Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rediscovering a Genre Star

When news hit the crime-fiction blogosphere last month that author Robert Terrall had died at 94 years of age in a Connecticut retirement community, it was rather disheartening to hear so many people ask, “Who?” Yet fame is the ficklest of friends, and Terrall had ceased publishing long before he ceased living. That young converts to this genre were unfamiliar with his prodigious output--books written under his own name as well as several pseudonyms--ought not to have been surprising. It was left to more seasoned authorities to hand Terrall off to history with the proper huzzahs. Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai (Fifty-to-One) characterized him as “one of the few remaining writers from the Gold Medal era.” The equally astute Ed Gorman (Sleeping Dogs) had already praised Terrall (shown above, circa 1950s) as a “really fine craftsman” who was “especially good with dialogue,” and whose “sex scenes are really sexy and they’re good clean fun as well.”

For a pragmatic guy who prided himself on making a living in a field where so many others failed or starved for their dreams, Terrall--the inventor of Manhattan private eye Ben Gates and one of the writers who kept gumshoe Mike Shayne “alive” long after his creator had abandoned him--might have preferred such simple, straightforward praise. However, I think his life deserves at least a bit more celebration. Which is why I recently contacted his younger son, a journalist in San Francisco, to ask about Terrall’s professional and personal endeavors.

But first, a bit of biographical detail.

Robert Morton Terrall (he apparently hated his middle name) was born in the pocket-edition mining town of Neihart, in western Montana, on December 6, 1914. However, his family soon relocated to The Dalles, Oregon, and then again to Cleveland, Ohio, where the future author endured his teenage years. He went on to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1936 with a degree in English, before heading off to New York City and a brief stint with Time magazine, writing film critiques and other pieces. According to one online newspaper obituary, “during World War II, [Terrall] worked in the shipyards in Brooklyn until being drafted. He served with [General George S.] Patton’s 65th Infantry Division during the invasion of Europe, and with the Allied occupying army in Austria.”

After returning to the States, Terrall tried to make a go of composing short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and assorted women’s magazines. He saw his first novel, They Deal in Death--which he’d finished before setting off across the Atlantic, and which had to do with espionage and Nazi trafficking in diamonds--published in 1943. That was followed in 1947 by Madam Is Dead, in 1948 by a biological-terrorism yarn called A Killer Is Loose Among Us, and in 1951 by what he might have deemed his first “serious” novel, Steps of the Quarry (“about the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp”). It was also around 1950 that the market for magazine fiction shrank considerably, and a “paperback revolution” was born. “[S]o this whole army of fiction writers had to switch into something,” Terrall recalled for The New York Times in a 1979 profile, “and many of them went, like me, into paperback publication.” The Times went on to say that
Not every writer is able to shift with the market. Mr. Terrall has been. “I suppose you could call it a success story, because it’s enabled me to live pleasantly and to have a family, which not all writers are able to do, and to enjoy what I’m doing and not feel I’m writing down or deliberately writing badly,” said Mr. Terrall, who has lived in Cornwall, and now in Sharon [Connecticut], for over 25 years. “The way I’ve managed to do it has been, as the market changes, I go with the market. It was possible for me to go from magazine short stories to paperback originals, a transition many people were not able to make.”

Mr. Terrall, who was the first author published in Dell’s line of “First Edition” novels and the first published in Fawcett’s line of “Gold Medal” originals, obeyed the categorical imperative. He composed mysteries and other confections, including “quite a few” movie “tie-ins.” Eventually, in the 1960s, he had going at the same time, under different pseudonyms, three different series of mystery novels.
Among those noms de plume was “Robert Kyle,” under which Terrall wrote several standalone novels (1954’s The Crooked City and The Golden Urge, for instance) as well as five often amusing Ben Gates books, beginning with Blackmail, Inc. (1958). As Kevin Burton Smith of The Thrilling Detective Web Site explains, Gates was “‘one of the few detectives in New York who can keep his mouth shut,’” a fellow with a “glib, raffish charm and an appreciation for the finer things in life, notably booze and attractive babes. He’s also no loner--he’s surrounded by a rich supporting cast of kooks and oddballs ...” Critic John Fraser fleshes out the character still further:
Gates is raffish, cigar-smoking, sardonic, enjoys the pleasures of bed and booze, isn’t averse from breaking a few laws about the gathering of evidence, and can be effectively violent when needs be. But he’s no Shell Scott (Richard S. Prather’s humorously gun-blasting, ex-Marine Los Angeles counterpart to Mike Hammer). Or, rather, he’s a much higher-level and believable maverick.

He is convincingly embedded in Manhattan, with believable professional contacts and associates--a middle-aged part-time secretary who fears the typewriter, a Jewish confrere, [fellow shamus Irving] Davidson, who looks like a quarterback and catches cold easily, a gossip-columnist who he can draw on for information, a friendly-adversarial police-lieutenant. And you believe that he is well enough known to make tabloid headlines when he fouls up during a case.

Moreover, he appears to be Ivy League, or at least to have gone to a decent prep school. He is comfortable around the rich when a case takes him that way, as is (fictionally at least) Kyle himself. There are thoroughly convincing round-heeled debs, dissolute preppies, money-hungry upper-East-Side divorcees, and other more or less obnoxious types in the novels. Kyle knows how they speak and how their minds work.

He is also excellent at devising central situations that permit of interesting complications--threats of libel action against a scandal mag that sounds very like Confidential; theft and murder at a posh country-estate wedding where Gates is guarding the presents; an Albany hotel full of lobbyists pro and con a bill to legalize off-track gambling; a take-over attempt against a Manhattan corporation.

The books are essence-of-late-Fifties, early Sixties, when formal structures and taboos were still strong but anarchic pressures were starting to build up inside them.
If the moniker Ben Gates sounds familiar, it’s probably because he starred in a boisterously plotted, 1960 mystery novel called Kill Now, Pay Later, which was originally released by Dell under the Robert Kyle byline, but was reissued in paperback in September 2007 by Hard Case Crime, this time with Robert Terrall’s real name on the cover. Although that fresh edition of Kill Now received somewhat mixed reviews, it won notice because its new cover was illustrated by the renowned Robert McGinnis, who had also created its first jacket art. What’s more, Gates’ comeback in the 21st century led many crime-fiction enthusiasts (yours truly among them) to go looking for Terrall’s other books, all of which are regrettably out of print.

The other series protagonist Terrall created was Harry Horne, who was introduced in End of a J.D. (1960) and went on to appear in two additional paperback novels, all written under the pseudonym “John Gonzales.” I’ve never read a Horne story, but I understand that the character was a “roving reporter” with a no less roving eye. A blurb on the 1963 novel Follow That Hearse, the Horne series’ third installment, says that he’s “hot on the trail of a cool million stolen dollars while warming more beds along the way than Don Juan ever dreamed of.” Tough guys, I guess, demand tender loving care.

And then of course there’s Michael Shayne. That fictional, two-fisted and red-headed Miami private detective was introduced in a 1939 novel called Dividend on Death, penned by former engineer Davis Dresser, better known as Brett Halliday. Shayne quickly became popular, and his creator went on to feature him in at least 29 books (plus one collection of novelettes, Michael Shayne’s Triple Mystery). However, as Terrall told the Times in 1979, Dresser could not keep up with demand: “[He] had been writing really with the sheriff at the door for 20 years, and then, all of a sudden, he not only was able to sell his work, but it was bringing him in a great deal of money and all he had to do continue to get a great deal of money was to go on writing. At that point, he found it absolutely impossible to write.”

Not wanting to lose its golden goose, Dresser’s publisher turned to Terrall, who was persuaded to carry on the Shayne series under the Brett Halliday “house name.” Over the next couple of decades, Terrall ghost-wrote 20 or more Shayne adventures, including Target: Mike Shayne (1959) and Lady Be Bad (1969). (Authors Dennis Lynds, aka Michael Collins, and Ryerson Johnson also contributed to that series.) At the same time, Terrall continued batting out books under his other names. His last novel was Wrap It in Flags (1986), a satirical tale about a young Colombian army officer “attending Counter-Coup school in that temple of the American war machine, the Pentagon,” who is “besieged on all sides by an outrageous collection of ideologues and slick operators: rapacious weapons contractors, hyper-aggressive military honchos, desperately ambitious politicians, wildly generous bagmen, unbridled seducers of both sexes--and almost every other kind of flimflammer, screwball and bunko artist.”

When he died on March 27, Terrall had gone 23 years without a new book of his being published. What had become of him in all that time? Had he happily ditched his typewriter? Had he been ill for very long before succumbing? And what had he really thought of the work to which he’d committed his life? For answers, I contacted Ben Terrall, the author’s 49-year-old son by his first wife, the former Joan Thomas. (That pair separated in the mid-1970s, and Robert Terrall married his second wife, Martha Porter, late in the same decade.) The youngest of the author’s four children, Ben Terrall is a self-described political activist and freelance writer, whose work has appeared in periodicals such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, In These Times, and the National Catholic Reporter. He was generous enough to respond to my myriad questions via e-mail, with some details being corrected by his sister Mary Terrall of Pasadena, California.

J. Kingston Pierce: Do you know what made your father want to become a writer in the first place?

Ben Terrall: No, we have no idea if someone or something in particular inspired him to become a writer, but he was writing prolifically for his high-school newspaper, everything from news and comment to satirical political verse.

JKP: What did he study at Harvard?

BT: He studied mostly English literature, I believe, but his real major was probably The Harvard Lampoon, which he edited for several years. He did his senior thesis on Virginia Woolf [whose work was not then part of the English curriculum at Harvard].

JKP: As I understand it, your dad worked for a spell at Time magazine before heading off to World War II. Was he a writer for Time, or did he do something else?

BT: Yes, he wrote for Time. They didn’t give bylines to writers in those days, but he told me he wrote a review of the movie Angels with Dirty Faces [1938], which I have to go back and look for. [Magazine publisher] Henry Luce hired him to write humor, but then decided that Dad’s humor did not fit Time’s image and fired him.

I recently bought a pile of copies of [the American workers’ monthly magazine] [The] New Masses from ’39 to ’40, which contain articles and reviews by Dad.

JKP: At what point did you realize that your father composed crime novels for a living? And how did you and your siblings feel about that when you were growing up?

BT: I knew that as soon as I could understand what a mystery was (Dad always called them mysteries, not “crime novels”). It didn’t seem peculiar to me, and I doubt it did to my siblings. Actually, I think I always got a kick out it.

He wrote a couple of film novelizations that were issued at the same time as the movies. Since Dad wrote [the Ten Commandments tie-in] Moses and the Ten Commandments [1956], when people asked me what my father had written, I used to tell them, “The 10 Commandments.”

JKP: In 1979, your dad was interviewed by The New York Times. He was quoted as saying that he wasn’t enamored of the crime-fiction genre, but “it was a way of starting writing.” Why did he think that was the place to begin? And did he eventually develop a stronger interest in the genre, or did he always write mysteries just for the money?

BT: Dad tried to make it writing “serious” novels, starting with his World War II book The Steps of the Quarry. But that novel took four years [to write] and didn’t go anywhere. So, as he had to support a family, he started writing more commercial stuff. He had already written They Deal in Death (which I love) in 1943 and A Killer Is Loose Among Us ... (a favorite of Charles Ardai’s), so he knew he was capable of producing that kind of stuff.

After the market for short stories in magazines dried up, he was writing whatever he could make a living at. The choice then was pretty much mysteries or westerns. He viewed them as entertainment, something that he could write relatively quickly so he could make time to write other, more serious novels. That didn’t work out as well as he hoped.

I wouldn’t presume to say I know how Dad felt about the genre, but I think it’s safe to say he was a complicated guy and had mixed feelings about the trade. He read a lot of world literature in translation, and went though at least two dense books a week. Dad could be a bit of a snob about what was and what wasn’t great writing, which sometimes drove me crazy when I was an angry young man (a very brief phase, I can assure you).

He could be dismissive about other writers in the field, though he told me Charles Williams [Talk of the Town, Dead Calm, etc.] was one of his favorite mystery/crime writers, and I can see why now. Williams was a great plotter and storyteller, and no hack as a writer. With Dad very much on my mind, I’m reading Williams now and loving his stuff.

JKP: It’s hard to make a living now as an author, and I imagine it was no harder when your father was at his productive best, in the 1940s and ’50s. Do you remember him being a workaholic?

BT: He was productive into the 1980s, actually, and though he didn’t publish after Wrap It in Flags, [he] still wrote a lot after that, much of which he read aloud to friends and neighbors.

At Dad’s memorial [on April 18], my eldest sister, Susan, recalled Dad writing seven days a week, even on vacation. He always made time for his kids, but he worked every day. He also had an actively engaged civic life in the small town in northwest Connecticut we lived in. He lived a very full life.

JKP: What kind of father was he?

BT: He taught me a lot about a lot of things. In his old age some of the reserve dropped and I came to realize that, though I’d spent many years wondering if he considered me a disappointment because of my, shall we say, problems with focus, he actually loved me unconditionally. I’m glad we had those final years, and that he knew I felt the same way about him.

Like many men of his generation, he could be a little hard to read, and even remote at times. But he always made a point to do stuff with me. I played ping-pong with him in his office on many, many afternoons of my childhood and adolescence, and did outdoor work with him, which he paid me an allowance for.

Most memorably, he was always ready to take me to virtually any movie, which is where I picked up that addiction. We used to both laugh so hard at [Charlie] Chaplin, [Buster] Keaton, [W.C.] Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers that other people in the theaters probably wondered if they should call an ambulance.

JKP: I keep reading that Robert Terrall wrote 50 novels. Is that an accurate count?

BT: Yes, if not more. I think it’s closer to 53, but it’s hard to say at this point, because I’m still unclear on when he wrote his first Shayne; if anyone who reads this knows, please get in touch with me. It would be great if [his agent and trusted friend, the former Gold Medal Books editor] Knox Burger was still alive, but I fear he has passed. He could probably pin that down.

JKP: And do you know how prolific he was at writing short stories? The Times piece makes it sound as if he gave up penning short fiction as soon as he began writing paperback originals. Is that the way it went?

BT: Yes, he wrote a lot of stories. Again, I have research to do; I’m not sure how many he saved. Dad’s papers are in the Boston University collection of 20th-century U.S. authors. I want to dig through that stuff sometime this year. If anyone reading wants to get me a grant to do that I’d be eternally grateful.

JKP: Did your father take on pseudonyms and write different series in order not to glut the market under one name, or was there another reason? And do you recall him viewing the different series with different levels of respect or interest?

BT: The reason was marketing: the different pseudonyms were associated with different main characters. The idea was that if someone had read one and liked it, they would pick up the next one if they recognized the name.

I’d say he was most fond of the Harry Horne novels (written under the pseudonym John Gonzales), then the Ben Gates books (by Robert Kyle), and, lastly, the Shaynes. He inherited Mike Shayne when Davis Dresser got writer’s block (which I think lots of drink contributed to). Shayne was sort of already carved in stone when Dad picked up the series, and he couldn’t put as much humor into the books as he did with the Gates and Horne books.

JKP: How did he win the gig to write all of those the Mike Shayne novels as “Brett Halliday”?

BT: Because his style was similar. I think the publisher suggested
Dad to Dresser.

JKP: Again in the Times, your father was asked whether he had any affection for Shayne, and he said, “None whatsoever.” Why so little love for a character who brought him what must have been a good chunk of change? Was it because your dad was writing without most people knowing he’d done the work?

BT: I think it was because Dad thought the Dresser books were terribly written, and the character of Shayne had no redeeming characteristics. Dad made some subtle changes to give him more wit and style.

JKP: The Times interviewed him in 1979, when he was 65. He’d recently published Luck Be a Lady. He only wrote one more book after that, as far as I know: the satirical Wrap It in Flags. Did he simply hang up his typewriter at that point, and enjoy life without novel-writing? Or did he continue to work on novels that his fans have yet to see? Are there great unpublished Terrall books stuck away in a drawer somewhere?

BT: He continued to work on several novels that didn’t completely come together. He also wrote several plays that didn’t get produced, including one about Charles Darwin. Maybe most memorably, he wrote many, many light pieces that were read aloud at different public forums in our home town. We read some stuff from those at his memorial. He really excelled at short comic stuff.

JKP: Was your dad particularly proud of any one of his novels? Did he have a favorite among the bunch?

BT: Hey Dad, are you reading this? If so, please answer! Sorry, just kidding. I think probably Wrap It in Flags and Steps of the Quarry were among his favorites.

JKP: Have you been able to read all of your father’s novels by now? And do you have a favorite of your own?

BT: I haven’t actually read everything. To me, the Shaynes can get a little formulaic. That’s not such a surprise, since he wrote two a year and that included significant time to come up with the story, plot it, research it, do a first draft, second draft, send it to Knox Burger, and then work on revisions.

My favorites are They Deal in Death, The Crooked City, A Killer Is Loose Among Us, Wrap It in Flags, and Steps of the Quarry. And I get a kick out of the Gates and Horne books.

JKP: It seems to have been a frequent criticism, that Robert Terrall packed too much plot, too many twists and turns, too much story into his yarns. Do you disagree?

BT: No, I don’t. I sometimes get lost in plot details in his books. He had a sign over his desk which said, in large letters, “SIMPLIFY.” He knew he needed to aim for less-complicated plots.

[Mary Terrall adds that this sign was created by “a friend of mine, who was good at calligraphy ... It was written in ornate letters--Dad’s kind of joke.”]

JKP: How did your father feel about seeing Hard Case Crime resurrect Kill Now, Pay Later 47 years after its original publication? And was there ever discussion of his other novels being reissued?

BT: He was ecstatic, as was the rest of the family. I should own stock in Hard Case Crime by now, given the number of copies I’ve bought to give away.

Dad was always hoping more might be reprinted. I’d love to see Hard Case bring back one or more others. I don’t know how likely that is, but I’m eternally grateful to Charles Ardai for being such a gent, and being so nice to my dad and my sister and myself throughout the process of bringing the book back into print, and afterwards.

JKP: Do you think that many of his novels would resonate with today’s readers?

BT: Sure. Some of the stuff is dated, but I think his humor and his humane left politics and his intelligence come through, and he had great facility with the English language.

JKP: His obituary at TCExtra says that your dad was quite active in politics. In what ways was he active? And did he have opinions on the direction the United States was headed over the last decade?

BT: He described himself somewhere as a ’30s-’40s “pseudo-Communist.” I think Mom and Dad were members of the CP [Communist Party USA] for a while in the ’30s, like many of their friends. (Later, they were Democrats at a time when there were very few Democrats in rural Connecticut.)

He had a great story about going to get [folk musicians] Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to come to a picket, and then seeing them sprint past him as he began explaining why they were needed there. Seeger and Guthrie got back to the picket before Dad did.

Later in his life Dad was active in northwest Connecticut as a Democrat. Not surprisingly, he hated [George W.] Bush and [Dick] Cheney and everything they stood for.

JKP: This seemed to me to be a peculiar note in the TCExtra obit: “Robert loved the outdoors and prided himself on being able to reduce a tree to firewood with his treasured axe, bow saw, wedge and sledge hammer.” Is there a more interesting story behind that?

BT: He lived in the country starting in the 1950s, and was big on outdoor work. Probably one of the reasons he lived to be 94.

JKP: At what point did your dad move to the Noble Horizons retirement community in Salisbury, Connecticut? And why did he make the choice to do that?

BT: Dad’s last year was one of decline, not a shock at 93-94 years old. He’d been in Noble Horizons, which a little kid in the area accidentally called “Final Horizons,” off and on over the last year.

JKP: What finally brought about his demise?

BT: Dad was sharp as a tack and very strong until he turned 90, after which he came down with Lyme Disease and two other tick-borne diseases. Obviously, a drawback to outdoor work in New England these days.

(Right) Author Robert Terrall with his youngest child, Ben, sometime around 1963.

JKP: Have you always been a writer? And can I presume that it was primarily your father who turned you in that direction?

BT: My father and my mother, who also wrote for Time magazine in the 1930s, though in those days women were called “researchers” at Time and got no credit for writing. I learned as much about writing and editing from my mother as I did from my father, and my father taught me a lot.

JKP: Have you ever thought of writing a novel yourself?

BT: I seem to be much better at reading novels than writing them.

READ MORE:Hard-Boiled but Humorous, Ben Gates Still Packs a Prized Punch,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Kirkus Reviews).


James Reasoner said...

That's a great post. Thanks. As a reader back in the Sixties, not knowing who Brett Halliday really was, I remember enjoying Terrall's novels in the Shayne series, but as time went on I liked them less and didn't care for most of the ones published in the Seventies. I need to go back and reread some of them.

David Cranmer said...

Tremendous in-depth bio and illuminating interview.

Ali Karim said...

Very interesting insight into a writer that was not as well known as he should have been


Juri said...

Thanks for this, very interesting and great reading!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Rap Man. I continue to be amazed at your detailed research. YFS

Prof. Hex said...

Great interview, thank you. I really enjoyed Kill Now and will be looking for more of Terrall's work in the future.

auntviolet said...

Informative, funny interview...your dad sounds like a great guy. And I see you became interested in wearing hats from a very early age.