Here's Part Two of my interview with writer Charles Runyon. Here he speaks directly to the subject of his Gold Medal novels.-Ed
7. What was the genesis of The Prettiest Girl I Ever
I was making notes for the book while spending the summer in my old home town of Sheridan, a place with an almost one-to-one correspondence to the Sherman of the book. The characters were pulled from the scenery of my past, specific incidents belonging to a real person could be welded to a fictional person without the need to improvise more than details of the plot. It was very liberating and exhilerating, to find that I could shape my own reality, as long as I kept it within the realm of the believable. (Actually, the story is not as bizarre as it may seem; my home town is near the little town of Skidmore, famed as the home of the hog-stealer, arch-bully, pedophile and murderer MacElroy, who was finally "executed" by a shotgun blast in full view of thirty townspeople. Not a single one of those citizens stepped forward to identify the shooter. Someday, I may get around to doing that book.
8. Prettiest Girl is invariably likened to the novels
of Jim Thompson but when I reread it recently my take
was that there is a fundamental difference between
your book and just about anything Thompson wrote. Your
killer in control of himself—unlike many of the
Thompson protagonists who seem hard-wired to be at the
mercy of themselves—and he’s even a bit droll and
sardonic at times. In other words, he can stand back
and look at what he’s doing objectively. The
cumulative effect of this subtly but powerfully
underscores his madness. Given the verities of
paperback originals, this was an original approach.
Did you think of it that way? Or are you even
conscious of your writing decisions? Evan Hunter
always said that he tried not to analyze what he was
doing. He was afraid it would hamper his spontaneity.
I will have to read some of Jim Thompson before I comment on the difference between us. I always write in a close autobiographical style, even though I often change the pronouns to third person. When I finish a book, I always feel like a hollowed out lobster, all meat and flavor taken out, and nothing but dry pulp left inside. That's the reason I usually get in a few weeks of total leisure between novels; the creative energy needs time to rise to a level where I can begin pumping again. I think Evan Hunter is right in not analyzing his methods; the creative imagination is a shy, faery creature, and doesn't like the cold light of appraisal.
9. Sometimes you sound almost dismissive of your crime
fiction. Your science fiction seems to be your true
love. Are you unhappy when people say they prefer your
crime fiction to your sf?
No, I just assume that these are non-sf-readers by nature. As long as I could treat these crimes as merely head games, I could get considerable pleasure out of working out the problems. Having been a police reporter, I had a good grasp of the routine and the jargon, as well as tons of material. But I can date exactly when my preferences changed; in 1967 my younger brother was murdered, and the whole messy scene got involved with the stupidity of Vietnam and the decay of the courts, with the result that the murderer walked out of the courtroom smirking. This was too similar to the stuff I had been doing, and although I had many projects in the works, I never felt good about doing that sort of killer-oriented thing again.
10. You’ve written some of the most remarkable opening
chapters in suspense fiction. The first five thousand
words of The Dead Cycle, for instance, put me in mind
of The Doors’ “Riders on The Rain.” Except that
where the song is from the innocents’ point of view,
this is from the Riders pov. There’s a mythic
quality—almost of the old west—of the robbery gone
wrong, an elderly clerk shot dead by one of the
Riders, and them now desperately trying to get to the
Mexican border. This is so much more realistic than
much of the neo-noir we see today because the turf is
real and you know this turf, the small-town Midwest.
But it’s the underbelly of the Midwestern small town
you usually use. Was this intentional given that it’s
the setting of so many of your Gold Medal novels?
Sometimes I wonder if I'm really a fiction writer. The motorcycle story was based on an unusual honeymoon my wife and I took, riding double on a Harley through the back roads of Mexico in 1957. Add another couple, a murder, a stash of cash and some loose gash and you get The Death Cycle. It was fun to write, and to know that every bone-rattling jolt on that old Harley was paying off in hard core realism.
11. The Black Moth, which is set on a college campus,
is a notably different private eye novel in that the
protagonist is a p.i. masquerading as a professor. But
even here, in a more refined setting than you usually
use, the writing stays hard as hell. Your books are
proof that tough guys don’t have to swagger or be
violent to prove that they’re tough. They’re hard
asses and no less so when they don academic robes. Was
Black Moth based on your early experiences teaching
At the time I wrote The Black Moth I had never taught a college English course, but it definitely foreshadowed my later career. The idea was to have a series of vicious murders taking place amid the mannered politeness of an exclusive girl's finishing school. And in Columbia Missouri, where I did my journalism study, there was Stephens College, the very model of such a school. My undergraduate years of dating Stephens girls paid off in some interesting characters and loads of verisimilitude. One of the fallacies of the lay person is that you can "create" characters out of whole cloth. With me, it's more of a cut-and-paste.