IN 2004, AFTER I WROTE an introduction for a reprint of James McKimmey’s 1962 classic crime novel Squeeze Play, I was thrilled when McKimmey emailed me an effusive thank-you letter. Jim (who passed away in 2011 at 87 years old) was a prolific pulp writer who had his biggest successes during the 1950s and 1960s. The author of 17 novels and hundreds short stories, he wrote several outright masterpieces includingThe Perfect Victim, Cornered!, and Run If You’re Guilty that were on the level of, or even better than, the works of better-known crime writers of his era, such as James M. Cain, David Goodis, and John D. MacDonald. Several of his books were optioned for movies in the 1960s, but none were filmed. Better luck in Hollywood may have garnered more interest in his books over the years, and his work deserves a wider readership.
When Jim contacted me I had written several noir crime novels, and as a diehard fan of pulp fiction it was great to be in touch with such a warm, outgoing writer who was a major player during the Golden Age of the crime novel. In retrospect it seems almost quaint that he contacted me by email, as today he probably would have reached out with a less personal Facebook message or even a tweet.
Over the next several months, we exchanged many emails, mainly discussing writing past and present. In his fiction, Jim’s style was tough and spare, but he wasn’t a proponent of brevity in his emails. Our backgrounds were very different, but his stories about starting out as a writer seemed remarkably similar to my own. He told me all about his current life in Northern California and his years of experience in the book industry. He was kind enough to read a few of my novels, and wrote me effusive notes about them. I imagined if I had been writing in the 1950s and 1960s, I, too, may have been writing for the pulps. I got the sense that he saw me as a kindred spirit, that I reminded him of himself as a young(ish) pulp writer trying to find success in an uncertain industry.
In one email Jim mentioned that he’d had a correspondence for many years with Philip K. Dick, when they were both young, emerging genre writers. He asked me if he could send me copies of the letters.
“Hell yeah,” I responded.
I’d been a huge Dick fan since I saw Blade Runner and then tore through a dozen or so of his novels. Many of his works have become fodder for Hollywood, including Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report. To me, Dick is to science fiction what Jim Thompson is to crime fiction — a true, unflinching original who was prolific and respected, though not fully appreciated in his lifetime. While Dick’s work is full of visionary ideas, I’ve always read him as a pure pulp writer, and have always admired his relentless, paranoid take on the ordinary world.
I was excited about reading the letters, but I wasn’t sure why Jim was so intent on sending them to me. I didn’t know him all that well. I sensed they had a deeper meaning to him that he wanted to share. If he’d simply wanted to preserve the letters, he could have had them archived, or sent them to a biographer. (As far as I know he did neither.) Or perhaps I was reading into it too deeply, and he was simply cleaning out his garage. Maybe he didn’t have a significant correspondence with Dick; maybe they’d just exchanged a couple of perfunctory fan letters.
A few days letter when the letters arrived in a large Priority Mail envelope, I was surprised at the volume. There were nine typewritten letters, all from Dick to Jim, from five to 12 pages long, dated from July 25, 1953, to early 1964. As I read through them, I realized I was in possession of something special — part of a fascinating correspondence that shed light on the changing pulp market of the 1950s and the lives of two prolific practitioners who were just embarking on their careers. The letters include Dick’s poignant observations about publishing, writing, politics, religion, and glimpses into an increasingly dark, paranoid mind.
for the rest (and it's a dazzler) go to the Los Angeles Review of Books
Writing Is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick, and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence by Jason Starr