Bless the Stand-Alones

Unlike a lot of readers, I don’t tend to read series books. When I was a kid, I read most of the Tarzan and Pellucidar books by Burroughs, the Fu-Manchu mysteries from Rohmer, Dennis Wheatley’s Duke de Richleau historicals. These were series that had already been written—they had a beginning, middle and end. But for the most part, once I could see that a series was beginning to develop, I lost interest—too much information to remember from book to book, too many other authors to read. I’ve never read more than the first three Dune novels, the first two Ender books, the first Jack Reacher thriller, a handful of the Travis McGee and Lew Archer books, the first three Parker books, half the James Bond and Sherlock Holmes books…

Sure, I’ve made exceptions. The Philip Marlowe and Harry Potter books come to mind. But, really, I’m not even that crazy about trilogies.

That’s probably why I hold certain authors so dear to my heart: they didn’t write series. Authors like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer, Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Even when Peter Rabe wrote a series around ex-gangster Daniel Port, he did so in a way that you really don’t have to read them as a series. My kind of author; my kind of series.

So when I decided to tackle Frank Kane, I knew I could either read a bunch of the Johnny Liddell detective books—of which there are about 30 or so—or pick out some of the stand-alones. You can guess which direction I jumped. I started by reading The Living End, the story of a What-Makes-Sammy-Run kind of heel set loose in the radio business circa the late 1950s. It’s a great rise-and-fall story, filled with the kind of detail that smacked of insider knowledge. Turns out that Frank Kane had been a radio and TV producer, and knew just what he was talking about.

But when it came time to pick two Frank Kane books to pair together for Stark House, I loved the idea of matching Liz with Syndicate Girl, two novels about strong women operating in a “man’s” world of violence and crime. Granted that Mary Lister, the “syndicate girl,” is a minor character in her book, but she’s still a pivotal one. Both books are a couple of lean, mean reads.

On the other hand, just to prove what a true contradictorian I can be, I recently read the entire Hart Muldoon detective/agent series by John Flagg (yeah, all five of them; I went wild), some of which I hope to bring back in the near future. They’re great world-weary fun. But first things first. The initial John Flagg reprint will be the very first Flagg book, which was also the very first Gold Medal paperback original thriller (#103 from 1950), a book called The Persian Cat, coming soon as a Black Gat release. It’s a stand-alone novel of post-WWII espionage featuring a cynical special agent named Gil Denby who is sent on a mission to Teheran. And yes, you guessed it, Flagg wrote only one Denby book. Bless him.

This was actually Flagg’s second published book, though. His first, The Velvet Well, was written under his real name, John Gearon, and it’s a great miasmic story of distrust as a spy suffering from a mental breakdown tries to decide who is a friend, who is not, and what is really happening around him. Author Dorothy B. Hughes called it “a story told with gripping tension, with ever mounting suspense leading to a corrosive climax.” I read it recently, and it reminded me of one of Hughes’ own mysteries. Another writer who didn’t write any series. Bless her.

–Greg Shepard

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Sinister Socialites: Vin Packer

I wish I could remember which Vin Packer book I read first. I had a pile of Gold Medal Books in front of me, and it was probably The Girl on the Bestseller List I picked. Or maybe 5:45 to Suburbia. I remember at the time that reading about the 1950s East Coast suburbanites wasn’t too much different than reading science fiction in the 1970s. I grew up in the 50s myself, but for a California kid with a laid-back upbringing, it still felt like I was encountering an alien culture.

Since then, I’ve read all the Packer books, and fallen in love with that sly voice that is Marijane Meaker’s (Vin Packer’s real name). Since then I also discovered John O’Hara, so I know where Meaker was coming from when she wrote her exposes of the mid-century social climbers. The whole sorority/fraternity thing makes more sense now, the importance of social position, the need to not only belong, but climb one rung higher than the rest of the pack. Patricia Highsmith, who was in a relationship with Meaker at the time, wrote about these characters, too. Their grasping insecurity would sometimes just drive them to murder.

Meaker/Packer wrote about these characters so well. Her novels are social revelations, studies of the white collar criminal who, more than a suitcase full of loot, wants the brass ring of status. There is suspense, but it usually involves not knowing just how far her characters will go to get what they want. Will they take that one last step in pursuit of social position? Yeah, probably. You know who the criminal is, because most of the books are written from their point of view.

Back when Stark House was new, I figured I had to bring these books back into print. And that gave me a chance to correspond with Marijane Meaker, which was certainly a big thrill. Straight spoken and gracious, she is a pleasure to know.

So far, her two books about lesbian/gay murderers, Whisper His Sin and The Evil Friendship have sold the best. Sex and sin always sells. Packer’s editor at Gold Medal Books knew this back in the 1950s when he encouraged her to keep writing the lurid stuff—books about teenage gangs, race relations, sex crimes—and it still works today.

I’d like to reprint more Vin Packer books, but at this point Prologue Books has made them all available as inexpensive ebooks, where they continue to find a new audience. But I still consider myself lucky that I was able to persuade Ms. Meaker to let us bring six of her Packer books back into print as Stark House two-fers, taking a chance on a new publisher with nothing but optimism and enthusiasm on his side.

And to anyone who has read Highsmith’s sardonic thrillers and regrets that there are no more Ripley books, I would suggest you pick up a copy of Something in the Shadows or The Damnation of Adam Blessing. Here you will find crime cloaked in class, where murder, as indelicate as it is, is sometimes just, well, necessary. These were cool books back in the 1950s and 60s, and they’re cool books today.

Greg Shepard, publisher