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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Jim Burns on Dead Dames Don’t Sing

Jim Burns and I have crossed paths in a number of ways since 1978 when he first published poems of mine in Palantir, the small press magazine he edited between 1974 and 1983; poetry aside, we have a shared interest in jazz and painting and have kept up an exchange of correspondence across the years, meeting from time to time at readings – most happily one organised by John Lucas in Nottingham some little time back, when we read together. Closely associated with the magazine Beat Scene, Jim was also, for many years, a principal reviewer of poetry for Ambit, and now contributes regularly to Penniless Press’s on line Northern Review of Books, from which the following review comes.

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Jack Kiley is a one-time aspiring footballer whose career was disrupted by injury, an ex-policeman, and a jazz fan. He now works as a private detective, “investigating dodgy insurance claims, snooping on behalf of a local firm of solicitors or shadowing errant wives.” And then one day he’s asked to contact a bookseller who has been offered the chance to buy a supposedly long-lost, unpublished pulp novel written to make money by a talented, but hard-drinking, impoverished poet. The poet died years ago, but one of his daughters claims to have found the manuscript in a cottage in Cornwall once owned by the family.

The bookseller needs to know if the manuscript is genuine, and hires Kiley to see what he can find out about it. Kiley doesn’t claim to have an awareness of most twentieth century literature, apart from writers like Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Gerald Kersh, and often puts on the typically English “straight-talking, call a spade-a-spade, don’t-waste-any-of those-high-faluting-ideas-on-me act” when he comes across people connected to the arts. The thought of attending a lecture at the British Library on some poets who were “the Visionary Heirs of William Blake” is enough to make him shudder.

Perhaps his main concession to an interest in anything artistic is the jazz he listens to. He likes Chet Baker, but has his doubts about Miles Davis. He’s not averse to some classical music, either, especially if it’s likely to put a lady at ease. And he does sometimes pay attention to the visual arts, though is reluctant to admit it: “I like a good snap as much as anyone,” he replies when asked if he’s into photography.

Kiley’s investigations bring him up against the poet’s daughters. The one who claims to have found the manuscript, and have the right to sell it, is a slick opportunist who has worked as a model, actor, and photographer. She knows how to use her good looks to get what she wants. The other is a somewhat frosty individual who is employed at the Poetry Society, says the manuscript is a fake, and is about to have a “literary” novel published. She’s careful to make it clear that she doesn’t think that her father would have written a novel called Dead Dames Don’t Sing set in the jazz clubs and pubs of 1950s Soho with a cast of shady characters, and that her own forthcoming book is superior to anything in that line.. Neither woman makes a good impression on Kiley. His own lady friend is a journalist with a sense of humour and a down-to-earth approach to dealing with his hang-ups about art and life. She likes to read Dickens and similarly big books, whereas Kiley thinks a couple of hundred pages at most is what a novel should add up to.

The cast of characters in this short, but entertaining book includes the bookseller, the late poet’s small-press publisher, now a resident in a nursing home, the daughter of an actress who may have had a fling with the poet, and sundry others, such as a dead screenwriter, an equally deceased and long-forgotten, pulp novelist, and a plumber in Penzance. They all add colour to the story, as do the little comments on life in London. Kiley seems to have problems when it comes to finding suitable accommodation. He loses one apartment (referred to that way no doubt because this is an American publication: flat might better describe the kind of places Kiley lives in) when the site is about to be redeveloped, and another, above a charity shop, when the property is going to be taken over and turned into an estate agent. It’s suggested that Kiley might be able to stay if the new owners keep the flat, but he inclines to the view that he’s choosy about who he associates with. As I watch the estate agents increasingly moving into various premises around where I live I have a certain amount of sympathy with his attitude.

I won’t delve too much into how and why the mystery of the manuscript is resolved, but it’s a tribute to John Harvey’s skill as a writer that everything is neatly wrapped up in such a short space. But, like one of the people in his book, he’s had a great deal of experience over the years as a novelist, short-story writer, poet, writer for TV and radio, publisher, little magazine editor, and much more (the back cover of Dead Dames Don’t Sing notes that he’s the author of more than one hundred books) so knows how to make an impact within a limited (in length, not content) framework. His characters take on real personalities with a minimum of effort. And he cleverly constructs a couple of convincing passages from the contested manuscript. It’s easy to see why he, like Kiley, admires writers such as Eric Ambler and Gerald Kersh, who were professionals in every sense of the word. I share his tastes and was delighted recently to find several old Kersh books in a local charity shop.

I was amused by the fact that attitudes towards crime novels and pulp writing (not necessarily the same thing) among some literary types are shown as still being coloured by their belief that they often represent an inferior area of activity. I’m possible prejudiced, having enjoyed many crime and pulp novels and short stories. And I’m convinced that the writing in them can sometimes be far superior to what I’ve read in “literary” novels. I’ve delighted in books by Gil Brewer, Richard Deming, John D. MacDonald, and William P. McGivern. Just a few from the hat. Those are the names of older writers, I know, but they’re the ones I like to read and even, in a small way, collect. With newer novelists I’d have to point to John Harvey as someone whose books always appeal to me.

A note on the publisher of this book. The Mysterious Bookshop is located in New York and Harvey’s book is the thirty-third in what they call their Bibliomysteries series, all the stories having connections, of one sort or another, to writers, bookshops, libraries, and books in general.

Dead Dames Don’t Sing is available now in paperback, or signed hardcover, from The Mysterious Bookshop, and will shortly be available also as an eBook.

The Northern Review of Books can be found here …

Jim Burns essays, reviews and articles have been collected in a series of volumes from Penniless Press Publications : Radicals, Beats & Beboppers (2011); Brits, Beats and Outsiders (2012); Bohemians, Beats and Blues People (2013); Artists, Beats and Cool Cats (2014); Rebels, Beats and Poets (2015); Anarchists, Beats & Dadaists (2016)

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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