Interview with Lurton Blassingame

1977—We visited the offices of Mr. Lurton Blassingame recently at 60 E. 4294 St. in the old Lincoln Building near Grand Central Station. Mr. Blassingame has been a literary agent and confidante to authors since the ’20s. During the early ’30s when the pulp magazine was as vital an entertainment medium as radio or the movies—if not more influential—he wrote articles for Writer’s Digest giving advice on the various fiction markets. Eventually his advertisements for his literary agency appeared more frequently than his articles and he has remained influential in publishing for almost half a century.

Mr. Blassingame, distinguished looking and articulate, remembers all the popular writers of the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, he wrote his master’s thesis at Columbia on the history of pulp fiction.

“Back in those old pulp days,” he recalled, “what counted was telling a well constructed story and telling as many of them as possible. You had to be prolific to survive.” He told me anecdotes about various pulp authors and editors. Because I edited, in 1974, the last issue of Black Mask, the great pulp magazine that introduced the hardboiled detective to American literature through the earliest work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, I was particularly interested to hear stories about Captain Shaw, that magazine’s greatest editor. Famous for Perry Mason, Gardner wrote more books that sold more than two million copies than any other writer. Captain Shaw prided himself and the magazine for presenting stories told in the real language of real men who had worked and traveled in America. He wrote many an editorial congratulating his authors (and particularly Gardner) for the authenticity of their language.

Mr. Blassingame was charmed by the Captain but found him a naive fellow who let a lot of risqué dialogue slip through because he didn’t know the meaning of the lingo. Mr. Blassingame relates that Ted Tinsley, a regular contributor, delighted in slipping whorehouse argot past the good Captain and that many a trick got turned without Shaw being the wiser.

I asked Mr. Blassingame why the pulps died. “The 25-cent novel had a lot to do with it,” he told me. “It was generally thicker than a pulp. And it seemed to offer better writing. In general there were better authors represented in the 25-cent novel. Originally the size of these novels was only a bit smaller in height and width than the pulps and then they came out as ‘pocket books’ for their own racks. At first it was genre fiction, mostly detective, that dominated the 25-cent novel, and suddenly the paperback industry of the early ’50s was born.”

But the 25-cent novel was only the first competition. “The advent of television gave the pulps the final blow,” Mr. Blassingame commented. “You had to exert a certain effort to read. You could just sit back and watch television. I had friends who would always ask me to bring them some western pulps cause they knew I could get them for free through my business. By the early ’50s none of those friends were asking for Western pulps any more. They were watching the ‘Lone Ranger’ on television.”

I asked him how he explained the popularity of the paperback book in the face of the terrible power of the TV tube.

“Well, you’re right,” he said, they’re selling more paperbacks than ever in history. Of course our population has grown considerably in the last twenty to thirty years and there is less illiteracy too.”

I recalled a story I had heard of how literary agent Scott Meredith had called all his major magazine fiction authors in the late ’40s or early ’50s to tell them that the 10,000 to 25,000 word short story was now a dead market and that they should extend all their stories to at least 100,000 words or give up writing. The age of the fast paperback novel was about to dawn. Why did paperback become entrenched so fast? For one thing, he said, there was the blending of books with TV so that both mediums sold each other. “And you get to read stories about things you can’t get or can’t get enough of on television, like science fiction.

“One of my clients, Frank Herbert, has a book, Children of Dune (Berkley, $1.95) on three bestseller lists including the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Over one million copies of that book are in print and two million copies of the Dune trilogy have been sold since 1965.”

Now that’s what I call mass marketing. I was surprised and delighted. I had come to interview Mr. Blassingame about pulp writing and he had proven to me that the old pulp tradition was as vital a part of popular culture as I have always felt. Interestingly, Mr. Blassingame is also the agent for Robert Heinlein, the classic science fiction author whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a national sensation in the ’60s and the first pure science fiction novel to make the bestseller lists.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch. Reprinted by permission of the author. Reprinted from Cover One #0, 1977.

Edward Anderson: Depression Blues

Though few would write so movingly about the Depression, Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, received neither the recognition nor the financial reward he deserved. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in 1905 in Weatherford, Texas. Leaving school at an early age, he became a printer’s apprentice—his father’s trade—then a cub reporter for an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper. Within a few years Anderson worked on more than ten newspapers—“Legalized prostitution,” he would call it—within the Oklahoma-Texas area. When he tired of journalism, Anderson found occasional employment as a trombone player.

Trim and muscular Anderson had high Indian cheekbones and dark hair. Like that other hobo-writer, Jim Tully, Anderson was, for a short time, a boxer with at least one professional bout under his belt. At twenty-five, he quit his job as a Houston copy editor to fulfill his dream of joining expatriate American writers in Europe. Shipping out on a freighter from New Orleans, he arrived to find the Lost Generation were mostly on their way back to America.

Edward Anderson

Edward Anderson

He returned to the States to find the Depression in full swing. Unable to find employment, Anderson began a two year odyssey, riding freights, sleeping in parks, asking for handouts and working as an itinerant odd-jobber. Back in Abilene, he wrote a story entitled “The Guy in a Blue Overcoat” about a 23 year-old hobo, and met John H. Knox, the son of a preacher who wrote poetry and sold stories to the pulps at a rate of two cents a word. Knox, whose family residence housed Abilene’s largest personal library, introduced Anderson to the world of books. Prior to acquainting himself with Knox’s library, Anderson’s reading had been confined to Tully and Jack London; now he was reading Knut Hamsun, Gorky and Marx. It was Anderson’s desire to write about the lives of hoboes, but the pulps were after stories about detectives, cowboys and athletes. Either the pulps thought it wrong to give hoboes a status beyond their worth, or they thought readers wanted to escape from a society that produced hoboes. Consequently, Anderson’s first published effort for a pulp magazine would be a boxing story.

In 1934, after finding employment as a printer, he met federal employee Polly Anne Bates. Though interested in the arts, Anne came from a family of law enforcers. Her uncle was Gus T. Jones, an FBI agent who helped hunt down Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Butch Cassidy. Anne’s father, despite his hatred for J. Edgar Hoover, also worked for the FBI. Edward and Anne married in August, and moved to New Orleans where Anderson worked for yet another local newspaper where Anderson would rifle through the paper’s files in search of material. Meanwhile, Anne looked after their new born daughter and made occasional trips to the police station to gather information that went into stories Edward was writing in the evenings for magazines like True Detective and Murder Stories. Soon he was selling articles with titles like “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans: The Shameful Facts Behind the War between T. Semmes (Turkeyhead) Walmsely and Huey (Kingfish) Long”; “Tough Guy! The Career of Dutch Gardner”; and “The Kiss of Death and New Orleans’ Diamond Queen.” An article for True Detective about Henry Meyer, the official state hangman was returned saying it might work better as a short-story. The article became “The Hangman,” which marked the start of Anderson’s career as a fiction writer. In an era of proletariat fiction, Anderson’s portrait of life on the road impressed White Burnett and Martha Foley at Story magazine enough to give him $1,000 and a Doubleday/Literary Guild book contract.

Moving to another apartment—Anne was pregnant again—Anderson, over the following seven months, put the finishing touches to Hungry Men. Written in a calm, observational style, its energy and emotional impact overshadowed any stylistic deficiencies. Less a novel than a series of vignettes strung together through its main character, the book sold moderately well, and was praised by Raymond Chandler as well as the New Republic who cited the book’s “firm quiet realism.” Most critics ignored it, and those who did review it thought Anderson was another writer chronicling the Depression, such as the British reviewer who said, “[Anderson’s] style, the extreme nakedness of presentation, the slang, ‘like an animal talking,’ owes everything to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

Derivative it might have been, but Hungry Men was less influenced by Hemingway than by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, a Nobel Prize winner who, unfortunately, wound up publicly defending Hitler and the Nazi’s occupation of his country. Like his predecessor, Anderson would also find himself in murky political waters, though this would not become immediately apparent. At the time, Hungry Men, which follows protagonist Acel Stecker as he goes from freight trains to breadlines, from hobo jungles and Hoovervilles to political demonstrations, fit in perfectly with New Deal politics, while rejecting the need for social revolution.

At the time of publication, the novel’s most severe critic turned out to be hobo and author of Waiting For Nothing, Tom Kromer. He attacked Anderson’s novel for its politics and lack of realism. Published two years before Hungry Men, Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing was considerably more revolutionary in tone and outlook. According to Kromer, Anderson’s view of “life on the stem” was too sunny and romantic. So perturbed was Kromer that, in an October, 1936, issue of Pacific Weekly he published a piece which purposely appropriated the title of Anderson’s novel. In three pages of newsprint, Kromer rewrote Anderson’s novel. Covering the same time-span, Kromer, in his hard-bitten approach, rejects Anderson’s ending in which Acel and his small band of musicians, having refused to play the Internationale, decide to call themselves “The Three Americans” and learn to play patriotic and off-color ditties. Instead, Kromer depicts a hundred flophouse stiffs joining locked-out motormen in the streets during the 1934 Los Angeles Yellow Car strike. Kromer was particularly annoyed by the way Anderson sought to sanitize and depoliticize the hobo. In his review, he wrote, “You’ll see no Jesus Christ looks in the eyes of Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, no working stiffs dying of malnutrition on lice-infested blankets of three-decker bunks in the missions, no soup-lines that stretch for blocks in the city streets and never start moving. In a word, you find no Hungry Men.”

On the other hand, Louis L’Amor, at the time another gentleman writer of the road, and not yet Ronald Reagan’s favorite author, praised Anderson’s Hungry Men, saying, “It seems highly improbable that a revolution will take place in this country at the present time… although the subject is interesting… one wonders what will become of a country where young men such as Stecker are forced to wander helplessly, driven by the police, in fear of chain gangs, and out of work through the force of economic changes over which they have no control.” While it’s impossible to ignore Hungry Men’s sense of social justice, it’s apparent that Anderson believed rugged individualism and a benevolent state could combine to defeat Depression poverty. Finding Anderson’s perspective politically naive, Kromer offered the opinion that the former would appeal only to those who’ve been conned by the system: “If you have read all the Horatio Alger novels and would like to get the same story with a depression slant, you will not be able to put it down.”

With the money he received from Burnett and Foley, the Andersons purchased a car and drove to Kerrville, Texas, where they rented a cabin. Situated a thousand feet above Huntsville, Kerrville was famous for sunlight and Guadaloupe water, supposedly beneficial for those recovering from tuberculosis. It was in Kerrville that Anderson would write his second novel, Thieves Like Us.

This time Anderson based his characters on the exploits of real criminals: Bonnie and Clyde, recently gunned down in Athens, Louisiana, not far from Anderson’s home town; John Dillinger who had just been killed outside the Biograph in Chicago; and bank robbers Anderson had interviewed in Huntsville prison, a research expedition that allowed him to record their stories and note their speech patterns and ways of viewing the world. Talking to prisoners had served Anderson well when it came to creating a character like T-Dub, whose manner of speaking—“it’s raining cats and nigger babies”—and perspective came from Anderson’s research. Anderson was now reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Zola, Dostoevsky, and James Farrell, and would spend evenings testing dialogue on Anne, asking her what the girl, Keechie, would say in a given situation. The novel’s title derives from a line delivered by T-Dub in which he refers to those in respectable professions—bankers, politicians, police officers—as “just thieves like us.” It’s this perspective, and the portrayal of those drawn by circumstances into illegal activities, that makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. According to Chandler, the novel was better than Steinbeck, and “one of the best stories of thieves ever written… one of the forgotten novels of the ’30s.” Having ignored Hungry Men, Saturday Review was now calling Anderson “the most exciting new writer to appear in American letters since Hemingway and Faulkner.”

Despite his two novels, Anderson was pretty much broke. After a stint with the Work Projects Association writing about Abilene tourist sites for a Texas guidebook, the Andersons moved to Denver where Edward found work with the Rocky Mountain News and wrote for a local radio show, The Light of the West, dramatizing the region’s historical events. There Anderson received a telegram offering him a screenwriting job in Hollywood. It looked as though Anderson’s fortunes were about to change. He was sure his background as a journalist—writing stories, taking photographs, doing background work, rewriting—would stand him good stead in Hollywood, just as it had the likes of Hecht, Fowler and James M. Cain.

Taking the train west, Anderson and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once had just been released and crime stories with a social angle were in vogue. An optimistic Anderson installed his family in The Seaforth, an apartment complex on the corner of Clinton and Norton, a few blocks from where the film adaptation of his latest book would eventually be made.

It was Ad Schulberg—the mother of Budd Schulberg—who had sent the telegram. Separated from her husband, B.P. “Ben” Schulberg, Ad had set herself up as a Hollywood agent. Meanwhile, Adolph Zukor had given her husband a budget, the promise of producing eight films a year, and an office off Melrose Avenue. With Ad representing Anderson in negotiations with Paramount, the writer must have thought it odd that, whatever their marital status, a Schulberg sat on each side of the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the deal did not bring Anderson the riches he imagined. Anderson was to be paid $150 a week, not much compared to the $5,200 per week Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were making, but not bad when compared to the $25 a week Anderson had been earning as a journalist.

Installed in William Saroyan’s old office, Anderson started off writing a football movie on which the former had been working, a dreamchild of Paramount story editor and pigskin-obsessive George Auerbach. The problem was, Anderson had no idea how to adapt a story for the screen. Though he embarked on a crash course in the art of writing for the movies, no screen credits would be forthcoming, which meant his chances of advancing in Hollywood remained negligible. Auerbach sympathised, believing Anderson’s problem was that he had come in “through the backdoor,” by which he meant it had been Ad Schulberg who had landed him the job in the first place.

When his contract expired, Anderson moved to Warners. At least it was a studio known for gangster films and a solid roster of writers. On the downside, Jack Warner expected his writers to arrive at 8:30 in the morning and stay until 5:30, work six days a week, and could churn-out twenty to thirty pages a day. Anderson’s first assignments were a series of B features alongside Bryan Foy. Foy was the son of Eddie Foy, Jr., of the Seven Little Foys vaudeville team, and a former gag man for Buster Keaton. Such was Foy’s position that he was referred to as the “keeper of the B’s.” The result of their first effort was Siberia, which was probably where Anderson must have felt he’d been sent. With his career going from bad to worse, Anderson ended up working on a series of Nancy Drew mystery films. Not quite what the writer had in mind when he contemplated a career in Tinseltown. On the other hand, writing Nancy Drew scripts—from 1938–1939 there were four such films, directed by William Clemens and starring Bonita Granville as the teenage detective—wasn’t much different from writing for the pulps.

He quickly grew to detest Hollywood. Ill at ease amongst the rich and famous, he began to drink even more than usual. Despite his good looks and athletic appearance, he didn’t possess the personality necessary to get ahead in Hollywood. Nor did he care for his colleagues or employers. Instead, he gravitated towards hard-drinking ex-newspapermen like Hecht, Fowler and Charles MacArthur. He and Fowler had much in common. Both had arrived in Hollywood from Denver; both were fascinated by boxing; and both were former press agents.

In March, Anderson received notice that the rights to Thieves Like Us had been sold to Rowland Brown for $500: Anderson was to receive $250 on signing the contract and a further $250 thirty days later. Nevertheless, Anderson took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner, only to be fired not long afterwards for making jokes about the so-called international Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, Anderson was becoming increasingly anti-semitic, even attending a Los Angeles American Nazi rally. Not that anti-semitism was uncommon in Hollywood. Myron Brinig’s early apocalyptic Hollywood 1933 roman de clef Flicker of an Eyelid, with its unflattering portrayal of the notorious L.A. poet Jake Zeitlin, was criticized as being anti-semitic. Likewise, Jim Tully’s Hollywood novel Jarnegan portrays Jewish movie moguls in a unflattering manner. Since most Hollywood producers, as well as many of its agents and actors, were Jewish, anyone with a grievance had a ready-made target. This was, of course, helped by the fact that a handful Jewish studio executives—Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer—were themselves borderline anti-semites.

Without a job, and hoping to get out of L.A., Anderson found work on the Sacramento Bee. But Anne had problems living in a house that belonged to a Japanese couple who had been interned at the start of the war. So quickly had they been spirited away that all their belongings remained in the house. It wasn’t long before Anderson quit his job at the Bee to devote more time to writing. While Anne went out to work, Anderson began a novel about the west, Mighty Men of Valor. Then he heard screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) was in the market for a western about Fort Griffin, an old outpost near Abilene where a small war with the Commanches had been fought. But neither Anderson’s novel nor his treatment would come to anything. During this period Anderson produced two other stories, one about Sam Houston, the other about a settler who mistreats his family. Neither sold. Increasingly difficult to live with, Anderson was now drunk most of the time, leading to the couple’s separation. They eventually got back together, divorced, and remarried. When, a few years later, Anderson came down with a bad case of the DT’s, followed by a bout of pneumonia, Anne decided, when he recovered, she would leave for good. Though Anderson tried to quit drinking and joined AA, he was, for Anne, beyond redemption, so she divorced him for a second, and final, time.

Over the years, Anne remained bitter that Edward received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she remembered all the lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer hoping to ease his way back into the frontline. Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as representatives of the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the underrated but influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood could be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had garnered an Academy Award for Angels With Dirty Faces. Yet by 1939, when he purchased Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.

At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he immediately had problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to do outside work, Brown must have realized his project was going to flounder. In 1941, Brown, his career nearly over—he did go on to receive a story credit for Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential—sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO wanted another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could be they realized that Brown had no intention of implementing the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or had refused to kowtow to Washington’s insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.

At this point, RKO hired Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) to rewrite the script. In 1944, Brown, for some reason, was rehired. But RKO balked at the director’s suggestion they shoot the film in Mexico. Just when it looked like the studio was about to write-off the project, John Houseman appeared on the scene. Hired as a studio producer, Houseman came out of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and had been involved with films like Citizen Kane and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Houseman would begin his tenure at RKO by resurrecting Thieves Like Us for a young director, Nicholas Ray, who, at the time, was a protege of Houseman’s, and known for his New Deal theatre and radio work. It would be Nicholas Ray’s first film. “I found the book,” said Houseman, “and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it.” To persuade the studio that the film merited resuscitation, Houseman explained to his employers that Ray, who had submitted a 196 page treatment to the studio, had worked with Alan Lomax and the Department of Agriculture and knew the milieu in which the film was set.

Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had read the book and liked it. Moreover, as a child of the Depression, he had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, having even served time on a Georgia chain-gang for vagrancy. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week star take the role. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio thought they should keep a tight rein on him. Had Mitchum landed the part, the film’s ambiance would have been decidedly different. Even so, Ray’s casting—Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie—was nearly perfect.

Though the war was over, Ray’s film was still having problems with the Breen Office as well as with Howard Hughes, who was again head of the studio. Hughes had little interest in the film, while the Breen Office maintained that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This helps explains the film’s various titles, as well as the contrasting approaches taken by Ray and his producers, and, ultimately, the film’s depoliticalisation.

Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon. Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, so shifting the subtext from a song of experience to one of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, Houseman polled preview spectators: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Though depoliticized, the film still looked as though it would never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that it was finally given the green light.

Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his novel, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though the film had been ready for release in 1947, thanks to further discussions between the director, Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, it would be another two years before the film would hit the screens.

On its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s movie, rewritten by Red River scenarist Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation, had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. Even though Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon—“Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”—Ray prefaces his film with “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” It’s an indication that Ray’s film will lack the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray could bend Anderson’s text—flexible because its politics had been diluted—into his own brand of cinematic lyricism.

Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how his film strayed from the novel and Ray’s original concept; namely, to use the music as a defining element around which the action would take place. In a sense, what Ray envisioned, Robert Altman would accomplish in his remake, blurring background and foreground through the utilization of radio drama fragments—Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette—as well as music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music of the era. All that remains is a radio fragment, extraordinary in itself, of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Newspaper columnist Louella Parsons predicted the film would be a success. Having read her column, Anderson decided Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d originally received for the film rights. Now making $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, Anderson wrote to Howard Hughes, asking for more money. Hughes simply handed the letter to his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, rejected Anderson’s request.

For some twenty years, the world forgot the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio hadn’t reregistered the title, it retained adaptation and foreign rights. Then independent producer Jerry Bick, having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was interested in remaking the film as well. The fact that the conservative Ford was amenable to the book’s “social significance”—saying it couldn’t be avoided—is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.

Bick, who produced Altman’s The Long Goodbye, had been paying the options on Anderson’s novel since 1967. In 1972, he purchased the story for $7,500, and immediately sent the book to writer Calder Willingham. Altman, having come across the book a year earlier, was also interested in adapting it. When he, Bick and Willingham met, Altman made it clear that he intended to use his own scriptwriter, Joan Tewkesbury. Rather than follow Ray’s film, Tewkesbury returned to the novel, extracting and cutting where necessary. Though she hadn’t read Willingham’s script, the Screen Writer’s Guild insisted the latter be credited for the work he’d done.

Altman shot his version in Mississippi, in places like Jackson, Vicksbourg and surrounding small towns. The film was finished at the end of 1973, and greatly differs from Ray’s version. With his own historical sense, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent movies. Ray’s might be the more touching, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. One imagines that Anderson would have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks closer to his novel.

There’s no telling what Anderson thought of Ray’s film when it opened in Forth Worth in 1950. Certainly critics were ambivalent. Not long after its premier, Anderson was back on the road, moving from one small-town newspaper to another. He stayed in San Antonio for a few years, then he went to El Paso, Laredo, and finally Brownsville, where, between 1960 and 1963, he covered municipal politics for the Herald. Obsessed by Fidel Castro—he believed America was pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia—and having developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of Swedenborg, he drank—though apparently not to excess—and, in a Brownsville dancehall, met Lupe, a Mexican dancer whom he would marry.

Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish must have sufficed. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewelry, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and before long she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson was still reluctant to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, Anderson continued to wander while showing further signs of mental instability. Not only did he want to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he said, “It is also my discovery … that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Now living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he wrote articles for the Record. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he still ranted about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller, and began work on a Swedenborgian text, entitled “O Man, Know Thyself.”

When he tired of Cuero, Anderson returned to Brownsville, where he died in September, 1969. He was sixty-four years old. Three years later Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us would be released. After Anderson’s death, his agent Alex Jackelson was said to have several unpublished Anderson manuscripts in his possession, including a novel alternatively titled Several Hundred Wives and One Hell and Many Heavens. Begun fifteen years before his death and rewritten several times, it is the story of a group of indigents along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa and is imbued with a Swedenborgian optimism. Anderson also had thoughts about reigniting his Hollywood career, as indicated by a synopsis sent by Anderson or his agent during the 1960s, to Warners where it still sits in the studio’s archives.

Anderson’s literary accomplishments would continue to go largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to any literary group or movement as to his literary inactivity or mental problems. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson remained a literary outsider throughout his life. Moreover, he was never able to crank out paperback pulp fiction or brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his literary gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction would be lost amidst the more extreme stylizations that would come, then, finally, recycled in an age of tough love and trickle-down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters: another victim of hungry men and thieves like us.

Authored by Woody Haut.

Do You Want To Become a Writer Or Do You Want To Make Money? by Joseph T. Shaw

Two decades ago, Robert Thomas Hardy and Arthur Sullivant Hoffman were famed and loved by writers for their energy and patience in training and discovering new writers.

Today, both these men are agents.

Their successor in the hearts of hundreds of writers is Joseph T. Shaw, editor of Black Mask, and prince among editors. At 578 Madison Ave., New York, Joe Shaw, about whom an enemy once said, “If he likes you, he’ll do so much for you, it’s pathetic,” is building up and developing scores of new writers.

Shortly we hope to have Mr. Shaw send us one of Black Mask’s published stories with running fire critical comment on the story by Mr. Shaw.

 

Writer's Digest (May 1934)

Writer’s Digest (May 1934)

Do you want to become a writer or do you want to make money?

You think the two are synonymous? Not with the frequency you might suppose.

If you want to make literature and a name for yourself as a really fine writer, you must face the fact that your market will be confined to a few quality magazines that pay low rates and to book publishers. If you believe you have it in you to be another O’Neill, Lewis, Hergesheimer, and are willing to endure the necessary years of struggle and apprenticeship, go to it; you’ll succeed eventually and make enough money to live a very full and happy life.

If, however, you want to write not for the sake of making literature, but of making a living, making money, in what seems to you to be an agreeable way of doing so, and if you want to accomplish this with the least possible delay, then forget literary ideals and concentrate all your efforts on creating what the great mass of the reading public want and are willing to pay for.

There are two main divisions in this field—the white paper magazines and the rough paper magazines. It is in regard to the latter that we are concerned in this article.

Rough paper magazines—wood-pulps, to use their facetious moniker—are very numerous, roughly they number more than a hundred, and their reader following goes well into the millions.

From the few hundred thousand of the first years of rough paper magazine appearance, this market has broadened satisfactorily and has now attained proportions that are very worthwhile to reckon with. When you consider that in numbers, approximately one out of every twenty men, women and children in the United States each month read a wood-pulp, you have an idea of what a source of entertainment and enjoyment to the people of the country this type of periodical has become. It is too big a market to be taken lightly from any angle, too filled with possibilities to be looked upon disparagingly. Indeed, it is worthy and deserving of the most thoughtful consideration and serious effort not only to retain its present scope but also to increase its magnitude in possible and logical directions.

Granted a measure of natural gift and normal erudition, it should not be difficult to enter this broad field as a writer. To maintain it in an assured position of monetary success requires a measure of study, adaptability and whatever work may be necessary to attain facility and skill.

At the outset it might be helpful to the new writer to have a broad understanding of the field he is about to exploit.

In the first place, due to economic reasons, rough paper fiction attempts less to guide than it does to gauge and meet public taste.

Unlike the several contributing factors in the smooth paper magazines—format, illustrations, advertising, style, fad and what not—rough paper magazines are dependent for their circulation upon the popularity of their fiction alone. It must be popular, it must be what the majority of certain classes of the people want or they go out of business.

Under the circumstances you should not look for altruistic motives on the part of the editors and publishers of the pulps. No doubt many of them would like to see this distinctively virile field as a whole on a higher plane than its greatest volume typifies; but adventuring along such lines, commendable as it might be from certain points of view, is not warranted as a commercial experiment.

Popular taste—honest, in that it reads what it likes regardless of fads and the preferences and opinions of others—popular demand molds the character of rough paper fiction more than does editorial and writer inspiration. The editors act for the most part in an interpretive capacity; the writers deliver merchandise specified.

Get clear in your mind, then, at the outset that to be successful in the rough paper field you must write to popular taste.

In this connection I am reminded of one very successful writer in this field who has spent years patiently studying and analyzing public mental capacity and taste of various markets and framed his stories for the respective magazines accordingly. The interesting points about this are that he has made money and is versatile. He has hit his markets with rare shrewdness. He is accounted among the most popular writers in widely divergent fields, for his stories in one magazine, for example, are not read or liked by the audience of another.

The ability to gauge this taste accurately is the key to the success of the best paid writers in the field today, and if they are at all versatile they can employ this ability to advantage in as many markets as they are capable of supplying.

The earlier newsprint magazines covered a wide range of subjects. Shortly there followed the idea of specialization, that is, a larger number of magazines each devoting its contents to a specific subject or section of the field-adventure, romance, sex, war, aviation, westerns, crime, detective, mystery, the pseudo-scientific, fantasy, and the like.

The writer has a wide range here from which to choose and will no doubt make his first try in the particular subject in which he feels himself most familiar and to which he can give his most natural expression.

Generally speaking, the dominant demand in all sections of the field is in the matter of producing reader reaction or effects.

That these effects are exaggerated, often beyond the bounds of sane reason, must be put up to the tastes of this special reading public, many of whom seem not to quarrel with even absurdities so long as the particular story holds something of interest to them.

And now let us seek the elements which developed, will produce the most effective writing skill in this rough paper field, and particularly in its detective fiction.

Accepted a certain fluency and an adeptness in the choice of words to express the mental image simply, clearly and understandably, style has little to do with it and mannerisms far less if anything at all. Type and character of stories to be emphasized, likes and dislikes, the use or disuse of the familiar properties of the crime and detective story vary with the several magazines and can no doubt be ascertained by a study of the respective magazines or by inquiry of the editorial offices.

So far as Black Mask is concerned there is little we enjoy more in our editorial work than a chat with a serious writer of promise who wants to go somewhere.

With regard to our general requirements, we might say that Dashiell Hammett did his work very well. We are of course seeking another Hammett, but we distinctly do not want his imitation. And we expect it should be some time before we see another with his inflexible purpose and indomitable will that disregarded ill health, a measure of poverty, even the absence of an early scholarly environment and yet achieved their aim.

We are satisfied that Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Eugene Cunningham, W.T. Ballard, Theodore Tinsley, Roger Torrey, are all doing their work exceedingly well, and we do not need material along their respectively different lines. We do want stories unlike those of any one of them in type, character and treatment.

But, as suggested, the requirements of the different magazines are superficial in many respects so far as the fundamental principles of writing skill are concerned, since the respective requirements can be expressed at will when writing skill is attained.

And among these cardinal principles simplicity and clarity must rank high. Your object is to accomplish an emotional effect upon your reader. You have a chance to do this if he can follow your story clearly and understands what it is all about. You have little or no chance, outside the sensation of shock, if your story confuses him, if it is too complicated in expression, structure or plot, or too subtle, so that he is at a loss himself to know exactly where his sympathy should lie or why it should be aroused at all.

Buyers in the majority of rough paper magazines want to take their stories in their stride, to read them while they run or ride. They do not want to stop in the middle of a story and go back to untangle confused threads or re-identify characters. It is for this reason that similarity of characters, particularly with respect to names of similar appearance, should be avoided.

Swift movement and speed of action are other essentials in this age of fast tempo, but speed of action should not be confused with many rapid, meaningless notions.

Long descriptive openings are for the most part taboo. For that matter these too often tedious stretches have little place in any part of a rough paper story of today.

Start your story in action if you can do so quickly. Identify your characters so that the action will be understandable to the reader; and keep it moving all the way to the end. To accomplish this, it is not necessary to stage a gun battle from start to finish, with a murder or a killing in every other paragraph. You can keep it alive and moving, when sympathy is once aroused, by tension and suspense, through dialogue or other form of plot development, when action is absent. Action in one form or another is, however, pretty generally in demand.

Logic and plausibility are much abused terms. As a matter of fact, although they are at times mentioned editorially, in by far the greatest volume of crime and detective fiction they are completely disregarded, while rapidity of motion, exaggerated menace and exaggerated action are substituted in their stead, and, let it be said, with the apparent approval of many readers of the crime magazines today.

While it must be admitted that their use can produce the strongest possible emotional effects-since the happenings carry the illusion of reality-the danger lies in the fact that unless skillfully employed, their demands tend to clog the smooth, swift run of the story.

After all, their acceptability depends upon the treatment, upon the manner in which the material is presented to the reader. If it is done in such a way as to seem logical, the writer has little further worry in that regard and he may speed up his action as much as he sees fit. Where plausibility enters the question, the writer merely has to have his characters move and talk, act and react as real human beings would do in like situation, however imaginary, and his task in that respect is done.

In addition to these elements there is one general principle that is quite fundamental. Unless you have a clear mental picture yourself, you can scarcely expect your reader to get a clear, understandable impression of your thought. If your own ideas are undeveloped or confused, your purpose in your story unclear in your mind, its presentation will not be less so. Thus it would seem that word choice and arrangement, diction if you will, come secondary to clear thinking. If your mental image is clear, you will have no difficulty in expressing it in the simple language and simple technique of rough paper fiction.

I often wonder if this preliminary fumbling at the typewriter, of which writers so frequently speak, is not due less to meager facilities of expression than to a confused idea of what it is desired to express.

It is hardly to be expected that you will have a clear image of your whole picture before you begin to express a part of it; and often it requires a partial expression of the whole before you observe that it is not complete.

Of course, where speed of production is so important to the moneymaker in this field, such reworking is apt to be costly, but is nevertheless practiced by many successful rough paper writers whose hold upon the audiences they have built up seems to warrant a greater care in workmanship than is typical of the great majority of this fiction of the moment.

Thus, if a writer enters this field with the sole purpose of making money in it, particularly if he wishes to cash in on the wild surges that endeavor to capitalize the utmost of popular fancy, he should start with no illusions of literary ambition. If he will train himself in clear thinking he will have an asset that will contribute greatly to speed of production. If he will attain a writing skill combining the various elements suggested, and is possessed of ordinary creative imagination he should have all that will be required.

Authored by Joseph T. Shaw; from Writers’s Digest (May 1934).

Joseph T. Shaw Offers His Thoughts on “Model Stories”

This month the Treasurer suggested that if we asked editors themselves to select their “model” stories for a given period, so that magazines running them would be procurable on the stands when this bulletin came out, we might accomplish the following:

  • Show writers what editors like, better than any exchange of letters might do.
  • Bring such stories, and their authors, to the attention, more forcibly, of motion picture story editors.
  • Show book publishers what those writers might do if encouraged to sustained effort, i.e. the writing of books.
  • Fulfill the project outlined on the separate card accompanying this bulletin, i.e. add to the fame of the writers mentioned.

In this connection you will note that only current magazines are selected, and that no attempt is made to confine selections to Guild members. In studying these models, don’t overlook the comments of the editors which may qualify their selections and help you to a better knowledge of just what is wanted. Let us know how you like this idea.

Editorial comments follow: (In instances where editors have not confined themselves to just one story, much may be learned by careful comparison of those named.)

Joseph T. Shaw, Black Mask:

Your request to select a “model” story in the July Black Mask, or in almost any issue, for that matter, cannot be fairly done without a word of explanation. You see, we follow the principle of “no dud in any issue”; therefore it is rarely that any one story stands out markedly from any other or all of the balance, although we hope that the magazine itself, as a whole, does.

So far as the writers permit, we select for an issue the best of as many types as are available; in consequence, readers naturally have preference for one over another in accordance with their individual tastes, and all may be equally good as to workmanship quality. There is a story in the July issue, however, which can be pointed to for a specific reason. It is “Nothing Personal,” by H.H. Stinson.

If a new writer should ask me to suggest what might be interesting to our readers, I would probably mention anything but what Mr. Stinson has in his story, in the way of characters, by name or position—that is, a reporter, an editor, a tough police official, and so on. They have been used so many, many times.

Yet Mr. Stinson has done something with these familiar identities, with the ordinary action, which, to many readers, will make this an outstanding, a “model” story, in any company. The one word to describe it is “treatment.” He has brought every one of his characters vitally alive. The fact that they are this, that or the other is less important than that they are “real” personages; not once do they speak, act or react out of character—with a more or less commonplace setup, his handling of story detail, of constant menace, of action, is masterly. One careful reader refers to one of his scenes as the most vivid, the best of its type since Hammett told about Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key.

The fact that Mr. Stinson is himself a newspaper man, a police reporter on one of the big Los Angeles papers, may have contributed to the sense of reality which he has infused into the story.

But it isn’t every newspaperman who can make a story live and throb like this one. If it were, editors would have an easier time.

A “model” story. No—except for treatment. A marvelously entertaining and vital one? Yes—decidedly yes.

Authored by Joseph T. Shaw; reprinted from the July 1, 1936 issue of American Fiction Guild.

But Mister… You Don’t Look Like An Author by Theodore A. Tinsley

Ted Tinsley, and God have mercy on our soul, looks like an investment banker. Put him behind J.P. Morgan’s desk, and all the moneyed widows and orphans in the country would just naturally flock to him. Tinsley is that rare soul, a third generation native New Yorker. He is a charter member of the AFG and current treasurer.

The June issue of Black Mask carries his latest novelette. He is the creator of “Jerry Tracy” and about a million and a half words of published fiction.

Writer's Digest (May 1934)

Writer’s Digest (May 1934)

Let’s start with Article One in the popular American credo concerning authors and things auctorial.

Lights! Camera! It’s a miserable day, raining like the very devil, and you revolve moodily in your mind two mutually incompatible facts ­ A, the need for a social evening in the definitely near future; and B, the disgusting emptiness of your pockets.

So, anyhow, it’s raining; you sit down and drink two full quarts of a cheap, blended rye, you write a lot of words on paper and next morning you take the completed mess to your friend, Bill Mizzenmast, editor of Turgid Tales. You take the Ms. to Bill because Bill borrowed a couple of bucks from you the week before to pay for his share of the beer and the knockwurst and he’ll probably be in a chastened mood. As a matter of fact, it turns out that he is. He sneaks one look at your title, “The Kid from Singapore,” he sneaks another took at the cold, fishy and definitely reproachful gleam in your eye and he says hastily: “Not a bad yarn.” He doesn’t pay back your two bucks, the hound, but you get a check for the story.

So you’re an author.

In fact, you’re a very famous type of author. You’re the public’s preconceived opinion of all professional writers. Which is to say that you are a venal fellow with dank, unpleasant hair and blood-shot eyes, a creature of furtive midnight habits, an oaf utterly devoid of creative talent, who makes a fat living by the immoral use of a battered typewriter coupled with a low and primitive type of animal cunning. The public knows that your printed stuff is terrible because at this very moment in the public’s upper left-hand bureau drawer is a manuscript that has been pronounced a masterpiece by no less an authority than the local dentist and register of deeds. Only a vicious compact between you and your friend, Bill Mizzenmast of Turgid Tales, prevents this suppressed amateur masterpiece from seeing the light of day on a newsstand.

So, anyhow, you’re an author. You’re an eccentric wart on the neck of society, something to be avoided if possible.

You finally turn up at a social function. You are invited to a publisher’s afternoon tea, so called because it is usually held at the death-bed of the afternoon and tea is never served. You climb into your best bib and tucker and, against your better judgment, off you go. You sidle into a foggy and overheated room and smile glassily at a lot of other guys and gals. The place is filled with the sound of very jolly and very spurious—and very, very bogus—mirth.

You are immediately waylaid by a dazzlingly beautiful girl, a graduate of Bryn Mawr—oh, all right!—she’s a suety blonde, quite bosomy in black satin and she really works in Gimbel’s basement. You chat feebly with her. The fatal moment arrives. She asks you what you do for a living and you tell her.

She says: “Oh!” and gives you a peculiar cloudy look. You don’t like that look. You like the “Oh!” even less. Her startled little ejaculation seems to be quite definitely soiled with disappointment and unbelief. You ask her gruffly what the hell’s the matter with her, is she sick or something?

And she says:

“But, darling, are you serious! I’d never have known! You don’t look like an author!”

Aha, now we’re getting warm! What does an author look like? You decide to find out. You lead your blonde to a remote corner and she purrs gently, “Don’t! Folks’ll see us!” but she relaxes and you sit for your portrait. She speaks as follows:

“I-I dunno…. I always kinda thought…. Well, somehow, kinda flashy and handsome in a dissolute way. Grey at the temples, sorta. Puffy eyes, kinda deep an’ full of—uh—glamour. The kinda eyes that makes a goil feel like a frightened little boid watchin’ a soipent…. A tweed suit all rumpled an’ baggy and—uh—interestin’. And-oh yeah-smoking a pipe…. Kinda fatherly an’ awful sympathetic; but bold eyes like I said-make a goil breathe deep an’ feel that she might hafta—”

“Have to fight for her honor, perhaps?”

“Oh, my goodness! Not e-x-a-c-t-l-y.”

But your blonde is lying. She’s looked you over and she knows you’re no writer. She’ll sneak away in a minute and try to pump the host to find out what your racket really is.

Ah, welladay…. We authors….

Are authors human? I’m afraid they are. I know one guy whose jaw looks tougher than a manhole cover and probably is. We Digest readers are all aware what a real writer looks like by now, so we know that this particular bird will never, never make the grade with the girl from Gimbel’s. He’s a fascinating combination of a hard-bitten soldier and a sympathetic father-confessor. He’s probably given more help and more good advice to more people than the late Horace Greely. He can tell you real incidents about living people and living things that would permanently curl your eardrums-but you’d have to be a heck of a good friend of his and be very deft and tactful in your approach. Human? That bird is more human than the entire male population of a third class city.

I know another guy. He’s probably the friendliest, most enthusiastic, most likable writer that ever rose to his feet at a banquet to make a long, rambling three hour speech. The girl from Gimbel’s knows him only by hearsay. And also she knows (from reading Winchell) that he writes like this: The publisher, desperate for delayed material, transports him to a lonely shack out in the country, provides him with a pine table and a typewriter, four cases of liquor, canned groceries, two armed guards and a stenographer. The author, working himself up gradually to creative fervor, flings his clothes from him garment by garment, until he is full-length and nude on the pine table, screaming out a masterpiece of action material at the top of his inspired lungs, while the pencil of the stenographer flies dizzily and the two armed guards tilt back in their chairs and smoke placidly…. A year or two ago this lovely scenario was current hearsay. Actually, the author is a mild-mannered, inoffensive citizen who gets a haircut every two weeks, pays his taxes, is kind to his wife and relatives, is a sociable companion, a swell talker and an ace writer. Human? Weary much so.

Take any of these, professional word-mongers. There’s the guy with the jolliest laugh in New York; it sounds like what musical comedy producers used to refer to quaintly as a mirthquake. The only drawback to this particular writer is that two consecutive glasses of beer make him morose, downcast and viciously unhappy. Keep him away from German beergardens and he’s a grand human being in caps… Or the lanky lad with a famous mustache who knocks on your door at 4:00 A.M. and barges in with seventeen people all anxious to cheer your loneliness. If you’re a writer you don’t mind a visitation of this sort because it’s so obviously motivated by good intentions. You can’t punch a guy in the jaw who is so emotionally and sincerely friendly, so damned human that it hurts….

They’re a grand legion, these impecunious, flibbertigibberty hirelings of the typewriter and the dictaphone. I hope I don’t upset you but editors are, too, for that matter. Although, to be strictly truthful, editors are apt to be a wee bit persnicketty, apt to fall short of the full bloom of perfection in mind and body that is the heritage of all us noble authors.

For instance, the charming, urbane and cultivated editor of a nationally famous detective magazine is actually and sincerely of the belief that a dry Martini is a drink fit for a gentleman. Outside of that I find no fault in the man. Then there is another editor with a peculiar interest in ducks. Unlike Mr. Joe Penner of the radio, this little guy is not interested in the sale of the quacky web-footed creatures; his devotion to ducks is inspired by something more subtle, more—shall I say?—recondite. But ducks or no ducks, I can assure you most emphatically that he is a human begin you’d like to know.

And so, by easy stages, we meander back to our original text for today’s sermon. Are authors human? Come to think of it, I’m one of ’em myself. So I wouldn’t know. What do you think?

Authored by Theodore A. Tinsley; from Writer’s Digest (May 1934).

W.T. Ballard: An Interview

I first made contact with W.T. Ballard early in 1976. I was researching an article on the detective pulp magazines for which Ballard wrote extensively during the thirties and forties, and his response to my questions was generous, informative and entertaining. Since I’d been a fan and collector of his work for some years, I felt that the next logical step should be a piece dedicated to the man himself. This interview is the result.

Willis Todhunter Ballard was born in Cleveland in 1903. His career as a professional writer began in 1927 and since then he has produced 95 novels, about fifty movie and TV scripts and more than one thousand short stories and novelettes which have appeared in the pulps as well as such “slicks” as The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, This Week and McCall’s. His most recent work has been primarily in the western field. He is past vice-president of The Western Writers of America and his novel, Gold in California, won that organization’s award as Best Historical Novel for 1965. His latest book is Sheriff of Tombstone (Doubleday, 1977) and he’s presently at work on a new one, also a western.

His importance to the mystery field is that he was one of the original contributors to Black Mask, that famous detective pulp which, during the thirties under the editorship of Joe Shaw, pioneered the then-revolutionary American hard-boiled detective form.

Ballard, along with Chandler, Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner, was one of that magazine’s most popular contributors among contemporary readers. His series starring Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for General Consolidated Studios, set the tone and laid the ground rules for countless Hollywood-milieu mysteries to follow.

“My life is not particularly interesting,” Ballard wrote me when agreeing to this interview. “As Dash Hammett used to say, there are two types of people in the world. Those who make news and those who write about them.”

What follows is proof positive that W.T. Ballard is as self-effacing as he is important to the development of the American detective story.

 

First, the traditional question: How did you come to be a professional writer?

As a child when I was asked what I wanted to do I said I would live in a library and write books. At age twelve I “sold” my first offering to Hunter Trader Trapper the saga of a twelve-year-old on vacation at a Canadian trout stream with my family. I received in return for it ten copies of the issue in which the masterpiece appeared. However, the progress to writer was hit or miss for a long time. My father owned an electrical engineering office. They also published a magazine electrically oriented, on which I worked. When I got out of college I was taken into the office to be taught the business, whether or not I liked it. They sat me at a drawing board. I was not a particularly good draftsman. A whole set of handbooks told me precisely what generators were required in any given situation. Thoroughly bored, I looked for another outlet.

Through a friend I found a job with a small group of local newspapers, the Brush-Moore chain in the Midwest. It was a constant hassle. In eight months I was fired at least eight times. Besides arguments with the printers I had them with the old battle-axe who ran the front office. She had been secretary to the Brush boys’ father and considered that she owned the company more than the boys did. It became a routine. She would call me in and fire me, but before I could clear out my desk one or other brother would show up from Europe and rehire me. This went on until one time no one appeared and I stayed fired.

About that time the stock market crashed in ’29 and we were sunk in the Depression. Dad was forced to close his business and I was out of that job too. I couldn’t find anything in the East and decided it was a good time to go to California where at least it was warm for sleeping on park benches. I got there on Armistice Day with twenty-six dollars. On the way west I broke out with an infection in the lymph glands and spent three weeks in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, hospital, which cost me most of what money I had.

I walked down Hollywood Boulevard like any tourist. There was a big parade in downtown L.A. and the Hollywood streets were all but empty, most businesses closed. But a cigar store newsstand was opened and I stopped to gawk in the window. I had been writing and submitting copy to New York without much success, but there before me was a copy of Detective Dragnet featuring a story I had written months earlier. I didn’t take much notice. I had been paid long before and the money was spent. I wandered on and was crossing Cherokee Street when a voice called, “Tod. Tod Ballard….” I looked down the side street and coming toward me I saw Major Harry Warner.

Warner. I had known him in Cleveland where his family was making movie trailers for Community Chest and other local organizations. They came from Youngstown where the old man was a tailor, a really sweet guy, and when I was with the Brush outfit I had handled some publicity for them as a favor. That was my only connection with them. The Major wanted to know what I was doing in Hollywood, a question I was beginning to ask myself. I hated to admit that I was out of a job and nearly broke, that I had no real hope of finding work in a strange town. Then I remembered the magazine in the window. I lied gracefully. “I’m freelancing, working for magazines… here, I’ll show you….” I led him back to the cigar store, went in, bought the Detective Dragnet, took it out and presented it to him.

Why the Major was impressed by a dime pulp I’ll never know, but he was. The meeting culminated in his offering me a job writing for the studio at seventy-five bucks a week. A bonanza at that time. He and his brothers had just taken over First National Studios from Commodore (Commy) Blackton who had gone broke in New York real estate. I lasted with Warners for eight months, learning a lot about screenwriting from a couple of wise old-timers, before I forgot to watch my back. I made a derogatory crack about Jack Warner, turned my head to find him at my shoulder, and the pink ticket beat me back to my office.

From there I went to Columbia, an eye-opening experience. Sam Cohan, who owned the studio with his brother, had worked out a crummy deal. A Hungarian, he had brought eight of his relatives over to this country, with no intention of personally supporting them. Instead he set up an ingenious company, gave each relative a share in the stock and titular title of producer to make pictures as independents. Then he would buy these productions and divide any profit with each contributing relative.

The snag was that the first man he made a “producer” spent more money on his pictures than he could hope to realize from their “sale.” I was hired to recoup the losses, to bring in new films for a very low budget of ten thousand dollars each. We were in the bottom of the Depression but the job still wasn’t easy. I had to write the script, direct, produce the picture and even move the sets and scenery… it was before the days of powerful unions. The camera was housed in a heavy concrete booth mounted on piano casters, the sound table in the same booth. When you needed to move the apparatus everyone, grips, juicers, stagehands, actors including stars, put their shoulders to the booth and wrestled it into the new position.

Most of our shooting was done inside. We couldn’t afford to go out. The studio was located on Gower Avenue, known locally as Gower Gulch because of the preponderance of westerns being made on the lots that lined the street and the horde of unemployed actors who gathered outside the gates. When we needed a couple of extras we opened the window and yelled, then stood out of the stampede.

The job lasted six months and exhausted me. I never cared for studio work. I hated having my scripts torn apart by producers, directors, even the actors who had any clout. I returned to freelancing and made a living, but barely.

How did you come to write for Black Mask?

I caught The Maltese Falcon on radio. My uncle, with whom I was living, was head of the West Coast Customs Bureau and would come home at night worn out, collapse in his favorite chair, turn the radio up full and go to sleep. I wrote in a small study off the living room and could not escape hearing every sound from the box. I had learned to tune it out of my consciousness, but this night excerpts of dialogue forced themselves through to me. Dialogue the way I had always wanted to write it. I had been trying to please Dorothy Hubbard at Detective Story Magazine, a lady who favored the Mary Roberts Rinehart and Agatha Christie styles and types of material. This was something else again. I went to the living room and listened. What I heard was an ad, a teaser for a movie playing at Warner Brothers’ downtown theater. I caught a streetcar down and saw the show.

This was not the later Bogie version, but an earlier one starring Ricardo Cortez, who took his stage name from a cigar and acted like it. But I had no interest in the acting. It was the dialogue that enthralled me: Hammett’s ear for words that sounded the way I thought criminals and detectives should talk. It rang true, the way I wanted mine to do.

The ad gave a credit to Black Mask Magazine, which was the first I had heard of the publication. I left the theater, walked to the corner, bought a copy of the then current issue and read it on the ride back. I felt that I was coming home. The story I most remember was written by a boy from Oregon whose family, I later learned, owned the biggest whorehouse in the state. His work sounded authentic.

Bill Lennox was the first hard-boiled series character who worked exclusively against a movie industry setting. Can you tell us something of how you went about creating the series?

The heroes of most of the Black Mask stories were newspaper crime reporters, which I thought could get monotonous. I scratched my head for an alternative and came up with the idea of a troubleshooter working for a studio. I could use my experience in the movie world for realistic background.

By the time I got back to my uncle’s house around midnight I had worked out the basic framework in my mind. A friend, Jim Lawson, was head of the foreign department at Universal. Poor Jim. Every time Junior Laemmle or his sister Rose Mary got into trouble, which was often, Jim had to get out of a warm bed, go to Lincoln Heights jail and bail them out. I couldn’t use the name Lawson so I went through the L’s in the phone book and came by Lennox. I then needed a name for the head of the studio and wanted something that sounded Jewish but not obviously so. The phone book yielded me Spurk; there was only one of those. Much later I learned Spurk was a lady and not at all Jewish, but she sufficed well for me. Just after midnight I began the first Lennox story. It ran ten thousand words and I finished at five in the morning. At seven-thirty I took my uncle to work, mailed the manuscript and went home to bed.

I had been nickel and dimeing along, selling an occasional story to Street & Smith, Short Stories, Argosy, and so on for a quarter of a cent to a cent per word, supporting my parents and an aunt, long since regretting losing the regular salary from Columbia and having quit my job, much as I had hated it. Along with writing I was looking for another spot, with no luck.

A week after I mailed the story to Black Mask I received a letter from Joe Shaw. He wanted some changes made, but he sent along a check with the letter, an unheard of generosity and compassion among editors at the time. The major change he asked for was that Bill Lennox not carry a gun as other fictional detectives did, even newspaper reporters. That reporters went armed seemed odd to me, and that a troubleshooter should go naked seemed odder, but it was not a time to argue with an editor. No one with sense argued with Shaw. So Lennox went without a gun.

Joe Shaw was a strong guiding force where many of his writers were concerned. Did you have any memorable experiences in your relationship with him as an editor?

I loved Shaw better the more I knew him. He was a curious bastard who wanted to write himself and couldn’t. He had been president of a highly successful manufacturing company before the First World War. How he got to Europe for that I don’t know, but Hoover used him to deliver relief in Belgium after the armistice, then sent him to Greece.

When he came home he had a manuscript that he took to Phil Cody at Warners Publications. He did not sell the story but he so impressed Phil that Cody hired him to edit Black Mask on the spot, and he made a fine editor. He could point the way for his writers, contribute much to helping work out their problems with sympathy and understanding, but he could not do the same for himself though writing was what he most wanted to do.

He wrote two books both of which Knopf published, not because they were worthy of publication but because Joe wrote them; he was that much appreciated. Both books were bad. I can’t remember both titles but one was Blood on the Curb. At his request I worked over it with him trying to point out where he had gone off base, but I was not the editor he was. It was an experience, believe me, trying to teach my “father” how to write.

As I said, I loved him. I sold him more copy than anyone else did, an average of ten stories a year, more than that including characters other than Lennox. Erle Gardner never forgave that I sold one story more to Black Mask than he did during a given period.

Through the years I have worked with the leading editors of the business. Ray Long, Fanny Ellsworth, Dorothy Hubbard, Erd Brandt, Ken McCormick, Ken Littaur, Ken White, you name them. But none of them offered the help, the assurance, the patience that Joe Shaw gave to his writers. It is too bad he has been so overlooked in the history of the craft.

Following that first Black Mask sale I wrote and sold seven more within three weeks, Joe buying everything I submitted until Phil Cody told him to quit Lennox for a while. At Joe’s suggestion I began a new series and wrote six Red Drake stories about a race course detective working for the state racing commission. When that wore thin I switched to several manuscripts on Don Tomasa, a Mexican adventurer working out of Tijuana.

Finally Shaw left Black Mask because Warner and Cody decided to cheapen the quality of the content. Fanny Ellsworth took over and I went along. It was a living. But although Fanny was a good editor it was never the same as with Joe. At the risk of sounding euphoric, there never was a relationship between editor and writer to equal my connection with Cap Shaw.

Your reminiscences of Raymond Chandler are quoted by Frank MacShane, in his biography of Chandler. Did you know Dashiell Hammett?

Yes, and quite well. Until the time he took off with Lillian Hellman. She saw to it that he was cut off from his old friends, even Horace McCoy who had been closest to him. McCoy had been a police reporter in El Paso, a genuine tough guy. He and Dash shared an apartment in San Francisco and at one time were virtually broke. Dash was, as many writers are, a compulsive gambler. Joe Shaw finally sent them a check for $250. Their funds were so low they didn’t even have a bank account and Dash took the check downstairs to the Chinese restaurant below their rooms to get it cashed. He did not show up for so long that McCoy became worried enough to go looking for Hammett. He arrived at the restaurant just in time to see Dash put the last dollar into the claw machine and lose again. The Chinese felt so bad about the loss that he unlocked the box and gave Dash a tin cigarette case from it. Thereafter McCoy called the tin piece Hammett’s $250 extravagance.

McCoy wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Jane Fonda made a picture from the story a few years ago. He married some dame who owned a couple of apartment houses at Vine Street and Beverly Boulevard and I lost all track of him. He was a nice guy and a good writer.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, did you know Robert Leslie Bellem? He’s been called “the worst writer of the pulps,” yet I’ve always viewed his Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective series as superb private eye parody.

Yes, I knew Bob I suppose as well as anyone. I can’t give you the exact date of our meeting, sometime in the mid-1930s. Soon after that we took adjoining offices in an old corner building on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena and worked there until I left for Wright Field during the Second World War, in 1942. During that period we collaborated a lot on Frank Armer’s Super Detective Stories and a number of other mags. Bob was always a good word man but had trouble with story, which was my field, and he did not work well under pressure. Frequently he would blow up, come apart and throw the thing in my lap. That was especially true when the longer pieces became popular. His best work was in short material. He was a pugnacious, small man but easy to collaborate with, never pretentious about his prose, and we edited each other without many battles.

After the end of the war I returned to the Coast and we again got together writing the Death Valley shows for Ronnie Regan and also a number of magazines. But that market was sinking, TV taking its place. TV was never my forte. It was too restrictive and I had not the patience to go around and around on endless story conferences with producers who didn’t know what they wanted but had to have an oar in. On the other hand Bob loved it and thrived on it. He was great at talking, but was never what they called a “talking writer.” He was one of the hardest workers in the field, kept as regular office hours as if he punched a time clock and stayed at his machine until he finished a predetermined number of pages a day. He had a delightful sense of humor that relied a lot on play on words. I recall one lunch-long game we played using the names of American Indian tribes, using the verbal sounds for different word meaning. An example: “Shawnee(ds) more action in this story,” Shaw being Cap Shaw. I guess we used up every tribe in the land.

Bob was also a mighty hypochondriac, forever taking pills, medicines, asthma inhalations, anything he could find. He fell into the clutches of the Beverly Hills “heart attack doctor,” a man who treated many writers and studio people, all of whom he diagnosed as having had or soon to have heart attacks, and some even did. Most did not. However, Bob decided he was a prime candidate and suffered realistically for a couple of years. I never took his complaints seriously-until the day he died of a heart attack in the new home he had worried himself to death building.

Incidentally, Bob was not nearly as bad a writer as you make him out. He looked over the markets, chose one he could handle fast and easily, and hewed to the line. And was highly successful in so doing. When he went into television, he was one of the most successful story editors in the trade. He was a generous man, even professionally. Always busy with his and our work, when Cleve F. Adams had a grave illness while in the middle of a detective book manuscript Bob suggested that the two of us finish it for him. We did that. Cleve was a father figure to the fiction writing group, much loved but a porcupine nevertheless. His comment on reading the finished copy: “It’s a beautiful… typing job.”

For all his popularity with private eye readers during the forties, surprisingly little is known about Adams.

I met Cleve in ’31. He and his wife, Vera, had a candy store in Culver City but he had always wanted to write, and broke in with the old Munsey magazines. With varying success he continued selling the pulps until he wrote his first book, Sabotage. That was an instant hit and on the strength of it he did seven or eight others. He was good, though hardly in a class with Ray Chandler. He had an exalted regard for his own ability and seldom discussed his work with anyone, including family. I knew him intimately until he died. His son phoned me at four o’clock that morning to tell me Cleve had had a heart attack. He was dead before I could drive over.

He and Glen Wichman and I founded the Fictioneers organization, selecting some twenty men as original members. It was an entirely social group with neither rules nor by-laws. Cleve ran it through the first years as secretary, the only office we had, sending out notices of where and when the next meeting would be held. We paid for cards and postage. I have no idea how many members there were for we kept no records and charged no dues, but I would say the number ran into the hundreds. Any writer, fixed or just passing through, was welcome if he cared to join and at times we had more members than the Authors’ League. However, our monthly dinners seldom turned out more than thirty or forty at one gathering. It held together until the war when a lot of the boys went into the services. Although several efforts were made to revive it after the war they were largely unsuccessful because most of us had moved into the slick markets and the book field, and had scattered.

One Black Mask writer who seems shrouded in obscurity is Raoul Whitfield, who just seemed to vanish at the height of his career.

He died in North Hollywood in the early forties. I don’t recall what he died of or what he was doing at the time.

Would you tell us something about the lifestyle of a pulp writer living in L.A. during the thirties and forties?

We all worked hard, played hard, lived modestly, drank but only a few to excess, gambled some when we had extra cash. Most of our friends were other writers. In the Depression when any of us got a check he climbed in his jalopy and made the rounds to see who was in worse straits than he and loaned up to half what he had just received.

More and more interest is being shown these days in the detective pulps and those who wrote for them. Are there any pulp writers who are generally ignored today whom you think deserve recognition?

Here are a few from memory. Norbert (Bert) Davis was one of the best with a light style and humor. He killed himself in the odd-forties. John K. (Johnny) Butler who wound up at the studios. Dwight Babcock. Carroll John Daly. Fred Nebel, who was very good.

What was your yearly average word output for the pulps?

My files are at the University of Oregon library, but a shotgun guess would be about or over a million words per year.

Would you tell us something about your work habits both then and now?

I tried to do about ten pages a day after that first Black Mask flush, sometimes more, sometimes less. I tried to work regularly, something every day even if I later threw it away. These days my wife, Phoebe, does the typing since I’m a lousy typist and in so doing edits the copy. I seldom objected to requests for rewrite but sometimes stood my ground. A late example is a western called Sheriff of Tombstone. Both my agent and my Doubleday editor, Harold Kuebler, held their noses at the first submission and Harold only accepted the altered copy grudgingly. Both let me know in no uncertain terms that they considered it a bad work. It has outsold all my more recent books and is rated second from the top of the list in Western Writers of America’s scoring for the last year.

How about the marketing of pulp fiction? I’ve heard that many of the magazines (such as Frank Armer’s) were closed to most freelancers. Was this a widespread practice?

How did we market pulp fiction? Like selling any other commodity. No magazine I remember was tightly closed to submissions, although a couple of them were written entirely by one or two men for long stretches. It was largely governed by how lazy the editors were, how much they were willing to read.

Frank Armer was no worse than others, but his editor’s were crooked. They were pulling old copy out of the files, slapping a current writer’s name on as author, and drawing checks to the new names, cashing them themselves at the bar on the corner. Bob Bellem and I combined to send them to Sing Sing for five years each. We discovered the ploy after I received a notice from the IRS that I had failed to report $35,000 paid me by Armer Publications. Since I had sold them no copy for that year I checked with Bob. He had sold to them but he was being charged with not reporting twice what he had been paid. We contacted Frank, then blew the whistle. Armer was an open market but Bob did have the edge by a large margin.

After a highly successful career in the detective magazines under your own name, much of your later work has been pseudonymous. Why the switch?

Frankly, the market for detective, especially from picture studios, became very slim and when I was forced into westerns I chose to use my middle name, Todhunter, to begin with. But unlike the detective publications the westerns would not absorb enough copy under a single byline to support me. Especially when I jumped to books. The houses would take only one a year and a name was tied up solely by one house. Therefore the shift to a long series of pseudonyms under which I could work for several houses at once. They didn’t like it. But the practice became common and they had to go along or do without sufficient submissions. Later, resales to paperback as they have reverted to me have been reissued under only one or two noms.

The private eye series starring Tony Costaine and Bert McCall, which you did for Gold Medal Books during the fifties and sixties under the pseudonym of Neil MacNeil, was unusual in that it featured two lead protagonists instead of one. I thought it was a good idea, well executed. What happened to the series?

I developed the idea and editor Dick Carrol was enthusiastic. Then he died and Knox Burger took over. Burger was wary of the MacNeil byline because he knew the real Neil MacNeil of Washington. D.C., and my use embarrassed him although it was an honest family name for me. Knox did his best to kill the series. However, the books were popular and went back into reprint over which Knox had no control. It dragged on until Knox felt it was safe and then did kill both the nom and the series. I had no recourse. Knox left the house soon afterward, but the series was gone.

I did two books for Fawcett on the Mafia under my wife’s initials, P.D. Ballard. We already had a couple of titles out under P.D. which were highly successful. Then the Mafia market collapsed, the old-time editor, Ralph Deigh, retired, a woman came in as managing editor and my boy who had replaced Knox was fired.

Is there a single work you look back on as the highlight of your career?

The single piece of my work that gave me much satisfaction is called Gold in California. It’s a good book. It sold over 30,000 copies, which is a huge sale for a western and I am proud of it. I like also a sort of sequel, same locale and time frame, called The Californian.

Do you prefer writing westerns over mysteries?

In a way, yes. Most crime fiction is phony. Hammett made it believable because he wrote about people he knew from his experience with the Pinkertons in Baltimore and San Francisco. He avoided the mistake Chandler and his imitators made and make in going psychological, with Little Sisters sucking their thumbs. Westerns are of course exaggerated but there are many classics, and the better recent books such as Elmer Kelton’s Time It Never Rained are as near factual and convincing as you can get. When I wrote my first western I knew practically nothing about the West and its history. Since then I have researched. Learned a lot and had a lot of fun doing it.

For nearly fifty years you’ve remained popular to a most precarious profession while other careers have come and gone. To what do you attribute this staying power? Would you share some of your views on the writing business with us?

My views on writing as a business? That it is not much different from any other. You have to keep swinging, rolling with the punches, keep alert and attuned to the changes that take place suddenly or gradually, but always constantly. Copy written in 1930 would not sell today because it is dated and shows it glaringly.

In Say Yes to Murder you describe the library of one character as containing books “kept by one who loved reading for the joy that only reading can afford.” What do you read for enjoyment?

What I read now is very little. I enjoy history but my eyes don’t take kindly to too much strain. I try to keep abreast of the current best sellers to sample the wind and let it go at that. Very few current mysteries, only an occasional John or Ross Macdonald, and neither of those men give me much pleasure.

What can you tell us of your current projects? Is there any chance of a new Lennox yarn or has Bill’s day come and gone?

Currently, I have done nothing since a major operation a year and a half ago. I have been long in regaining strength or enthusiasm. I have just begun another western… not a Bill Lennox who, I fear, has outlived his usefulness. We’ll let him rest in his own time frame.


W.T. Ballard: A Checklist

(Including Miscellaneous Reading Notes)

This checklist concerns itself only with Ballard’s crime and detective fiction. A complete listing of his novels may be found in the library reference work Contemporary Authors.

The best of Ballard’s novels, such as Say Yes to Murder, are highlighted by a crisp, clean prose style, vivid characterization, rapid plot development and a singular humaneness.

The Death Brokers is a prime example of his talent for introducing complex, fully dimensioned characters who get under your skin and make you care about them after only one page, involved in a twisty, imaginative story line. Originally packaged to cash in on the Mafia fad, which infested paperback publishing during the early seventies, the book stands on its own as a superb evocation of the all-pervasive fear, treachery and moral decay that is life in the Brotherhood.

Murder Las Vegas Style is neo-Black Mask; a beautifully written private eye novel that Raymond Chandler would have enjoyed. This one is highly recommended.

Many of Ballard’s books are set either completely or partially in Las Vegas and he always does a convincing job of portraying this fascinating, seldom utilized desert locale with its swinging casinos, its moral ambiguity and the uneasy alliance between gamblers and police.

A. The Bill Lennox Series

  1. Say Yes to Murder. Putnam, 1942. Penguin pb, 1945. Also published as The Demise of a Louse (as by John Shepherd). Belmont pb, 1962.
  2. Murder Can’t Stop. McKay. 1946. Graphic pb, 1950.
  3. Dealing Out Death. McKay, 1948. Graphic pb, 1954.
  4. Lights, Camera, Murder (as by John Shepherd). Belmont pb. 1960.

B. The Tony Costaine/Bert McCall Series (by Neil MacNeil)

  1. Death Takes an Option. Gold Medal pb, 1958.
  2. Third on a Seesaw. Gold Medal pb, 1959.
  3. Two Guns for Hire. Gold Medal pb, 1959.
  4. Hot Dam. Gold Medal pb, 1960.
  5. The Death Ride. Gold Medal pb, 1960.
  6. Mexican Stay Ride. Gold Medal pb, 1962.
  7. The Spy Catchers. Gold Medal pb, 1966.

C. The Lieutenant Max Hunter Series

  1. Pretty Miss Murder. Permabooks pb, 1962.
  2. The Seven Sisters. Permabooks pb, 1962.
  3. Three for the Money. Permabooks pb, 1963.

D. Non-Series Books

  1. Murder Picks the Jury (as by Harrison Hunt). Curl, 1947.
  2. Walk in Fear. Gold Medal pb, 1952.
  3. Murder Las Vegas Style. Tower pb, 1967. Unibooks pb, 1976.
  4. Brothers in Blood (as by P.D. Ballard). Gold Medal pb, 1972.
  5. The Kremlin File (as by Nick Carter). Award pb, 1973.
  6. The Death Brokers (as by P.D. Ballard). Gold Medal pb, 1973.

Authored by Stephen Mertz. Copyright © 1979 by Stephen Mertz. Reprinted from The Armchair Detective (Winter 1979). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Norbert Davis: Profile of a Pulp Writer

For his anthology of Black Mask stories, The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Joseph T. Shaw wrote some introductory material that did not appear in the book. His unpublished preface to the story “Red Goose” reads:

Norbert Davis is a natural. If we were to pick anyone who, in spite of all human trials and tribulations, looks upon life resignedly and mostly as all fun, our nominee would be Bert. His sense of humor is prodigious and, as far as we know, never got him into serious trouble….

There is one thing that makes Bert Davis an individualist; he always did and always will write just what he very well pleases: mostly what strikes him as “funny.”1

Anyone familiar with the stories or novels of Norbert Davis would tend to agree with Shaw’s picture of the author as an easy-going optimist. The truth, however, is that Davis—like many humorists and comedians—had a serious, perhaps even troubled, side to his character. It would seem that Shaw knew Davis the writer, not Davis the man.

Several years ago, I conducted a lengthy copyright search that resulted in my gaining extensive information on the life of Norbert Davis. Although the project I had been pursuing was eventually dropped, a thick file of correspondence and documents remains in my possession. These materials plus some more recent research form the basis for this article.2

I. The Beginnings

Norbert Harrison Davis was born on April 18, 1909, in Morrison, Illinois. His parents were Robert and Euphemia Davis, and his mother’s maiden name was Harrison. His family was proud of its relationship, through an ancestor named Jeanie Burns, to the Scottish poet Robert Burns. By 1909, there were so many male relatives named Robert in the family that Mr. and Mrs. Davis decided to make a small break with tradition and give their son the different, though similar, name of Norbert.

Davis referred to Norbert as his “fancy first name.” It appears to have caused him some pain and embarrassment during his childhood years. “I considered Norbert not only ersatz but slightly sissy,”3 he later confessed. Although he came to accept the name in adult life, he was usually called Bert by his friends.

Davis grew up in Morrison, a small city in a farming district of northern Illinois.4 He grew to the height of six foot five, almost a foot taller than the average American male in the nineteen-twenties. By the end of that decade, he had moved, along with thousands of other Midwesterners, to Southern California. Of his situation in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, he later wrote:

It became obvious that, if I were going to continue what I reverently referred to as my educational career, there would have to be some changes made. I tried mowing lawns and polishing cars and shoveling sand, and I decided that a life of honest toil was not for me. So I started murdering people, with a typewriter, on paper.

I laid them away in short stories, novelettes, and novels in seven installments. About 80,000 corpses later, I found myself sitting on the front steps of Stanford with an A.B. in one hand, and an LL.D. in the other, and no job in sight. So I went on killing people.5

Responding to a request for background information made by Joseph Shaw in 1946, Davis produced a somewhat different version of his beginnings as a writer:

All my English instructors were completely unimpressed with my literary effort, but I had a Public Speaking professor who told me that what I said in my mumbling and bumbling manner was often quite interesting in a nonsensical way and why didn’t I try writing some of it. So I did. He invariably told me it was wonderful and would positively sell for thousands of dollars. Finally an editor I had been bombarding wrote me, somewhat plaintively, and asked me why I didn’t read his magazine and figure out something that there might be some remote possibility of him using. That was a new idea to me, but I was willing to try it. I sold him the next story I wrote. About that time I discovered Black Mask, and it became my bible, as it did many many other writers who were beginning about then. You can picture me writing “Red Goose” in a college rooming house between bouts with Blackstone and Coke and other legal luminaries while my roommates read over my shoulder and alternately applauded and viewed with alarm. Law students are inclined—and no wonder—to be pessimistic, and it was predicted that you would not even read the story, that if you did you wouldn’t like it, and that even if you did like it you wouldn’t buy it, and by one ultra-cynic, that if you did buy it the check would bounce. As is evident, none of these dire prophecies came to pass.6

By 1934, the year he received his law degree, Davis was selling regularly to the pulp market. He was so busy writing stories that he never bothered to take the bar exam. I cannot identify his first published story, but his first story in Black Mask was “Reform Racket” in the June 1932 issue.

Shaw, who like his writers tall, once published a list of Black Mask writers who were over six feet. He was no doubt pleased with Davis’s great height, but only five stories by Davis were printed in the magazine during the years that Shaw was its editor. In his book, Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of the Pulps, Ron Goulart indicates, by quoting an unnamed friend of Davis, that Shaw found Davis’s work too whimsical to fit into the action pattern of Black Mask.7

II. Los Angeles and the Fictioneers

Norbert Davis lived in the Los Angeles area during most of his writing career. He associated with other pulp writers and was a member of the Fictioneers, a writers’ club founded by W.T. Ballard and Cleve Adams. The group of about twenty-five members met once a month in the Nikabob Cafe at 875 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. The meetings were informal and their real purpose, Ballard recalls, “was to get comfortably drunk and then en masse attend one of the local burlesque theatres.”8

The meetings, however, were not mere social functions. The Fictioneers was a pulp oriented group, and Ballard says that:

One of the things that held it together was that most of us were working in the same markets. In the east there was a lot of backbiting among competitors, but in Hollywood because we were three thousand miles from our markets, we clung together, passing on any information which might help the other fellow.9

In an interview published in The Armchair Detective, Ballard spoke about the lifestyle of pulp writers in Los Angeles during the thirties and forties: “We worked hard, played hard, lived modestly, drank but few to excess, gambled some when we had extra cash. Most of our friends were other writers.”10

Davis and W.T. Ballard, better known today as western novelist Todhunter Ballard, were good friends who did some writing in collaboration. Using the joint pseudonym of Harrison Hunt, which was derived from their middle names, they wrote the novel Murder Picks the Jury. They also collaborated on a short story, not a mystery, for the Saturday Evening Post.11

Raymond Chandler attended several meetings of the Fictioneers. He and Davis were acquainted, but not close friends. For a time in the fall of 1940, they were neighbors, living a few doors apart on San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica. Both were represented by New York agent Sydney A. Sanders.

Chandler, the older and more intellectual of the two, respected Davis’s talent. When Chandler was studying pulp fiction, prior to his first sale to Black Mask, he read and admired Davis’s early stories. Years later he recommended a story by Davis, “Kansas City Flash,” for inclusion in James Sandoe’s anthology Murder: Plain and Fanciful. The story was one of a group selected by Chandler as being “noteworthy and characteristic of the most vigorous days” of Black Mask.12

Davis maintained a good relationship with member of his family, many of whom lived in Southern California. His first novel was dedicated to his mother; and the second, to his aunt, Jeanette Harrison, a physician who had a practice in Los Angeles for many years.

Davis was married as a young man, but the union did not last long. Some years later, he married again. His second wife, an attractive woman, had the maiden name of Nancy Kirkwood Crane. She was a writer from the East, who had a child, a son, from a previous marriage.

III. Flogging the Typewriter

Norbert Davis was a prolific writer of pulp fiction. Besides detective and mystery stories, he wrote love stories, adventure stories, war stories and even westerns. In fact, his only sale to Hollywood was a western story entitled “A Gunsmoke Case for Major Cain,” which became a movie, starring Wild Bill Elliot, called Hands Across the Rockies (1941).

Since the going rate was one or two cents a word, a pulp writer had to produce dozens of stories and several hundred thousand words a year. Some authors, Robert Leslie Bellem, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson and a few others, knocked out as many as a million published words a year. I doubt that Davis reached that figure in any one year, but he came close.

Frank Gruber captures the flavor of the pulp era in his book, The Pulp Jungle. He tells of the rejection and loneliness chat he had to overcome, of having to deal with insensitive and dishonest editors. Recalling a hectic period when he was producing over eight hundred thousand words a year, he writes:

This is an enormous amount of writing, any way you slice it. The manual labor involved in typing eight hundred thousand words a year is considerable. I flogged the typewriter day and night, I flogged it in the early hours of the morning, I beat at it, late at night. I worked Saturdays and Sundays.13

Hal Murray Bonnet has also written about his years as a pulp writer. He gave his reminiscences the pointed title “It was never that much fun!”14

Being represented by Sydney Sanders, a top agent, Davis may have been protected from unscrupulous editors. Still he, like all pulp writers, was under constant pressure to grind out the words. During the thirties and forties, about two hundred short stories and novelettes by Norbert Davis were published in the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to Black Mask, Dime Detective, Double Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly and Argosy.

Judging from the many Davis pulp stories that I have read, he was able to maintain a surprisingly high level of quality. His Black Mask stories are certainly worth reading, with the possible exception of “Reform Racket,” an awkward early effort, and the jingoistic “Bullets Don’t Bother Me.” The Max Latin series in Dime Detective is also recommended.

In addition to his pulp writing, Davis began, in the early forties, to write hardcover novels and slick magazine stories. His first novel, The Mouse in the Mountain, was published in 1943, with the second, Sally’s in the Alley, appearing that same year. These are, in my opinion, two of the funniest detective novels ever written. Bill Pronzini has called them “minor classics.”15

Both books feature the team of Doan and Carstairs, Doan, whose first name is never mentioned, is a short, fat detective and Carstairs—a gigantic Great Dane—is his partner and constant companion. Their hilarious adventures represent a high point in the career of Norbert Davis.

A third Doan and Carstairs novel, Oh, Murder Mine, appeared as an original paperback in 1946. A more conventional work, this novel is not as cleverly plotted or as arousing as the first two. Doan and Carstairs were also featured in two pulp stories.16

Murder Picks the Jury was published in 1947. A crime novel, coauthored by Davis and Ballard using the pseudonym of Harrison Hunt, it has a rather dark tone, reminding me of the work of David Goodis. In a letter to TAD,17 Pronzini states that the novel is based on a shorter and somewhat different story by Davis,18 and that Ballard may have worked alone to produce the longer version.

Davis entered the slick magazine market with two stories appearing simultaneously in issues of Collier’s19 and The Saturday Evening Post,20 both of which were dated January 1, 1944. He went on to write many more slick stories, about four a year. They are not in the mystery genre, but fall, for the most part, in the love story category. Although the stories are not his best work, he and his agent must have been pleased to receive the higher rates that the slicks were paying.

IV. The Davis Style

Phillip Durham writes: “There is a strong feeling for the joy of violence in the stories of Norbert Davis.”21 Herbert Ruhm refers to “the cockeyed gruffness of Davis.”22 Closer to the mark, I believe, is this comment by Ron Goulart; “In Norbert Davis’ work you’ll find a Bogart-like mixing of toughness and humor.”23

The Davis style deserves a more extensive analysis than can be given here, however I shall make a few remarks on the subject. Simply put, Davis wrote in a style that combines the toughness of the Black Mask school with his own brand of screwball humor. Robert Leslie Bellem and Robert Reeves attempted much of the same thing, but Davis’s light touch and solid craftsmanship raises his work to a level that they rarely achieved.

Although humor is always present in Davis’s most characteristic work, he produced a great amount of straight hard-boiled detective fiction. The following excerpt from “Kansas City Flash” is a good example of a Davis action scene:

Mark Hull came out of his daze in time to hook his foot around the thin man’s ankle. The thin man made no effort to catch himself, to ease his fall. He slammed down limply all at once. He moved a little on the rug. His hands went out in front of him, clutching. His feet jerked in short little kicks. He made soft, choking noises. Then he stopped moving suddenly, as though he were a mechanical toy that had run down.24

Davis’s humor could have a subtle, almost sardonic quality as in this description, also from “Kansas City Flash,” of a movie star, Doro Faliv:

She was one of the real mysteries of Hollywood. She was thin and flat-chested, with a complexion like yellow paste. Her black hair was lifeless and dull. Her features were assembled in regular enough order, but her face gave a queer blank effect, as though there was nothing but emptiness behind it. But on the screen she was marvelous. She was the essence of allure. She could send goose pimples along your back by just turning her head. The camera brought something out that wasn’t there.25

In the whimsical Doan and Carstairs novels, there is some tough writing, but humor is clearly dominant. This passage from The Mouse in the Mountain is a description of a remote Mexican village, Los Altos,26 during World War II:

In Los Altos, there had been a rumor going the rounds that some rich tourists from the United States who were staying at the Hotel Azteca outside Mazalar were going to make a bus trip up to Los Altos. It was obvious, of course, that this rumor wasn’t entirely to be trusted. Anyone with any brains or a radio knew that the people from the United States were too busy raising hell up and down the world to look at scenery except through a bombsight.

But tourists of any brand had been so remarkably scarce of late that the mere hint of their impending arrival was enough to touch off a sort of impromptu fiesta. The inhabitants of Los Altos shook the mothballs out of their serapes, mantillas, rebozas and similar bric-a-brac and prepared to look colorful at the drop of a sombrero. They gathered in the market place with their pigs and chickens and burros and dogs and children, and slept, argued, bellowed, squealed, cackled or urinated on the age-old pavement according to their various natural urges.27

V. Nineteen Forty-Nine

A forgotten pulp writer, Arthur J. Burks, made a profound impression on the young Frank Gruber when he said that the life of a pulp writer was seven years. “At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.”28 Davis probably never met Burks, but we can assume that he heard similar statements at the meetings of the Fictioneers. He made his move into “better writing” in the mid-forties, cutting back on his pulp work and concentrating on hardcover novels and slick stories.

The year 1949 was a fateful one for Norbert Davis. It began auspiciously with the publication of a short story by Davis and his wife Nancy in the January 8 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.29 His career, however, was not going well.

Although his stories for the slicks were appearing at a respectable race, the pulp market, still a source of income, was rapidly collapsing as a result of competition from comic books and paperbacks. Black Mask was in decline, and in a few years, pulp magazines would no longer be published.

Davis had not established himself as a successful author of hardcover novels. He had not made the transition to motion picture writing as had Hammett, Chandler, Gruber and others. The possibility that television could provide him with a new market for his work may have not been apparent in 1949.

Early in that year, Davis moved from Southern California to Connecticut. His last California address was in Los Angeles at 1171 South Norton Avenue, about a mile from the Nikabob Cafe where the Fictioneers held their meetings. He had lived in a modest apartment in a multi-unit complex then known as a court.30

It is conceivable that Nancy Davis, being an Easterner, had urged her, husband to make the move to Connecticut. At any rate, they settled in the small community of Salisbury in the northwest corner of the state. The desire to be closer to the New York publishing houses probably was a consideration favoring the move.

That summer, for what reason I do not know, Davis made a trip to Harwich, Massachusetts, The town of Harwich is on Cape Cod. Not far from the Kennedy family compound, it was in this resort setting that Davis, apparently despondent over career difficulties and other problems, took his own life.

According to the death certificate on record at the Massachusetts Division of Vital Statistics, he ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to the bathroom of the house in which he was staying. In the early morning of July 28, Norbert Davis died, at the age of forty, from inhalation of exhaust gases. His body was cremated in Boston and burial of the ashes took place at Inglewood Park Cemetery, near Los Angeles, on August 11.

Davis had died without leaving a will. In a document filed two months after his death, his estate was estimated at five hundred dollars.

Why did Norbert Davis end his life? There is no simple answer to that question. Since many of Davis’s friends and relatives are deceased and others who might have pertinent information are unwilling to discuss the matter, arriving at an answer is extremely difficult. Despite an intensive search, I was never able to locate Davis’s widow. I can positively place her in Westport, Connecticut, in September 1949; but there the trail ends.

No doubt, Davis had problems of a personal nature that my research has failed to uncover. Twenty years of flogging the typewriter may have taken a toll on his physical and mental health. Separation from close friends and relatives, most of whom were three thousand miles away in California, probably aggravated his situation. It is possible that he needed the support that these people would normally have provided.

I shall not speculate further on the reasons for Davis’s suicide. My purpose in writing this article was not to answer that question, although it could hardly be ignored, but to help restore Norbert Davis to his rightful place among the major pulp mystery writers and to introduce Davis to a new generation of readers. If interest in his work is generated, perhaps the tough, funny exploits of Max Latin and the screwball adventures of Doan and Carstairs will once again become available to mystery fans.

Notes

  1. Joseph T. Shaw, drafts of Introductory material for The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Joseph Thompson Shaw Collection, UCLA Research Library, Los Angeles.
  2. I am grateful to many people who kindly provided me with information on Norbert Davis. They include the late Dr. Jeanette Harrison, Mrs. Sydney A. Sanders, Mills Ten Eyck, Jr., of the Authors League of America, and Barbara E. Adams of William Morrow and Company. I also wish to thanks two friends—Tod Johnson and Mitchell Rose—and the staff of the UCLA Special Collections Department for their most helpful assistance.
  3. Quoted in “Keeping Posted” department, The Saturday Evening Post, September 30, 1944, p. 4.
  4. Morrison’s only claim to fame: in May 1874, James Sargent installed a time lock mechanism in the First National Bank of Morrison, the first such installation in the United States.
  5. Quoted in “Keeping Posted,” p. 4.
  6. Quoted in Shaw.
  7. Ron Goulart, Cheap Thrills (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1972), pp. 127–28.
  8. Quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), p. 74
  9. Quoted in MacShane, p. 74.
  10. Quoted in Stephen Mertz, “W.T. Ballard: An Interview,” The Armchair Detective, 12 (Winter 1979), p. 17–18.
  11. Todhunter Ballard and Norbert Davis, “Kelley Makes a Deal,” The Saturday Evening Post, May 17, 1947, pp. 22 et passim.
  12. James Sandoe, ed. Foreword to Murder: Plain and Fanciful (New York: Sheridan House, 1948), p. vii.
  13. Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967), p. 177.
  14. Hal Murray Bonnett, “It was never that much fun!” Xenophile, No. 38 (1978), p. 141.
  15. Quoted in Robert J. Randisi, “An Interview with Bill Pronzini,” The Armchair Detective, 11 (January 1978), p. 48.
  16. Norbert Davis, “Cry Murder!” Flynn’s Detective Fiction, July 1944, pp. 8–27, and “Holocaust House,” a two-part serial in Argosy in 1940.
  17. Bill Pronzini, Letter, The Armchair Detective, 12 (Summer 1979), p. 268.
  18. Norbert Davis, “String Him Up,” Double Detective, February 1938.
  19. Norbert Davis, “A is for Annabelle,” Collier’s, January 1, 1944, pp. 20 et passim.
  20. Norbert Davis, “Get Out and Get Under,” The Saturday Evening Post, January 1, 1944, pp. 16 et passim.
  21. Philip Durham, “The Black Mask School,” in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, ed. David Madden (Carbondale, Il.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p.71.
  22. Herbert Ruhm, ed., Introduction to The Hard-Boiled Detective (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1977), p. xii.
  23. Ron Goulart, ed. Preface to “Don’t Give Your Right Name,” by Norbert Davis, in The Hard-Boiled Dicks (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1965), p. 1.
  24. Norbert Davis, “Kansas City Flash,” Black Mask, March 1933, p. 85.
  25. Ibid
  26. Davis has some fun with names in The Mouse in the Mountain. Los Altos was, and still is, a large apartment-hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Davis also uses Doan (a patent medicine: Doan’s Pills), Carstairs (a brand of liquor), Janet (his aunt’s first name: Jeanette) and Bay City (a fictitious city in Raymond Chandler’s stories). In Oh, Murderer Mine, he uses Bert (his nickname) and T. Ballard Bestwyck (W.T. Ballard).
  27. Norbert Davis, The Mouse in the Mountain (New York: William Morrow, 1943), p. 24.
  28. Quoted in Gruber, p. 29.
  29. Nancy Davis and Norbert Davis, “The Captious Sex,” The Saturday Evening Post, January 8, 1949, pp. 18 et passim.
  30. The apartment complex still stands in what is now a neighborhood mainly populated by blacks, Chicanos and Asian-Americans. The Nikabob was torn down several years ago.

Norbert Davis Checklist

This checklist is limited to Davis’s mystery and detective fiction, specifically his novels and his pulp stories in Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective. For his slick magazine stories, see The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1944 to 1949.

The list of novels is, I believe, complete. Of his many pulp stories, however, only those in the above-mentioned magazines are listed. My major source of data was the extensive pulp magazine holdings of the UCLA Research Library, Special Collections Department. Since there are gaps in these holdings, it can be assumed that some stories are missing from the checklist.

For each story that I have actually examined, the name of the main character, usually a detective or a lawyer, is included.

Novels:

  • The Mouse in the Mountain. Morrow, 1943; Grosset & Dunlap, 1944; Rue Morgue Press, 2001. Published as Rendezvous With Fear, Withy Grove Press (London and Manchester), 1944.
    Also published as Dead Little Rich Girl, Handi-Books pb, 1945.
  • Sally’s in the Alley. Morrow, 1943; Boardman (London), 1944; Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.
  • Oh, Murderer Mine. Handi-Books pb, 1946.
  • Murder Picks the Jury, as by Harrison Hunt (joint pseud. with Willis Todhunter Ballard). Curl, 1947; McLeod (Toronto), 1947. Published as A L’estomac! trans. Jacques Papy, Gallimard (Paris), 1951.

Stories in Black Mask:

  • “Reform Racket.” June, 1932 Dan Stiles.
  • “Kansas City Flash.” March, 1933 Mark Hull. Rpt. in Murder: Plain and Fanciful, ed. James Sandoe. Sheridan House, 1948. Also rpt. in The Hard-Boiled Detective, ed. Herbert Ruhm. Vintage pb, 1977.
  • “Red Goose.” February 1934 Ben Shaley. Rpt. in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, ed. Joseph T. Shaw. Simon & Schuster, 1946; Pocket Books pb, 1952.
  • “The Price of a Dime.” April 1934 Ben Shaley.
  • “Hit and Run.” April 1935 Jake Tait.
  • “Medicine for Murder.” October 1937 Dr. Bruce Gregory.
  • “Murder in Two Parts.” December 1937 Brent.
  • “You’ll Die Laughing.” November 1940 Dave Sly. Rpt. in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September 1954, as “Do a Dame a Favor?”
  • “Walk Across My Grave.” April 1942 Sheriff Jim Laury. Rpt. in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 1953.
  • “Don’t Cry for Me.” May 1942 John Collinsi.
  • “Bullets Don’t Bother Me.” August 1942 Sam Carey.
  • “Beat Me Daddy.” November 1942 Sgt. John Collins.
  • “Name Your Poison.” May 1943 Sgt. John Collins.

Stories in Detective Fiction Weekly:

(In 1943 magazine became a monthly, Flynn’s Detective Fiction.)

  • “Black Death.” May 18th, 1935 Sarr.
  • “The Girl with the Webbed Hand.” August 24th, 1935 Slattery.
  • “Trip to Vienna.” October 19th, 1935
  • “One Man Died.” January 18th, 1936
  • “The Missing Legs.” February 22nd, 1936
  • “Diamond Slippers.” March 14th, 1936 Simon Saxton.
  • “Clues on Crutches.”June 20th, 1936
  • “Public Defender.” June 27th, 1936 Michael.
  • “Murder Harvest.” September 12th, 1936 James Michael.
  • “The Case of the Greedy Guardian.” October 3rd, 1936
  • “5 to 1 Odds on Murder.” February 6th, 1937
  • “Top Hat Killer.” June 26th, 1937
  • “Beauty in the Morgue.” July 31st, 1937 John Mark.
  • “Indian Sign.” September 18th, 1937
  • “Mountain Man.” October 2nd 1937 Saul Jarret.
  • “Devil Down the Chimney.” December 11th, 1937 Dan Crail.
  • “Cat’s Claw.” January 8th, 1938
  • “Murder Buried Deep.” March 12th, 1938
  • “Marriage is Murder.” October 15th, 1938
  • “Ideal for Murder.” February 11th, 1939 Tom Grey
  • “The Lethal Logic.” April 29th, 1939 Prof. Carlson.
  • “A Vote for Murder.” July 15th, 1939 John Gaul.
  • “Mud in Your Eye.” October 14th, 1939 Craig.
  • “Never Say Die.” November 11th, 1939 Les Free.
  • “Cry Murder!” July 1944 Doan.

Stories in Dime Detective:

(All five Max Latin stories appear in The Adventures of Max Latin, Mysterious Press, 1988.)

  • “The Gin Monkey.” January 15th, 1935 Max Clark.
  • “The Devil’s Scalpel.” November 1935 Bill Ray.
  • “Something for the Sweeper.” May 1937 Jones.
  • “Death Sings a Torch-Song.” July 1937 Dennis Lee.
  • “Drop of Doom.” December 1939 Dale.
  • “Murder Down Deep.” February 1940 William Dodd.
  • “Murder in the Red.” April 1940 William Dodd.
  • “This Will Kill You!” August 1940 William Dodd.
  • “Watch Me Kill You!” July 1940 Max Latin.
  • “Come Up and Kill Me Some Time.” October 1941 William Dodd.
  • “Don’t Give Your Right Name.” December 1941 Max Latin. Rpt. in The Hardboiled Dicks, ed.
    on Goulart. Sherbourne Press, 1965; Pocket Books pb, 1967.
  • “Have One on the House.” March 1942 William Dodd.
  • “Give the Devil His Due.” May 1942 Max Latin.
  • “Who Said I Was Dead?” August 1942 William Dodd.
  • “You Bet Your Life.” September 1942 William Dodd.
  • “You Can Die Any Day.” December 1942 Max Latin.
  • “Too Many Have Died.” April 1943 Peter Tracy.
  • “Charity Begins at Homicide.” October 1943 Max Latin.
  • “Take It from Me.” December 1943 William Dodd.

This article was originally published in The Armchair Detective (Vol.15, No.1, 1982) and contains revisions and corrections to the original appearance.

John has been a mystery fan for many years, with major areas of interest being Japanese mystery fiction and the writers of the pulp era. He has written several articles for The Armchair Detective, Deadly Pleasures, Cads, and other fanzines, and is a regular contributor to Mystery & Detective Monthly. He edited, with Martin Greenberg, two anthologies: Murder in Japan (1987) and The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (1989).

Authored by John L. Apostolou. Copyright © 2001 by John L. Apostolou. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Review of Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe by Charles Kelly

The name Dan J. Marlowe won’t (or at least, shouldn’t) be unfamiliar to noir fiction enthusiasts. Marlowe’s hard-hitting 1962 classic The Name of the Game is Death is far from his only gripping, edgy crime novel, but it’s his best, and is a landmark title within the genre. Even Stephen King has gone on record to praise that book.

What’s less familiar, even in noir circles, is about the no less gripping story of Marlowe’s life. But now that’s been taken care of, thanks to Charles Kelly’s new biography, Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe. Kelly is a tireless researcher and a crack hand at writing—not surprising for a longtime newspaper reporter and novelist in his own right. His painstaking biographical work reveals a most complicated and contradictory man: a “nice guy” whom people generally liked, yet whom many felt they could never quite trust; a conservative businessman fascinated by the criminal milieu; a chameleon equally comfortable among decorated military officers and career cons; an avid reader who was an anti-intellectual; a soft-spoken guy who wrote convincingly about the hardest of the hardboiled; a well-mannered gentleman who had a spanking fetish.

Asked what it was about Marlowe that made him want to tell his life story, Kelly explains:

To me, Dan Marlowe was a fine hardboiled writer whose work dropped from sight through no fault of his own. The quality of his best books qualifies him for a special place in the hardboiled canon, as Stephen King’s admiration of his writing attests. But, beyond that, I considered him a wonderful subject for a biography because his life mirrored his art. Noir themes abound in his life: amnesia, his taste for gambling, his friendship with a bank robber, the sexual inclinations that he hid from his closest friends, his use of false identities to market his pornographic works. The personal lives of many writers are rather dull. Marlowe’s life certainly wasn’t.

Pulling from a voluminous array of sources, including Marlowe’s written correspondence with friends and publishing professionals, his newspaper columns and magazine articles, and, of course, passages from his many novels, Kelly offers a vivid depiction of Marlowe the writer, while at the same time giving us our first tantalizing glimpse of the man behind the books. He also provides a balanced appraisal of Marlowe’s literary output.

One of the most interesting aspects of the biography is the information on Al Nussbaum, a bank robber-turned-writer, who was a personal friend and professional associate of Marlowe’s. Nussbaum comes off as a charismatic guy whose own life is so intriguing that you want Kelly to write a companion volume focusing squarely on him; as it stands, there is a fascinating mini-bio of Nussbaum contained in the pages of Gunshots. Kelly’s chronicle of Nussbaum’s life of crime reads like a thriller. Nussbaum, who at one time posed as a professional writer just so he could have a front to put up to his neighbors and acquaintances, later became a writing partner of Marlowe’s. He offered his friend key insights into the crook’s life, which allowed the author to portray that realm with greater credibility.

Kelly’s biography puts Marlowe in his deserved place, alongside Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, David Goodis, et al: an ace writer of noir fiction who struggled professionally and had his share of personal demons to contend with. You don’t have to be a noir fiction buff to get something from the book, but if you are, it’s a cinch that you’ll want to snatch up a copy.

A literary biography should do (at least these) three things: 1. Reveal aspects of the writer’s psyche; 2. Point to places where what the author lived and what he or she wrote intersected (if they did); 3. And, most importantly, leave the reader with a yen to plow through some of the author’s own books. Kelly’s biography of Marlowe is successful when judged by all three criteria, particularly the last—I kept having to put the book down to go online and search out used copies of some of the Marlowe titles I hadn’t yet read and that Kelly makes sound like must-haves.

I’ll close with some comments—and encouraging words—from Kelly on the experience of researching, writing, and publishing this book:

Doing a full-length biography requires a huge investment of time and effort. I was lured into this project early on when I came up with two ‘treasure troves’ of documents on Marlowe. Those were the personal papers preserved by Marlowe’s friend Gordon Gempel (including Marlowe’s medical and financial records), and the letters and documents accumulated by the writer’s friend James Batson. I turned up all that material in two months while working on an article about Marlowe for Noir Originals in 2007. At that point, I had so much information, there was no way I was not going to turn it into a biography. Also, there was no way I was going to allow it to go unpublished. A New York agent represented the book for several years, but wasn’t able to place it with a traditional publisher. At that point, I decided to self-publish, and I’m glad I did. The reaction from hardboiled fans and bloggers has been quite gratifying.

For more information about Kelly and his biography of Marlowe, go to hardboiledjournalist.com.

For an appreciation of Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death, see Lost Classics of Noir: The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe.


Charles Kelly. Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe. Asclepian Imprints Ltd., 2012.

Paperback. $19.95. Ebook. $4.99.

Authored by Brian Greene.

Review of Crime Stories & Other Writings by Dashiell Hammett

I envy first time readers of Dashiell Hammett’s work who discover The Adventures of the Continental Op through Crime Stories & Other Writings. Editor Steven Marcus presents twenty four of Hammett’s hard-edged short stories of crime and violence. Twenty of them feature a nameless operative of the San Francisco branch of the Continental Detective Agency. The stories are based on the experience of Hammett as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which he joined in 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland; and ended his employment in 1921, in San Francisco. His first crime story “The Road Home,” would appear in the December 1922 issue of The Black Mask, a detective pulp.

Prior to Crime Stories & Other Writings, The Big Knockover, and Marcus’ 1974 collection from Random House, The Continental Op, were the only collections available to fans of the Op’s short fiction. The two books had sixteen of the Op’s adventures, but Marcus has included all of the stories from his earlier collection and left out only “Corkscrew” from The Big Knockover. As a Hammett fan and collector of Op stories for 20 years, only “Slippery Fingers” was new to me, but I purchased the book because I had to have that one Op story. And the other point was that all stories but one are taken from their pulp magazine appearances. Editor Steven Marcus has edited nothing… Good man!

The stories are reprinted in the order of their Black Mask appearances, which allows the reader to watch as Hammett’s skill as a writer develops from one story to the next. He reveals to us the talents necessary for the detective to master in order to become a hardened professional manhunter. We watch the Op as he listens, observes, and begins to manipulate events in order to get to the truth he’s been hired to uncover.

A special feature of this volume is also the reprinting of “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” from The Smart Set (March 1923). In this short feature, Hammett reveals some of the amusing incidents in his career as a manhunter, and gives a glimpse of the content of what makes his fiction unique.

Not counting the eight linked novelettes which make up his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, Hammett wrote 28 stories of the Op. (Although E.R. Hagemann in his A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask: 1920–1951, does not think “It” is one). The following list of eight Op stories, not in Crime Stories & Other Writings, will be in chronological order. Black Mask publication date will be followed by the name of the book publication of the story.

  1. “It,” Black Mask (November 1923); Woman in the Dark (as “The Black Hat that Wasn’t There”), Lawrence Spivak, 1952
  2. “Bodies Piled Up,” Black Mask (December 1, 1923); Dead Yellow Women, Nightmare Town, 1999
  3. “One Hour,” Black Mask (March 1, 1924); The Return of the Continental Op, Nightmare Town, 1999
  4. “Who Killed Bob Teal?,” True Detective (November 1924); Dead Yellow Women, Nightmare Town, 1999
  5. “Mike, Alec, or Rufus,” Black Mask (January 1925); Creeping Siamese (as “Tom, Dick, or Harry”), Nightmare Town, 1999
  6. “Corkscrew,” Black Mask (September 1925); Nightmare Town, 1948; The Big Knockover, 1966
  7. “Death and Company,” Black Mask (November 1930); The Return of the Continental Op, Lawrence Spivak, 1945

Now, the sharp-eyed reader will notice two different publication dates on the Nightmare Town, 1948 and 1999. The 1948 date refers to a digest-sized magazine published by Lawrence Spivak as a “Bestseller Mystery”. It was also published as a Dell Mapback, #379 in 1950. In fact, all but one of the above listed titles had digest and paperback appearances.

Trying to collect all of Hammett’s short fiction, even in paperback, is no easy matter, since most of it is in hard-to-find and expensive to purchase Spivak digests or Dell Mapbacks. Adding to the difficulty is the same named books with slightly different contents. For instance, there are three paperbacks with the titles The Continental Op.

The best guide to this mass of paperback editions is Gary Lovisi’s Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: A Checklist and Biography of their Paperback Appearances, Gryphon Press, 1994. Also valuable is “Collecting Mystery Fiction: Dashiell Hammett, Pgs. 156-163, The Armchair Detective, Vol. 17, #2, Spring 1984.

I began tracking Op stories in 1974 after I found an Ex-Libris copy of William F. Nolan’s first book on Hammett: Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook, 1969, McNally & Loftin, Pgs 132-145.

Two good articles on Hammett’s pulp fiction can be found in Robert Sampson’s volume 4 of Yesterday’s Faces: The Solvers Pgs 222-237; and Michael Chomko’s excellent fanzine“Purple Prose: issue #14 is devoted to detective fiction and “Hammett’s Ops”, by Michael Black is cover featured. A lot of interior art from Black Mask Hammett Stories is featured as well.

Crime Stories & Other Writings is well worth the price and should become a cornerstone volume in any reader’s library collection of Hammett short fiction.

Authored by John Desbin.

Review of Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith

As the boundaries between high and pop culture continue to blur, more academics are writing about pulp magazines, especially the detective genre. Much has been discussed regarding formal structure and subject matter, but Erin A. Smith, who teaches American Studies and Literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, broadens the study to include a sociological and historical context. Because Smith perceived a gap in the history of reading tastes among the less literate classes between the two world wars, she wanted to reconstruct a profile of hard-boiled fiction consumers. Specifically, she used Black Mask as case example, analyzing editorials, letters to the editor from writers and readers, the stories themselves, and advertisements to elucidate how the pulp magazine shaped its readers and vice versa.

In Part I, Smith discusses the status of hard-boiled writers, and by extension, all pulp writers in the literary marketplace. Her epigraphs from Vanity Fair (June, 1933) and Harper’s (June 1937) brought home the hostility slicks felt toward pulps; the former stated that pulp fans moved their lips when reading, and the latter asserted “they had tastes of savages.” Drawing heavily from Erle Stanley Gardner’s letters and Harold Hersey’s Pulpwood Editor. Smith gives us insights on how various writers worked the border between slicks and pulps, revealing it to be more porous than we might think. A dichotomy within detective fiction was introduced by presenting Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder, published in a 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, where he defended hard-boiled, a mainly male genre, from its predecessor, the London Detection Club writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and others who crafted more traditional mysteries. This contrast gives the reader a lesson on hard-boiled origins.

In another chapter, Smith dissects ad copy and deduces who the target audience was. Reproductions of ads by I.C.S.-International Correspondence Schools to Earle F. Liederman’s book Muscular Development, to Lee’s work clothes (“Do you look the deserving man you are?”), to Sherwin Cody School of English (“Do you make these mistakes in English?”) show us, Smith concludes, that targeted readers were working-class males, possibly immigrants, who wanted to defend their masculinity in the face of increasing workplace mechanization. The ads also appealed to desire advancement in economic and social status.

In Part II, the author correlates hard-boiled plots and themes with readers’ working lives. Her most ambitious claim is that plots reflected both writer and readers’ societal positions in that pulp authors saw their stories as piecework, not great art, and the fast-paced, intricate plots mirrored the assembly line atmosphers for worker/readers. Her strongest example consisted of contrasting the reading experience of two novels about murder on a stranded train, Frederick Nebel’s hard-boiled Sleepers East and Agatha Christies traditional Murder on the Orient Express. Nebel’s rapid plot loosely connects a chain of discrete, violent scenes without resolution, while Christie ties up all loose ends. Smith concludes that the hard-boiled hero, and readers who identified with him, was struggling to retain the autonomous artisanal work ethic in the face of scientifically managed mass production factories.

But how convincing is Smith’s project? She draws parallels and extrapolations without interviewing real people for confirmation. For instance, were the hypermasculine ads and stories really taken seriously by the average male reader?

By concentrating on Black Mask, her study comes across as too limiting. She ignored readers of other genres, such as middle-class teenaged boys who underlined juicy descriptions in Spicy Mystery, women fans of romance pulps, or highly educated science fiction pulp readers, or readers of Weird Tales, which included many women, if letters to the Eyrie were any indication. Furthermore, the advertising she analyzed appeared across the board in all kinds of pulps, not only in Black Mask, which should have been named in the book’s subtitle (and not pulps in general) since that was her only example. Incidentally, the unattributed cover image of the book was not reproduced from Black Mask but from the May 1941 Private Detective Stories.

Nevertheless, I recommend this title to pulp fans, especially Black Mask collectors, because Smith raises topics not usually found in books on pulps, and although written by an academic, it is very understandable, with informative extensive endnotes to each chapter.

Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers And Pulp Magazines
Erin A. Smith, Temple University Press.
2000 paperback, $19.95

Authored by Alfred Jan; reprinted from The Pulpster #11 (2001).