Monday, October 22, 2007

Jay Flynn

Last night, in discussing Ace Books, I referenced Jay Flynn. After I posted I remembered a piece by Bill Pronzini about Flynn on Mystery* It originally appeared in Mystery Scene in 1989. I remembered it as being one of Bill's exceptional profiles on overlooked writers (I consider his Forgotten Writers pieces among the two or three finest things published during my tenure with the magazine). I reread it last night and it was even richer, wryer and more memorable than I recalled. It's long so I'm publishing it in segments over the next three nights. Thanks, Bill.

Part One


by Bill Pronzini

Jay Flynn was a character. The tragicomic variety, with accent on the tragic.

In many ways he was a throwback, a stereotype. Hard-drinking, rough-living, blarney-spouting Boston Irishman. Ex-GI, newspaperman (ten years as a crime reporter on the Portland Express, Portland, Maine; stints on the San Jose Mercury and other California papers), bartender, editor, mystery writer, sex novelist, bootlegger, security guard, caretaker, and (so he claimed) prisoner in a hell-hole Mexican jail on a trumped-up charge and “writer-in-residence” at a Nevada whorehouse.

A screw-up of the first rank, with sometimes hilarious results. Lousy luck with women and games of chance, much of it of his own making. Restless, peripatetic; “everybody’s got to be someplace,” he said once, “but it don’t always have to be the same damn place.” Lazy, ambitious, apathetic, energetic, generous, selfish, cynical, sentimental, don’t-give-a-damn, care-too-much – all the schizophrenic contradictions that make up most of us, but that in him seemed magnified to an even greater degree. As has been said about Hemingway, he was just a little larger – and just a little smaller – than life.

There is a schizophrenic quality to his fiction as well. He was like the proverbial little girl: When he was good he was very good, but when he was bad he was very, very bad. His characters and his plots, like Flynn himself, were full of BS and on the screwball side. Big, tough, occasionally inept Irish heroes with names like McHugh, Tighe Slattery, Joe Mannix (no relation or resemblance to the Mike Conners TV character), Burdis Gannon, Matt Tara, Burl Stannard, John Christian Fifer.

Beautiful, willing, treacherous women. Ultra-nasty villains. Action fast and furious – and scatterbrained and often implausible. Storylines, some solidly constructed and some riddled with holes, involving elaborate capers, hijackings, modern-day bootlegging, the hot-car racket, military-base intrigue, the Mafia, vigilante cops and serial killers, Nazi war spoils, spy stuff, even a treasure hidden inside an Irish pub’s thirty-foot, hand-carved mahogany bar. Typical paperback fare of the sixties and seventies, in one sense; atypical, in another, because of Flynn’s slightly skewed perceptions and not inconsiderable (when he worked at it) storytelling skills.

His first published work and only published short story, “The Badger Game,” as by Jay Flynn, appeared in the November 1956 issue of the hard-boiled, J.D.-oriented mystery magazine, Guilty; his first novel, The Deadly Combo, as by J. M. Flynn, was an Ace Double two years later. The short story isn’t such-a-much; the novel is a pretty fair maiden effort.

There is a similar dichotomy among his six other Ace Doubles published between 1959 and 1961, all as by J. M. Flynn. Four are varying degrees of good: The Hot Chariot, Ring Around a Rogue, Drink with the Dead, The Girl from Las Vegas. The other two, One for the Death House and Deep Six, are rather awful.

His best novels of the period are a pair of capers, Terror Tournament and The Action Man, and the five titles that comprise his series featuring an off-the-wall San Francisco bar owner and secret agent named McHugh. Terror Tournament (Bouregy, 1959, his only hardcover) is an effective tale of the carefully planned heist of the gate receipts of a golf tournament modeled after the one at Pebble Beach. Even better – his magnum opus, in fact – is The Action Man (Avon, 1961, as by Jay Flynn). The caper here is a bank heist, and its mastermind, anti-hero Denton Farr, is Flynn’s most complex and believable protagonist. A high level of suspense and a savagely ironic ending are two of the novel’s other pluses.

If Denton Farr is Flynn’s most complex and believable character, McHugh is his most memorable. In McHugh, A Body for McHugh, It’s Murder McHugh, Viva McHugh!, and The Five Faces of Murder (Avon, 1959-62, all as by Jay Flynn), this two-fisted Irish-American James Bond blithely brawls and blusters his way through dizzy plot-swirls concerning a missing electronics expert, Mafia hit men, a couple of Navy flyers mysteriously AWOL in Mexico, a Caribbean island dictator and his army of thugs, and a fortune in hidden Nazi loot.

Along the way he drinks prodigious amounts of booze, trades quips with his fellow agent, Bud Chapman, and his boss, General Burton Harts, and has more problems than sack time with bevies of good and bad women. None of his adventures make much sense, really, but there is a good deal of energy in each, plus plenty of sly humor, breakneck pacing, and some lean, evocative writing. As in the barbed narrative hook that opens It’s Murder McHugh:

McHugh pushed the Polish girl away and went on watching the door of the cantina. He wished Bramhall would show up. It would be even better if Long was with him.
That would make his job easier, because he could kill both of them at the same time.

(Flynn once told me that the McHugh series was the result of a drunken lunch with his agent and an editor at Avon. The agent, he said, began extolling the virtues of “a great new series” Flynn had concocted, and did such a good selling job that afterward the three of them lurched back to the Avon offices, where the editor immediately put through a request for a three-book contract. The only problem was, Flynn had not concocted anything at this point; had never heard the name McHugh until his silver-tongued agent mentioned it, nor had any idea of who or what McHugh was going to be. This anecdote may be true and it may be apocryphal. With Flynn, you just never knew what was fact and what was bullshit.)

I read most of his Ace and Avon novels, either when they were first published or at some point in the sixties. One of my favorites was Drink with the Dead, which has a modern-day bootlegging theme, and in early 1969 I recommended it to friend and fellow writer Jeff Wallmann. Jeff liked it so much he suggested we write a story with a similar theme, which we proceeded to do. The result, “Day of the Moon,” was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1970 under our William Jeffrey pseudonym. Much later, we expanded the story into a novel that was published under the same title and same pseudonym.

One evening after we’d written the story, over too many drinks in Wallmann’s house near San Francisco, we got to talking about Flynn and his work; to wondering why he hadn’t published a new novel in seven years; and whether or not he was still living on the Monterey Peninsula, where much of his fiction was set and where a brief bio in one of the Ace Doubles said he made his home. As a lark, we began that night to track him down. It took us a while, following a cold and circuitous trail, but we finally found him – not on the Monterey Peninsula but in a V.A. facility in Portland, Maine. On the phone he claimed to be recuperating from a buckshot wound – in the ass, no less – administered by an irate husband. He also claimed to be writing a new McHugh novel to pay his medical expenses, which proved definitely to be hooey because no such book was ever published.

That was Flynn.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Your blog is such a wonderful resource. Thank you so much for sharing these stories/letters/memories.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Wallmann went on to collect a PhD in English, and his doctoral dissertation dealt with Westerns. It is so exhaustive it is the standard work on that genre. A great guy, now in Las vegas.

Thomas Farrell said...

He was my stepfather early 1960s when he wrote most of these. Not exactly a model citizen. Abandoned my mother and his daughter. Died trying to recontact his daughter who refused to contact him. I recall he was featured in a Mystery book of the month club about a robbery at the Crosby golf tournament. Not a bad book but forget the title. In general we did not get along, but that was a long time ago.

tc farrell md