Monday, April 02, 2007

Charles Runyon; Donald Hamilton; Norm Partridge

Stark House will publish its first three-fer this summer--three Gold Medal novels long in need of reprinting. I wrote the introduction to Charles Runyon's THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED, a masterful suspense novel that puts Runyon in the top ten of GM writers in such company as Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Richard Stark, Malcolm Braly and a handful of others.

At the time I wrote the introduction I was told that Runyon was dead. Not so, as I explained the other night, he's very much alive. I'll be running an interview with him over the course of this week. Here's the first installment.

1 The obvious mystery to those who were following
your career--when did you stop publishing and why?

In 1980, Jove published my novel, The Gypsy King, which I thought represented my highest effort, a cut above the genre sf and mystery novels I had been publishing. I was never content with working at the level of my last published work, but at the same time I wasn't sure which way to go with my future work. To fill in the time while deciding, I went back to the University of Missouri and picked up a Master's in Creative writing, in case I might need to work before my sales picked up again. However, the hiatus stretched on, and teaching did not blend with writing as well as I had hoped. Writing was still my preferred profession, but the path back to publishing was a rocky one, and nobody laid down a red carpet for me any more than they had at the beginning. Somehow the word got out that I had "passed on" in 1987, and the thought intrigued me, much as it once intrigued Tom Sawyer. What if I tried to reenter the field, not as an older writer reentering the field after a long lay-off, but as a fresh new face with reams of new ideas? However, thanks to you, Ed, that experiment has now been abandoned, or left to others to carry out.

2 Can you give us a sketch of your life?

A rough sketch would show the young writer growing up on a farm in Worth County, Missouri, the most insignificant county in a not-too-significant state. I couldn't wait to grow up and leave the farm like most boys, but ran away from home at age 16 to work on a ranch in West Texas.
So we come full circle; 60 nears later I am back in Texas. The intervening years included army service in Korea, Germany and Indiana, J-school at Missouri University. I just missed a job on the National Geographic and instead went into industrial editing. It was either that or poetry which paid nothing. While working for Mr. Rockefeller's old outfit in Chicago an agent to whom I had been paying readers' fees for five years -- Scott Meredith -- suddenly started making sales. I lost no time in quitting my job and announcing that I was now a full-time writer. With a new baby and no income, I borrowed a lakeside cabin and sat down to write my first book. After sending it off to my agent, I took off for the West Indies, found an almost deserted island, and lay back to await the gentle shower of royalties. It didn't quite happen that way, but it was only a few months before the book sold to Ace; my reaction was to charter a yacht and take the wife and kid on a tour of the islands. I returned to New York suntanned but broke, still expecting the gilded life of a best-selling writer.

3 How about a sketch of your publishing career? Was
writing something you'd always wanted to do?

Since I was about 8 years old, and realized how easily (comparatively) words came to me. Before that I wanted to be a doctor, until somebody told me you had to go to school for endless years. I was already making preparations when in High School I took typing; the only other "boy" in my class was a pianist. (For the rest of the nitpicking career details, I'm sending an updated bio out of Contemporary Authors.)

4 Do you recall your first sale?

Of course; it was a short story called "First Man in a Satellite" to Super Science Fiction in 1957 -- fifty years ago! This was about the time the Russians sent up Sputnik so I was undeservedly credited with being a harbinger of the Space Age. I got a personal rejection from John W. Campbell, with his signature slanting across the bottom of the page as if tracing the path of a tumbling tumbleweed. He disparaged the whole idea of a midget in a space ship, adding that Lester del Rey had already done it -- better. Editors didn't care about writer's sensibilities in those days. I still treasure the letter.

5 Had you been selling novels and stories for a longtime before you decided to go full-time?

I think I answered that in the earlier questions.

6 Which gave you more satisfaction as a
writer--science fiction or crime novels?

It's the sf novels and stories that I remember with the most affection. The crime stories and novels were more neatly wrapped up, while the sf novels and stories open onto worlds of other plot possibilities. I'll get this back to you now and await the next half-dozen questions. I assume they will cover the background of the novel itself

Donald Hamilton is dead. Or maybe not. For a few hours it seemed that he wasn't, in fact, dead. Then I got this letter from Steve Lewis followed by a note from Bill Crider.
Hi Ed
> Just before I went out this afternoon I received an
> email from Charles
> Ardai confirming Don Hamilton's death. I barely had
> time to post a note to
> this effect on my blog before I had to leave, and
> I'm just now catching up
> on the details.
> Charles' first reaction when I asked him about
> Hamilton was that he was in
> a nursing home in Sweden, so for about an hour
> afterward I thought all was
> well. But when Charles called the son, here's what
> he discovered:
> Ah, Steve -- I'm afraid I was wrong. I just spoke
> with Don's son, and to
> my great surprise and disappointment, Don *has*
> died. He passed
> peacefully, in his sleep, and I believe it happened
> in Sweden, where he was
> living in a nursing home; he developed a persistent
> infection and his body
> just wasn't strong enough any longer to fight it
> off. Gordon says he went
> to sleep one night and was found dead in bed the
> next morning.
> He'd been suffering some health problems,
> unfortunately, including a broken
> leg about a year back. But I had no idea he'd died.
> Gordon simply didn't
> tell anyone, though he says that bit by bit he's
> letting people know now.
> Why the death record shows the death as having
> occurred in Ipswitch I don't
> know.
> I'm sorry for steering you wrong earlier -- I just
> couldn't believe it had
> happened without my finding out. But it did happen,
> I'm afraid.
> And so it's true, Hamilton is gone. I wondered a
> while back how many of
> the Gold Medal writers from the 50s were still with
> us. Marlowe for one,
> Vin Packer for another, and not too many others.
> Best
> Steve

Norm Partidge won the Stoker award for best long story in at the World Horror convention this weekend. I wrote to congratulate him and mentioning that Gabby Hayes was a role model of mine. Norm responded:

Andy Devine. Another role model of mine.
I have Andy Devine's AUTOGRAPH, Ed. On a Knott's Berry Farm ticket book!

I got it as a tot. Andy was sitting on a hay-bale in the sun. It was the same day I ate a piece of rhubarb pie, thinking it was apple. Ugh. I don't think even Andy would have put fork to that.


P.S. That was the same vacation I ran past Robert Wagner at Universal Studios to get the autograph of the guy who played Lt. Carpenter on MCHALE'S NAVY. I think Wagner's ego was scarred for life!


John R. Platt said...

THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED -- Oh, that's a good title. Can't wait to read the book.

Very sorry to hear of Donald Hamilton's passing. I read the first dozen-or-so Matt Helm novels back when I was in high school, and re-read DEATH OF A CITIZEN so many times the battered old paperback fell apart. What a great writer.

Anonymous said...


Now you know *two* people with Andy Devine's autograph. ; )