The Hardboiled Brit

James Hadley Chase is an interesting guy. His real name is René Brabazon Raymond, born in Ealing, London, back in 1906. Served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, though apparently not as a pilot. He did, however, edit the RAF journal and wrote several stories for it. Back in civilian life, he sold children’s encyclopedias and worked in a bookshop. I’m guessing that’s where he first encountered American authors like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Jonathan Latimer.

Chase certainly was a canny fellow. He turned his love of American hardboiled fiction into a lifetime career. His first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish—which we’re reprinting in March—is filled with gangster slang (“gumshoeing” as a verb is my favorite) and lots of violent action. Sure, there are a few “shan’ts” in there. That happens when you’re just starting out. You’ve got your American city maps and your dictionary of American slang handy, but you’re still English born and bred. Those occasional British phrases will slip through.

But for the most part, Chase wrote hardboiled American thrillers.

Interestingly enough, Chase is said to have visited the U.S. only twice in his life, once to visit Florida, and another time, New Orleans. You’d never know it. He started imitating that clipped, wisecracking American speech pattern right from the start, and only got better at it as he went along. I can imagine him watching American gangster films, and reading Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or Latimer’s The Dead Don’t Care, or even Paul Cain’s Fast One, and saying to himself, I bet I could do that.

Chase wrote fast. In his writing lifetime—spanning 46 years—he published over 90 novels, and at least one original play; that is, a play not based on No Orchids for Miss Blandish. No Orchids always remained his steady bestseller over the years. It was not only turned into a British stage production, but was made into two films as well. Probably the best known version here in the States is Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang with Kim Darby and Tony Musante. A lot of Chase books were made into films.

But No Orchids, the story of the brutal gangland kidnapping of a rich heiress, is the book also got him into trouble. For starters, Chase borrowed the basic plot of the kidnapping from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Some critics held that against him. Then the British authorities sued him and his publisher, Jarrolds, for excessive sadistic violence in this book and Miss Callaghan Comes to Grief, and forced him to tame the books down. Which, given the times, makes sense. There’s a knifing scene in No Orchids that is still hard to take.

So here we are in 2016, and I thought it was time to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish in its original, unexpurgated version, from that first British edition back in 1939 that so distressed the squeamish and caused all the stir—while still selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

And, naturally, if I was going to reprint No Orchids for Miss Blandish, I figured I might as well pair it with the also-edited Twelve Chinamen and a Woman, since both books feature the same hero detective, Dave Fenner. They both needed to be restored. At least, that was my thinking. But, really, any early books by James Hadley Chase are worth reprinting. They’re all brisk, inventive, filled with plot twists and interesting characters, and great fun to curl up with. Time goes by quickly when you’re reading a Chase thriller. And if you can read just one without wanting to pick up another one right after, you’re a better man than I.

—Greg Shepard
Stark House Press

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And now….Bruno Fischer

The Bleeding Scissors/The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer should be here from the printer early next week. I first discovered Fischer when I started reading and collecting Gold Medal paperbacks back in the 1980s. I was working for a fellow who imported British paperbacks and sold them to U.S. bookstores. I was his buyer and sales rep. That’s when I discovered the UK Zomba Books editions edited by Maxim Jakubowski which collected four noir/hardboiled American novels in one volume, including such authors as Jim Thompson, David Goodis, W. R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy and other mystery greats.

This was right before Barry Gifford started the Black Lizard line. It was synchronicity. Two lines of books dedicated to reviving the past masters of noir fiction. I became obsessed with these authors and started tracking down the old paperbacks myself. With a fervor bordering on the religious, wherever I went selling British books, I scoured the used bookstores in the area for 1950s and 60s treasures. How had I missed them before, I wondered? I had been so busy immersing myself in the world of science fiction, I had completely ignored the other half of the spinner racks!

But I made up for lost time pretty quickly. My sales area included Seattle to Los Angeles, so I covered a lot of territory. On a trip up the California coast—before I moved here in the 1990s—I discovered an old used book store that was literally filled with 50s paperbacks—all for a quarter a piece! I left with a large box full, then drove back the next year and bought another box worth. Sad to say, the place doesn’t exist anymore. It’s hard enough finding used bookstores that sell vintage paperbacks at all these days, much less for a quarter. The collectors have been busy in the past 35 years.

That was a glorious time, though, hunting for old paperbacks when you could still find them for a dollar or two. That’s when I first found Bruno Fischer. I think it was House of Flesh I read first. Could have been Murder in the Raw, Fools Walk In or The Lustful Ape. I know I just gobbled them up at the time, so that one book tended to blend into the next, blurring my memory of plot and quality. So rather than drive myself crazy trying to remember which were my favorites, when I tracked down the manager of the Bruno Fischer estate to bring some of his books out on Stark House, I decided not to reprint any of the Gold Medal books—I started reading some I hadn’t read before.

That’s how I discovered The Bleeding Scissors, a twisted mystery that starts very simply when a fellow finds his wife and her sister haven’t returned home one snowy evening. In fact, they’ve disappeared. Clues give themselves up reluctantly, with a faint trail leading to the New York theater district, where the two sisters had appeared under stage names. To say more would give away the surprises, but let me just say, Fischer kept me reading and guessing right to the end.

The Evil Days turned out to be a different sort of clever. Fischer had been suffering a writer’s block that lasted ten years or so, and this was his return—his final book—a tale of suburban infidelities and subtle lies, that reveals a hidden world behind the day-to-day duties of married life. I knew this to be a favorite of Ed Gorman’s and even though I was sorely tempted to reprint So Wicked My Love instead, I decided that if I were going to pair two Bruno Fischer books, The Evil Days had to be one of them.

Readers of the good old stuff have their own Fischer favorites. I hope this is only the beginning of our Bruno Fischer reprinting so I can share a few more of mine.

One more thing on our Fischer reprint, however. The cover art. Anyone who collects old paperbacks does so with an eye to the cover art. I’ve known some people who only collect for the art alone, and could care less about the books inside. It’s a crazy world. But in this case, I contacted Lynn Maguire, daughter of vintage cover artist, Robert Maguire, and asked permission to use the art on her website labeled “The Bleeding Scissors.” I knew it wasn’t the cover art that Signet used on their 1955 edition, so I asked her why the title. Lynn informed me that the illustration on the website was an alternative design her dad had rendered for Signet that they didn’t use. Well, hell, that was impossible to resist. So I arranged with Lynn to use her dad’s second version on our cover, and that’s how we ended up with Robert Maguire art on our new edition of The Bleeding Scissors/The Evil Days.

–Greg Shepard

Without Whom This Wouldn’t Have Been Possible

There are some very helpful folks out there who work behind the lines, making suggestions, putting me in touch with authors and/or their family members, making it just a little bit easier to keep Stark House going. Probably the biggest help has been Rick Ollerman, who wrote to me about seven years ago and ended up becoming Associate Editor for a number of years. I think it started when he complained that one of our books had a lot of typos—back when I was doing all the proofing myself. (Note to self: never be the last person to sign off on proofreading…never.)

So Rick joined as a proofreader, then he started to make few suggestions here and there, worked on getting Peter Rabe’s The Silent Wall ready for publication; finally taking the step up to writing introductions. By the beginning of 2015, he had gotten the ball rolling on Black Gat Books. And now he’s a free agent again, and working on his third novel, Truth Always Kills, which we plan to publish this October.

Rick was invaluable, and I only found out just how invaluable when I found myself taking on all his tasks (except for proofreading, of course). So a big thanks to Rick for all his help these past few years.

Probably the second biggest assist has come from Ed Gorman, who has not only generously shared his wealth of knowledge and contacts, but in the process has become a good friend. It was Ed who put me in touch with Peter Rabe’s agent, and shared with me those two previously-unpublished novels, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver, which Peter had given to Ed to publish. After all this time, I’m so glad I could return the favor and bring a few of Ed’s novels back into print. This month, Graves’ Retreat and Night of Shadows, two of Ed’s historical mysteries set in Cedar Rapids, make their return.

Another fellow who has been very helpful is Craig Tenney of Harold Ober Associates Literary Agency. Craig not only makes working with the author estates he represents a pleasure, but he has also put me in touch with some estates he doesn’t represent. Definitely above and beyond the call of duty.

Once I start thinking about it, there are so many who have so helpful with their time and energy. Barry Malzberg comes to mind, a very generous man and a helluva writer. Frank Loose, a fan of Stark House who recommended we reprint Jada M. Davis’ One for Hell and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. The man knows his noir. And David Wilson, who contributed so much of his time to bringing Harry Whittington back into print, as well as writing the definitive article on Harry’s Lost Pornos. And Ted and Dorrie Lee, the Gil Brewer heirs, who are such a pleasure to work with. The upcoming trio of Gil Brewer previously-unpublished novels wouldn’t have happened without them.

And then, of course, there is Daniel Morrison, who approached me with the idea of bringing some of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s uncollected stories back to print. Another labor of love, for both of us. He’s hard at work on another Victorian author right now. And this brings to mind Mike Ashley, another incredibly generous fellow who has contributed so much of his time and energy to our Algernon Blackwood reprints, including all those new introductions, as well as editing the recent Blackwood collection, The Face of the Earth.

I could also mention JT Lindroos, the creator of those evocative Ed Gorman covers. And Gary Lovisi, who tirelessly promotes Stark House in his magazine Paperback Parade (required reading for any self-respecting collector of vintage paperbacks). And Marijane Meaker, just because I enjoy our emailings so much. And the late Kevin McCarthy, who was such a joy to work with on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers book. And Lynne Maguire, who let us use one of her dad’s original cover ideas for our upcoming edition of The Bleeding Scissors by Bruno Fischer. There’s nothing like a Robert Maguire cover to class up a publisher’s act.

So many great folks out there to be grateful for. This shout out just scratches the surface. In fact, I should probably mention just about everyone who has written an introduction for us because most of them were written for love rather than money. And I appreciate each and every one of them. It takes a mess o’ help to make a small press work, that’s for sure.

–Greg Shepard

P.S. Reading this over, it begins to sound like an Oscar award acceptance speech. But, really, none of this would be possible without my brother, Mark, who keeps coming up with new cover ideas no matter how much I throw at him; and my wife, Cindy, who listens to me talk about Stark House morning, noon and night, and still comes up smiling. (Okay, I’m getting off the stage now….but wait, I forgot to thank my parents!…my sixth grade teacher!…my…)

Gil Brewer is Wild

The first book I read by Gil Brewer was Wild. It’s a crazy-ass detective novel from an author who, for all his pulpness, wrote very few detective novels. Mostly Brewer wrote about hapless guys who fall for shady get-rich-quick schemes and underage temptresses who lead them down a dark path to their own destruction. But in Wild, there is instead a hapless detective who returns to his Florida hometown to take over his dad’s private eye business. He’s hired as a go-between by an old flame with husband troubles. When he checks out the trailer where the two of them live, he finds a corpse instead. This leads him to a local robbery and naturally the old flame has a younger, nymphomaniac sister whom he has to contend with as well.

I thought it was pretty damn wonderful when I discovered it back in the 1980s. Since then, I’ve found a lot of wonderful Brewer books. They’re all paced in a white-heat of frantic action and total obsession. Some read better than others. But for about ten years, roughly 1952 to 1962, Brewer ruled the racks with one wild thriller after another.

And then the bottom began to fall out of the paperback market, his alcoholism caught up with him, and his career came to a sputtering end. His last few books were written for hire, or as pseudonymous gothics or erotic fare for the adult market. But Brewer kept writing, and produced another five or so novels that were never published—rejected by his agent or the publishers.

These are uneven works, but for all that, still display that special spark of pulp madness that was uniquely Brewer’s. A Devil for O’Shaugnessy, which we published back in 2008 is a case in point. The main character is an alcoholic con man who keeps himself pumped up with brandy throughout the book; there’s a weird pet orangutan in there who might be the reincarnation of a rich woman’s husband; and it only makes sense in a kind of half-delusional way. Like Wild, it struck a note with me, and I jumped at the chance to publish it.

This summer, we’re going to release a 3-book volume of previously unpublished Gil Brewer books, including a very early detective novel called Gun the Dame Down that was rejected by the publisher (Gold Medal?) as too racy. Brewer’s detective novels make as much sense as his noir novels. In other words, his characters always act from emotion rather than logic. This one is an over-the-top hoot.

Along with this treasure, we’ve also got a couple of his late 1970s manuscripts—The Erotics and Angry Arnold. The Erotics features a disgraced artist turned beach bum who is set up as the fall guy for murder, and brings into play Brewer’s interest in modern art. And Angry Arnold is a serial killer book written back before there were hardly any serial killer books on the market. I can understand why it never found a market back in 1976, with its decidedly unpleasant protagonist, but it does show another side, a darker side, to the obsessional protagonists that populate most of Brewer’s books.

After this collection, we hope to bring back more of Gil Brewer’s classic novels from the 1950s. But for now, this omnibus satisfies a desire on my part to bring most of Brewer’s unpublished works into print, where they will exist as strange testaments to good old fashioned, unrequited lust and greed.

–Greg Shepard

In Praise of W. R. Burnett

Why isn’t W. R. Burnett being read today? Readers sing the praises of James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and David Goodis. If people are reading these guys, why aren’t they reading Burnett?

Sure, Burnett wasn’t eccentric like Goodis, disturbed like Thompson or grimly pessimistic like Cain. He hadn’t been a detective like Hammett and he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve like Chandler. He was just a guy from the Midwest who grew up knowing the score. He was born into a political family and moved to Chicago in his late 20s, where he hung out with prizefighters and hustlers. He got a job as a night clerk in a seedy hotel and wrote a whole slew of unpublished novels and short stories. These are the experiences that went into the writing of Little Caesar which became a bestseller and got him a screenwriting gig in Hollywood, where, unlike some of his fellow writers, he flourished.

Burnett wrote nearly 40 screenplays between 1930 and 1970. Some of them, like Beast of the City, Scarface and High Sierra, are classic gangster films. Some, like This Gun for Hire and The Racket with Robert Mitchum, are simply great crime movies. But he wrote political novels (The Giant Swing and King Cole come to mind), historical novels (I highly recommend The Goldseekers about the Alaskan gold rush) and westerns as well—novels like Saint Johnson about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and film scripts like San Antonio with Errol Flynn, and Sergeants Three with Frank Sinatra. Plus war movies like Action in the North Pacific, Background to Danger and The Great Escape.

And if he didn’t write the screenplay, well, most of his novels were filmed anyway. Probably the most famous besides Little Caesar are High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle, both directed by John Huston. W. R. Burnett was all over the place.

So why isn’t he being read all over the place today? I don’t know. He had a very even handed approach to characterization. There really weren’t any heroes and villains in his books, just people. He saw the humanity in the guy who enforced the collection of graft money for the big boss, just as much as he did the obsessive newspaperman who tried to track him down and expose him. Or the old con who tries to find love in the arms of a crippled girl. Or the boxing champion who is no match for a conniving wife. Or the classically-trained pianist who just wants to play after-hours jazz.

These aren’t corrupt or doomed human beings as such. They’re regular folks trying to do their jobs and live life as best they can, most of them tragically brought down by the weakness of compassion, the very spark that we all relate to. This is the hook for me, the dialogue and the characters. Once I start a Burnett book, I can’t put it down.

I’ve read a lot of them, and Stark House has reprinted four of those: It’s Always Four O’Clock, Iron Man, Little Men Big World and Vanity Row. I hope to reprint a lot more. And if there’s any justice, modern audiences will find these books and start reading Burnett again. In the meantime, if you’re curious about Burnett’s many novels, track down the January and February 2002 issues of FIRSTS: The Book Collector’s Magazine. Editor Robin H. Smiley writes about collecting Burnett and provides the most definitive look at his various works that I’ve ever read.

–Greg Shepard