Sunday, April 27, 2008

They don't make `em like this no more--thank God

Back when I was editing Mystery Scene one of the most valuables pieces I could come by was a Bill Pronzini profile of a writer or his take on some aspect of publishing past. With Gun In Cheek and others Bill has proven himself to be a man who knows how to have a good time with bad writing.

Sometimes I Google Bill's name to reread some of the finest pieces he's published various magazines over the years. Here's one of my favorites, this time from Mystery-File.


The Saga of the Risen Phoenix
by Bill Pronzini

Norma Goold was the most beautiful corpse Allen Starke had ever beheld. When he had seen her, lithe and young and magnetically compelling, doing her number at The Gayety burlesque house a few hours previously, he had understood his friend Paul Cloud’s infatuation with her. And even in death the power she had over men continued.

Paul Cloud, and his whole family with him, was drawn into the net of suspicion spread as a result of Norma’s violent demise. So was Paul’s fiancĂ©e, and the playboy backer of The Gayety, and an Italian gambler who had known La Goold when her name had been plain Marcella Cadorna. And before it all ended, Allen wished he had never left Kentucky’s peaceful blue grass for New Orleans.

– Jacket blurb for Death for the Lady, by Stewart Vanderveer, Phoenix Press.

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of New York, there was a publishing company called Phoenix Press.

Like many others born during the Great Depression, Phoenix was a lending-library publisher, which is to say that it grew up in a very tough and competitive neighborhood and was often forced to fight for survival with other lending-library publishers –Godwin, Greenberg, Arcadia – that operated in the same ghetto. Phoenix’s parentage is unknown. Perhaps it had no parentage in the conventional sense; perhaps it simply sprang from the ashes of some defunct flapper-era publisher, youthfully alive and functional, read to do battle in the marketplace. Such is the stuff of legends and fairy tales.

But Phoenix Press was stronger and more dedicated than the other lending-library publishers, and soon it surpassed them all to become the strongest in the kingdom. Guided by the keen eyes and iron hearts of its two chief editorial wizards, Emmanuel Wartels and Alice Sachs, it produced more mysteries, Westerns, and light romances during the thirties and forties than any other house. It was surely the monarch of all lending-library publishers everywhere.

This, however, was not its greatest distinction. Rather, it is the fact that in less than twenty years, Phoenix published almost as many wonderfully bad novels as all the other publishers combined.

The reason behind this remarkable achievement was an unstinting devotion to the principles of capitalistic free enterprise. Or to put it another way, it was a matter of greed. Phoenix published a large quantity of books and yet paid absolute minimum royalties to its writers. In an article for the Writer’s 1941 Year Book, novelist and screenwriter Steve Fisher says that he received the handsome sum of $125 for all rights to his first novel, Spend the Night, in 1935. Rates escalated dramatically to $300 for all rights – and even to $500 for some of Phoenix’s more prolific contributors –in the late thirties; where they remained for many years to come. This policy of paying rock-bottom prices allowed Phoenix to buy manuscripts that had been rejected by the major publishers and by some of the other lending-library outfits as well. And the preponderance of these manuscripts were, to put it in charitable terms, only marginally publishable by most standards. Thus, by a combination of design and accident, were so many classics given life in the kingdom.

for the rest go here


Anonymous said...

Makes you want to scroungew around to find a Phoenix book, assuming at least one is still hiding somewhere in the world. Bill is a wonderful writer.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what scroungew means. Sorry about that.