Found Pages: The Remarkable Harold Ernest (“Darcy Glinto”) Kelly, 1899–1969.
- Two editions
- Snow Vogue hardcover
- The Astounding Crime
- The spirit of the chase
- Research difficulties
- A basic Kelly source
- Kelly’s Jansons
- Library holdings
- Dodgy publishers
- Two attributions
- Another attribution
- Deep South Slave
- “America,” British-style
- Educated guesswork
- City Mid-Week libel case
- John Parsons
- Série Noire skewings
- Paul Cain, Fast One
- Série Noire and a Surrealist connection
- “The Common Cold Murder” NEW
- Violence, Inc.
- Matt Helm and Jack Reacher NEW
Marvellous, marvelous.Steve Lewis
Many thanks for the lead to John Fraser's work. Wow, what dedication and scholarship! I picked out a number of tidbits for my next Addenda column (and must remember to credit Fraser as the source).Allen J. Hubin
“The Remarkable Harold Ernest (Darcy Glinto) Kelly 1899–1969.” Who? you may well ask, and rightly so. While the website above is still a work in progress, let John Fraser be your guide in exploring the life and works of this all-but-unknown British author, with side excursions and commentary on others you may have heard of: James Hadley Chase, Stephen Frances (Hank Janson), Edgar Wallace, Peter Cheyney, Gerald Butler and more. A monumental project, and one I cannot recommend more highly.Mystery File Online, May 9, http://www.mysteryfile.com/
I was amazed at some of the detail you've managed to dig up. I'll look forward to your website expanding and growingSteve Holland
I found much of interest on your site (the word "much" being an understatement, by the way—I thought your site was absolutely absorbing).David Whitehead [“Ben Bridges,” www.benbridges.co.uk/]
Very much enjoyed your page on Darcy Glinto. I was actually doing a Google search for information on Robert Du Soe when I ran across it. I had not heard of Glinto, and was fascinated by the great style of the passages you quote. He now has a new devotee. I see that on ABE books, which these days pretty much represents the world used market, there is exactly one Glinto book for sale. Scarce stuff!Kevin Johnson
I read your Kelly book a few weeks ago, and I loved it. The way you organize the materials into small units is perfect and, especially for a Kelly novice like me, a great help to assimilating so many different facts. The tone is affectionate and trustworthy—you do not oversell your own claims and hunches. The debate with Orwell, your take on the gangster Nazis, the exceptionally warm and smart presentation of the Westerns (maybe my favorite part)—it all really pleased and inspired me. The quotations from the Westerns are great examples of Kelly‘s sensitivity and amazing versatility. With “voice” still romanticized as the writer’s only goal, versatility is too infrequently identified as a writerly virtue.
The crispness of your own writing is what best helps the unfamiliar get into the complexity of Kelly’s world. You’ve gone well beyond the kind of academic pop-culture approach which reduces everything to genre study, and I left Kelly with a sense of him as a real, working artist. The web-design is good, the accompanying pictures are really cool, and the interplay of texts works well on the computer. The way you manage the material is web-friendly, but it also feels like a book-book. With good photos of the covers, it would be ready to go.David McGimpsey
Wow, is that me? Thanks, David. Music to my ears. Kelly lives. And yes, since you yourself used the term, a real working artist, uneven, obviously writing too fast at times and not revising, but with plenty to write about, maybe because aged forty when he embarked on fiction. And the at times lovely Westerns are an integral part of his oeuvre.
And he did it his way and beat the system. Illegitimi non carborundum.
But no, thank you for the compliment, but this is a web book, not a “real” book that happens to be reproduced electronically. It’s able to grow, change, self-correct with input from others. Bryan Maycock, for instance, has just found that brother Hector, eleven years Harold’s junior, was born in Bristol.
And Harold himself? Bryan is on the trail. I’d he happy to have Harold too in Bristol rather than, as I’d guessed, Ulster. It would give a water connection and some rugged terrain over in Wales.
Two editions of There Were No Asper Ladies
Morgan Wallace writes:
The first Robin Hood Press edition of There Were No Asper Ladies was 1946, I'm sure.
The second edition, is rather difficult to date. But that might be the 1947, though I'm of the opinion that it was in the early 1950s (shrug). Undated books are a nightmare.
The first RHP edition has a vampire in coffin cover, much like the original Mitre Press cover.
The second RHP edition has NO vampires at all. Rather, it bears good girl art of a blonde dame, I believe if my memory of the hair serves accurate. She is in the center of the cover by herself, kind of sitting on her legs leaning back in somewhat horror, I think. That's it. Yellow backdrop colours.
Art was the immeasurably hot R. Heade. If this ever comes up on eBay, you'll never afford it.
Steve Holland writes:
Robin Hood was set up in 1946 and published their first title There Were No Asper Ladies in January 1947. There was definitely a second edition of that book, published around 1953. First cover was by someone who signed themselves E.P., the second by Heade.
Summarizing what I have now learned from Morgan, who has been further researching the matter, it appears that there were in fact three early editions of the book, namely
A 1944 Mitre Press edition, with on the cover, a nattily suited young man shining a flashlight on a mummy-wrapped figure in a coffin.
A 1946 Robin Hood Press edition. with on the ugly cover a sinister figure in silhouette.
A 1946 Robin Hood edition with on the cover a sexy Heade female having nothing to do with the contents, and the text identical with the previous one, but the pages slightly trimmed.
Apparently There Were No Asper Ladies was the first book published by Robin Hood, 1946 being the date in each of those two Robin Hood editions.
The most plausible assumption is that the Kellys began with what was a more dramatic cover than the Mitre one, but quickly realized that it was ess ee ex that was going to sell the Glintos, and were lucky enough to acquire the Heade cover.
The first, or both, may have been printed and copyrighted in 1946 but not marketed until 1947. My own guess is that the silhouette edition appeared in 1946 and the Heade in 1947.
In any event, 1946 appears to have been the year in which the Robin Hood Press began.
Apparently there is a controversy as to whether at some point the Mitre Press, which was already in operation in the late 1930s, and by 1943 had at least 19 titles on its list (see ads in The Bronsville Massacre), was taken over by the Kellys’ Everybody’s Books, which started up in 1943,
My only scholarly contribution at this point is to point out that in The Bronsville Massacre the address of Everybody’s is in Denmark Street, just off the Charing Cross Road in the West End, while that of Mitre is in Mitre Street, in the East End, level on the map with the Tower of London.
This was only a year after the scandal of the obscenity trial of Chase’s Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief and Road Floozie at the Old Bailey. So presumably one can either assume that the Kellys were hiding their tracks or wonder where, after Harold’s heavy fine, they would have found the cash for a take-over .
In any event, they do appear to have been uncommonly secretive, probably because of a determination never to come within the orbit of the Law again, possibly because they may have operated occasionally in the spirit of the archetypal outlaw.
(An out-and-piratical American record operation in the late 40s or early 50s called its label Jolly Roger.)
Their operations are virtually invisible in accounts of fringe publishing in those years, like a shadowy planet in a solar system. But they published a lot of books.
In terms of prestige, British Westerns appear to have been the runt of the litter.
Snow Vogue hardcover
Carl Williams reports having a hardcover copy of the first edition, and has provided the following bibliographical note
First edition. 8vo., endpaper, [8pp.], pp-9-160, in the original saffron cloth, gilt titles on spine, illustrated white paper dustwrapper printed in grey-blue, black and reds, publishers’ blurb on front fold in and lower portion (with adverts for forthcoming titles). London, Wells Gardner Darton & Co., Ltd., Athenaeum Printing Works, (1941).
The wrappers depict a ‘chic’ but rather louche woman, called Zola, in a white hooded lounge suit, matching heels, red lipstick, heavily made up eyes and exceptionally long lashes. She sits despondently upon the floor; as well she might for “Dario” beats her severely with a cane by page twenty six.
There’s no literal identification of the cover girl, but she could indeed be Zola.
He has also scanned the cover to me. The front image is the same as for the pb. On the back we have:
Darcy Glinto’s Latest
“I pull the fastest gun west of Sandy Hook. I work on a rake-off for the guys that run the morgue.”
This is Darcy’s description of himself and here in Snow Vogue is the story of Dario—cold-blooded and ruthless gangster.
It is just as slick and twice as fast as any other gangster story. That is because Dario is that kind of man.
By the same Author—
Lady—Don’t Turn Over
No Mortgage on a Coffin.
We All Gotta Start, Sister
You Took Me—Keep Me.
“We All Gotta Start, Sister” is presumably the working title of the persistently inaccessible Yours Truly, Hoodlum, the Robin Hood cover of which is reproduced in colour on the back of Maurice Flanagan’s Brtitish Gangster and Exploitation Paperbacks of the Postwar Years (1997) and elsewhere in this site.
The fact that Snow Vogue appeared in hardcover makes me wonder about the other five first-series Glintos.
The Astounding Crime
Morgan Wallace writes:
Managed to obtain a copy of Preston Yorke’s The Astounding Crime.
Here is your listing for it:
Preston Yorke, The Astounding Crime, with two tales by Michael Hervey, Everybody’s Books, 65pp; reissued in 1945 as Death on Priority 1, Everybody’s, BM
I can add that the PY story runs from page 4 to page 52. Page 2 features a lengthy "Publisher’s Note" and Page 3 features a note from the author, instructing that this book be "Not For Publication". The story itself is referred to in the notes as "The Traitor Murder", which I myself find amusing in that this is the ripped title of a most famous detective story written by President Abraham Lincoln, prior to his famed, in 1843, called "The Traitor Murder Mystery." Undoubtedly this is the true source for that title, ripped from an arcane detective story exactly 100 years prior to the 1943 publication of Preston Yorke’s "The Astounding Crime."
The cover art is by the usual JEFF COOK. Cover price: 1/6d It is a thin digest, not a pamphlet. Typical wartime issue cheap papers.
What I find odd is that your page notes that it was reissued as Death on Priority 1. This is incorrect. The two stories have nothing to do with each other. Totally different.
"The Astounding Crime" features an Inspector Sean McEvrett, and notes that this story was communicated to Preston Yorke only days before the Inspector’s death. [yeah, right]
Thank you, Morgan. I’ll be correcting the entries (don’t know whence the error came) and linking to your letter here.
From Steve Holland:
I got in touch with Steve, till then a stranger to me, after Found Pages went online. His comments have been fascinating, and with his consent I have excerpted a number here from his e-mails. By me he is The Man about a lot of things.
His The Mushroom Jungle; a History of Postwar Paperback Publishing (1993) and the poignant The Trials of Hank Janson (2004) are exemplary in their scholarship and their uncondescending but not cultish treatment of a lot of books and authors who were off the map.
His “Bibliography of British Noir Crime Fiction, 1927–47,” which can be used in conjunction with Allen J. Hubin’s monumental Crime Fiction II; a Comprehensive Bibliography, 1749-1990, rev. ed. 1994, has sent me off to Abebooks, Biblio.com, and eBay in search of (to me) unknown texts and authors.
It’s been particularly interesting getting his observations about the problems of research in this area.
I have disagreed with him occasionally in Found Pages, but always cautiously.
The headings are mine. With his permission, I have split up and/or recombined some paragraphs in the interests of readability. There are links to and from relevant places in the site.
The spirit of the chase (Steve Holland)
I don't know about being The Man. The Enthusiast Who Took It A Step Further would be more like it.
I started collecting SF paperbacks from that era and picked up a few Janson novels along the way (as Steve Frances had written some SF and had been involved in publishing a British SF mag called New Worlds).
I then had the good fortune of being offered a collection of old gangsters by a chap called Derek Thompson who became a very good friend over the years. He had been in touch with Frances and I was able to get his address and wrote to him, receiving a very warm reply which led to some years of correspondence.
I mentioned an interest in these old paperback firms to another friend who very quickly responded "You'll never get anybody to talk about them." It was like waving a red rag in front of a bull and I was determined to prove him wrong — which is how I suddenly went from occasional reader to determined researcher on the subject. (Steve Holland)
Research difficulties (SH)
When I was doing the research I had a couple of hundred people to look into so there wasn't always the time to spend on each individual author. I did the best I could with the resources available to me which, sadly, usually didn't include the authors themselves as they were often long dead. (Steve Holland)
A basic Kelly source (SH)
Kelly is a fascinating case. I read a couple of his Darcy Glinto yarns (No Mortgage on a Coffin was definitely one of them) and they were pretty good.
I stumbled across Hector Kelly's address in the phone book (after a lot of digging) and got a nice reply from him which I quoted from in Trials of Hank Janson. He was my basic source of pseudonym info. on his brother.
I can't say with any certainty whether all the Lance Carson, Bryn Logan and Clinton Wayne novels were by Kelly as I don't have them. (Steve Holland)
Kelly’s Jansons (SH)
You question the identification on some of the Compact Janson novels and you're probably right to do so. Hector named only one title and I guessed the others from the style of writing.
I still don't have a complete set of those Roberts & Vinter/Compact Jansons, so there may be others lurking in the run by Kelly. And I'm a little older and (I hope) a little better at analysing the books now, so there's a chance that I would question some of my earlier identifications now.
The big problem is lack of primary material to go on. These books are almost impossible to get hold of and when they do come up it is usually at some ridiculous price.
Being so broadly interested in the publishing phenomenon that saw all these Americanised novels published during that period means that I've had to build my collection cheaply and I can't afford to pay the prices being asked for a lot of these books. If I was spending money, it was on the early (Gaywood) Janson novels — which I do have a complete run of.
Of course, I'm speaking to someone who knows what I'm talking about as you've found it equally impossible to find copies of a lot of books.
In the text on your site you mention that I queried my list of Kelly's books in both the Richard Williams checklist and with Allan Hubin but I seemed more certain when it came to Trials. However, I just checked my original draft and I still had question marks on the same titles as before, thus—
E172 She Sleeps To Conquer (1961; by ?Harold Kelly)
E174 Venus Makes Three (1961; by ?Harold Kelly)
—which were editorially removed before the book saw print. I stick by my assertion that these are by Kelly, but I've always kept those question marks in place until I can confirm — or at least find someone who agrees with me that they were Kelly's work. But it wasn't so much my own growing certainty by the time I came to write Trials but a little editorial alteration which removed any doubt!
I've always had to collect on a budget and my main aim was to get a complete run of the Jansons I knew to be by Steve Frances. I've got a reasonable collection of the others that I've picked up cheaply along the way but not a complete set by any means. (Steve Holland)
Library holdings (SH)
I notice that at times you remark about books not being listed in library catalogues or 'standard' catalogues like The English Catalogue of Books. This is simply because a lot of publishers never bothered to send books to the five UK copyright libraries (British Library, Bodleian, etc.) and didn't advertise them in places like The Bookseller.
At that time it was possible to flog the whole print run to a distributor with a single phone call so books, as far as the publisher was concerned, were instantly "out of print". It was only in around 1951 that this became more difficult as newsagents began to see more police activity and had their stock raided (or heard stories of other newsagents being raided).
Newsagents became more picky, distributors filled orders rather than buying up whole runs, print runs dropped. As the police started prosecuting publishers there was even less incentive to advertise the books.
Other publishers — Fiction House/Piccadilly Novels is a good example — probably only sent in copies when someone at the British Library became aware of their books and requested them. All the early Piccadilly novels have identical date stamps, meaning they all arrived at the same time. Later titles in the line were sent in as they were published.
So, the patchy collection of Glinto/Kelly titles in copyright libraries could have a number of explanations: publisher not wanting to bother or deliberately not bothering until directly requested, or publisher not having copies to send when requested.
All speculation, of course, because sadly that's all we can do with a lot of this kind of research. Take educated guesses. (Steve Holland)
Dodgy publishers (SH)
There is also the problem of Reg Carter and Alexander Moring.
Carter reprinted books willy nilly and bought up the rights to a lot of titles — he was also Peveril Books (R.C. Ltd.). This was post-trial and many of the books, even the westerns, were probably abridged by other hands, which may make identifying the real author difficult.
Incidentally, there was a Moring reprint of a Glinto — I think it was Born to Die — which I wrongly identified as a reprint of a Steve Frances novel … based, I should add, on what someone else told me as I don't have a copy of the book. I've fixed my lists now to correct that info.
The rest of the information about the Moring/Glinto reprints should be correct as I have the books. And if you find that error repeated elsewhere, as in Al Hubin's Crime Fiction Biblio., that will be my fault. I take full blame for giving Al wrong information (but then I'll also take full credit for any right information!).
Carter may have also reprinted other authors' stories under the three western pseudonyms. I've found a Robert O. Saber (US author) novel reprinted under Victor Norwood's Mark Shane pseudonym which he (Carter) had previously published under the Comyns imprint. There doesn't seem to have been any quality control at Alexander Moring at all.
So that's worth keeping in mind if you've read a Lance Carson (say) that seems obviously not by Kelly. It could be that the original version of the book under that title and pseudonym was ! (Steve Holland)
Two attributions (SH)
I'm reasonably sure that Wild Girl and Torrid Temptress, both Hank Janson titles published by George Turton in 1959, are by Kelly. You should be able to pick up copies of these fairly easily — they pop up on e-Bay a lot at not unreasonable prices. It would be interesting to see whether you agree with me or not.
Torrid Temptress, with its labour troubles, feels like the Kelly of Buck Toler’s Bronsville Massacre, though not as good.
For Wild Girl, my jury is still out. I haven’t read enough Jansons. Actually, now that I look, I see that there are twenty-four on my shelves, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Frances is not a writer with whom I am at home yet.
Another attribution (SH)
Another name to look out for is Wenda Malleson, who did romances for Hector Kelly and Ward Lock. I've no proof that this was Harold K. having never seen any of the books, but my gut feeling is that it could be him.
Wenda Malleson is a pure guess based solely on “her” publishing history—how many other authors switched from writing for Hector Kelly to Ward Lock?
But it is seeking out these little quirks that has led to identifying pen-names quite a few times and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been right more often than I’ve been wrong. On a scale of 1 to 10 and without ever having seen anything written by “Malleson” it’s an “8” that “she” is Harold Kelly. (Steve Holland)
I have now at last finished A Heart Unconquered (Une Etrange Fille). What with my unfluent French and the absence of memorable events in the narrative, I probably made my way faster through The Golden Bowl.
Despite the four-to-one odds, I cannot find it in me see this as a Kelly. I indicate why in Note 46.
Deep South Slave (SH)
As far as I'm aware, Glinto was Kelly's exclusive pen-name so by rights DSS should be by Kelly. I've never seen a copy so I can't guess. From your comments it sounds like he basically ripped the language and ideas from other books, which is the case with a lot of these paperbacks. They—I won't say all, but some of the authors at least—lifted plots and dialogue from wherever they could find it. Chase pinched stuff from Hammett and Chandler—re-writing bits of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon — without realizing where he had sourced his material. There's a chunk of W. R. Burnett's High Sierra in one of Steve Frances' novels (Bury Me Deep by Duke Linton). (Steve Holland)
Chase did it, indeed. The steals—all right, appropriations—that I myself particularly noticed are from Latimer and, in Twelve Chinks and a Woman, Hammett. Though I’ve tried a few of them, I cannot speak of his later works.
Latimer himself obviously knowingly recalls Red Harvest in the opening of Solomon’s Vineyard, and in Sinners and Shrouds takes a whole basic plot situation from Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, for the movie of which he wrote the screenplay.
Kelly reworks No Orchids in Lady—Don’t Turn Over. Stephen Frances reworks The Postman Always Rings Twice in Accused. No doubt there are lots of other examples.
In the works I’ve mentioned, the fact of the adapting, as distinct from its significance, is unmistakable.
The problem, well one of them, with Deep South Slave is that it is all of a piece—all, to my ear, impeccably and ably “Southern,” principally Southern Black—and that so far I haven’t come across any novel by anyone else, or the title of any novel, with sufficient parallels for one to be able to talk about influences. Except, that is, for John L. Spivak’s fine Georgia Nigger, which is acknowledged in a prefatory note, and which is a very different book. I talk about it in Sidebar 4.
So the problem remains for me a three-part one. Is Deep South Slave by someone else? If not, is there a mystery work out there, a kind of dark planet, of which it is an adaptation? If not, what kind of creative magic permitted a perfect digesting and synthesizing of diverse “Southern” material, factual and fictional?
“America,” British-style (SH)
One of the reasons why I found these British books interesting was because they diverged so wildly from the American crime novels which they pretended to be.
When it became impossible to import American books during the Second World War, authors like Chase and Peter Cheyney became hugely popular, and it was these authors that British authors tried to emulate. There are endless variations of Cheyney's Slim Callaghan knocking around in British 'gangster' paperbacks, degenerating like third, fourth and fifth generation photocopies.
Where in America Gold Medal and other paperback imprints helped develop the hardboiled novel, Britain was stuck in the 1930s making copies of books that weren't even the original books!
If memory serves, Cheyney died in 1951. Arthur Barker reprinted Mickey Spillane around that time, but the first Gold Medal titles didn't really appear in any number until 1953 when Frederick Muller Ltd. started reprinting them in paperback, by which time the gangster 'boom' was pretty much over.
Canny writers who could find copies of American books could rip them off without being caught as, for some years, readers were very, very unlikely to come across the original sources. And if you were reading the gangster yarns for cheap, rip-roaring entertainment, it was unlikely that you would be bothered for more than a second or two if you recognised a scene lifted from another book or a movie.
Being "overly influenced" (to put it politely) by novels may also explain why, in the middle of a run of titles, an author can suddenly seem to switch styles. I'm not saying that authors cold-heartedly chose to plagiarise, but many were attempting to make a precarious living as writers in post-War Britain and knocking out novels at the rate of one a month, sometimes even faster, so many would have dipped into other writer's novels for inspiration.
I think Chase did just that: faced with a blank sheet of paper he needed to get himself started by drawing from someone like Hammett. Once he'd gotten over that first blank page he was able to take the story off in his own direction. I'm sure that's true for other authors too.
Educated guesswork (SH)
There’s no way of checking everything. The information simply isn’t there, the people involved are long dead, and nobody at the time was interested in doing interviews or writing about these people. All you can do is put down dots for facts where they can be verified and join them up to see what kind of picture you get.
Reassuring to hear about your own guesses. Having an untidy and inefficient mind, I’ve tended over the years to assume that others know far more than I do about things (which may indeed often be the case), and have worked extra hard to catch up. So it’s a relief hearing how guesswork has been pretty much the way to go with Kelly, not that it means I’m guessing right—though I’d like to think I guessed right about the picture of him.
As long as it’s educated guesswork.
City Mid-Week libel case (SH)
City Mid-Week was published by British International Press Ltd. and was edited by John Ramage Jarvie. In November 1932 Jarvie and British International Press were in court charged with contempt of Court by the Sun Life Assurance Company.
The case seems to be that in Canada Sun Life was libelled by a Canadian journalist named Harpell and the Canadian courts had put an injunction on Harpell and his agents from distributing libels printed in the Toronto Journal of Commerce.
Jarvie published some extracts in City Mid-Week and Sun Alliance issued a writ against them.
Harpell came to the UK and asked Jarvie to distribute copies of the Toronto Journal which, said Jarvie, he refused to do. However, copies of the paper were delivered to the company and a representative of Sun Alliance was sent to obtain copies, which he did. This is the contempt of the charge — that Jarvie (as an agent of Harpell) was distributing something considered a libel and already under injunction.
The company was fined £25 and Jarvie was fined £50.
In a later case heard on March 21, 1933, a special jury in the Lord Chief Justice's Court awarded Sun Alliance £19,000 for damages against British International Press, Metropress Ltd. (the printers) and John Ramage Jarvie, the managing editor of City Mid-Week.
The libel apparently appeared in the July 13, 1932 issue and in an advertising poster published on the same date which said: "More Grave Sun Life of Canada Disclosures".
Sun Life also sued W. H. Smiths for damages and were awarded a further £3,000 in June 1933.
The City Mid-Week article of July 13, 1932, was written by Henry William Wicks who had previously worked for Sun Life.
I've not been able to find out anything else about Jarvie or City Mid-Week. However, it seems that Kelly's statement that the company were fined £50,000 was a fib — it was £19,000.
I could not see any mention of Kelly being involved in the City Mid-Week case. He was certainly not put in the dock. The company British International Press and John Jarvie were the two defendants. Sun Alliance separately sued W. H. Smiths for distributing the paper and displaying their advertising boards and (separately again) Henry William Wicks, the author of the article.
Chances are the paper was not a huge success; it was a newcomer and may not even have made back its launch costs. If British International were to be found guilty and fined (which probably seemed likely as Sun Alliance had already been successful in Canada) there was no point in continuing the paper as any profit they made would likely only go into the pockets of Sun Alliance. Better to fold the source of income (City Mid-Week) and run the company down so that there was as little money in the company as possible. Being a limited company, the directors would not be liable for any debts.
I can't find anything on British International Press or Jarvie at the Public Records Office.
I haven’t been able yet to think my way through these facts for their bearing on what might be called the Harold Kelly Story. The Kelly version in London Cameos was David and Goliath, except that Goliath, after taking some hits from that pesky sling, stomped David into the ground. Two honest working journalists pooled their savings and (hey, kids!) started up a truth-telling newspaper that became too popular and influential for comfort, so the financial Establishment or its agents did a number on it. I had a little wondered about the capital required for starting a paper, and about the size of a judgment that they couldn’t conceivably have paid.
The best I can do for “my” Kelly at the moment is to suggest that he and his partner—Jarvie?—sold the idea of a new-style weekly of which he would be the editor and Jarvie the managing editor, that things proceeded as Steve has described, and that losing the paper, which to judge from the contents of the final issue, including the number of ads, was doing well enough to have kept going, was wrenchingly painful.
The owners’ abruptly cutting their losses like that would help explain why there is nothing valedictory about the final issue.
John R. Parsons (SH)
You mention a book by John Parsons called Innocence is No Protection as being possibly by Kelly. I suspect not. There was a real artist/illustrator around at that time called John R. Parsons who illustrated The Pack of Pieces by Anthony Armstrong (London, Michael Joseph, 1942) and Jack Robinson by John Keir Cross (London, Peter Lunn, 1945). I strongly suspect that the author/illustrator John Parsons, artist (as he's credited at the BL) is the same guy.
The Library of Congress, no less, credits Harold Ernest Kelly as the author of John Parsons, Give the People Homes; It Lies With You! (London, Francis James Publishing Co., 1945). At the moment I can't think of any reason to doubt their information.
Give the People Homes is also attributed to Kelly in the New York Public Library catalogue.
Could be that they were copying from the Library of Congress. Both Library of Congress and British Library maintain a Name Authority List (which they probably share) which cross references pseudonyms I believe. So John Parsons is possibly on one or other, probably both, of the libraries Name Authority List.
The problem is that they then apply this list to any book that appears under a certain name: thus the British Library list all Hank Janson novels as being the pen-name of Stephen Frances. So even these major libraries can send you astray.
Série Noire skewings
Benoit Tadié writes:
I think a more or less literal translation of Méfiez-vous, fillettes [the French title, for both book and movie, of Chase’s Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief ] would be "Girlies, Beware". "Fillette" (literally 'litttle girls') is outdated postwar humorous slang, quite typical of the largely artificial style which the translators of the Série Noire used in order to make the novels sell.
The Série Noire is a fascinating and paradoxical collection: on the one hand it was instrumental in defining the "noir" genre and published the best American paperback authors of the 40s and 50s, bringing them together and giving them a status which they'd often have to wait a long time to acquire in their own country (and sometimes only posthumously: e.g. Goodis or Thompson); on the other hand they often resorted to a sort of overblown humorous slang (perhaps under the influence of Peter Cheyney, the first author to be published in the series) which sometimes ran counter to the mood of the original novels. This is particularly blatant in the translations of titles, as with Chase's novel here and countless examples.
The translators (often Duhamel himself, or Boris Vian) also cut pages and sometimes whole chapters from their translations in order to bring them closer to their simplistic and virile idea of the genre (this happened especially to Chandler's novels, which were disfigured beyond recognition in the French versions). So that all that is now written in American criticism about the 40s Série Noire having consciously identified and properly valued the "noir" atmosphere of the American paperbacks is not really true, or, if true, only unintentionally so: Marcel Duhamel, the collection's founder, was more fond of superficial macho humor in the Cheyney vein than of the more profound existential gloom you find in Woolrich or Goodis. The mystery is why and how he also published the latter, as (as his memoirs show) he was obviously not really aware of their intrinsic quality.
This mystery will probably be explained only when someone (a French Steve Holland perhaps?) finally tackles the long-overdue task of writing a detailed history of the collection's birth and development in the postwar years and finds out who was in charge of choosing the authors to be translated (and I'm ready to bet that it wasn't Duhamel himself most of the time). The basic paradox of the Série Noire is, thus, that it both created "noir" fiction as a category and at the same time distorted our perception of it.
Paul Cain, Fast One
Benoit Tadié writes:
I'm glad you pointed out to me that review of Fast One by Orwell; I found an extract of it on your website, and am a bit sorry that he should have thought the novel so bad, as I personally tend to think (much as I admire Orwell) that Fast One is a great book.
I particularly like its experimental staccato style, which also features in some of his short stories (especially “Parlor Trick,” “Pineapple” and “Murder in Blue” in Seven Slayers). Together with Hammett's works and some of Raoul Whitfield's stories (and also, in a slightly different vein, P.J. Wolfson's Bodies are Dust), I consider that it represents the best of the first generation of hardboiled writing (and also, perhaps, of all generations).
I think the extreme precision of the visual and auditory details, the lack of internal point of view, the swiftness of the action (and also that weird stroboscopic effect produced by the use of so many dashes and the elimination of the conjunction "and") turn his writing into some sort of revolutionary experiment—quite as experimental, in fact, in its own way, as some of the stuff now canonized under the label of modernism. But I also understand why this violent and purely "objective" kind of narrative could seem immoral to Orwell.
Personally I tend to think that there is some kind of covert morality in the presentation of these manic characters always on the move and so eager to doublecross one another with no particular reason for doing it; it chimes with the presentation of life as given by Sam Spade in the Flitcraft episode: not so much an expression of nihilism as a philosophical point of view about man's lack of control over the world he lives in, the kind of point of view which may have been pretty widespread in the chaotic days of Prohibition and is still, I think, quite relevant to our own times.
I myself was defeated by Fast One. So much information was coming at me so fast, at times in so condensed a form, that after a point my circuits blew. I’m speaking of a would-be every-word read, which it invites and needs, not just a skim-and-dip. Probably I was trying to read as if it were by the Hammett of The Glass Key, but it isn’t a Hammett, or else one so speeded up as to be a different creature. Which made for tiring disjunctions between the words on the page and some kind of shadowy alternative narrative.
Since I think one ought to be able to describe something analytically even when it isn’t what one goes to for “entertainment.” I was delighted to receive the above remarks from Benoit Tadié and even more delighted to get the almost immediate follow-up below. When one writes about what one loves, one understands the dynamics of it much better than if one is “objectively” dissecting it.
Benoit brilliantly defines the kinds of energies in the book that Orwell would have sensed as “American” in a disintegrative way, over and above the violences. The felt challenges, menaces, and energizings of “Americanness” are major elements in the pages “Violence, Inc.” that I am adding to “Found Pages.”
In a brief notice of Fast One in 1936, Orwell had quoted a violent passage and commented
This kind of disgusting rubbish, hailed as genius’ when it comes in a slightly more refined form from Hemingway is growing commoner and commoner. Some of the threepenny “Yank Mags” which you buy at Woolworth’s now consist of nothing else.
Benoit says that he prefers to think of what follows as “a few jottings.” But, with his permission, I’m presenting them here, partly for copyright reasons, as the mini-article that they seem to me to be and that I feel privileged to have.
Paul Cain, Modernism, Morality; What Orwell Missed in Fast One.Copyright Benoit Tadié, 2006
I’m having another go at why I think Fast One is a great book and Seven Slayers too (and I wish we could see the other seven slayer stories still buried in the pages of Black Mask).
When I mentioned a stroboscopic style, I was probably wrong to limit this to use of dashes. Of course there are dashes in Fast One and elsewhere in Paul Cain, but there are probably less, say, than in some of Whitfield's prose. Just as an aside he, really, is the king of the dashes, out of which he can construct surreal fight scenes such as this:
I tossed the gun on the bed—slashed out with my left. Steiner swung back—stepped in close. I saw the right coming up—it was a nasty punch. It came up through my right arm—and I tried to ride with it. It didn't work.
My lower jaw clicked up—the end of my tongue caught between my teeth. There was a lot of pain—and as I started to go down, Steiner struck with his left. It landed. My knees hit the floor. There was a stabbing pain along my right side. Steiner's thin voice got out one, nasty word. Then I was digging my head against the cheap carpet—and forgetting a lot of things.”
(Green Ice ; No Exit Press, 1988, p. 60)
What Paul Cain does can perhaps more generally be labeled paratax: he gets rid of syntactic connections. It belongs to the same kind of aesthetics as Whitfield's and Hammett's and probably points to the same kind of way of looking at the world, which I'll come to in a while.
Cain tends to eliminate the conjunction “and” and to start a paragraph every couple of sentences. So this places a heavy stress on each sentence and, within each sentence, on the units separated by the commas. His narrative tends to break up into a series of cinematic flashes. The effect is actually commented upon in the story “Murder in Blue”, when the protagonist gets kicked in the head (the kind of episode Orwell probably would have objected to):
As Doolin half rose, Halloran's long leg lashed out again, his heavy shoe struck the side of Doolin's head. Doolin grunted, fell sidewise to the floor.
Doolin lay on his back and the room went around him. Later, in remembering what followed, it was like short strips of motion-picture film, separated by strips of darkness.
(Seven Slayers 91950] ; No Exit Press, 1988, p. 90)
I think a good example of this style at its more intense pitch can be found in the story “Pineapple” with the blowing up of “Tony Maschio’s Day and Night Tonsorial Parlor”:
At nineteen minutes after one the telephone rang.
Maschio put down his shears and comb and started to answer it.
Angelo said: “If that’s for me, boss - tell her to wait a minute.”
Maschio nodded and put his hand out towards the receiver, and the telephone and the wall came out to meet him, the whole side of the shop twisted and curled and was a smothering sheet of white flame, and pain. He felt his body torn apart as if it were being torn slowly and he thought “God!—please stop it!”—and then he didn’t feel any more, or think any more.
Mccunn raised his head once and looked down at the right side of his chest and it seemed curiously flat, curiously distant; he lowered his head and was still. Angelo moaned.
The wind was like an icy wall.”
(“Pineapple”, 1936, Seven Slayers p. 122-123)
One way of describing the modernity of this style is to call it a cinema in words, though, when one speaks of the cinematic quality of hard-boiled fiction, people usually think in terms of narrative viewpoint: i. e. “objective” point of view and no inner thoughts of the characters. As in Hammett's Glass Key (which is a rather unique tour de force, in fact).
But the situation here is different: you do get the characters’ inner thoughts (though in flashes) and still the narrative is deeply cinematographic in style. Because it relies on the kinds of effects (you might even call them tricks) which were made possible only in a visual culture informed by film. As Walter Benjamin said in his essay on the “Work of Art”, film developed a perception of reality which was wholly new, and particularly he emphasizes the importance of close-ups and slow motion in this respect.
Cain's passage chimes with his ideas (and they were writing at the same time, more or less). Its whole style and construction are cinematic. All the effects which Benjamin point to and which were later to be recycled by the cinema of violence in the sixties and seventies (e.g. Sergio Leone or Peckinpah), are already there: close-ups, slow-motion explosion and destruction, contrasts in sound (e.g. the ringing on the phone is there, but the huge noise of the explosion isn't). But Cain's style is more powerful for us, because we've grown tired of slow-motion violence on the screen; it has become a cliché.
Now this is, in itself, only a question of technique and as such of limited interest unless we can tie it up to some vision of the world. My interpretation of this style, at any rate, is based on the fact that it usually reaches its experimental climax when violence also reaches its climax.
In other words, I read a direct equivalence between the killing of individuals in scenes of violence and the destruction of traditional means of representation of the novel (i.e. what is usually meant when people talk of modernism, although they wouldn't think of Paul Cain when they use the word).
Hemingway once wrote in a letter to Wyndham Lewis:
As for my own stuff - I’m sorry there has been so much blood shed. I think it will decrease. The real reason for it (the bloodiness) was, I think, that I have been working for a precision of language and to get it at the start have had to treat of things where simple actions occurred—the simplest—and which I had seen the most of—was one form or another of killing.”
(24/10/1927, Selected Letters)
Critics are willing to grant Hemingway the idea that violence, in his world, is a means to reach a new language, but they probably wouldn’t concede this to Black Mask authors. I think it’s probably time they did (at least for some of them).
3. “End of humanism” idea
Violence in Paul Cain is also bound up, I believe, with the breaking-up of what T. E. Hulme called the humanist attitude (I like Hulme, in spite of his politics; I think one can understand a lot of what people were doing at the beginning of the century by reading him. He was killed in WWI, like so many others.) There's a good passage in his essay on Humanism in which he defines “the humanist ideology” as a complete anthropomorphization of the world, if I remember correctly. In other words, man is everywhere at home.
Now, in Paul Cain’s kind of narrative, quite the opposite happens. Not only is man not at home in the world, he's not even at home in his own body. This is obviously enhanced in violent scenes. When Mccunn dies, the narrator records that “the right side of his chest (…) seemed curiously flat, curiously distant”. I think the repetiton of “curiously” is meaningful here, it suggests en experience of radical estrangement from your own body, seemingly observed on the brink of death with a detached and perplexed eye.
This is the opposite of a “complete anthropomorphization of the world”. Man no longer controls the world, he is blown up at random and realizes that even his own (but can he still call it his own?) body is caught up in a meaningless sequence of material destruction. This is a more violent version of the Flitcraft story in Maltese Falcon but it tells pretty much the same moral.
Now I suppose it's clearer now why Orwell wouldn't have liked it. Not just because it's mindless violence (but that's the whole point about violence here: that it should be mindless, that destructive events should happen without any mastermind, not even a reassuring Prof. Moriarty figure, to make them happen and locate evil for us). But also because he believed, as he said in “Inside the Whale” I think, in the novel as a “Protestant form of art, a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual”.
What he means by “the free mind” involves not only having the liberty to do as you please, I should imagine, but also the idea that you've freed yourself from tyranny and barbarity and accepted a basic set of decent, democratic and humanist values. His idea of a novel is probably best embodied by Robinson Crusoe: the story of a brave Protestant who escapes from a shipwreck and starts building a civilization . What you get here is the opposite: the story of a “civilization” that uses its technology to blow itself up.
I think with Paul Cain the whole idea is linked with the war. Which is why I persist in not finding him immoral. He's just describing coldly the image of a world gone berserk, an image which the post-WWI generation had a few good reasons for entertaining.
In Fast One, Kells, the killer, is a pure product of the trenches. In fact, that's the only fact about his past that emerges in the whole novel (that, like Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, he was shell-shocked and behaved gallantly; though Kells says both the shell-shock and th emedals are now gone). Also, the end of the novel reads, for me, pretty much like a trench warfare scene. And finally, his best known script, for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Black Cat (which doesn’t have much to do with Poe’s story) relocates a Dracula-like castle (but an extraordinarioly modern one, looking like a Bauhaus edifice) on the waste land of a WWI battlefield, and links the whole vampiric theme of the film to the war.
All this does point, I think, to some sort of metaphysics underlying Cain’s style, which I think Orwell failed to grasp. On the other hand, Orwell was a pioneer in thinking you could read thrillers from a political or metaphysical point of view.
Steve Holland writes:
I have to agree with Benoit that Fast One is a classic hardboiled yarn: the best movie Bruce Willis never made! Produced and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it could be the ultimat Willis movie.
Série Noire and a Surrealist connection.
Benoit Tadié writes:
You can find a good overview of the Série Noire on its publisher (Gallimard)’s website.
There’s also a link on that page (”tous les titres”) which gives access to a chronological list of the 2600 or so titles published since the collection started in 1945.
Be aware that the first titles on the list are the most recent, because they are now no longer numbered; the chronology starts somewhere towards the bottom of page 1.
There is an important connection between the Série Noire and marginal Surrealist figures: Marcel Duhamel was part of the group and his brand of slang is close to Jacques Prevert’s in the latter’s poems and dialogues for Marcel Carné’s films, and they shared a house in Paris, Rue du Château, together with Yves Tanguy in the 30s. This is recorded for example in Duhamel’s Memoirs, Raconte pas ta vie as well as in André Thirion (another lesser-known Surrealist of the 30s)’s interesting memoir Revolutionnaires sans revolution, which is full of anecdotes about the Surrealist group.
Also the first French writer to have produced pseudo-American hardboiled fiction (the equivalent of Chase’s No Orchids) was Leo Malet, during the German occupation of France in the early 40s. His first novel in the ersatz genre was called Johnny Metal and published in 1941 under the pseudonym of Frank Harding: its hero was a tough journalist in the tradition of Horace McCoy’s Dolan (if I remember the name correctly) in No Pockets in a Shroud. He had been a poet and member of the Surrealist group in the 30s, and later went on to write the first important series featuring a French hard-boiled private detective, Nestor Burma. Another one of the early translators of the SN, Max Morise, had also been a member of the group.
Duhamel’s manifesto for the “Serie noire”, which you will find reproduced on the above-mentioned web page (but of which there is a fuller facsimile version at www.polars.org/article7.html) stresses the basic ingredients of the collection as seen by its founder: action, anxiety, violence, love (”preferablement bestial”) and humour. Not exactly enough to define the existentialist perspective of Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, indeed, and Duhamel was probably more comfortable with Peter Cheyney than with either of them. But (this is only an educated guess) he probably did have collaborators who saw the merits of the gloomier American products, so that even such relatively little-known works as Bruce Elliott’s One is a Lonely Number (published by Lion in 1954 and one of the most depressing books ever written, I think) eventually found their way into the collection.
The Série noire story is interesting not just as an indigenous phenomenon but also as seen from an English or American point of view (in the same way as Paris is important for an understanding of the development of American avant-garde literature of the 20s or of jazz in the 40s and 50s).
“The Common Cold Murder” NEW
Morgan Wallace has provided the following plot summary for this story by Preston Yorke [Kelly?], accessed in the British Library:
Benson Cardew is sick with a cold, and while sick dwells on how many people die from a silly common cold, that he wishes somebody would simply just come up with a cure, etc. Then he contracts an idea, to pass on his cold to somebody with a weakened immune system in order to murder them; he could never be charged for the crime!
Cardew rides the underground trains and stands next to anybody sneezing and coughing, strikes up conversations with sick people, and eventually comes down with a cold. He strikes out for Uncle Dursley's estate, desiring to kill him so that he can earn his inheritance all the sooner. The old man contracts the common cold and days later dies. Cardew gets the inheritance.
However, he begins to brood and can't honestly fathom that he really killed the old man with a cold, then realizes he has, and realizes further just how deadly the common cold can be. He works himself up into a fearsome fervor to the point that now he is utterly afraid to appear in public and holes up for the rest of his life on the estate, never to enjoy the monies he murdered to earn, and live the life of a recluse...just like his uncle.
Either the Grand Canyonesque gap between this in 1944 and Road Floozie in 1941 shows up the folly of looking for “organic unity” in a writer, or Kelly wasn’t “really” a writer, or more than one writer used the name Preston Yorke, or Kelly had suffered brain damage, or … or … or Kelly was writing fast fast fast to make a living and was able to shift gears entirely when changing from one authorial persona to another.
But there’s also a substantial gap between this and Preston Yorke’s Space-Time Task Force (1953).
E-mail received from New Zealand movie-maker Jonothan Cullinane, August 2008 NEW
I just stumbled upon Violence, Inc. (I had googled tramp steamers and ended up there).
What a wonderful read. It was like Nicholson Baker’s ‘Human Smoke,’ only enjoyable.
It should be a book.
JF writes: Thanks, Jonothan. Particularly welcome coming from a movie-maker.
I can see a similarity to Baker’s book (subtitle “the beginnings of World War II, the end of civilization”), which I have now read. He’s out to dismantle the standard version of a virtuous Britain and America in WW2, driven reluctantly to violences, primarily the violences of undiscriminating bombing, a.k.a. terror bombing.
He works by means of lots of small units of information arranged chronologically, often in the form of quotations.
We see a bellicose Churchill and air-force planners like Hugh Trenchard concerned from early on with the possibility of winning a war from the air, in the way envisaged in novels like The War in the Air (1907) and The World Set Free (1914) by H.G. Wells. And a Roosevelt and asserted Americans who can see war with Japan coming and aren’t unhappy at the prospect, given the vulnerability of Japanese cities.
I myself, in the first two parts of Violence Inc, point, also by means of small units arranged chronologically, to a variety of works and doings in which the self-image of a civilized European elite continuing the civilizing mission of the Romans and patiently, rationally, and unselfishly lifting up or “disciplining” so-called primitive peoples in the spirit of Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” along with their working-class equivalents back home, is wobbling and eroding during the first four decades of the 20th century.
The civilized West increasingly has its own crimes and unreasons—political, philosophical, artistic— staring back at it from the mirror, and its imperial self-assurance rings increasingly hollow. With violences of one kind or another escalating.
However, when I began that sampling, I didn’t have any grand argument in mind. I was simply trying to show that the, by English standards back then, disturbing violences in James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939) and Darcy Glinto’s Lady—Don’t Turn Over (1940) didn’t just emanate from a couple of individual psyches.
Since I couldn’t inspect those psyches biographically (absent journals, letters, and other aids), I was drawing attention to some of the things that might have gone into their formation, a mulch, as it were, of fiction, news reports, photos, movies, quotations, conversations in bars, parental dicta, and so forth.
And though I was a generation younger, I found myself increasingly coming across things that had entered into my own evolving consciousness in the later Thirties and early Forties via what I read, or saw in movies, or listened to on the radio, or heard about from my father.
I was not sermonizing, any more than I was in Violence in the Arts (1974). I was being, informally, a cultural historian. At times, as in D.H. Lawrence, there’s the cracking and crumbling of decorums that have lost vitality, the affirmations of the self against the felt oppressiveness of the many and the large, a resistance to a jejune rationalism, a refusal to self-destruct with guilt feelings. At others—or in the same situations—horror-story.
I most emphatically would not want to be associated with Baker politically. For the reasons why, see Note 64.
Matt Helm and Jack Reacher NEW
This great communication arrived in April/09. I’ve been tunnel-visioning in another part of Jottings, and couldn’t sufficiently focus on it earlier. My apologies, David. And thanks for letting me add it here, with the heading I’ve given it. The chapter referred to is at http://www.jottings.ca/john/ATH.html
David L. Vineyard writes:
I've been cruising the site reading here and there, on thrillers, other things, and tonight this chapter from your book I just wanted to express how eloquent and well you make your case. Too often there is a tendency to shrug off the chivalric impulse here and elsewhere as a sort of fecklessness, when in truth it is a deeply felt cultural movement that is self perpetuating. Both the British and the Americans have a deep appreciation for the romantic loser, the fellow who loses the battle, but wins some sort of moral war, even when too often the moral victory perpetuates societies ills rather than guards the honor of some belle epoque. It is hard to accept that some lost causes were better lost --- even for the loser. And yet we have seen what practical men without honor can do in the name of practicality as well.
Perhaps we err on the side of the man of honor because after all he will stop short of demeaning that honor where the truly practical man will too often stop at nothing. Then too, can personal honor mean anything in a cause that harms others and threatens their freedom, family, and fundamental rights? Still worth thinking about today. Perhaps more vital than ever really.
I genuinely enjoyed the thriller site. Like you I enjoy Donald Hamilton, though I am somewhat harder on him than you, not for his politics, but for the one factor in Matt Helm's personality you don't really comment on --- what an old woman he can be. The endless going on about women in pants (to the point in one book he considers not intervening in a possible rape only because the victim is wearing pants), the flaws of American cars (true enough), and sometime specious expertise about handguns (I can think of almost no arms expert who considers the Luger a particularly good weapon, but Helm does --- at least in one book). Don't misunderstand, it isn't these things in particular that bother me, but the repetition of them in book after book ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I do think the stand alone novels are much under rated and unfairly dismissed by both critics and students of the form. And I would also agree that too many critics review Hamilton's politics and not his writing.
But that said, the fact that some of this does bother me goes to how fully Hamilton has fleshed out Helm, to the point I react to him as I might an acquaintance I liked, but wished would get off certain hobby horses he has ridden all the glitter and paint off of. That's an accomplishment in itself.
I did find it ironic that you chose Dorothy B. Hughes to compare to Hamilton, since most of my older Helm books prominently feature her favorable review of Hamilton and Helm "the toughest operative to ever crush a Russian's kidney with a crowbar" on the front covers.
Over all your judgements on thrillers don't conflict with my own. Some differences, writers I like you don't or you like and I don't, or not as well, but in general many agreements. I did find one great difference and that is in regard to Lee Child and Jack Reacher.
Frankly I don't find Reacher the least bit convincing as either an American or the ex military cop and special forces type he is supposed to be. The first Reacher novel I read used the word "guy" until I wanted to scream; made the huge and easily researched mistake of having a major military base within easy driving distance of Dallas (there isn't since Travis Air Force Base closed in Fort Worth, and Dallas never had one save for the Dallas Naval Air Station, which is not a base), an even worse mistake about DFW airport, a long and incorrect tirade about the inefficiency of the .38 (without realizing the 9mm is virtually the same caliber), and frankly a villain lifted in almost all ways from John D. MacDonald. I find Reacher an unconvincing rehash of bad Travis McGee, tiresome Spenser, and trite stereotypes poorly observed and colorlessly portrayed.
I haven't found any of the others any more convincing, including a really silly book that has the Secret Service hiring Reacher to pretend to try and assassinate the Vice President. To be frank, Peter Cheyney's Lemme Caution at least had the charm of being funny and James Hadley Chase a bit nasty. Child just doesn't entertain me with his faux toughness. I can think of any number of British thriller writers who did the American thing better, and a few American's who do the British thriller well, but Child isn't one of them. That said, none of those things would have bothered me if I had liked the character or the writing, but frankly Reacher for me is merely a collection of unconnected attitudes and Child terribly flat as a writer.
But then that's what makes horse races (to beat an old cliche), and his sales certainly support your view more than mine. I'm not sure I see what you see in Child or Reacher, but it's enough that you see it.
I noted your mention of Sapper's The Black Gang. I've just posted a review of the book at Mysteryfile (the review isn't up yet, has to be formatted), a site devoted to mystery and thriller fiction. Overall I agree with what you said, though I felt the need to put the book in perspective for readers who only know Drummond from the films or by name.
Finally I want to applaud your site. It is attractive, but obviously aimed at readers and not bloggers. You write well, and with literacy, and these days both things are in short supply. Should you add to the thriller section in the future there are a few writers I would be interested to hear your opinion of (if you have already written something and I missed it I apologize): John Mair (Never Come Back), Robert Goddard, Dornford Yates, and Victor Canning. Incidentally I agree whole heartedly with your views on Geoffrey Household who I think has been neglected and deserves to be re-evaluated.
[April 30, 2009]
Lovely to be praised for giving pleasure, not always an automatic accompaniment of litcrit. Thanks, David. Too much here to take up, but a few points, not by way of serious disagreement.
“Honor” seems to me a complex family of values, some of them as old as humankind and overlapping all manner of cultures and subcultures, with the major advantage of not being dependent on any particular religion, or on religion at all. If at one end of its various spectrums is the odious machismo of Southern lynchers and Latino drug-thugs, at the other is the gentlemanliness of old-style businessman and public servants who would never dream of lying, cheating, stealing, or bullying. No not a sentimentalized fiction. My father over in London, a small-claims-court judge in low-income districts, was like that, and I would swear that he never talked about honor.
We’ve been having all too many demonstrations, on Wall Street and over in England of what happens when the idea of shame is junked and you can do absolutely anything that will profit you if it isn’t technically illegal, and lie brazenly when challenged, and feel no twinge of embarrassment when caught out.
I too like those pre-Helms of Hamilton, both the Fifties Westerns (especially Smoky Valley) and those Forties thrillers (especially The Steel Mirror) in which non-macho and well educated young men have to figure their way through dangerous situations in ways that satisfy their own sense of what lines they can and can’t step across without losing their self-respect. Also, of course Line of Fire (Hamilton’s own favorite, he said in a note to me) and Assignment: Murder, aka Assassins Have Starry Eyes (dreadful title!), though there’s surely a serious error of plotting in the hospital scene in the latter. The Helms put bread on the table and shoes on the feet, but if we’re talking about Donald Hamilton, Novelist, it’s surely the non-Helms that require and repay the most attention.
That’s funny about Matt’s kvetching, which was his default mode in the first few books. Was Hamilton himself as irritated back then by irrationality and sentimentality (as he saw them) and the unprofessionalism of things done in slipshod or by-the-book mechanical fashion? Carol and I passed through Santa Fe in 1970 on our way up from Mexico to San Francisco, and I found where Matt did the shooting near the end of Death of a Citizen, but I didn’t try to contact his creator, fearing he’d be too opinionated and all-round formidable.
Helm’s prejudices are conservative ones. Travis McGee offers far more opinions about the decline of things (even Plymouth gin), but they’re mostly moyen-sensuel liberal. I mean, how could one not be against urban sprawl in Florida, ad-men jargon, and so forth?
I mostly agree about Child, but it’s a Yes-But. For me, where are the other games in town now? I certainly don’t want to trudge through rain-grey Glasgow or Belfast with some depressed copper precariously on the wagon and tell myself that this is the Real World. I also don’t want to have to work at my reading. Peter Temple down-under is the most brilliant current thrillerist that I’ve come across, but his plots require charts to follow them, and some of his Strine dialogue needs subtitles. James Lee Burke keeps going, bless him, but by now there’s too much of a shadowy presence of earlier characters and episodes and attitudes, so that simply relaxing and going with the flow is hard. Denis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone is masterly, but South (is it South?) Boston isn’t my resort town of choice, any more than it was in George V. Higgins’ presentation. Elmore Leonard I simply can’t get with, though he’s been a great creator of plots for movies.
And actually, to tell the truth, I don’t feel the urge to turn back to the rows of McGees on my shelves. I re-read them so much back-when that there’s no suspense left, and if we’re talking writerly quality, JDM could be pretty mannered and period in the wrong way.
As for Hamilton, a problem with having written in depth about someone is that when you reread him after an absences you’re liable to find yourself having to cope with your own writing and wondering whether what you said at that point or this was correct.
Which sort of leaves me, for escape night-reading, with Richard Stark (especially the comeback series), Jonathan Latimer, Ross Thomas, and (at present) Child.
Yes, his can be over-informative, maybe on the airport-bookshop principle that a fat book is easier to read than a lean one, but also because it can be easier writing long than writing short, i.e., selectively. When I return to one of the books, I’m likely to be skimming even more than I did the first time. (Reacher’s on the highway, Reacher’s taking a plane trip, OK OK.) Yes, Child doesn’t have a good ear for American speech. I’ve not noticed him making obvious mistakes, the way I do when MacDonald attempts Britspeak. But I simply don’t experience a Child character—age, region of origin, social class, etc— in his or her speech rhythms and idioms. And lots of the dialogues are simply exchanges of information.
The repeated “Reacher said nothing” is irritating, leaving the reader to figure out how Reacher looks at that point and what he’s thinking. As to his travelling lighter-than-lite, book-person Margaret in our best local bookstore (Book Mark) remarked to me that, speaking as a wife and mother, she did rather wonder about Reacher’s underwear.
At times, too, Reacher’s violences can be like those of Stephen Seagal in a movie like Out for Justice, where what counts is the visible devastation wrought by Seagal’s fist-strikes, thrown pool balls, etc. Contact action.
And yes—or no—Child is indeed no JDM when it comes to the ongoing physical appearance of characters. There’s no Boo Waxwell, Junior Allen, etc.
And isn’t he cheating, plotwise, on pp. 14-15 of the Dell One Shot?
And yet and yet, dammit, he can take me on the kind of primal thrill ride I want, with arrogant sadistic super-villains, and merciless henchmen, and real risks for Reacher and other good guys, and scary, at times horrific, bad-guy violences and satisfying stretches of strong action by Reacher, and satisfying problem-solving come-uppances against heavy odds. And I’ve usually no idea where the twists and turns of plots are taking me.
He’s great at creating dangerous sites, whether needing breaking into or breaking out from. He can also make you uncomfortably conscious that innocence is no protection and that the bad guys, unless Reacher is prodigiously skillful and ruthless, could indeed win out. I think we come a little too close for comfort at times to being titillated by the infliction of major pain, whether by bad guys or Reacher himself. But “Hook” Hobie’s office suite in Tripwire is a VERY bad place to be (“the silence from the bathroom continued until a point Marilyn guessed was around eight o’clock in the evening. Then it was shattered by screaming.”
And one does indeed want total arrogant pitiless BASTARDS like Hobie or Alan Lemaison in Bad Luck and Trouble to get a very unpleasant come-uppance, though curiously Child doesn’t dwell quite as long on the final payback moments as he might, with the bad guys’ full consciousness of what they had and what they’ve lost and where they’re going now. And as Matt Helm would agree, those who too confidently take the sword may have to perish by it, like the two smugly brutal rednecks in Echo Burning getting ready to “cut” Reacher, or the black prison gangstas in The Killing Floor getting set for sexual fun and games with Reacher and his terrified companion.
The best-crafted Childs are probably (though I’ve no experience of U.S. army life) the first-person The Enemy, where Reacher, before he leaves the army, is embedded among so many givens of military routine and protocol that there isn’t the customary wordiness, and Child’s first novel, The Killing Floor, also first-person, where he’s really worked at establishing his small hot dusty town out in nowhere in the grip, for purposes unknown, of a Very Bad Old Rich Man. There are lots of good strong incidents in it, and though the grand finale is absurd, it’s magnificently absurd.
But then, Bad Luck and Trouble really kicks ass once the hither-and-yonning entailed by the complicated plot is over. And if I went back to the other books, I’d find other memorable stretches. At times, too, it’s interesting expertise that we’re getting, such as when Reacher’s getting his bearings in the potentially dangerous site of an unfamiliar bar with the trained eye of a former military cop.
And maybe Child needs his various insulgencs in order to build and sustain momentum. In the recent Nothing to Lose he takes the same basic dusty and ominous site as in The Killing Floor, but without benefit of an interesting villain, and with a lot of space-filling hither-and-yonning, and a woman cop so completely in Reacher’s corner, and with such characterless dialogue, that there’s no tension between them.
As to other writers, Dornford Yates thrilled me in his thrillers and sent me into hysterics with his Berry books when I was fourteen. When I bought the re-issued Blind Corner (his best thriller) a few years ago, I was too conscious of the class snobbery and the too “literary” style. Mair and Goddard I still haven’t looked for. Did I ever try Canning? Dunno.
Nice that we’re in the same playground about Geoffrey Household and, I infer, the good parts of The Black Gang, though I wasn’t able find my way to the article on the latter.
And very nice, as I said, to be liked and approved of, not always the same thing, particularly by someone as life-experienced and knowledgeable and bracingly judgmental,
One thing for which I’ll claim credit—the quotations with which each of the Quickies in “Thrillers” begins. Faced with the depressingly long and growing booksellers’ lists of thriller writers who are unknown to me, I take some comfort from the near-certainty, based on a few bad trips, that the actual execution in them, regardless of plots, is likely to leave me cold. But one never knows for sure, does one?
In the absence of quotations, the presumption for me is that puffery is involved and that publishers, reviewers, and editors don’t WANT us to be able to taste the actual flavours of the offered goodies.
So, where else am I going to find roller-coaster rides and primal chills like those that Child provides?
Stephen Hunter and Andrew Vachss, maybe? I haven’t kept up with them, and I found Hunter’s gun-fetishism questionable in places, and the ending of his Dirty White Boys seemed to me immoral. But anyway, I’ve sent off now for The 47th Samurai.
[July 19, 2009]