Daniel Woodrell, Dashiell Hammett and Me

For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.

Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.

Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more  than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.

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Daniel Woodrell

I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my   8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!

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Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …

I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.

… and …

I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.

Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”

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We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.

Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

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Your author in younger days

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Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.

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On the Cutting Edge …

The recent arrival of two new editions of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, one from Taiwan, the other from Italy, got me thinking about just how many different editions – some in English, some in translation – there have been since the book’s original publication, by Viking, in 1991, close to thirty years ago. A thought which got me scurrying to the shelves in search of an answer, and which turned out, eventually, to be 21. And that’s not including audio versions, abridged and unabridged, and at least two versions I’m aware of when it was included in an omnibus edition with other Resnick titles; one in this country from Arrow,  the other a Knizni Klub volume from Czechoslovakia.

It is of course what most writers want, a book that outlasts its initial display on the tables at Waterstones and elsewhere [what elsewhere?] to exist, not just on library shelves or in charity shops, but still, somewhere, on sale. Being – hopefully – bought; being read. And what the writer of a series hopes for, beyond that, is that anyone for whom Cutting Edge is their first encounter with Charlie Resnick, will begin to track down the other eleven books available.

That the novel has been published in ten countries is testimony to both Charlie’s universality – and the universal appeal of crime fiction – and perhaps even more so to the diligence and persuasiveness of my agents over the years – initially Carole Blake at Blake Friedmann, then Sarah Lutyens at Lutyens & Rubinstein, along with their networks of sub-agents across the globe. And looking at the jacket design, gives an interesting  indication of changes in graphic fashion, both from year to year and country to country.

 

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Viking (UK) 1991
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Henry Holt (US) 1991

Henry Holt were my American hardcover publishers for the first 10 Resnick novels and my editor there, Marion Wood, was, happily for me, more hands-on than many who buy the publishing rights from elsewhere, and, as such, she was very instrumental in framing the way the series would develop. The best-selling author Sue Grafton was one of her writers at Holt and she always said that as long as she had Sue – for whom she had a great fondness and admiration – in her corner, she could ‘get away’ with publishing slightly left-field writers like Daniel Woodrell and myself, whose sales were, shall we say, less than astronomical.

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Bzztoh (Netherlands) 1991
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Penguin (UK) 1992

This cover, seeking to tie the paperback edition of the novel in with the BBC television series which featured Tom Wilkinson in the role of Resnick, was commissioned under the assumption that Cutting Edge would follow Lonely Hearts & Rough Treatment, which were broadcast in 1992/93. Unfortunately, although the script for Cutting Edge had been accepted and, thankfully, paid for, the BBC made a decision – based, to an extent, upon what they deemed to be disappointing viewing figures – not to go ahead with the filming. Which didn’t help sales of the paperback and was one of the issues that led to an estrangement between Viking/Penguin and myself and my decision to buy myself out of my contract – I owed them one more book – and move, in 1994, to William Heinemann/Arrow, where, despite changes in ownership, I’ve been ever since, happy under Susan Sandon’s watchful editorial eye.

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Avon (US) 1992
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Rye Field Publishing (Taiwan) 1993
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Mystery Box (Japan) 1993
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Forlaget Modtryk (Denmark) 1994
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Rivages/Noir (France) 1995

Although Cutting Edge and a number of the other Resnick titles have been published in a number of countries, only Rivages, in France, have – up to the present – followed a consistent policy of publishing all of my crime fiction – not just the Resnick series, but the first three Elder novels and all the various stand-alones that have come along the way. I first met François Guerif, long the director of Rivages’ magnificent Noir series, at the Shots in the Dark festival in Nottingham, which led to him publishing Lonely HeartsCoeurs Solitaires – in 1993, and I’m proud to say we have remained firm friends ever since.

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Mandarin (UK) 1996
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Henry Holt/Owl (US) 1998
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Otava/Crime Club (Finland) 2001
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Arrow (UK) 2002
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Blood Brits Press (US) 2007
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DTV (Germany) 2009
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DTV (Germany) 2010
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Mysterious Press (US) 2011
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Arrow (UK) 2013
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Donmay Publishing (Taiwan) 2018
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Oltre Edizioni (Italy) 2018

Sue Grafton, 1940 – 2017

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I first met Sue Grafton in 1991. I was in the States for the publication of the third Charlie Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, and my US publisher, Henry Holt, had brought me over for a small tour which, best as I recall, began in Minneapolis-St.Paul and continued from there down to California – specifically the annual Bouchercon mystery and detective convention, which was being held that year in Pasadena. The convention is a huge affair, crowded with fans, readers and collectors and just about, or so it seemed then, every English-speaking crime writer alive and kicking. To say I felt a little out of my league would be no exaggeration. I still hadn’t quite recovered from my first book reading & signing on the road just a week or so before, at an independent bookstore in St. Paul where the proprietor had laid on crackers and specially purchased cheddar cheese in my honour, and to which nobody – nobody – came.

Sue Grafton to the rescue. As chance would have it, we shared not just the same publisher  but the same publicist, Lottchen Shivers. Lottchen had been the driving force behind the successful campaigns to promote Sue’s books and had promised to do the same for me. [The fact that she never really made it was not through lack of trying.] Once Lottchen had brought us together at Pasadena, Sue became my number one supporter, going out of her way not merely to introduce me to the audience at one of her crowded solo sessions, but to tell everyone how good the Resnick books were and that they should read them forthwith. She even managed to keep my spirits up later, when I sat stranded between her and Walter Mosely in the signing room, my grand tally of four or five customers dwarfed by Sue’s and Walter’s lines which snaked around the room and back out through the door.

She continued to be gracious and funny – and supportive – each time our paths crossed: once, memorably, in the States when she invited me to join Julie Smith, Linda Barnes and herself for dinner – I made the mistake, near fatal for my bank account, of offering to pay for the wine – and in London in 2008 when she was here to accept the CWA Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in the Genre, and my  partner, Sarah, and I had dinner with Sue and her husband, Steve Humphrey.

I’m sure there must have been times when she cursed herself for setting out on the millstone of a writing journey that would take her and her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, from A is for Alibi and B is for Burglar, on through the alphabet towards X, Y and Z. As we now know, all too sadly she was not to reach Z. Y is for Yesterday will be the last. But for every curse, every moment of regret, I’m sure there were far more cherished moments of accomplishment and delight. Sue, I think, was one of those authors who genuinely welcomed and enjoyed the relationship she had with her readers, to whom she felt a sense of responsibility – just as she did, I’m sure, towards her editor through all those books, all those years, Marian Wood.

It was my very good fortune to have Marian as my editor too, in the US, at least; fortunate both for the unstinting way in which she promoted my work within the publishing house, and for the very hands-on way in which she helped to guide the Resnick books – and me with them – towards a greater maturity. She was only too aware of the power that having Sue as one of her authors gave her; as she said to me on more than one occasion, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, it’s because of Sue that I can continue to publish writers I admire like you and Daniel Woodrell, even though your sales are sadly unlikely to trouble the Best Seller lists overmuch. When Marian left Henry Holt for Putnam and took Sue with her, it wasn’t long before both Dan and myself were cut loose and, as they used to say of big band musicians, pursuing our freelance connections until another offer came our way.

Sue’s success was grounded in years of hard work in the television industry, writing scripts for series such as Rhoda, learning the art and craft of shaping and telling a story, the skill of earning the viewer’s, the reader’s, attention and sympathy. The Kinsey Millhone novels managed to straddle the wide and, for some, uncrossable lines of the comfortable and cosy crime novel and the more hard-hitting and contemporary urban thriller. And in Kinsey, Sue had created a character readers liked, felt close to, were only too happy to welcome back into their lives.

The initial success of the series was helped by being part of a quite spectacular surge in the early 1980s in America in the popularity of crime fiction written by women, usually with female leading characters. [Absurd as it sounds now, when, at this time, I was looking for a paperback publisher for the Resnick books in the US, I was told by one publisher they weren’t taking on any new male writers but if I’d like to consider using a female pseudonym … ] The first of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books had been published in 1977, the second, Ask the Cards a Question, in 1982, the same year as A is for Alibi. That same year saw the publication of Sarah Paretsky’s first VI Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only. And it was more than a passing trend. Linda Barnes’s first Carlotta Carlyle novel, A Trouble of Fools, followed in 1987, and Julie Smith won the Edgar for Best Novel with the first Skip Langdon, New Orleans Mourning, in 1991.

Of those and other women crime writers whose careers began at a similar time, it is probably the more overtly political and feminist Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton who have been the most consistent and are the best-known, the best regarded. Sue’s family and her publisher have made it clear that what would have been the final book in the series,  Z is for Zero, will remain unwritten. No ghosts by request.

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