In the beginning … Thom Ryder, pulp writer

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I had reason this morning to track back through several fat files of contracts and found, buckled and torn along the upper edge and beginning to fade, the first of such documents I ever received and duly signed …

An agreement made the eighteenth day of April, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four BETWEEN John Harvey of 233, Webb Rise, Stevenage, Herts (hereinafter called “the Grantor) of the one part and THE NEW ENGLISH LIBRARY LIMITED of Barnard’s Inn in the City of London (hereinafter called “the Publishers”, which expression shall where the context admits include its successors in title) of the other part, WHEREBY IT IS MUTUALLY AGREED concerning the following work entitled:

AVENGING ANGEL
by Thom Ryder
(hereinafter called “the Work”)

  • The Grantor HEREBY GRANTS unto the Publishers and unto their successors in title licensees and assigns the right and licence to print publish and sell the Work in soft cover volume form in the English language throughout the world (hereinafter referred to as “the Open Market)

Did somebody mention ‘English language’? The whole thing, all 18 clauses, of which the above is the first, smacks of Dickens and Bleak House. Obfuscation and legal jargon. But, hey, they were buying my book. Thom Ryder, for a brief period of time – 1974, 75 – that was me. Chronicler of the lives and misadventures of a gang of Hell’s Angels, intent on terrifying the Home Counties. They were buying my first ever book, on the basis of an outline and a couple of sample chapters, for an advance of £200, to be paid half of signature of the agreement and half on delivery of an acceptable manuscript, in addition to which I would be paid a 4% royalty on copies sold.

That any of this happened at all was due to my friend and mentor, the late Laurence James, who had himself written a series of pulp novels about Hells Angels under the name of Mick Norman. We’d met when we were students on a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College; I went into teaching, Laurence diverted into book selling, then publishing, finally writing. If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement and example, I would never have hacked out – I choose the verb advisably – 50,000 words on the subject of motorbikes, blood and mayhem at the kitchen table of my Stevenage flat during what turned out to be my last year of teaching, the last of twelve. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s doubtful that New English Library would have looked on my endeavours so positively; I think he must have promised them that if my efforts fell apart, he would be around to pick up the pieces.

As it happened, they liked what they read enough to offer me a contract to write a sequel – Angel Alone – for which I would be paid the improved advance of £250, with an increased royalty of 5%. Encouragement enough for me to hand in my resignation at the end of the school year and set out on being a full-time writer of pulp fiction. Well, I thought, I can always go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out – and Laurence and I had been talking about an idea for a series of Westerns he thought a publisher he knew might be interested in …

There followed a period – 1976 to 1983 – in which I wrote just short of 50 Westerns: 10 under my own name, the others in partnership with either Laurence James or Angus Wells, writing alternate books in a series under a joint pseudonym. I was learning to write; I was paying the rent: I was having fun.

Herne 2

hawkhart

Pulp Fiction

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I’ve been thinking quite a bit about pulp fiction lately; not the Tarantino movie, but the kind of racy if flimsy paperback stuff I began by writing and, long before that, enjoyed the frisson of reading.

I suppose what got me started thinking back along these lines was the recent interview by Michael Carlson and Mark Billingham on Crime Vault Live, in the course of which Mike referred to me as one of the last surviving exponents of British pulp, which, if you discount whatever’s being written today and concentrate on the heady pulp years of the 70s and early 80s, might, sadly, be true. Those were the years of Richard Allen’s incredibly successful Skinhead (NEL, 19070) and Suedehead (NEL, 1971), Guy Smith’s Night of the Crabs ( NEL, 1976) and George G. Gillman’s incredibly successful western series, Edge, the first four of which (yes, four)were all published, again by New English Library, in 1972.

Little of this is quite what it seems. Richard Allen was one of many pen names for James Moffat, who wrote some 18 Skinhead novels in all, plus many, many others, including the wonderfully improbable Diary of a Female Wrestler, written as Trudi Maxwell (NEL, 1976). George G. Gillman is actually Terry Harknett, who wrote close on 200 books, using around a dozen other pen names, and, thankfully is still very much alive somewhere in Dorset.

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It was into this world that, guided by my friend and fellow author, the late Laurence James – an editor at New English Library before ‘retiring’ to write himself –  I took my initial, less than certain, steps with the publication, by NEL, of course, of Avenging Angel in 1975, the first of two biker books under the name of Thom Ryder.

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It was to be a year before I turned to crime with Amphetamines and Pearls (Sphere, 1976), the first of four Scott Mitchell private eye novels published under the watchful editorial eye of the late Angus Wells, with whom I later went on to co-write several series of westerns. The Scott Mitchell books were an attempt to marry a hard-boiled American style with a recognisable British setting, the success or otherwise of which can be judged when they are republished in paperback and ebook formats by Mysterious Press later this year.

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As I pointed out in the books’ introduction, the genesis of the Mitchell series lay, not just in the Chandler and Hammett titles I’d read and re-read in my late teens and early twenties (and many times since), but also in the hard-boiled – and mostly fake – American crime fiction I’d lapped up earlier. English author, Peter Cheyney’s novels with titles like Dames Don’t Care, featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or private eye Slim Callaghan, or the Hank Janson series written by another Englishman, Stephen Daniel Frances, which fell open at the ‘dirty bits’ when they were handed round the school playground.

For years, I resisted the temptation to let the Scott Mitchell books back out into the world , but finally I’m happy to welcome their coming reappearance in shiny new covers. We all had to start somewhere.

S M 2

 

Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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