From school yard to Junkyard: early days in pulp fiction

Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.

Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.

Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …

Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake. 

The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.

From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal. 

I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”

I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.

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.

harvey_amphetamines-geranium-bundle

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.

harvey_junkyard-neon-bundle

 

 

Pulp Fiction

Baby-Dont-Dare-Squeal-1951-600x926

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.

diary_of_a_female_wrestler

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.

avenging

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.

S M 1

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

 

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