confronting evil, indeed most of the memorable McGee villains are atavistic throwbacks of primal evil. MacDonald believed in evil as an embodied force: Stephen King admires MacDonald, and it’s not hard to understand why, as the men philosophically have much in common. The battle for McGee is not to understand how to behave, for he knows what he should do. Rather it’s to cope with the realities of his struggle.
So while Tony is right that McGee was not a man to take the political situation especially seriously, he is far more of a straight-up fighter for Truth, Justice, and the American Way than the often-conflicted Helm. Much of the pleasure of these characters is the tension between what they are and what they seem to be.
SARAH BYRNE (January 2006)
I was a bit thrilled to discover yesterday that one of the small boys to whom I distribute book tokens at yuletide had blown the lot on a new series for children which combines two of my great passions, cricket and crime fiction. (If there was only some way of working in vintage earrings we would have a hat trick, but I can see that’d be a reach.)
The series is a recent one by Michael Pankridge, starring a cricketer called Toby Jones. This kid and his brother couldn’t read them fast enough. Australian test bowler Brett Lee has contributed cricket tips. (One of my colleagues insists loudly that Lee is not really a test bowler but strictly a one-dayer, but that's a topic for another forum). I have arranged with my young friend to borrow it when he can bear to be parted from it, and will report back.
Great article by Mr Lachman, by the way.
Steve: Since the Toby Jones books have so far been published only in Australia, searching for information about them without Google would be very difficult indeed. But with Google doing what it does best, and with only a small amount of effort, I came up with the following list of titles:
Brett Lee & Michael Pankridge -
Toby Jones and the Magic Cricket Almanack (HarperCollins, Australia, 2003)
Toby Jones and the Secret of the Missing Scorecard (HarperCollins, Australia, 2004)
Toby Jones and the Mystery of the Time Travel Tour (HarperCollins, Australia, 2005)
All three are in paperback and (according to the publisher) designed for youngsters (mostly boys?) between the ages of 8 to 13. Not only are they a combination of cricket and mystery fiction, as Sarah says, but they’re also time travel novels. What Toby Jones discovers in the first book is that he has the ability to go back in time and watch famous cricket matches and players in person, and what’s more, he can take his friends with him. And of course they have all kinds of peripheral adventures as they do. Two more in the series are scheduled to appear in 2006, although not in the US, it almost goes without saying.
JIM THOMPSON (January 2006)
Many thanks for publishing Marvin Lachman’s piece on mystery fiction and cricket. I love sports pageantry, but have never been able to understand exactly how cricket works – or even roughly how it works, for that matter. Lachman quotes one author as follows: that cricket is of “extreme complexity and can only be comprehended in their entirety by the English who begin to study them in early infancy.” That’s what I suspected.
What a shame so few of these books are in print.
Steve: Your last line could not be more true, it’s sad to say. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was getting the article ready for uploading. What’s worse is that no publisher in the US is going to do anything about it, either.
RICHARD DOODY (January 2006)
Thanks for your review of Martin Goldsmith’s book Detour. Needless to say, I am thrilled. I think your idea to quote passages from the book was exactly right. I love the way this book reads, and sometimes I was concerned that having spent so much time with the text in putting the book together that I had lost my objectivity. Your review made me realize that was not the case.
As for Double Jeopardy I have to confess that I have not yet had a chance to read the book. In doing research on Martin Goldsmith, I came across reviews of Double Jeopardy which indicate that it is a crime novel hinging on a “legal twist” (hence the title) and suggesting that the plot has to do with uncovering evidence of a murder by someone who may have already been exonerated for the crime. The reviews suggested that readers of the book would be arguing about the legal issues raised in the story. But of course it is a bit dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a few short book reviews, and that it why I mentioned it so briefly in the introduction to Detour.
As for copies of Detour, if I run into stocking problems with Amazon, I am going to make the book available on eBay, and if necessary readers can purchase directly from O’Bryan House through this email address: rdoody (at) ix.netcom.com .
Update. Follow the link to a brief summary by Bill Pronzini of the author’s other two books. Bill also provides cover scans of all three in jacket.
MARK MIANO (February 2006)
I’m a member of the Rara-Avis yahoo group, and while looking over some recent postings I got steered to your website and there stumbled across a review of my book, Dead of Summer. Thanks very much for the review. You had several questions about the book, and I wanted to try and provide some answers.
You’re correct in the assumption that Kensington was set to publish the third paperback in the series but decided against it. They didn’t give a reason, though I’m quite sure it was due to lackluster sales (why else would they have cancelled it?). Kensington went so far as to typeset the manuscript and order up the cover art, but then pulled the plug just after announcing a publication date. The phantom entry on Amazon is the listing that I guess would have been filled if the book had been published.
Which brings us to the question of, how and why did Worldwide Mystery take over the book? I live in Los Angeles now, and a few years back our SoCal MWA president circulated a note from Worldwide saying it was looking for hardcover books that had never been published in paperback. It’s a strange request, but I just happened to have a hardcover book sitting around that fit the bill, so I wrote a query letter, sent a reading copy, and they ended up taking it.
Right now I’m just happy to see it back in print – since I worked hard on it and do love portions of it.
Steve: I have a feeling that the parts I liked about the book may be the same parts you do – especially the memories Michael has of his author friend and mentor, Jack Crawford. I also thought the lady librarian from New Milford was an excellent character. I don't know why, except that she was so well-drawn that I can picture her still.
Yes, we agree on our favorite portions of the book. For me, the very favorite part is the description of Jack’s writing and his love for books. I have a similar incurable fetish for books (their look, feel, and smell) and it still brings me joy to open my own book and read that section. I’m well aware of the faults of the protagonist and that entire series – but I’m happy that in at least one section I was able to loosen up and write something that still feels real.
Steve: Without wishing to say more, Mark adds that he’s working on another book now, but not the one mentioned on the Kensington website.
BOB WADE (May 2006)
Thanks for your e-mail of 1 May and please forgive my tardiness in replying to it. I’ve been involved in a number of time-consuming projects recently, including staging my high school’s annual class reunion (would you believe, the 68th?).
Thanks so much for making the material pertaining to the interview by Ed Lynskey available online. I enjoyed reading it again. As I told Ed at the time, I thought it extremely well done, one of the best ever on Wade Miller and I’m most grateful to you and all involved. Best of luck and good fortune in your future projects.
Steve: If I may speak for everyone, each of us who were involved were very happy to be a part of it, and thank you, Bob, for being the key component. And congratulations on the recent republication of Branded Woman by Hard Case Crime. If I had my way, all of your books would be still in print.
FRANK WAKELY (May 2006)
It was with great interest that I read the column on Dorothy Uhnak, the writer, who had left the Transit Police as I was joining it. Her name was well known at the time, and I have found the column to be very interesting and insightful.
The column appeared in a Transit Police Retirees Yahoo site, and I enjoyed it very much. I have one question for Dorothy, though. Her character Christie Opara HAD to be named after two high ranking Transit bosses, Arthur Christie and Steven Opara ... the link to the job (especially Opara) is sooooo obvious.
Thanks again, the reading was great.
Steve: Ms. Uhnak remains semi-reclusive, so I am not sure if we will ever get a confirmation on your conjecture, Frank, but you are correct ... the close connection of the names to that of the character could hardly be coincidental.
ED GORMAN (May 2006)
I really liked your piece on gothics. I had a number of friends who wrote them, and so I sorta got into them as a sub-genre. They weren’t, as was commonly supposed, all trash. Some of them were fun, especially the Florence Stevenson ones; and some of them were good atmospheric mysteries once you got past the mandatory virginal-girl goes to mysterious hinterlands, etc. Dean Koontz did a couple of good ones, in fact.
Steve: What I’ve discovered that while the gothics were certainly written to a formula, in skilled hands the formula could be played with a little – variations on a theme, as it were – and in skilled hands, a gem or two certainly did emerge.
CuCHULLAINE O’REILLY (July 2006)
I’m an author and publisher who just happened to run across Gary Lovisi’s excellent review of Steve Becker’s work.
Though I have many of his books, I was not aware of the novels he wrote under his pen name, Steve Dodge. I plan on tracking down a copy of Shanghai Incident immediately.
While I did want to write to thank you for Gary’s thoughtful comments, I thought both you might be interested in learning a few unpublished facts about this author who we both admire.
I was in contact with Stephen just before he died. I wrote him to say that I had dedicated my own book, Khyber Knights, to Jake Dodds, the hero of Stephen’s book, The Chinese Bandit. Interestingly, though many people have commented on my book in regards to various issues, no one has ever asked me who “Jake Dodds” was.
Anyway, when I explained my background and writing to Stephen, he very kindly wrote back and sent me an inscribed copy of his Haiti book. He was a decent fellow, very kind, and interested in the work of a young author whom he had impressed. Sadly, he died soon after.
Yet, being such a fan of Jake Dodds, the Chinese bandit, I strongly urged a Hollywood producer I knew to turn this great adventure book into a movie. After a lot of detective work, my friend discovered that Stephen had been forced by circumstances to sell the rights to the book for a song many years ago, that David McLean of LAWRENCE and ZHIVAGO movie fame was planning on filming it, had even scouted locations in China, and that Robert Redford was being talked about to play Jake.
This would explain the amazing similarity of the Redford/Dodds character on the later paperback edition of the book. When McLean died the film rights became the property of one Barry Spikings, who still controls them to this day. There was some recent talk that Russell Crowe might play Jake, but that just appears to be more Hollywood gossip.
As I said earlier, in addition to writing I also publish, and I have been toying with the idea of contacting Mrs. Becker and asking if she would be interested in issuing the Stephen Becker collection. Gary’s review has thus prompted this email, and the re-emergence of that overdue idea.
[From a later email]
I’m glad that my recollections of Stephen Becker were of interest to you. In my opinion he was a writer’s writer, in that there wasn’t a wasted word, a superfluous scene or a weak character in any of his books.
The book which influenced my own life so greatly, The Chinese Bandit, is an excellent example of his finely honed talent. That tome opens with one of the strongest paragraphs I ever read. Next it quietly lures you into visiting war-ravaged 1940s China. Finally it sweeps you away across the Gobi desert on one of the greatest adventure epics of the mid-20th century. It is Becker at his best.
As I expressed in my last email, we are very interested in learning if Mrs. Becker would allow The Long Riders’ Guild Press to reissue all of her late husband’s books. We currently have nearly one hundred books in various stages of production, so such a personal project will have to wait until later this year, but I will keep you posted on how this idea develops.
In closing, many thanks, Steve, for sharing my thoughts on Stephen Becker with your readers. He was a terrific writer and a swell guy.
JAMIE STURGEON (September 2006)
Just been reading your piece on Alexander Knox. I can tell you that Falcon in the two John Crozier books is also a Native American. From the intro to Murder in Public (Hutchinson, 1934):
Falcon is a North American Indian, son of Nibowaka, a Chief of the Delawares, who died in France in 1915. The tribe to which Falcon belongs is, unfortunately, almost all wiped out. The majority of the young men of the tribe fought in France with the Canadian forces, and a group of them defended with singular bravery, against overwhelming odds, the flank of the Canadian First Division in the second battle of Ypres. Falcon was 17 at the close of the war, and had enlisted. He did not see service in France.
Although the tribe is broken up and largely absorbed into other tribes of his nation, Falcon is still the Chieftain, and on a recent petition to King George made by a group of his people, he signed his name and title:
“Onanta (Swooping Falcon), son of Nibowaka (The Wise), Chief of Sinawaa.”
He is a private investigator and has an assistant Miss Mitt and his office is just off Fleet Street in the centre of London. Interestingly the book was published as No. 18 in Hutchinson’s First Novel Library! I wonder why he dropped the Ian Alexander pseudonym and the character Eagels?
Steve: Interesting, indeed, and I shall have to see about getting copies of both books [the other being Kidnapped Again, Hutchinson, 1935] although I’ve been meaning to ever since reading the Ian Alexander book. So far I haven’t, but now I have an extra incentive. (And why the change in pseudonym and character, I imagine that this is a question that we’ll have to file under the category of things we’ll likely never know.)
TONI JOHNSON-WOODS (September 2006)
Steve: This inquiry needs a little introduction. Dr. Johnson-Woods of the University of Queensland is working on a book on Carter Brown, as mentioned at the end of her two-part article on Australian pulp fiction that appeared earlier on M*F a couple of days ago. She also asked me several questions about Carter Brown that I didn’t know the answers to, but I suggested to her that perhaps an inquiry here in the Forum would catch the eye of someone who does have answers. Here’s her reply. You can contact me, or Toni directly; I’ll break up her email to keep spammers from picking it up: brisbanelandlord (at) yahoo.com.au .
Questions – my list keeps growing. Basically I would like to hear from anyone who was a reader and recalls their CB experiences – I need someone in the world to admit to reading him – so I can mention readers’ experiences. Why read him, where they read him. Perhaps some immigrants learning the language??? Perhaps teen boys getting some illicit thrills (such as Peter Corris admits to). And the more from as many countries as possible the better.
Second, if anyone has any information about publishing CB in the UK (i.e., Four Square) or anything about Tower Books/Bucks Books that would be great, too.
Also if anyone knows anything about Carter Brown and E. L. Doctorow (who was his editor at Signet), and Robert Silverberg (yes the sci-fi writer who penned a couple of CB’s) and Frank Kane (who did CB revisions) or anyone else who *might* have contributed. Any data about CB’s Signet editor Brad Cumings ... or where later Signet (post 1961) archives are ... that would be terrific.
I’m just trying to make this the Carter Brown bible and put an end to all the misinformation out there.
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