“A Few Good Words About Dead People” (by Ed Gorman)

Ed Gorman is a recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award, the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, and the International Fiction Writers Award. He’s the author of dozens of novels and short stories, but that’s only one side of his contribution to contemporary fiction. He’s also been active as an editor, anthologist, and publisher, and his work includes cofoundingMystery Scene magazine and editing a year’s-best anthology series. For more than twenty years he’s also been a steadfast friend to Dell’s mystery magazines: In fact, way back when, he was responsible for conceiving and helping to construct the first Web site EQMM and AHMM had, and he came up with the idea for EQMM’s Blog Bytes column, for which he was the first reviewer. It turns out that even after so many years of friendship there are important things I didn’t know about Ed. Until I read this post, I didn’t know, for instance, that his first love was science fiction, or that he’d been so deeply involved in that fan world.  It surprised me only because his knowledge of mystery is so vast—I didn’t think anyone could know so much about both genres! Ed’s latest story for EQMM, “Calculated Risk,” is coming up in the May 2014 issue, on sale soon.—Janet Hutchings

Years ago I was asked to set up a small mystery publishing company. The goal was to buy both new and reprint material.

The new material turned out to be a pleasure because several of our books in the first few years not only sold well (for us; a small line) but also won awards and even an Edgar nomination. One got a very nice Hollywood sale.

The ongoing problem was the reprints. Though my first love was science fiction, I’d always read crime novels, especially from the Gold Medal school. And I read across the field as well, everybody from Erle Stanley Gardner to Charlotte Armstrong to Craig Rice.

I bought seven or eight reprints and they tanked. Tanked.

I had made an assumption that general mystery readers would enjoy reading past masters. I learned later that a good number of them would, but that no ad budget for the revivals and no reviews doomed us.

Fortunately, times have changed and small press and online publishers are if not flourishing at least staying in business. If you sample the wares of the folks below you will find authors from the past well worth discovering. (If I missed anybody I apologize.)

Maybe it’s my age—or the fact that I’m a sentimental fool—but I’m still fascinated by those that brought us to the dance in the first place. One example is Charles Williams. He’s probably the most discussed forgotten hardboiled writer in history. He was a master whose influence can be found in the work of three generations. I once recommended him to a young writer who said he couldn’t get past “all the ’50s talk and attitudes.” By that measure we shouldn’t read anything published before 2006.

If you have any interest in perhaps the finest of the Gold Medal boys (the great publisher of paperback originals) go immediately to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press e-books (or Open Road Media) where you’ll find many of Williams’ books. Otto did us a great favor. Williams has been out of print for years.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is in my top-ten list of all-time finest crime writers. Raymond Chandler called her the best suspense writer of his generation. That wasn’t hyperbole. She began by writing romances but when she needed more money she started writing mysteries unlike any that had come before. Her novels are miasmas of darkness and dread. Holding was able to mix tart social commentary (she was not exactly a fan of the wealthy) with anxiety-attack twists and turns from start to finish. Stark House Press has brought back several of her novels. The Blank Wall is her masterpiece. Chandler raved about it. You will, too.

Dorothy B. Hughes certainly learned from Holding as well. And Margaret Millar obviously read, maybe even studied, Holding’s novels.

I don’t go to mystery conventions. As I said to my friend John Boland a few years ago I just don’t belong in the company of all those great writers. I’m sure that’s moronically neurotic but so be it. The other problem I have is that I fold up in crowds. Five or six people, I’m fine. But crowds…

I mention this because I did go to two science fiction conventions. The first in Cincinnati in 1961, the second in 1984. In my teens I published a fanzine and got to know several fan writers who would go on to become prominent as writers.

The most soon-to-become prominent was Roger Ebert. We went to a Cincinnati convention together when we were twenty or so. While there I heard people young and old, and including several celebrated writers, talking about the past generations of writers we’d all read and esteemed and learned from.

Contrast this with my second sf convention in 1984. Two or three huge stars there and each quite accessible to all their fans. Because of the crowd I stayed in the dealer room savoring all those pricey old pulps and hardcovers and paperbacks. I was looking over a few of the great old Ace Doubles when a husband and wife dressed as Batman and Robin came up to me and said that somebody had told them I was a writer. They’d buy a book of mine if I’d autograph it.

I thought it was strange. There were two dozen prominent writers at the convention (which by the way was five times larger than the one in Cincinnati) while my contributions to sf had been modest at best. I mentioned this to them. The wife said, “Yes, but you write Star Trek books.”

Now several of my friends wrote Star Trek books back then but not me. When I told them this they were disappointed. I told them about the sf novels I had written but they were clearly bored. I asked them who they read in sf. I mentioned Bradbury, Sturgeon, Wyndham, Silverberg. They said none of those. “Old” sf as they called it was boring and besides, all they read was Star Trek.

A few independent mystery booksellers have told me over the years that they see similar readers come into their stores.

When I was editing Mystery Scene back in the eighties and nineties I would sometimes get letters complaining about the number of articles I ran about “old” writers. Now admittedly, whoever called my version of the magazine “Ed Gorman’s fanzine” was right. I edited it strictly for myself. Very unprofessional and why it was never successful. Kate Stine and Brian Skupin have turned it into a true popular, successful magazine with the kind of range and balance it had long needed. Not to mention it now being beautiful to behold.

But the letters I got about not liking the pieces on “old” writers always irritated me. There’s no right or wrong here. This is strictly airing my own prejudices. I know readers who stick strictly to the big sellers. I know readers who stick strictly to one subgenre or another. I know readers who read only two or three writers but dislike the genre in general. No prob.

But for readers who love the genre but have no or little interest in its past . . . again there’s no right or wrong. I just find it disheartening that they don’t want to know where the genre came from. Take Mary Roberts Rinehart. Take Dashiell Hammett. Take Eric Ambler. You can drive straight lines from them to all their descendants today. With each generation there are permutations on the style and tropes of the original. But the lines don’t lie. They were real good writers, those old folks, and well worth reading today.

I’m just grateful that so many small publishers agree with me.

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One Response to “A Few Good Words About Dead People” (by Ed Gorman)

  1. curtis evans says:

    As someone with a blog and books devoted to old crime fiction, I have to say I loved this piece and the sentiments in it. There’s an astonishing amount of good crime fiction from the past and I’m pleased these small presses are taking on the job.

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