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.

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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.

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My Life as a Jobbing Writer: Beginnings

Somewhere back in 1974, when I was still teaching English & Drama at a secondary school in Stevenage, my friend, the late Laurence James, who, since our days at Goldsmiths College, had forged for himself a successful career as a writer of what we both were happy to call pulp fiction, suggested I might help him out of a bind, and do myself a favour at the same time, by stepping temporarily into his shoes and writing the 50,000 word novel about Hells Angels his publishers were expecting.

Strange, but true.

Laurence had been writing a series of biker books for New English Library under the name of Mick Norman but at that moment in time was too busy with other projects to give NEL another – and, even though I’d never actually written any fiction, he thought I might just be up to the task. I taught English and I read a lot. Surely I could write?

He gave me his Mick Normans to read, explaining they were close to westerns but with bikes instead of horses.[We were to write a good number of westerns together later.] I went out to W H Smith (this is true) and bought a little handbook on Hell’s Angels and their ways. (Oh, and I forgot to mention this, at the time I was the proud owner of a Honda 50.) Laurence helped me put together an outline; read my first few chapters with an editor’s pen in hand, and I was on my way …

The result was a 128 page paperback, Avenging Angel, by one Thom Ryder, published by New English Library in March, 1975.

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So how did I get from there to where I am 40 years later, a hundred plus titles under my belt and a proud recipient of a couple of honorary doctorates of my writing. One way to find out, should you be in the vicinity, would be to pop along to Westminster Library on Wednesday next, July 8th, when all – or some – will be revealed.

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