Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mystery History - Sterling Hayden

It's the birthday of Sterling Hayden, born March 26, 1916 in Montclair, New Jersey. He gained his fame as an actor in westerns and dark film noir roles. But he also wrote a novel with a nautical theme that reflected his love of the sea. He once said he acted just to pay the bills so he could sail. Yet he appeared in some of the greatest heist movies of the 20th century. His own larger than life adventures would have made a first rate adventure film.

Sailing was his first love. He dropped out of school to sign aboard a ship as a teen. By the time he was 22 years old he had sailed around the world several times and served as captain on a trip to Tahiti.

His good looks and 6' 5'' frame helped him get a contract with Paramount Pictures. He appeared in a couple of pictures, but when World War II broke out, he joined the Marines. His knowledge of sailing made him invaluable to the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), which used him to run arms to Yugoslavian partisans fighting the Nazis. As an undercover agent, he set up rescue teams for allied pilots in enemy territory, actions that would have earned him a German firing squad had he been caught. Instead he earned several commendations, including the Silver Star.

After the war he returned to Hollywood and made some of the most memorable films of the postwar era, including The Killing, Crime of Passion, The Asphalt Jungle, and Dr. Strangelove. But he always returned to the sea.

He published two books, an autobiography (Wanderer) and a novel (Voyage). Both were well received by critics and the public. One man, Jim Beaver, even credited Hayden's autobiography with changing his life as a writer and actor. And that's something to write about.

"I've always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can't afford it." What these men can't afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of 'security.' And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone."

- Sterling Hayden

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Writers Born Today - Mickey Spillane

It's the birthday of Frank Morrison Spillane, born March 9, 1918 in Brooklyn. His father, an Irish bartender, gave him the nickname "Mickey". He developed a knack for story helped him avoid beatings by older kids in his tough neighborhood. By the end of high school, he had sold his first story to a pulp magazine. After some college he got a job writing comics. World War II interrupted his literary pursuits and with scant success in the comic trade, Spillane turned to writing novels using Mike Danger, a P.I. hero he created for the comics. Renamed Mike Hammer, he churned out the first novel in three weeks. The publisher, E.P. Dutton, didn't think much of the writing, but bought it anyway, in part as a favor to Spillane's agent. It would change the publishing industry.

I, The Jury sold a respectable 10,000 copies in hardcover, but when released in paperback, sales exploded, literally. Over a million copies were sold, and Spillane churned out half a dozen more novels in the next few years featuring his hard hitting and often brutal hero. Spillane's timing was perfect. Paperbacks were cheap and fed the public's postwar demand for action and adventure filled stories.

Literary gems they were not. A new Mike Hammer novel brought enormous sales, but also scathing reviews from book critics. Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of I, The Jury ,"so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school."  The Saturday Review of Literature was more succinct. "Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid"

But Spillane didn't let the bad reviews bother him. "I don't give a hoot about readin' reviews. What I want to read is the royalty checks," he said. And the checks poured in, not just from print, but from television, radio and movie rights. One of the most successful screen adaptations was the movie Kiss Me Deadly, which starred Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer.
In real life, Spillane bore little resemblance to his hard as nails hero. He was a Jehovah's witness, and neither drank nor smoked.

Spillane created other protaganists, including spies Tiger Mann and Mako Hooker. He even wrote a few children's books and won a Junior Literary Guild award for one of them, The Day The Sea Rolled Back.

By the time he returned to writing Mike Hammer novels in the 60s, his literary reputation was improving. In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America gave him the Grand Master, the highest award in the mystery field in recognition of his lifetime achievements as a writer.

To date, his novels have sold over 200 million copies.

"Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar."

                                                                                                -  Mickey Spillane

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


In a few months a new batch of college grads join the job search, and a new batch of news articles with job hunting advice hits the newsstands. Lists are hot, including lists of which college degrees are
hot...and which are not. In the latter category, time and again, a degree in Philosophy gets low marks (this is ironic, as we're still recovering from the greed driven housing crisis and TRILLION dollar banking scandals of 2008). Even politicians have chimed in with the advice that we need "less philosophers."

Oh really? Philosophy and the study of great ethical questions, so the advice goes, is a dead end, job-wise. But is that true? And should it be? What can you do with a Philosophy degree, anyway (other than seize the moral high ground)?

Well, you could write a novel. Not a surprise. But maybe you decide a career as a novelist isn't for you, a lover of books.

You could...start a publishing house. Hire a young editor who also loves books and has a keen eye for story. You could publish some good books, and some great books. Go to the annual MWA awards dinner with, not one, but three of your authors, because they've been nominated for the Edgar Award that year. Earn the respect and admiration of publishers, readers and writers. Then you could sell your publishing business. Then you could start another one, and publish more great books with more great stories. Yeah, you could do all that...with a philosophy degree.

And someone did.

That someone was Benjamin LeRoy, founder and current publisher of Tyrus Books, and the founder of Bleak House Books. In 2007, I first discovered Ben while looking at small independent publishers to whom I might peddle my un-agented manuscript. He was doing these podcasts, discussing the publishing world, interviewing writers and readers, and having some entertaining discussions. To my knowledge, no other small publisher was doing this, and it was pretty exciting. I learned a lot about submitting my work from those podcasts. And when I started reading some of his books I was very impressed.

I wasn't the only one. At the 2008 Edgar Awards, Bleak House Books had three authors up for nominations; one each in the category of Best Novel (Reed Coleman’s Soul Patch), Best First Novel (Craig McDonald’s Head Games), and Best Short Story (Stuart Kaminsky in Chicago Blues). For a small publisher, I doubt if this had ever been done before, or since.

If you like great stories and are looking for something new to read, check out the selection from this eclectic publishing house. He has an incredibly deep bullpen of talented writers. You'll find something here you like, whether you're a fan of cozies, noir, or just want something different. Some of my favorites are Victoria Houston, Michael Lister and Mary Logue. If you're undecided, pick up Between The Dark and the Daylight. This excellent collection has some of the biggest names in crime fiction.

Ben Leroy isn't resting on his accomplishments. He's started a charity to make the world a better place called Be Local Everywhere. Check out the video below to hear Ben talk about this project.

So, what are your plans for the rest of your life? 

P.S. By the way, it's 'fewer philosophers' not 'less', Mr. Rubio.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Writers Born Today - Joyce Harrington

It's the birthday of Joyce Harrington, born January 29, 1932 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Although she wrote three novels, she was best known for her short stories. In 1972 her first story, The Purple Shroud, was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The following year it won an Edgar Award for Best Short Story. She was nominated for three more Edgars by the Mystery Writers of America for her short stories, in 1975 for Cabin In The Hollow, in 1976 for Night Crawlers, and in 1988 for The Au Pair Girl.

Harrington was a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and EQMM during this period. She also wrote three mystery novels. No One Knows My Name appeared in 1980, followed by Family Reunion in 1982 and Dreemz of the Night in 1987.

Harrington fell out of the reader's eye after she stopped writing in the 1990s. Her reputation is undergoing a revival thanks in part to enlightened critics and editors who have spurred interest in the growing popularity of the sub-genre known as Domestic Suspense. The Purple Shroud was included in Sarah Weinman's short story suspense collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives in 2013.

Weinman had this to say about Harrington's writing; "She was primarily concerned with human behavior and the motives for sliding into nefarious deeds, with twists that disturbed in their quiet intensity. It's no wonder 'The Purple Shroud' fared so well upon publication: its depiction of a toxic marriage and how a subjugated woman finds her way out still resonates today."

Pretty Sinister Books described The Purple Shroud as "a little masterpiece."

To watch an interview of Joyce Harrington as she discusses her writing with Connie Martinson, check out the youtube link below.

Note: Many thanks to Sarah Weinman, whose extensive research helped make this blog post possible.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mystery History - William Hopper Born Today

It's the birthday of William Dewolf Hopper Jr, born January 26, 1915 in New York City. Although he had been acting since the 1930s, his career peaked in the late 50s and early 60s with the role he perfected and became famous for; Paul Drake, the dependable P.I. in the TV series Perry Mason. Yet at one point in his career, he walked away from acting in disgust and became a used car salesman.

William Hopper was born into a family of actors. His father Dewolf Hopper was a well known actor and comedian, and his mother was the famous Hedda Hopper, Hollywood actress and gossip columnist. Despite this illustrious pedigree, William Hopper only got into acting because his mother expected it of him. "When I worked at Warner Bros., I was so scared I stuttered all the time," he once said.

He started his film career with Paramount in 1936 with some small roles before moving up to leading man in films such as Public Wedding, opposite Jane Wyman, and Over The Goal with June Travis.  Handsome and standing six foot four inches, he seemed a natural as a leading man. But his lack of ambition held him back.

World War II interrupted his career. Working as a frogman with explosives, the danger of the work caused his dirty blonde hair to turn prematurely white. After the war ended, he began drinking, and stopped acting for almost a decade. He became a car salesman. As he described it, "This was after the war, when you could sell anything on wheels. It was a fine business if you didn't mind being dishonest. I did."

He renewed his acting career at the urging of director William Wellman, who cast him in The High And The Mighty. Hopper made several movies over the next few years, including Rebel Without A Cause, The Bad Seed and Twenty Million Miles To Earth.

When a casting call went out for a new TV show based on the Erle Stanley Gardner mystery novels, Hopper shot a screen test for the lead role of Perry Mason. He lost out to Raymond Burr, but was cast as P.I. Paul Drake. Audiences loved his portrayal of Drake, who could play a ladies' man, a joker, a tough guy, and a reliable investigator for the defense, sometimes all in the same one hour episode. Hopper said that getting the role of Paul Drake was "the best thing that ever happened to me."

Below you can see the screen test of Hopper auditioning for the lead role as Perry Mason, alongside Ray Collins who played the cynical Lt. Tragg.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Writers Born Today - Edgar Allan Poe

Mathew Brady [Public domain]
It's the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19, 1809 in Boston.

His contributions to American literature are unequaled. He invented the detective novel with his character C. Auguste Dupin when he published The Murders in The Rue Morgue. Without his tales of detection, there would be no Sherlock Holmes. His horror stories inspired H.P. Lovecraft, Steven King, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name only a few. Yet by the time he died in 1849, he was penniless. Only seven people attended his funeral.

 Being the child of two actors may have set the stage for his tumultuous life. By the age of three he was an orphan, and although he was taken in by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco planter from Virginia, his luck didn't seem to change much.

He was a brilliant student, but debts and poverty forced him out of school. Twice he fell in love and twice his love was taken from him, either through death or estrangement. When his stepmother died, his stepfather did not even inform Poe that she had been ill for a long time, and he arrived too late for the funeral.

Poe's relationship with his benefactor, John Allan, was always strained. While at college, Poe racked up thousands of dollars in debt, debt that Allan refused to help pay. As a result Poe had to drop out of school and seek employment. To earn a living (and some say, to dodge his creditors) Poe joined the army. Upon Allan's death, Poe discovered that he had been cut out of his stepfather's will.

Despite his financial setbacks, Poe received a better education that most, and had been writing poetry since his early teens. His first volume of verse, Tamerlane and other Poems, had been published when he was just 18, but sold few copies. Determined to make a living as a writer, he got himself kicked out of West Point.

His luck began to change when he was hired as the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe's literary criticism and reviews boosted both his reputation and the magazine's circulation. But he left after a quarrel with the magazine's owner. He arrived in New York just in time to see his first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published. In 1839 he became editor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and it was here that several of his short stories were published, including The Fall of the House of Usher and The Man That Was Used Up (a satirical early science fiction tale).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
By 1840, he was again unemployed. He tried to obtain a government position, but after that fell through he moved to New York, and lived in a cottage in the Bronx. By now his wife was sick with tuberculosis and Poe was drinking heavily to deal with the stress. But it was while in New York that Poe became a household name with the publication of his most famous poem, The Raven, in 1845. Overnight he became a literary sensation. Children followed him in the street flapping their arms and crying "Nevermore". But it's publication did not secure the financial success he needed. He was only paid 15 dollars for the poem.

In 1847 his wife died and Poe began a downward spiral from which he never recovered. After being found on the streets of Baltimore incoherent in October, 1849, he was taken to Washington College Hospital. He died five days later, having remained unconscious most of the time. The mystery of his demise and his location in the four days prior to his hospitalization has never been solved.

After his death, a literary rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, was appointed the executor of Poe's estate. Having suffered under Poe's withering criticism in life, Griswold attempted to take revenge after Poe's death by publishing a biography that depicted Poe as a lunatic and degenerate. Whatever his intentions, the effort to destroy Poe's reputation backfired. People flocked to buy his works, delighted to read the stories of such an evil man.

Today, there are few persons planet Earth who have not heard of his name. A search on Google of "Edgar Allan Poe" yields nearly 15 million hits. The Mystery Writers of America have named their awards after him, and the highest achievement for a writer in the mystery genre is to win "The Edgar".

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Writers Born Today - Stirling Silliphant

It's the birthday of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, born January 16, 1918 in Detroit.  While still a child his family moved to California. It was there he made his fame as a writer for television and movies. After attending USC he started writing for television.

His early work gave little hint at his later brilliance. One of his first writing jobs was for The Mickey Mouse Club. After complaining in the cafeteria about a TV executive, he was summarily fired, which was a greater loss for Disney than Silliphant. He went on to write for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rawhide and Perry Mason.

His most productive period of writing began when Herbert B. Leonard hired him in 1958 to write for a new TV crime drama, The Naked City. Based on the 1948 movie of the same name, the scripts featured tightly written plots with elements of noir film. Silliphant wrote most of the first season's 30-minute episodes and also wrote for another new series, Route 66.

In 1968 he won an Academy Award for his screenplay of In The Heat of The Night, a crime film with heavy racial overtones as well as a first rate mystery plot. It starred Rod Steiger as a bigoted southern sheriff and Sydney Poiter as a black detective from Philadelphia who is drawn with reluctance into helping solve a local murder. Based on the novel by John Ball, the movie won five academy awards, including Best Picture. Silliphant also won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for this screenplay. He liked to describe the movie as "The Defiant Ones with cops instead of cons."