“I Dunit”

A novel of mine, Room to Swing (which won an Edgar as the best mystery novel of 1957), featured a Negro private detective and was concerned in part with the Jim Crow he meets while solving the case, a murder connected with a TV network. This sold very well in Italy, a relatively small and poor country with a fairly high illiteracy rate—and where there isn’t any color question nor, at the time, were there TV sets.

I happened to see the book on sale, with a lurid cover, in Viareggio. When an Italian friend told the storekeeper I’d written the book, he gave me a bow and shook my hand as if talking to Hemingway. When I asked, via my Italian buddy, if he had read the novel, the storekeeper said he hadn’t, as yet, but was delighted to meet an author. In the States being a writer is on a par with being some kind of nut.

Writing a suspense novel is a somewhat odd experience. You put in several months Writing it. (Forget those clowns who claim they can bat out a book in a week, a day, or the next second. I’m not calling them liars but it takes me three months, or longer, and I’m a fast typist.) And finally the book is sold. You sign the contract, start eating the advance—and then your novel vanishes, as if it was published on Mars.

Six months or a year later you receive a neat parcel post package (not from CARE) with the ten free copies of your book. If it’s an original paperback, the cover and title may shock you, but still, there it is, your brainchild, etc. And that can be the last you’ll ever hear about or see of the book! Suspense novels are rarely reviewed by our press. This is due to several factors. First, about 90% of our newspapers and magazines never review any kind of book. Among those papers which manage to squeeze in a book section, the suspense (mystery, spy, adventure) novel is considered a stepchild and not on a level with contemporary fiction. This is pure snob garbage; in fact I object to the “suspense” label—what novel doesn’t have suspense? (“Whodunit” makes me grit my teeth.) By and large I believe “suspense” novels are as well or badly written and as high or low in content as any other modern novel. An easy example: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the best anti-cold war book in years. Granted, mystery novels are not always Literature with a large L, but offhand I can’t think of any novel published in the last dozen years which fits that handle.

The net result is your novel may receive a short review in Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals At Large” column in the Sunday New York Times or in a similar column Dorothy Hughes runs every few weeks in the New York Herald Tribune. It can also get a one line review by Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review or a one word review in the weekend New York Post. And that’s about it.

Should your novel come out in paperback it may never be reviewed at all. Aside from the hard fact that the paperback publisher rarely advertises in the book pages, which often determines whether a book is reviewed or not, very often they don’t bother sending out copies for review, although they swear they do. But as one such publisher once told me, “What’s the point? By the time the book might get a review, it will be off the stands anyway. Don’t worry, it’s the cover that sells the book.” Of course this is bunk and if you think writers are mixed-up, you should see the publishing industry.

So your novel, now an original paperback, may not be reviewed, and should the publisher have a poor distribution set-up in your home town, you probably won’t even see it on sale! A year later you receive a statement saying it has only sold 65,231 copies and hasn’t passed the advance. (Ha-ha!) But you wonder how in hell so many people were able even to see the darn book.

Now, all this results in a pleasant anonymity. I’ve lived in the same apartment building for years, and most of my neighbors, seeing me walk my dog during the day, wonder how I get time off from my night shift job in some factory to take trips. Even my best friends will ask, “Are you still writing?” although I can have two books on somebody’s stand, someplace, at the moment.

Naturally, there are exceptions. When a suspense novel has already sold to the movies, book clubs, etc., and is backed by high powered publicity, it will receive full page reviews, even on the front page of a book section. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold made a big splash. A recent fact crime book, In Cold Blood —you talk your way, Capote, and I’ll talk mine; it still is a fact crime book— 12 had nine out of the 48 pages in the New York Times Book Review devoted to it.

This looking down the nose at the suspense novel can also be found in many editorial offices. A sweet kid, just out of college and working as editor in a short-lived paperback house, told me a novel was several thousand words too long. I volunteered to cut it, but she said she had already taken care of the matter and everything was fine. She simply cut out the first chapter.

One of the larger paperback concerns, which has printed many of my novels, once published one with the cover showing a man looking under a bed holding a dead and (of course) nude woman. On seeing the book I casually asked the editor what the cover picture meant, as there wasn’t any such incident in the story. He answered quite as casually, “This is a great cover we had for another book but didn’t use it. By the by, I wrote in a couple ol paragraphs to cover the scene.”

You can bet they never would have done that with the so-called “regular” novel.

The changing of titles by publishers bugs me. Some houses believe certain words like murder, death, sin, etc., have a magic sales value. A book of mine had a tough detective who suffers a heart attack and when he recovers, like most cardiacs, he has a hard time regaining confidence in himself. I thought Time Running In was a dandy title. It was published as Bugged for Murder. I’ve been astonished to see my name on books with titles like: Woman Aroused, Shakedown for Murder, Harlem Underground and Sin in Your Blood. Rarely does the title have any connection with the plot.

Where does one find ideas for mysteries? Everywhere. I read the newspapers carefully, usually skipping the major crime stories (too many others will try using these), but cut out odd crime items. Some plots are composites of these news items, as my characters are montages of people I’ve known, seen or heard about. A straight bull fighting documentary on TV started a novel about a series of crimes, in Mexico, the motive being that a famous and daring matador was actually poisoning his bulls when he stuck them with his banderillas.

A snatch of street conversation may give me a story idea. I overheard a man complaining about somebody who picked up a rider each morning by blowing his horn at six a.m. The man said, “I could kill that bastard for awakening me every morning.” Yes indeed, that became a short-short in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

I travel as often as financially possible. Being a stranger gives one a fresh approach; you learn things the natives take for granted. The fact that U.S. passports sold on the European black market for $5000 after World War II formed the basis of a novel. That Americans (without a police record) returning to the States have been approached to bring in one shipment of dope made another book. A taxi driver showing me around a West Indian island pointed to the only gambling casino there and said, “This is to attract the U.S. tourist. Many islanders, including the church, were against it, but the government takes a percentage, off the top, which amounts to $100,000 a year, and this has built many schools. The talk is that the casino makes much more and hides the money in their safe, as the government watches their bank deposits.” This ended as a novelette in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, under the title, “The Juicy Mango Caper.”

Whenever somebody tells me, “Have I got a whale of a story for you!” I listen politely but never use it, even though it may sometimes sound like a wonderful plot. The danger is that Joe Blow heard it from Harry Jones, who, in turn, heard it from Tom Smith, who said it was a true incident. Too often it turns out Tom Smith read it as a story in some magazine or in a book, a fact which was lost in the retelling, and you can risk plagiarism by using it.

A mystery writer should be on buddy-buddy terms with a lawyer, a cop and a doctor. If you don’t know any, ask around—it’s amazing the way people react to a fiction writer. Tell a police officer you’re doing a straight article on police work and he’ll clam up. Mention that you’re doing research for a mystery novel and he reacts as if you’d asked for his autograph and usually will talk all over his mouth. For police details my cop friend doesn’t know or isn’t positive about, I go to the public relations office of the police department. They’ve always been most helpful. In asking a lawyer friend about certain court procedures, he illustrated a point by mentioning a case where a bank was being sued because the plaintiff claimed his safe deposit box in the bank had been robbed. Further questioning brought out the fact that these vaults are not quite as safe as we think—needless to add, that became the plot of another book. I met a retired tax employee at a party, and a luncheon with him gave me a dozen plots based on some facts unknown to most people on how folks try to rook Uncle Sam, and often succeed.

Saying I’m a hack doesn’t mean I’m a fink. The creative writer, with his deep curiosity about his fellow beings, must care about people, which is rapidly becoming a rare trait in our cynical world. I have never written anything I considered anti-human, jingoistic or bigoted. True, my stories often deal with violence and sex, but neither were invented by writers. (Although there are attempts to shoulder blame on us!) You’ll find more real violence and brutality in the daily headlines than any fiction writer could dream up. We live in an age where the screams of a girl being stabbed to death aroused a dozen or so average citizens, sitting in their homes, and not one even bothered to call the police, where Civil Rights workers are murdered and the killers rarely brought to trial or found guilty. At best books can only reflect our way of life, as the use of four letter words in modern novels isn’t realism but a mirroring of our peep-hole sex attitude.

I am aware that my writing generally agrees with the publisher’s concept of the world. Certainly self-censorship, whether known or not, always sits beside the typewriter. Publishing is big business, the Establishment, the status quo, etc., and any writer who fancies he’s pulling the wool over an editor’s weary eyes is an idiot. Granted, on rare occasions, in the interests of a fast buck, a publisher may put out a book goosing the Establishment, but these are so infrequent we can forget them. A fast example: most books dealing with the murder of President Kennedy which disagreed with the Warren Commission findings, have either been published by the authors themselves or first printed abroad—where they fitted the views of the Establishment there.

There hasn’t been a realistic book portrait of the average policeman—the impossible job facing him, his frustration at having to close his eyes to certain crimes, the fact that we have far too many useless and hypocritical laws to enforce. The corruption—which doesn’t always touch the average cop but involves his superiors, i.e. dope and numbers couldn’t survive a week in any city without the consent of some police and political brass. The fact that the average citizen is a cop-hater—some with good reason. Such a book would have to hit at the status quo.

Nor am I chickening out when I say I don’t think the average publisher is a moron, or that he doesn’t care about the problems we face daily. In my own fashion (I’ve been true to myself?), I have written about discrimination, the problems of the aged, the ill, corruption, war, brutality, violence, etc. But I have said this in sub-plots, having never been under the illusion I wasn’t writing under wraps. For many years characters in commercial fiction have been a nebulous blur. They’ve always been young, healthy and handsome and despite America being a melting pot, white or Anglo-Saxon. I’ve made my characters refugees, Negroes, Indians, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, old people and sometimes sickly. I think this not only helps reader identification but makes for a more interesting story—it’s obvious that a Negro and a white accused of the same crime will make different stories.

Ten years ago I sometimes wondered why more people didn’t turn to writing; it’s one of the few trades where you really can earn while learning, requires almost no overhead and can be operated (not too successfully) on a part-time basis. Today the fiction market has shrunk to the point of vanishing. I think TV is the dastard. One sees enough fiction and news on TV every day to make reading old fashioned. (Why should Johnny read? He can see it all on the idiot box.) TV is slowly strangling magazines, books and newspapers. In a frantic effort to combat this, and since mostly “stories” are shown on TV, many magazines have dropped fiction. The competition to hit the remaining markets is fantastic. In the mystery field one has but to glance at the low paying English mystery magazines to find them filled with U.S. authors. The mystery novel is presently at such a low tide that some publishers flatly refuse even to read a suspense manuscript today, except for spy yarns or Gothic tales.

In the light of cold war tensions I can understand the interest in spy novels, but why readers are attracted to a dumb heroine stumbling around in an old Gothic mansion full of ghosts and dull loons puzzles me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not writing one.

A glance at the stands shows the squeeze the paperback (a large part of any writer’s income) is caught in: with the saturation of a few big name writers on the top and the cheap, and actually sexless “sex” books on the lower end. If the writing trade is uncertain, the publishing business is even more so. Musical chairs is the favorite editorial game: let sales dip and the first joker blamed and sacked is the editor, despite the fact that most publishers usually put a personal okay on any book an editor wishes to buy. So one isn’t surprised at a publisher flooding the stands with a dozen different Ian Fleming paperbacks (Did he write that many?) on the theory that if one sells for 50 cents and you have a buck, you’ll buy two instead of asking for change. (The recent 5% sales tax in NYC has knocked the hell out of this addition.) I guess all this must end, sometime, when readers will have read every Fleming, Gardner, Rex Stout, etc., book. But in the meantime, for the run of the mill writer, like myself, it’s tough going.

I’ve tried a non-mystery novel, a contemporary book called The Hotel Dwellers, which Harpers published this past January. This deals with the people living in a fourth-rate Times Square hotel and is probably the first novel with a belly dancer as one of the main characters. (Will it win a G string award?) It is also about a middle-aged man whose fear of death gives him the guts to make a few financial and personal moves which . . . well, no point in giving out the plot. The Library Journal has called The Hotel Dwellers “A sharp, rude, sometimes vulgar book that is one of the better novels of recent years.” I’m waiting to see how this sells before trying another contemporary novel.

In the periodical (the what?) field there are some six magazines devoted to the mystery story. They publish monthly and carry about eight stories per issue. There’re another dozen magazines which will run occasional crime fiction. Roughly, if my math is correct, this comes to 720 mystery yarns purchased per year by all U.S. magazines, and there are easily several times that many suspense writers. In recent years the magazine racks have become crowded with “breast” rags—generally dull imitations ol the old Esquire, Playboy and a charming London magazine, Lilliput —and a ratty type of hustler turned publisher has appeared. If most publishers merely tolerate the writer, this slob completely ignores us. Oh, he’ll buy mystery stories, but inquiries about your stories are rarely answered, and he often keeps a story for six months or a year before returning it, or never returns it. Generally it is only when the writer, by sheer chance, sees his story in print (between shots of meaty nudes) that he learns he’s made a “sale.” A few dunning letters later, the “publisher” may drop the writer a check for $25 or $50. Never a letter bothering to ask if the amount is agreeable nor any mention of the rights purchased: all of which should have been settled long before the yarn was sent to the printers.

Some years ago a fishing buddy-advertising man-would- be writer and I hit upon an idea for a corking short-short. I typed it up and sent it out under both our names. (A mistake; most magazines dislike, for some reason, a double by-line.) It was a swell, tight, action yarn, combining bull fighting and fishing. Really! It almost hit some ! of the top magazines and I finally mailed it to a then new men’s mag, which promptly bought the 1000 words for a hundred bucks. Your first story sale always produces a big emotional charge, and as we split the money, my 1 friend proudly told me how he could hardly wait to see i his name in print and show the story to his kids. He had a boy and a girl of 11. (Sure, twins.) When the story finally appeared, it ran on two pages with big-breasted nude photos on both pages, although there wasn’t a single woman in the story. To his sorrow, my pal couldn’t show his literary effort to his kids. That was about five years ago. I imagine they’ve seen it by now.

I have no idea what the fiction future holds, especially for the mystery novel. It hardly looks sunny. There can be an upsurge in the demand for suspense novels tomorrow. (Remember when they said radio had killed the record industry?) Who knows, perhaps folks will even become bored with TV. I still pound my typewriter each day and I’m still selling, but it’s rough. How I long for the “old days” of a dozen or so years ago when you could earn about ten grand a year by leisurely turning out a mystery for the paperbacks every six months.

Respectfully passed along by Kevin Burton Smith.

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