FRED CROCKETT, PRIVATE EYE - A Profile by Gary Warren Niebuhr
Not unlike Philip Marlowe and a few other old-school P.I. characters, not a lot is known about Fred Crockett, the leading character in three paperback originals written by Brad Lang in the mid-1970s. Crockett may not have had the most stable of upbringings. He admits to a runaway on his first case that he spent some time hiding from his parents when he was young, but his connection to the youth in his own community is central to the books. Crockett lives in an unnamed university town in Michigan that is one hour from Detroit and one hour from the state capitol. From this unnamed school, Crockett has earned an undergraduate degree in Political Science. He then joined the local police force. One year after joining the cops, he earned a master’s degree in Criminal Science. Because of his inability to work well with others, Crockett soon left to obtain a license and to open his own P.I. agency.
In The Perdition Express, he tells us he has been a P.I. for six years. His office is in an old musty building. He has a battered metal desk, two folding chairs, a telephone, a typewriter and a three drawing filing cabinet. He has a poster of the Rolling Stones on the wall. Without a secretary, he uses an answering service to take his messages. Like all good P.I. characters, he needs a lawyer, and his is Jack Pearson. In the first book, he uses a P.I. named Borden Potter as a backup, and in the last book he visits an old acquaintance named Pat Murphy at the Midwest Investigations, Inc., agency in Detroit. His nemesis on the police force is Lt. Reilly, and he is in conflict constantly with the Lt.’s assistant, Sgt. Ross.
Crockett is 28 in all three books. Crockett is 6’ 2” tall and weighs 180 lbs. He has long hair, thus earning him the reputation of being the “hippie” detective, despite not really acting like a hippie. However, he does smoke marijuana as well as traditional cigarettes. He wears a .38 in a shoulder holster and has a matching .38 available as a backup. He drives a 1971 Pontiac GTO. Crockett hangs out at Ralph’s Bar and Grill, which is a social club for the “freaks” of his hometown. Regulars there include Big Eddie Stone (a drug dealer), Fat Jenny, Marilyn, Dave Epstein, and the bartender Barney Kimball. Crockett lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the 6th floor (of 15) in the Highfield Towers. His favorite TV detective is Baretta.
In Crockett on the Loose (Leisure, 1975), when Robert Samuelson wants his daughter Susan found, it is after a different investigator, Borden Potter, has been chased off the case. Made a sterner stuff, Crockett takes a beating, and then loses a potential snitch to a drug overdose that looks suspiciously like murder. In the meantime, he makes little headway in locating Susan. He works with an old college friend, Sol Weinberg, who is the chairman of the University Student Government General Council. His other resources on the street are found amongst the students at the local university and the barflies, drug addicts and lowlifes on the campus and city streets.
Not unlike Chandler’s Bay City, most of the cops in this town are corrupt in some fashion, even if it is in just their indifference when they could help. Eventually, Crockett loses a friend to this case while being jailed himself. He is forced to crawl back up from the bottom in order to force a resolution to this case. The novel is told in a rough and unpolished style, and it works on a blue-collar level similar to some of the old Gold Medal paperbacks. It does have a dynamic pace that helps propel it. This novel can be recommended to readers who like a book to have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand when the action lags.
Late one night at the Asylum nightclub, as the music of the rock band “The Perdition Express” crashes to its conclusion, two shots fell Jimmy Nelson, the bass player, in the opening of the book of the same name, The Perdition Express (Leisure, 1976). When the police seem indifferent to solving the murder, the band’s drummer, Bill Frazier, asks Crockett to investigate.
Like moths around a flame, all of the members of The Express are interested in Madalyn Phillips. She has had a child with Jimmy, but he refused to marry her, and this angered the other suitors in the band. Suspicion for Jimmy’s murder also falls on a rival bass player who might have wanted Jimmy out of the way in order to be hired into the successful group. This may also explain why the band has been having a series of episodes in which their equipment, and even one of their venues, was vandalized.
This is a novel with a pretty closed set of suspects, and at least in terms of the mystery, it reads like a play-fair traditional detective story. Lang is adept at incorporating the streets into his novel, and most of the characters are people who come from a realistic environment for being potential perpetrators of crime. With some flaws that keep it from being a highly regarded effort, it still has some very positive strengths. Here is a sample of some ironic dialogue used when a band member has just been shouting at Crockett:
“What was that all about?” Madalyn wanted to know. “He wanted to thank me for shooting the bass player. Said they’d been trying to figure out a way to get rid of him.”
Only an average effort here, this is the weakest of the three books in this series.
In Brand of Fear (Leisure, 1976), Jeff Beacher is a computer programmer for the state of Michigan who gives a quarter of his monthly income to a blackmailer because of a photo that proves he is gay. Worse, the photo shows Jeff with a prominent university professor who he would like to protect. When the blackmailer is murdered, Crockett shifts from working for Beacher (who is now jailed for the murder) and begins to work for the Gay Liberation Movement and his college friend, Kenny Mitchell. Crockett’s job is to sort through the suspicious behaviors of a number of well-developed minor characters.
Unlike so many other books in this genre, this novel handles gay characters in a believable and respectful fashion. Designing the mystery as a whodunit, Lang plays fair, works his red herrings, and pulls it all off in the end.
For me the highlight of the book was chapter eight, when Crockett comes face to face with a minor organized crime figure who has recently tried to shoot him. It ends with Crockett asking, “Are you going to shoot me again?” Dombrowski chuckled, “Only if you do somethin’ else I don’t like!” “Fair enough,” replies our hero in true hard-boiled fashion.
I liked this novel the best of all three in the series and would recommend it because it shows Lang at his best, in control of both his plot and his characters.
INTERVIEW WITH BRAD LANG, conducted by Steve Lewis
While skimming through Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV recently, I came across the name of an author I hadn’t thought about in a long time, and I wondered where he was now and what he had been doing since his three private eye novels were published back in the mid-70s. Here’s his dossier:
LANG, BRAD -
Crockett on the Loose. Leisure, paperback, 1975.
The Perdition Express. Leisure, paperback, 1976.
Brand of Fear. Leisure, paperback, 1976.
Series character: Fred Crockett, a young, tough private eye who works in and around a large university campus.
I asked Gary if he remembered the books, and he said sure, and how about my reviewing them for you? That’s never an offer I’d ever turn down.
I also contacted Brad by email, asked him if he wouldn’t mind my asking him a few questions. He said, by all means, ask away. So I did.
Q. Although you unfortunately haven’t had the time to update it recently, besides talking about yourself and your books, the remainder of your website is dedicated to hardboiled mystery fiction. Here’s an alternate world fantasy. Given an undiscovered Dashiell Hammett novel or a never published book by Raymond Chandler, which would you read first? Why?
A. I’d celebrate the discovery of either equally, but since I can read only one book at a time, I'd probably go with the Chandler first. While Hammett was the godfather, Chandler was the stylistic master, and I was more heavily influenced by him than any other mystery writer or probably any other non-mystery writer, for that matter.
Q. Besides Hammett and Chandler, of the pre-1950 hard-boiled writers, have you any other favorites? Which author would you recommend as being underrated by present-day readers?
A. Pre-1950? That's a tough one, since most of them have been forgotten, even by me. I'd have to point to a few individual books, such as Benjamin Appel’s Brain Guy (1934) or Richard Hallas’s You Play The Black And The Red Comes Up as examples of great novels that nobody remembers. W. R. Burnett and James M. Cain created a lot of material in addition to the ones they’re most remembered for because of the films (Little Caesar, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle in Burnett’s case, and The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity for Cain), but they're not remembered.
Carroll John Daly is one pioneer who’s been totally forgotten by mainstream audiences, and his stuff hasn’t aged very well, I’m afraid. Same with Cornell Woolrich. Richard Sale is another 40s writer who’s been forgotten. Jim Thompson wrote in the 40s and the 50s, but I think he’s had some attention recently.
Q. Of the post-1950 “modern” era, say through 1980, again the same question. Whose works would you like most to see revived and published again?
A. I’d say a lot of people have overlooked James Crumley and Fredric Brown. Brown did write some stuff in the late 40s, but most of his work was done in the 50s. Also Thomas B. Dewey, who wrote a lot of great stuff in the 50s and 60s; plus John Godey, William P. McGivern, Ross Thomas.
Q. Do you keep up with present day authors? Any favorites among the hard-boiled writers active today?
A. I think there are a lot of excellent hardboiled writers working today. I read everything written by Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, James Lee Burke, Andrew Vachss and Carl Hiaasen. I’ve always loved Donald Westlake, particularly the Parker stuff. Crais and Connelly are others I read when I have the chance. I’ve recently discovered Lee Child, and I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, since I spend so much time online and don’t get to read as much as I used to.
Q. Turning to your own books, can you tell us how they came to be?
A. For that answer, we can go to my website, where I say: I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a teenager. By the time I left college and still hadn’t found a publisher for my novel of the 60s, I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.
I decided to try something simpler, like a detective novel. But I really hadn’t read anything other than The Hardy Boys and Mickey Spillane. One day somebody told me to read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I was immediately hooked, especially on Chandler. Eventually I was ready to try it myself.
I came up with the idea of a tough detective who was a former hippie AND an ex-cop. Yes, it was a stretch, but I wanted a character who was a liberal and a tough guy, too. After two years of writing and then searching for a publisher, Crockett was finally born in 1976.
The only thing I can add is that I had always intended to get back to writing my novel of the 60s, but got side-tracked by financial needs into a career in advertising writing (a reverse Elmore Leonard, so to speak), and could never find the time to return to fiction writing. It’s damned hard work, and in my opinion can't be done successfully in your spare time.
Q. How much editorial guidance (or interference) did you have? Did the books come out more or less the way you wanted them?
A. Hardly any changes were made. General suggestions were offered at the beginning. The character’s name was changed, from Keller to Crockett, because there was already a character by that name. The title of the first book would have been Keller on the Loose, which makes a lot more sense. I could probably have used some more aggressive editing in spots, but Leisure Books wasn’t Random House. The covers were completely out of my control, and evolved over the series into something that bore no resemblance to my character as described. He went from a denim jacket to a leisure suit. I have been told that the cover for the second book was an almost exact copy of a New York Dolls concert photo!
Q. According to Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, the books took place in the Ann Arbor area, with a strong connection with the University of Michigan. (One Internet source says East Lansing, and Michigan State University. Which is correct?) Did you go to school or live in the area? (I was at U of M from 1963 to 1969. Is there a possible overlap?)
A. I went to school at MSU, and continued to live in East Lansing for several years after. The books were set in a mythical midwestern college town that was pretty much a cross between UofM and MSU. Although I spent some time in Ann Arbor off and on over the years, I knew a lot more about East Lansing, so your Internet source is more correct. (And I’m a big MSU sports fan, so the less said about the Wolverines, the better.)
Q. Oops. Forget that I mentioned UofM then! But as far as the location of this mythical college town is concerned, is it in Michigan? Is the actual state mentioned in the books?
A. Yes, I do mention Michigan at one point or another. In the third book, for example, I have Crockett driving to Detroit. But I’ve never identified the city or the name of the university. In retrospect, it probably might have been better to pin it down, but then I’d have people asking me why I didn't choose New York or Boston or LA or SF for the location! (Because I don't know those cities. And I didn't want to place it in Detroit because it’s not really thought of as a college town, and I wanted a college setting so there’d be lots of kids in one place at the same time.)
Q. Being published by a small outfit like Leisure, the books were probably not promoted very heavily, am I correct? Were the books reviewed at all, to your knowledge? If so, what kind of reaction did they get?
A. They were not promoted at all, as far as I know. I found one or two reviews over the years, in enthusiast publications, in addition to those I promoted in the local papers. It was pretty much a “pump them out and forget them” operation. I’ve always hoped they could be re-released by a publisher with at least some budget for promotion, but I guess I’ll have to write something else first.
An interesting sidebar: Before I wrote the books I was involved in the anti-war movement. So guess what the headline was for the review of my first book in the local daily paper? “Local Protester Writes Book.” Crockett would have kicked that reporter’s butt. I just wrote a nasty note to the editor.
Q. Was your original contract with Leisure for only the three novels? Did you have an agent, or did you deal with them directly?
A. I was represented by Scott Meredith Agency, which is now apparently a shadow of its former self. I actually paid them a reading fee for the first book, after which they represented me exclusively for all my output, which included the three novels and a couple of short stories, one of which was published in Fantasy & SF magazine. Eventually we parted company. My contract was for one book at a time.
Q. After the three Fred Crockett books had been written and published, had Leisure been still interested, were you willing and able to continue writing more of his adventures? Did you have more of them plotted? Did you have anything in mind or preliminary notes for additional books, that you can recall?
A. I was already working on the fourth book in the series when my editor at Leisure left to take another editing job, unfortunately at a magazine rather than a publishing house. They dropped the series after that one, and I got involved in my advertising career. I was young, got discouraged, and threw myself into writing ad copy and, it turns out, making decent money. I never really came up with a viable plot for the fourth book. It had something to do with a murder after a poker game, based on an actual incident in my home town. I was playing a lot of poker at the time, so I thought I might know what I was talking about.
Q. Supposing that Fred Crockett were still around and working as a private eye today. He’d be in his late 50s, so that is a possibility. How would he have changed over the years? What would he be like today, as opposed to who he was then?
A. I think he would be less idealistic, but still loyal to his liberal principles, in a world-weary sort of way. He would sleep more and sleep around less. He wouldn't be focusing on cases involving college students and dopers and rock musicians, obviously, since his connections (and mine, for that matter) would no longer exist.
He would be more like Lew Archer than Philip Marlowe. Having matured in much the same way as Fred, I believe the bottom line for me would be that if somebody offered me an advance, I’d put Fred back on the street in a heartbeat, probably (employing literary license) as a 40-something rather than a man approaching retirement age.
However, to tell the truth, if I were to start writing fiction again, I’d prefer to work on my mainstream novel set in the 60s, which I mentioned earlier.
Q. In recent years you have been greatly involved with the Internet and classic movies. Would you care to expand upon this?
A. The Internet is a natural for writers. I discovered it in the early 90s, and got involved with About.com just after it was formed. At the time, it seemed like a dream that you could actually get paid for doing a Web site. The choice of Classic Movies as a subject was sort of random. I have a variety of interests, including movies (also bowling, pool, sci-fi, card games, writing, etc.), but that was the one that was open and for which I had some background, having done a similar (though very rudimentary) site for Firefly – which at the time was pretty cutting edge in terms of Internet communities. I stayed with About for 7 years, and recently have struck out on my own, using all the existing material from my About site. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve been able to keep up with what’s happening on the Web, despite being over 40.
May I direct people to my website? I hope some of the people reading this will go to http://www.classicmovies.org and click on some ads, buy some videos, and check out my articles.
Q. Returning to books, what is the essence of hard-boiled fiction that makes it so popular? Is there a definition of “hard-boiled” that works for you?
A. In the introduction to my Hardboiled Heaven website, I say, “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to come up with a definition, and haven’t had much luck. I know what it isn’t: It’s not Agatha Christie; it’s not British tales of ingenious murders using unorthodox methods, solved by quirky, plodding amateur sleuths. It’s not courtroom dramas or spy novels or studies of slashers and psychopaths. What it is can be more easily explained by perusing the Hardboiled Crime & Mystery Checklist that is part of this site. Read Raymond Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Art of Murder” Or read Raymond Chandler, period. Or Dashiell Hammett. Or Elmore Leonard. Or even Robert B. Parker.”
Q. Can you tell us more about your current writing?
A. At the moment I’m continuing to focus on projects that have immediate income potential, mostly freelance advertising writing. As I mentioned, I still hope to get back to my mainstream novel set in the 60s. I have some sample chapters online at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/writer890/CoolHead.html Not too fancy in terms of layout, but readable. My hope is that I can get back to working on this project before I forget what happened during that period!
Q. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
A. You’re welcome. And I enjoyed the reviews. I got so few of them back in the day.
This article and interview first appeared in Mystery*File 46, November 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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