From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction

Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.

Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.

Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake. 

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal. 

I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

Author: John Harvey

Writer.

4 thoughts on “From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction”

  1. John, chapeau for managing a post which logically links the mighty Alison Uttley, Monsarrat and Chandler. Nice also to see a mention of Cheyney (a very guilty pleasure) who I discovered via the unlikely combination of Hawkwind and Godard! Cheyney is to Chandler what Johnny Kidd (perhaps Vince Taylor) was to Elvis. Discuss. Best T

  2. Not sure about a relationship between Cheyney & Chandler [Vince Taylor and Elvis seems clearer in a ‘wanna-be’ kind of way. Cheyney might be closer to James Hadley Chase (‘No Orchids … ‘] or Spillane.

  3. Recently I read Pulp, which is Charles Bukowski’s final book. It’s a spoof of the hard-boiled detective genre, and is a very funny wild ride. Have you read it? Neil S.

  4. No, not read it. Know of it, of course – never been too sure about Bukowski, might be a bit too over the top/way out for my sensitive soul!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

McMinn and Cheese

A chip on my shoulder you can see from space

Salt and Stone Poetry

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

thebluemoment.com

A blog about music by Richard Williams

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

Woody Haut's Blog

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS

Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

%d bloggers like this: