He was shorter than I had envisioned him, less bulky, not at all imposing. No outstanding features, except maybe for a bristly salt-and-pepper mustache. I was vaguely disappointed. Flynn in person was nowhere near as impressive as he was in the abstract.
Over the next couple of years we got together every time I went to Manhattan. On one occasion he took me up to see his ex-agent (they were still friendly even though they could no longer work together) because the agent kept a bottle of 30-year-old Scotch for after-hours visitors and why pay for cheap booze, Flynn said, when you could get vintage stuff free? Mostly, though, we sat in the bar at Rosoff’s and drank cheap liquor and talked shop. One of the things we talked about – and wrote each other about from time to time – was collaborating on a novel, but somehow we never got together on a mutually appealing idea. I wish we had; the finished product may not have been much good, but it would have been interesting.
Once when I went to see him, he announced that he was on the wagon for good. I asked him why. “Damn croaker said I’d be dead inside a year if I didn’t,” he said.
Two days later he was drinking again.
But he was still alive and kicking when the year was up.
That was Flynn.
During his association with Belmont-Tower, he published several novels as by Jay Flynn under their B-T and Leisure imprints – all of them bad. Sexed-up westerns about a World War I-era operative for the Gallows Detective Agency, Jim Bannerman: sexed-up adventure tales featuring a drifter named Venable; sexed-up, violent cop melodramas starring San Francisco police sergeant Joe Rigg.
Worst of the lot were the Joe Riggs books. Trouble Is My Business (1976, no apologies to Chandler), about a psycho who chopped off his victims’ heads with a Bowie knife, which Flynn had the puckish audacity to dedicate to Wallmann and me; and Blood on Frisco Bay (1976), a scandalous anti-police diatribe about the murder of a San Francisco socialite. He inscribed my copy of the latter: “For Bill Pronzini – a jolly tosspot [sic] and a hell of a fine friend. After this thing, let on you know me and the S.F.P.D. will have your ass – sit tight.” I took his advice and sat tight.
Flynn did publish one reasonably good novel during this period, though it was written a year and a half to two years earlier while he was in Ireland. Warlock (Pocket Books, 1976, as by J.M. Flynn) features psychic detective John Christian Fifer and his 15-year-old daughter, Fiona, a full-fledged, spell-casting witch. Fey stuff, mixing crime and fantasy – not wholly successful, but with some of the same positive energy that made his Ace and Avon novels so enjoyable. I t was supposed to be the first of a series, and in fact he wrote and delivered a second book; but that second manuscript was close to 200,000 words in length and very eccentric, and when Flynn refused to cut or revise a word, his editor rejected it outright and canceled the series. My copy of Warlock carries this inscription: “For Bill Pronzini – who knows where it’s at – from the founder of the Day Late & Dollar Short Writers’ Assn.”
It took Flynn just about two years to wear out his welcome at Belmont-Tower, which for him was quite a long time. One of the reasons for the wear-out was the increasing eccentricity of the contract novels he delivered; another reason was his failure to deliver at all on other contracts; a third reason was that he had begun to foul up on his editorial duties because he was drinking on the job. His bosses knew he had booze stashed in the office; he would get increasingly oiled as each day wore on, without ever leaving the premises. He would also lurch into the john periodically to freshen his breath from a bottle of Listerine he kept in his desk. It took them weeks to figure out that he had his booze in the Listerine bottle and the Listerine stashed somewhere else.
That was Flynn.
After B-T fired him, and he couldn’t find any other contract or editorial work, he quit New York and the writing business for good. The first place he went was to Richmond, Virginia, for reasons that never were quite clear to me. Inside of a year he was broke and living on Richmond’s skid row, where he fell in with a bunch of white-lightning bootleggers; for a time he ran an illegal “nip shop” for them in the rear of a neighborhood barbershop. Then, also for obscure reasons, he quit the bootleggers and took a legit job as a uniformed security guard – a job that required him to carry a handgun.
One night during a heavy rainstorm, drunk on white-lightning or the like, he noticed that the ceiling of his furnished room was bulging strangely. Maybe he thought he had the DTs and demons were coming after him; maybe he was just too drunk to know what he was doing. In any event he grabbed up his revolver and pumped five shots into the ominous bulge. Whereupon the entire ceiling collapsed and the ensuing deluge of trapped rainwater knocked him flat, broke his leg, and almost drowned him.
That was Flynn.
I had lost touch with him again by this time, but he and Wallmann (who had also returned to the States and was quartered in Eugene, Oregon – still is, in fact) continued to exchange an occasional letter. So I found out that after his leg healed Flynn left Richmond, broke and jobless again, and went to Connecticut, where he talked his ex-agent into letting him live on the agent's estate as a nominal caretaker. He stayed out of trouble there, for the most part, but he still and inevitably managed to wear out another welcome. In February of 1985 he decided to move back to Richmond. But he’d been feeling poorly, he wrote Wallmann just before he left, and so he intended to put himself into a V.A. hospital en route for a checkup.
He never got back to Richmond because he never got out of the hospital. Within a week of his admission, he was dead.
Ironically, it wasn’t the booze that killed him; the damn croakers never did get that right. It was cancer. A tumor the size of a beer bottle. Doesn’t seem possible, but he was still a relatively young man, still in his fifties. Wallmann and I each thought he was that age the first time we met him, thirteen and ten years earlier.
Yeah, Jay Flynn was a character.
The tragicomic variety, with accent on the tragic.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene #13. Copyright © 1988 by Bill Pronzini.