Scott Mitchell Returns!

There’s a feature in the Guardian Saturday Review in which authors describe their working day. Mine, over a period of time, has progressed (regressed?) from starting around 6.30/7.00am and finishing, after appropriate breaks, somewhere between 3.30/4.00pm, to starting at 7.00/7.30am and finishing at 12.30/1.00pm. As a general rule, one thing has become clear: the shorter the day the better the work.

But back in those heady days of yore, somewhere between 1976 and ’77 – and in the midst of co-writing the Herne the Hunter Western series – I wrote four crime books featuring Scott Mitchell. As the cover blurb described him – The toughest Private Eye – and the Best.Well, that’s blurbs for you.

And now, after a number of years during which the original Sphere paperbacks could be bought for surprisingly large sums on the internet, the toughest private eye returns. Mysterious Press in the States, having successfully published the Resnick titles there as Ebooks, have recently brought all four of the Scott Mitchell titles – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madmen – out as Ebooks, simultaneously publishing them as dual-title paperbacks, two yarns for the price of one.

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Here’s part of the introduction I wrote for the republication of the titles …

American pulp in a clearly English setting, that was the premise. A hero who was a more down-at-heel version of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade; a style that owed a great deal to Chandler and a little, in places, to Mickey Spillane. Forty years earlier, I could have been Peter Cheyney selling his publisher the idea for Lemmy Caution.

‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ – the title borrowed from Bob Dylan – was duly published by Sphere Books in 1976, John Knight’s gloriously pulpy cover design showing a semi-naked stripper reflected in the curved blade of a large and dangerous-looking knife. 144 pages, 50,000 words: £500 advance against royalties: you do the maths.

But, I hear you asking, is it any good?

Well, yes and no. Reading ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ and the other three books again after many years, there were sequences that left me pleasantly surprised and others which set my teeth on edge like chalk being drawn across a blackboard.

Chandler is a dangerous model. So tempting, so difficult to pull off. Once in a while, I managed a simile that works – “The phrases peeled from his lips like dead skin” isn’t too bad, but otherwise they tend to fall flat. What I hope will come across to readers, though, is how much I enjoyed riffing on the familiar tropes of the private eye novel – much as I have done more recently in my Jack Kiley stories – and how much fun it was to pay homage to the books and movies with which I’d grown up and which had been a clear inspiration. An inspiration I would do nothing to disguise: quite the opposite.

As an example, quite early on, there’s this …

What I needed now was a little honest routine. I remember reading in one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels that he began the day by making coffee in a set and practised way, each morning the same. It also said somewhere that Marlowe liked to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but as far as I can recall it didn’t say how he did that.

What I did was this. I broke two eggs into a small saucepan, added a good-size chunk of butter, poured in a little off the top of a bottle of milk and finally ground in some sea salt and black pepper. Then I just stirred all of this over a medium heat, while I grilled some bacon to go with it.

They say that a sense of achievement is good for a man.

And later, this

I didn’t know whether she was playing at being Mary Astor on purpose, or whether she’d seen ‘The Maltese Falcon’ so many times she said the words unconsciously.

But I had seen it too.

Inter-textuality, isn’t that what they call that kind of thing? Metafiction even?

Much of the success of the book depends on how the reader responds to its hero. In many respects, Scott Mitchell fits the formula: men are always pointing guns at him or sapping him from behind; women either want to slap his face or take him to bed or both. When it comes to handing out the rough stuff, he’s no slouch. Anything but. He is the toughest and the best, after all. But, personally, I find him a little too down on himself and the world in general, too prone to self-pity. On the plus side, he does immediately recognise Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington, as well as knowing the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and having a fondness for Bessie Smith.

The scenes in the novel that work best, for me at least, are those in which the attempts to sound and seem American are pulled back, letting the Englishness show through. That only makes sense: it’s what I know, rather than what I only know at second hand. And what I know, of course, London aside, is the city of Nottingham, destined to be the home of the twelve novels featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick.

It had been so long since I last read ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ that I’d forgotten that’s where quite a lot of the book is set. And in the chapter where Mitchell visits the city’s new central police station, there’s a description of urban police work that points the way pretty clearly towards the world Resnick would step into a dozen or so years later.

Men in uniform and out of it moved quietly around the building. Policemen doing their job with as much seeming efficiency as men who are worked too hard and paid too little can muster. From room to room they went, sifting the steadily gathering detritus of the city night: a group of drunken youths with coloured scarves tied to their wrists and plastic-flowered pennants on their coats; the first few of the many prostitutes whose soiled bodies would spend the remainder of their working hours in custody; a couple of lads – not older than fifteen – who had been caught breaking into a tobacconist’s shop and beating up the owner when he discovered them; a sad queen who had announced his desires a little too loudly and obviously in the public lavatories of the city centre; and the car thieves, the junkies, the down-and-outs.

You couldn’t work in the midst of all this without it getting to you. it didn’t matter how clean the building was, how new. The corruption of man was old, old, old.

And down these mean streets … well, you know the rest.

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iPod Shuffle, September 2015

 

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  • Susie’s Blues, Serge Chaloff : Blue Serge
  • Your Song, Elton John : Tumbleweed Connection
  • Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington : Highlights of the Great 1940-1942 Band
  • Give Us a Great Big Kiss, The Shangri-Las : Leaders of the Pack
  • Meet Mister Rabbit, Bob Wallis Storeyville Jazzmen : The Pye Jazz Anthology
  • Goin’ Home, Ken Colyer : New Orleans to London
  • Perfect Day, Lou Reed : Transformer
  • She Believes In Me, John Stewart : California Bloodlines
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams, Anita O’Day : Anita
  • Ad Lib Blues, Lester Young w. the Oscar Peterson Trio : The President Plays

Aside from the fact that there’s no Monk, this is pretty much a typical mix for my iPod to throw back at me, most usually when I walking mid-morning around Hampstead Heath. The first track is by my favourite baritone sax player (Joe Temperley being a close second) and comes from an album I’ve been playing on and off for years, first in vinyl and then on CD. “Cotton Tail” (or “Cottontail” if you prefer), with Ben Webster sweeping all before him on tenor, is one of those absolutely classic Ellington tunes, along with “Harlem Air Shaft”, “Concerto for Cootie”, “Jack the Bear”, “Ko-ko” and “In a Mellotone”, that are, to my mind, amongst the very greatest big band pieces ever recorded, and have been a staple for me as a fan and as a listener since I first came across them, which would have been somewhere in the mid-50s.

The two British tracks are both oddities in a way, at least as far as my usual listening is concerned. I was never a big fan of the Ken Colyer Band; his approach was too rigid in its fixation with old-fashioned New Orleans sound for my liking (though that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the hospitality of some all-nighters at the old 51 Club by Leicester Square) but there was always something about this tune (adapted from Dvorak, would you believe?) that’s always appealed to me, not least Ken’s vocal. This is the cream of the early cream outfit, by the way, with Chris Barber on trombone, Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo.

I once had breakfast in the same B&B as the Bob Wallis Band, the occasion being the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival of 1961; I was spending the summer working on a hot dog stall in the seaside town of Mablethorpe lower down the east coast and had nipped up there for the weekend. I always considered the Wallis band as second rate compared to other bands who rose to fame on the crest of the just-pre-rock ‘n’ roll Trad Boom, scorning the few minor pop hits they enjoyed courtesy of Wallis’s throaty versions of old music hall songs such as “Knocking ‘Em in the old Kent Road” and “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m shy”. The anthology of their work from which the track selected here – “Meet Mister Rabbit” – comes, however, suggests both a higher standard of musicianship and a broader repertoire than I would have believed – both due, to a great extent, I’m sure, to the presence of one of the most under-rated of British jazz musicians, Al Gay, who played tenor, clarinet and soprano with a number of bands from the 60s on, most notably several versions of the Alex Welsh Band. As the title suggests, “Meet Mister Rabbit” is a composition by Ellington’s alto player, Johnny Hodges, his nickname being Rabbit, and the Wallis band have a creditable go at recreating an Ellington/Hodges small band sound, with Al Gay outstanding on tenor.

What does that leave? The Anita O’Day track comes from an album simply called “Anita”, the original of which was one of the first few LPs I ever bought – 1956, possibly – I still have it, torn cover and all – with arrangements by Buddy Bregman featuring four trombones, and, as here, the guitar of Barney Kessel.

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John Stewart was an American singer-songwriter who was never quite folk (before his solo career, he was a long-serving member of the Kingston Trio), never quite country, and for a brief period, when he was produced by Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, almost, but never quite a Rock star. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I was introduced to Stewart’s work by the late Lawrence James, with whom I wrote, amongst other ventures, the Herne the Hunter western series. I was lucky enough to get to know Stewart a little during his many visits to this country and have always enjoyed him greatly, both as a writer and a performer. (Along with the television producer Colin Rogers – who produced the TV versions of the first two Resnick novels, back in 1992 – I had several discussions with Stwart about a  play I was writing which would feature, if not the man himself, then his music. Sadly, it came to nothing. My bad, as my younger daughter might say.)

Both the Lou Reed and the Elton John are perfect in their way. As for the Shangri-Las … Shadow Morton’s productions are like Douglas Sirk melodramas in under three minutes.

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Writing on the Wall

Grim news for some publishers, some writers in the Nielsen BookScan figures for 2014 – those wishing to keep print books afloat in a growing ebook tide, at least. Sales of printed books are continuing to decline and none worse than adult fiction, which led the way downwards with a fall of 7.8% in numbers and 5.3% in revenue. Hardback adult fiction sales fell by 11.6%, though the Nielsen research director said this was “really more migration to ebooks rather than real decline.”

We’ll see.

What was interesting was the fact that while fantasy, horror, romance, eroticism, crime and all the usually successful genres of adult fiction were floundering, just three areas showed movement in the opposite direction – short stories, graphic novels and westerns.

Westerns!

Perhaps,while continuing to ignore those voices suggesting a return for Charlie Resnick or Frank Elder, I should think seriously about ploughing further back into my writing past and consider reincarnations of Wes Hart …

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Jared Hawk …

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or Jedediah Herne?

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