FORGOTTEN WRITERS: Joe Rayter and Hy Silver, by Bill Pronzini
Bogus Lover. Newsstand Library U136, pbo, 1960.
Petaluma, California, is my home town. It’s a small place some forty miles north of San Francisco, built around the upper reaches of a salt-water estuary that was called Petaluma Creek when I was a kid but has since been upgraded, by a 1959 act of the state legislature, to Petaluma River. I spent the first twenty-two years of my life within the town’s dusty confines.
Until the 1980s, Petaluma was an agricultural town – the center of a chicken- and dairy-ranching area. Milk and milk products are still a staple of its economy, but the chicken-and-egg business, for a variety of reasons, is pretty much a thing of the past. This is sad for historical as well as economic reasons. Time was, Petaluma’s whole identity was tied up in chickens and eggs. It used to bill itself, with considerable justification, as “The Egg Basket of the World”: During its boom years in the early 1900s, its farms and hatcheries produced and shipped millions of eggs annually (22 million dozen in 1920). It was so poultry-oriented that many things in town were named for or after chickens: the local semi-pro baseball and football teams were the Leghorns, for instance, and there was once a Chicken Pharmacy that made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The Chamber of Commerce even employed a “Welcome Chicken” (later “Chicken Lady”) – an individual who would dress up in a chicken suit, attend parades and other civic functions, and welcome, new families into the area. This phenomenon continued into the seventies, as witness the following ad which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1971 :
“Chicken Lady Wanted: Must dress up like a hen, cluck greeting to Petaluma newcomers. No experience needed, but prefer woman who will put civic interest ahead of personal life.”
(You think I’m making all this up, right? Skeptics are invited to e-mail for proof.)
Since the decline of the chicken-and-egg business, Petaluma’s chief claim to fame – aside from its present lamentable status as a trendy “bedroom community” for Bay Area commuters, which has swelled the population from around 12,000 when I was a kid to over 40,000 at the last census – is as the birthplace of the annual World Wristwrestling Championship. Otherwise, its celebrity status is pretty thin. Actor Lloyd Bridges went to school in Petaluma; and character actor and “B” director Myron Healey was born there. (My mother, who attended school at the same time as Bridges, said that he was called “Snotnose,” for obvious reasons. However, since my mother was prone to hyperbole, you should take this with several grains of salt.) Poet Arthur Winfield Knight also hails from Petaluma. Its next most famous native-son writer is probably me, which ought to tell you plenty about the town’s literary heritage.
You might think, given its size and history, that I’m Petaluma’s only mystery writer; but you’d be wrong. There are three – count ‘em, three – others. The best known of these is Irma Walker, who in recent years has published several romantic suspense and straight mystery novels. The remaining two are Forgotten Writers. FOOTNOTE.
One is Joe Rayter (real name: Mary McChesney).
The other is Hy Silver (real name, believe it or not: Hy Silver).
One of the first adult mysteries I read in my formative years was Asking for Trouble by Joe Rayter. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. After graduating from teenage mysteries (the excellent Ken Holt series by Bruce Campbell), I had a brief fling with science fiction and then gravitated to the more comfortable milieu of fictional murder and mayhem. I got most of my reading material out of the library in those days, and one of the librarians, who didn’t find my literary interests odd or detrimental to my mental health, recommended the Rayter book because the author was local and much of the action took place in nearby locales. Neither the librarian nor I noticed the last line of the dust jacket blurb: “This is taut writing in a mystery novel not for children.”
I loved Asking for Trouble. The familiar settings – Tomales Bay, Santa Rosa, then-mysterious San Francisco – were one reason. Another was that the protagonist and narrator, Johnny Powers, was a private detective, a breed for which I was already developing a fondness. And still another was why it’s a mystery novel not for children: the narrative and the surprisingly frank (for the mid-fifties) dialogue are liberally spiced with s*e*x. More than enough s*e*x to stir the hormones of a curious and incipiently horny teenager.
There were two other Joe Rayter titles, I subsequently discovered, one of which – The Victim Was Important – also featured Johnny Powers. The local library didn’t have either one. Before long I tracked down the paperback reprint of Victim (but it would be years until I found and read a copy of the third, Stab in the Dark). It wasn’t quite as good as Asking for Trouble – not as much s*e*x, for one thing – but it was nonetheless better than the majority of mysteries I was devouring at the time.
On a recent rereading, both Powers novels held up pretty well, in large part because he is an appealing character. He drinks moderately (for the most part), cooperates with the police (for the most part), admits his mistakes, has my kind of abominable eating habits (his favorite breakfast consists of Italian ham, kosher dill pickles, and cream cheese), and sports an irreverent sense of humor without resorting to that most irritating of all PI conventions, the inappropriate and snotty wisecrack. He uses his wits to gather clues and solve his cases, and is not above taking a small bribe to obtain information. (“I ... let the other guy sweat it out to see if I’ll do what he wants. I’ll drink their liquor, eat their fancy food and then do as I damn well please.”) His head isn’t soft and lumpy from being banged on with blunt instruments; he doesn’t engage in protracted fisticuffs or bloody shootouts, and carries a gun only in emergency situations. He keeps his libido in check. He has reasonably good manners. In short, he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t hesitate to invite to dinner.
In The Victim Was Important (Scribners, 1954), he is hired to investigate the murder by bludgeoning (with a golf club, no less) of an internationally known psychologist. The suspects include a jealous divorcee, an alcoholic widow, a gay patron of the arts, a neurotic research psychologist, and a couple of highly eccentric painters. The scene is San Francisco and Berkeley, the writing smooth and mildly Chandleresque, the characters developed at considerable depth, and the plot and resolution satisfactory. The only serious flaw is procedural: for some curious reason, Rayter/McChesney labored under the delusion that the San Francisco Police Department would be in charge of investigating a homicide across the bay in the Berkeley hills.
The best of the two Powers adventures, and the best Rayter novel overall, is Asking for Trouble (Mill-Morrow, 1955). This one starts with the apparent shotgun slaying of a “mildly crazy philosopher” who owns a Tomales Bay oyster farm that doubles as a retreat for a strange assortment of homeless alcoholics. A messy divorce case involving money and “revolting practices,” and such characters as an unscrupulous private eye, an ex-prizefighter turned Dada painter, a female ex-con, a “wild gypsy” nympho with exotic sexual tastes, and a besotted former college professor, figure prominently in a complex plot that takes Powers all over the Bay Area and into Nevada. Bizarre motives, good local color, and some surprises spruce up a compelling narrative.
Johnny Powers is such a convincing medium-boiled male detective that I was amazed when I first learned Joe Rayter is the pseudonym of a woman. To write believably in the first-person voice of a member of the opposite sex is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can set for himself or herself. Aside from Mary McChesney, the only women mystery writers I know of who were able to do a proper male “I” are Leigh Brackett in a couple of short stories, and Willo Davis Roberts in one novel and Julie Smith in two. Conversely, the only male who seemed able to writer a proper female “I” was Cornell Woolrich. Of course – inevitably, I suppose – McChesney does make a minor slip now and then. In Victim, she has Powers order and extoll the virtues of a campari cocktail; no self-respecting heterosexual American male PI would be caught dead drinking one of those things. But you pretty much have to be looking for such small gaffes to notice them. All points considered, her evocation of Johnny Powers as both a man and a human being is quite good.
The third and last Rayter novel, Stab in the Dark (Mill-Morrow, 1955), is a non-series mystery about murder, infidelity, and dope-peddling among a group of oddball expatriate artists in Guadalajara. It has an unusual construction similar to that employed, much more successfully, by Bill S. Ballinger in such novels as The Wife of the Red-Haired Man: half first-person from the point of view of the female protagonist, Madelene Greenfield; half third-person from the points of view of several of the other characters. Partly as a result of the construction, and partly because of the progression of events, there is a disjointed, almost surreal quality to the narrative that makes it difficult to follow in places. I hated the book when I first read it in my late teens, probably because its subtleties escaped me. I liked it much better on a recent rereading; it has the same depth of characterization as the two Powers novels, and some memorable scenes – one in particular in which Madelene observes a murder while unwittingly stoned on grass. Still, for my taste, Stab in the Dark is the weakest of the three Rayter books.
One of the things that has always fascinated me is why writers stop writing, especially those who have more than one novel to their credit. Why did Mary McChesney at around age thirty publish three mysteries in two years, all of which were well-received and all of which sold to a major paperback reprinter (Pocket Books), and then never another word of fiction?
The specific reason is that while she did write at least one other book, it (or they) failed to sell and the rejection(s) evidently discouraged her. But I think this – and most other reasons for writers quitting the game – can be boiled down to one basic cause: Writing was not a major motivating force in her life. She and others like her wrote as an avocation, or at best as a temporary vocation; the composing of fiction wasn’t central to her life, wasn’t what gave it meaning and fulfillment. So her energies were easily channeled into another type of creative endeavor that was central to her.
As may be deduced from the three Rayter titles, which deal extensively with artists and the art world, McChesney herself is an artist. A sculptor, to be exact, working not with clay or wood or metal but with ... cement. Under her maiden name, Mary Fuller, she has gained a measure of success as one of the more innovative creators of outdoor concrete sculptures. For the past forty-odd years she has lived on a ranch in the hills above Petaluma with her husband, Robert McChesney, a well-regarded nonobjective painter (oils and watercolors) who has had several shows in Northern California.
Writing mysteries is something Mary McChesney once did, and did fairly well; but a sculptor is what she is.
Just as a writer, for better or worse, is what I am – and why I and others like me could never quit the game, even if we wanted to.
The Victim Was Important. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hc, 1954. [PI Johnny Powers]
Pocket 1070, pb, 1955.
Asking for Trouble. M. S. Mill / William Morrow, hc, 1955. [PI Johnny Powers]
Pocket 1132, pb, 1956.
Stab in the Dark. M. S. Mill / William Morrow, hc, 1955.
Pocket 1145, pb, 1957.
In the spring of 1960, when I was still an impressionable teen-ager, a middle-aged Petaluma chicken rancher named Hy Silver published his first and only mystery novel. Its title was Bogus Lover, and it caused quite a stir locally – a bigger stink in certain circles than all of Hy’s chickens combined.
What fueled the flap was the presence in the novel of four elements: homosexuality and transvestitism, four-letter words (this was 1960, remember), Mike Hammer-type violence, and steamy sex (heterosexual). Bogus Lover has its fair share of all four, though all are tame by today’s standards – no more shocking, really, than some of the material in Asking for Trouble. Nor are any of the four particularly integral or necessary to the storyline.
The latter fact was the centerpiece of Hy’s defense: He claimed that very little of the controversial stuff was his. He would never write such things, he said in an interview. He was as horrified as anybody when he received his author’s copies and found all that crap cluttering up his book.
Hy’s version went like this: A few years earlier, after painstakingly writing the novel, he’d sent it around to a bunch of publishers and garnered an equal number of rejection slips. So then he’d shipped the manuscript to one of those individuals who advertise in Writer’s Digest, offering for various fees such “literary counselling” services as evaluation, editing, and, if necessary, collaboration. The literary counsellor Hy chose informed him that what his book needed to make it salable was some revision and “spicing up,” which he, the agent, would attend to for a fee and a cut of the proceeds. Hy, being an eager novice, readily agreed. The agent made the changes and insertions, which Hy said he never saw, and then sold the book to a Chicago-based paperback publisher called Newsstand Library. Hy had never heard of them, but the important thing to him was that he was about to become a Published Author. He didn’t even know that his original title (I forget what it was) had been changed to Bogus Lover until his copies arrived. It was then and only then that he realized Newsstand Library was a softcore-porn publisher and that his literary counsellor had sold him down a river of sleaze.
Some Petalumans believed Hy’s version; some didn’t. (I do to this day, having had a little experience with literary counsellors myself over the years.) Some treated the whole thing as a sly joke, some thought it was tempest in a teapot, and the bluenoses used it to illustrate their theories on moral decay and the imminent collapse of Western civilization. As for me, I found it all very exciting. Not the controversy; I didn’t much care about that. No, what excited the young mystery fan and fledgling author was this:
While I had never had the opportunity to meet Mary McChesney, I knew Hy Silver. I actually knew a genuine, honest-to-God mystery writer!
In those days bowling was one of my recreational activities. It was also one of Hy’s. My mother worked at the local lanes, which allowed me to hang out there with full parental approval, not to mention a discount on every game I bowled. Some evenings, to make pocket money, I would keep score for league matches (electronic scorekeeping was only a rumor in Petaluma back then); and one of the leagues I worked was the one in which Hy bowled. I didn’t know him well, just to say hello to. But I did know him. (I even remember, after nearly thirty years, that he was short and stocky and wore a mustache and was left-handed.)
So when I heard about his mystery novel being published, I immediately sought out a copy. There was a newsstand in town that I frequented regularly, to buy Gold Medal and Avon and Ace Double paperbacks and such digest magazines as Manhunt as they came out. The owner knew me and wasn’t surprised when I sauntered up to him with a copy of Bogus Lover in hand; it was obvious to me even then that he thought I was a pretty strange kid. Not that that stopped him from selling me Hy Silver’s book, even though technically I was under age. I took it home and consumed it in one long gulp.
Setting: San Francisco. Hero and narrator: ex-cop Anthony Ceaser (sic), owner and operator of a pinball-machine sales and service outfit called Ceaser Amusement Co., who packs a .45 in a shoulder holster to protect himself on collection days. Sidekicks: a 6’3” machinist called Shorty and a ubiquitous taxi driver and sage named Joe Pinsky. Other characters: a murdered homosexual piano player, one “Cookie”; the leader of a gang of armored-car robbers, “Angel Face” Lawrence; a sinister Chinese import-export dealer, Charlie Yee, whose speech patterns are closer to Caspar Gutman’s than to Charlie Chan’s; a beautiful (and willing) mystery lady named Lorna; a beautiful (and willing) cocktail waitress and ear-nibbler named Peggy; a crooked lawyer; assorted cops, thugs, and bartenders; and, for good measure, a chicken-ranching couple from Petaluma. Central plot element: The search for half a million bucks in unrecovered loot from an armored-car heist.
“Do you think sex will ever replace night baseball?”
“Are you trying to throw me a curve?”
“I might be, baby, but I don’t know where in the world you’d put another one.”
More sample dialogue:
“... I could have sworn your mother was a mare. Only a mare could give birth to a horse’s ass like you.”
Still more sample dialogue (proving that Tony Ceaser is really just a sentimental slob at heart):
“When this is all over, Lorna – and I hope to God it’s soon – I’m going to take you down to Carmel. There’s a little place I know of, where you can hear the ocean come roaring in like a thousand freight trains and then when it’s spent itself on the beach you can hear it tiptoeing away like a satisfied lover. You can look straight ahead for a hundred years and see nothing but water and sky and you can use that hundred years to taste just one kiss.”
If, from the foregoing, you deduce that Bogus Lover is a dog, you are so right. It is in fact a woofer of Alternative Classic dimensions.
Be that as it may, the uncritical 17-year-old fledgling writer was captivated by every word of it.
The next time Hy Silver’s league bowled, I made sure I was in attendance. And even though there was a crowd of people around, I marshalled my courage and walked right up to Hy and said, “Mr. Silver, I just want you to know that I read Bogus Lover and I think it’s terrific. I really learned a lot from it.”
From the look on his face, you’d have thought I said, “Mr. Silver, your fly is open.”
He glanced around furtively, mumbled something, gave me a weak smile, and sidled off. Thereafter, whenever he saw me, an oddly nervous expression crossed his face and he avoided contact. I was puzzled and a little hurt at the time (I chalked it up to “artistic temperament”), but these many years later I think I know why he reacted as he did. He’d had enough of the flap over his book; he didn’t want any more hassles. And I had delivered my praise in a loud voice in front of witnesses.
Poor old Hy was afraid of being accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor!
FOOTNOTE: When I wrote the article in 1989, I was in fact Petaluma’s only other mystery writer. Since then, however, the town has changed radically and become something of a literary and artistic mecca. Three mystery writers besides me live here now: Michael Kurland, Marta Randall, and Steve Hockensmith. There may be more I haven’t heard about yet. Not bad for a town with a population of around 50,000 (up considerably from the 12,000 when I was a kid lo those many years ago).
Copyright © 1990, 2006 by Bill Pronzini. These two profiles first appeared in Mystery Scene magazine, March 1990.
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