Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Writers Born Today - Pierre Boulle

It's the birthday of Pierre Boulle, born February 20, 1912 in Avignon, France. In a career that spanned nearly half a century he wrote more than two dozen novels and dozens of short stories. Two of his novels were made in epic films with instant name recognition, but almost know one remembers the author himself.

Boulle worked on a British rubber plantation in Malaysia during the 1930s. When World War II started, he became a secret agent working aginst the Japanese. After the war ended, he returned to France and began writing. Early in his career, he was so poor he was forced to live with his sister.

That changed with success. He used his wartime experiences to create his first best-selling novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The story was made into a popular film starring Alec Guinness, and won seven Oscars.

He later achieved even greater success with a 1963 science fiction novel unlike anything seen since the days of Jules Verne.  La Plan├Ęte des Singes was an international best seller that was made into an Oscar winning film in 1968, the first of seven movies based on the same book. The first English translation was called Monkey Planet, but we know it by it's American title - Planet of the Apes.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writers Born Today - Ronald Knox

It's the birthday of Ronald Knox, born February 17, 1888 in Kibworth, England. Although he wrote detective novels, he was a priest first and foremost and wrote several religious texts. Among the most famous of these is a new translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts.  He also penned a guideline for crime fiction writers on how to practice their craft, titled The Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists.

Most of his detective novels featured a private investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company, name Miles Bredon, whose job was to investigate suspicious insurance claims. His crime fiction is remembered best for its humor and wit, and the detailed descriptions of the local scenery. He once included a hint in his introduction to a story collection as to when the reader should try to solve the mystery.

His most famous novel is The Viaduct Murder. A classic from the golden age of detective fiction, it was included in The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction. First published in 1925, their is a paperback version and the novel is available on Kindle.

Knox was a contemporary of some of mystery fiction's most famous practitioners, including Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen. He was an early member of The Detection Club, a group of English detective novelists who met to discuss the craft and set rules for how their mysteries should be written. It was in this spirit that Robert Know composed his Ten Commandments, as a guide for his fellow members. Although somewhat dated by today's standards, and certainly politically incorrect, it still has a number of gems. From The Ronald Knox Society website:

CLUB RULES: The 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists

1.The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote one of the earliest (and finest) works of critical analysis on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, called Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.

For more about Ronald Know, check out the Ronald Knox Society of North America. You can also read a good analysis of his Ten Commandments at Classic Mystery Wordpress.

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 telling...it 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.