Thursday, July 10, 2008

William Campbell Gault

As I've mentioned before, one of the true pleasures of editing Mystery Scene for eighteen years was getting to talk with (on the phone) so many of the writers I'd grown up reading.

One of my favorites was Bill Gault. Here's what I wrote about Bill on Bill Crider's blog in 2005: " I'm pretty sure that Raymond Chandler called Bill Gault's Don't Cry For Me the best private eye novel of Bill's generation (still looking for the quote). Its voice remains one of the most compelling and unique I've ever read--that of a decent guy who votes Republican and strikes out in the love zone. Not your average crime story hero. In fact, not a hero at all.

"Bill was the sweetheart of sweethearts. I can still hear that tobacco cackle of his. We talked three or four times a year for several years and it was always a pleasure. He was everything I admire as a child of the working class."

I mention Bill tonight because there's an interesting review of his novel The Canvas Coffin For me Coffin is good solid Gault but if you want a remarkable crime novel start with Don't Cry For Me. I remember asking Bill where the voice for that book had come from and he knew exactly what I meant. We'd spoken in an earlier conversation about Mark Twain's notion that good writing is to a large degree speech. Bill said that he "heard" the voice early in the book and then just sort of hung on for the ride. The Edgar Committee agreed. He won for Best First that year.

Gault deserves to be brought back. He was a compelling short story writer who looked at the world honestly if sardonically and found a good deal of it to be depressingly hilarious. His various takes on the culture of Fifties Southern California hold up well today.

My favorite Bill Gault story, which I've told here before, came one night when we were talking about his old friend John D. MacDonald. They were friends from the pulp days but had had a falling out over the Viet Nam war. Bill was against it, John D. for it. They didn't communicate for several years. But around the time of this phone call they'd started corresponding again and Bill was very happy about it.

So we're rambling on and Bill said You know how much money John made on those Gold Medal paperbacks--one hell of a lot. And you know what he did with it?

Now being the low born type I am I was ready for some gossip. He bought fourteen year old hookers? He spent it all on his heroin addiction? He was helping to fund a violent overthrow of the government?

No, Bill said in an accusatory way, he invested it!

I laughed my ass off. He sounded like one of my uncles back from the war. Now why would a regular fella invest his money when he could blow it on booze and broads and a little gambling now and then?

He started laughing with me, of course. But his John D story made me think of all those early paperback guys who died broke financially and spiritually (read Bill Pronzini's great profile of Gil Brewer for just one example). I think I would've preferred the John D. way.

Find a copy of Don't Cry For Me. If it was good enough for Chandler it should be good enough for the rest of us.


Unknown said...

And after reading that one, move on to the Joe Puma books. Brock Callahan next. They were fine p.i. novels and shouldn't be forgotten.

August West said...

Ed: Cheers to you on an excellent posting. I envy you and Bill Crider for having contact with Gault in the past. I salivate whenever I read anything (novel or short story) by WCG.

Anonymous said...

It was a helluva a kick to know Bill Gault. The man had a dry wit and we only got to talk at conventions. I did get him to agree to serve as president of PWA for a while. we tried like hell to bring him back in the 80's, but the books (from Jove,I think) didn't perform well. Maybe Stark or Busted FLush can bring him back in Trade, though.


Todd Mason said...

If this doesn't get Richard Moored to post on your blog, Ed, nothing will...

I started reading Gault in the sports fiction, mostly auto-racing (my father was a semi-pro up in Alaska in the '60s), anthologies around the house or that I would happen upon on my own. Then I read a few of his cf stories in the Robert Arthur and Harold Masur HITCHCOCK PRESENTS anthologies, one of the great joys of my late childhood and still, when I come across one I haven't read. Then I read about him, as mediocre sf writer but world-beating sports fiction writer (as I already knew) in Damon Knight's collected reviews, IN SEARCH OF WONDER. And finally I picked up a few of the reissues Bob Randisi mentioned. I kinda wish I'd met him, and hope JDM was suitably ashamed to let his own being wrong (and Gault right) about Vietnam be an excuse for not keeping in touch.