Thursday, February 22, 2007

Stephen Marlowe on collaborating with Richard Prather

Almost exacty fifty years ago, Richard S. Prather and I decided--with a nudge from our mutual agent--to write a novel pitting our two private eyes, Shell Scott and Chet Drum, against each other until they could realize, almost too late, that they both were working the good side of the street in a complex case with nationwide implications. This was the novel that would become DOUBLE IN TROUBLE, published by Gold Medal in 1959 at just short of double the length of a standard Gold Medal book.
There were circumstances that made the first draft, when we finished it, half again as long as that.
For one thing, until then, we had never met. We developed the plot as we went along, mostly by long-distance phone call. There were telegrams too, including one that went something like "Body of Hartsell Committee lawyer found in Rock Creek Park" that must have startled the Western Union operator.
For another, our work habits couldn't have been more different. Dick liked to plan carefully as he went along, writing a detailed outline, chapter by chapter, from which he developed a first narrative take and then an expanded one that would become his first draft. I liked to work by instinct, writing as the ideas came, and outlining a chapter only when I'd finished drafting it. I'd got to calling this a post-outline, and it would prepare me for subsequent chapters, and it is still the way I write.
Well, we finished that first draft by writing alternate chapters, as those of you who read the book may remember, Scott narrating chapter 1, Drum chapter 2, and so on--to a total of more than eight hundred pages--enough for three Gold Medal books. Drastic measures had to be taken.
Ever been out to the Coast? Dick asked me by phone. Nope, I hadn't. Well, said Dick, come on out and we'll help each other cut. How? I said. There was a silence. Maybe, I suggested half-heartedly, I cut your deathless prose and you cut mine. Maybe, Dick said. Come on out.
So a couple of days later I flew out of Idlewild for LA, and was met at the airport by Dick Prather and his wife, Tina, in a snazzy pale blue Caddy.
"It's yours while you're here," Tina said.
"Well, you see, we'll work together at the house but we figured you'd like some privacy, so we booked you a room at a seaside motel."
"So the car is all yours while you're here," Dick explained.
The Prathers were like that--private people but the best hosts I'd ever known.
Their house was a modernistic, mostly glass cube high on a cliff overlooking Laguna Beach.
We couldn't wait. We set right to work in the brilliant Southern California sunshine. It went like this:
"How about this paragraph in chapter two, where Drum says--well, take a look. Not exactly deathless prose, is it?"
Dick asked. "And it doesn't really advance the plot, does it?"
I bristled. "What about here on the very first page, where Scott says..." I countered.
Dick pointed out something else that needed cutting in chapter 2; I did the same in chapter 1.
Tina suggested, "Why don't we have a drink?"
We had gin-and-tonics on the terrace. I watched a hummingbird hover over an exotic tropical flower. "Nice view," I offered. I had never seen a hummingbird hover before.
"We can go for a drive in the hills later," Dick suggested. "Pretty nice country up there."
We both smiled.
"Boys," Tina said. "You have a book to cut."
Either Dick or I sighed instead of saying, "Sure, and he wants to cut my part to ribbons."
It was as if Tina heard the words. "I have an idea," she said. "But maybe you won't go for it."
"What's that?" either Dick or I, or maybe both in unison, said doubtfully.
Tina smiled disarmingly. She was very pretty. "I'll sort of be the referee," she said.
And we finished our drinks. And the hummingbird veered off with its nectar. And we went to work.
By dusk we'd done a first pass through the first two chapters, cutting excess verbiage. In a tie--at first they were almost always ties--Tina supplied the deciding vote. And pretty soon it became clear that she was as objective as could be. We had to cut a couple of hundred pages, and it didn't matter to Tina whether they were her husband's or mine. We all wanted the same thing, after all.
It took two weeks, with an occasional half day off for a drive or walk, an occasional night on the town. The Prathers were a team, their love for each other obvious, their ability to work together and bring a third person into that work remarkable. I was going through a bad patch at the time with my first wife, and I envied them. Looking back on it from this remove, I think they became the template for my second marriage.
The Prathers were unassuming and always gracious. Even our political differences--they were conservative, I liberal--didn't seem to matter.
And Dick, as we made our way chapter by chapter through the revision, tried to give too much of the credit for the detection to Chet Drum. So I began to give more of it to Shell Scott. Turned out a dead heat. We were friends.
The book? DOUBLE IN TROUBLE went through several printings and made an appearance on the NYTimes softcover best-seller list.
Tina Prather died a couple of years ago, Dick earlier this month. Working with them meant a lot to me in more ways than one, and I'll never forget them.

--Stephen Marlowe


Anonymous said...

About two years ago, while in a giant-sized thrift store in Fall River, MA, I came across an immense collection of Gold Medal paperbacks, all in mint condition as if they'd been printed the week before.

Ten cents apiece.

I bought them all, from Edward S. Aarons to Stephen Marlowe and was delighted to reacquaint myself with Richard Prather, including one of my favorite books from childhood...Kill The Clown (I still remember how I had to sneak read it between the time I got home from school and my parents coming back from work and how I made sure to return the book exactly SO on my dad's nightstand).

One of the books in the collection was Double In Trouble...I was so delighted after reading this 50 year-old paperback treasure, I looked up Stephen Marlowe's phone number and gave him a call.

Mr. Marlowe was a fascinating man to talk with and he gave me a lot of insight into how Double In Trouble came about and was finished.

I was also truly amazed--and not a little disgruntled-- by the kind of money he and Mr. Prather pulled down for it.

It was far more than I've made from ten of my Outlanders novels combined.

After speaking with Mr. Marlowe and on a roll, I gave Richard Prather a call.

Unfortunately, he was having hearing aid problems so our discussion was was close to Christmas, so we wished each other a Merry Christmas and he asked me to call him back after the first of the year.

Unfortunately, I never got around to it. So when Linda Pendleton announced last week that Mr. Prather had passed away, I felt not only a sense of loss but of regret, of an opportunity not grasped.

He was a one-of-a-kind writer and his character of Shell Scott was one-of-a-kind PI.

Anonymous said...

I have had DOUBLE IN TROUBLE for sitting quietly on my shelf for decades.
I've read both Prather and Marlowe, but never their collaboration.
That's going to change, and maybe as soon as tonight.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story of how DOUBLE IN TROUBLE came about. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

There are Richard S. Prather books available also a Shiva mosiac by Tina Prather.