Friday, December 16, 2016

Forgotten Books: Bill Pronzini/Marcia Muller Day

For Bill Pronzini/Marcia Muller day, I wanted to write about something a little different, so I wound up reading two novellas written by Pronzini and Jeff Wallmann when they were living in Europe in the early 1970s, writing erotic novels for Liverpool Library Press and house-name novellas for various digest magazines published by Leo Margulies' Renown Publications.

We'll start with Pronzini and Wallmann's only entry in the Mike Shayne series, "Danger—Michael Shayne at Work!", from the April 1972 issue of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE. This is a classic mystery set-up: a group of people trapped in an isolated hunting lodge by a hurricane. In this case, the hunting lodge is in the Florida Panhandle, and Mike Shayne has driven up there to deliver a report to his client, a politician who suspects his assistant of being involved in a crooked bid-rigging deal with a construction company. Also on hand are the politician's girlfriend; his ex-wife and her husband; his daughter and her boyfriend; the lodge's caretaker; and the assistant who's mixed up in the corruption and graft. As you'd expect, one of them winds up dead, leaving Shayne trapped with plenty of suspects and an unknown killer who's soon after him, too.

This story has quite a bit going for it. The action takes place in a short period of time, which I always like. The plot is suitably complex, and Pronzini and Wallmann play fair with the clues, so when Shayne finally gathers the suspects and names the killer, everything makes sense. There are some nice hardboiled scenes along the way.

Where it suffers is in the authors' characterization of Mike Shayne. Shayne has been referred to (erroneously, in my opinion) as the generic private eye, and unfortunately that's true in this case. Other than the fact that he has red hair and tugs on his earlobe occasionally when he's thinking, there's little to distinguish Shayne from dozens of other private eyes. With the story not being set in Miami and without a single mention of any of the regular supporting cast, Shayne just doesn't seem like Shayne. It's true that Davis Dresser sometimes took Shayne out of his usual setting, in novels such as MURDER IS MY BUSINESS, STRANGER IN TOWN, and SHE WOKE TO DARKNESS, but more of his personality survived intact. However, as I mentioned this is the only Shayne story Pronzini and Wallmann wrote, so they probably would have done a better job of that had they continued. As it is, "Danger—Michael Shayne at Work!" is an enjoyable if minor yarn.

This issue of MSMM also contains a Pronzini short story, "The Duel", under his Jack Foxx pseudonym. It's a well-written little tale about two men fighting over a woman, with a twist ending that could have gone two different ways. I didn't pick the right one.

The final novella Pronzini and Wallmann wrote for Renown is "The Pawns of Death", originally published in the final issue of CHARLIE CHAN MYSTERY MAGAZINE (August 1974). There's an old saying among long-time mystery fans: Never go to the opera with Ellery Queen. The same warning holds true for going to a chess tournament with Charlie Chan. The Honolulu detective is actually in Paris this time around, to attend the championship matches of an international chess competition. The reigning champion is a very stiff-upper-lip Britisher; the challenger is a brash, arrogant young American. Each man has an entourage of friends and family with him, and there are a lot of reporters on hand as well. Pronzini and Wallmann do a good job of introducing us to all the characters, and if it's pretty obvious that at least one of them will wind up as a murder victim and the rest will be suspects.

Using that set-up, the authors do a good job of spinning an entertaining yarn featuring not one but two locked room murders, a dying message, romantic triangles, a bizarre murder weapon, and a satisfactory solution. Packing all that into 30,000 words isn't easy, but Pronzini and Wallmann pull it off.

Best of all, though, is their portrayal of Charlie Chan. He's probably a little closer to the movie versions of Chan, rather than the character from Earl Derr Biggers' original novels, but he's still smart, funny, and very likable. His friendship with the French police prefect in charge of the case is handled quite well. I read this in an e-book version available on Amazon, and it includes a good introduction by Pronzini that mentions the editor of the magazine cut out some of the typical Chan sayings, but there are plenty left to make the character ring true to what we expect. Typical of most writers, Pronzini doesn't seem to think much of this early effort (I feel the same way about some of my stuff), but I found it to be very entertaining and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Even though they were always digests, the magazines from Renown Publications were really the last gasps of the pulp era, with their lead novels under house names, backed up by an assortment of novelettes and short stories, many of them by authors who wrote for the actual pulps earlier in their careers. Editors such as Sam Merwin Jr. and Frank Belknap Long also had long associations with the pulps. I don't know if Pronzini and Wallmann feel this way, but I've always been very glad I got the chance to be a part of that.

I didn't want to completely neglect Marcia Muller in this post, so I reread her story "The Time of the Wolves" from the iconic Western anthology WESTERYEAR. This is a tale of two pioneer women trapped in an isolated cabin in Kansas by a blizzard and a pack of hungry wolves, and one of the women may just be going mad . . . It's a great story, full of suspense, and as good as I remembered it from the last time I read it, years ago. I give it a high recommendation, along with the book it's in. WESTERYEAR is one of the all-time best Western anthologies (and it has my all-time favorite Bill Crider story in it). Hard to believe it's been almost thirty years since it was published.

16 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Who edited WESTERYEAR? I reviewed TIME OF THE WOLVES (too slightly), but should dig that volume up...

For that matter, dd Pronzini and Waldman write any notable "Romer Zane Grey" novellas for the Renown ZGWM?

Todd Mason said...

I wrote Wallmann but didn't note the spellchecker struck again...

James Reasoner said...

Ed Gorman edited WESTERYEAR. I think he was still being credited as Edward Gorman at that time.

I'm pretty sure Pronzini and Wallmann wrote some of the Romer Zane Grey novellas, but I don't recall which ones. Maybe the ones featuring Yaqui, although I could certainly be wrong about that.

Bill Crider said...

Glad you liked that story, James. It's been so long since I wrote it that I'd almost forgotten about it.

George said...

I'm always impressed by the range of Bill Pronzini's work. His westerns are just as good as his mystery novels. I'm admire Pronzini's productivity (and yours!) in writing so many books and editing so many excellent anthologies.

Anonymous said...

For years whenever I encountered a book with awkwardly drawn, strained, or flat characters I would put that book aside and pick up the next volume in Pronzini's Nameless Detective series.
The realistic, palpable humanity of the narrator always freshened my mind.

I've kept my collection more or less up to date, but I haven't read anything about Nameless in a while. Looking up at my shelf, I'm gratified to see several of his cases siting there waiting to be read. It'll be like visiting an old friend.

John Hocking

Anonymous said...

I am not only a fan of both Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, I am also a reader who still misses the Mike Shayne and Charlie Chan mystery magazines. I still remember patronizing a store because it was the only one in my area that sold "Charlie Chan." Later, it became increasingly difficult to find "Mike Shayne." But I thought both magazines were well worth the effort. Thanks for the review, James!

Jim Meals

James Reasoner said...

Bill,
The ending of that story actually took me by surprise the first time I read it. I've loved it ever since.

John,
I'm behind on the Nameless books, too, but it's a great series. I'm especially fond of the first three or four.

Jim,
I miss the digests. These days it's hard to believe there was ever a time when they sold enough to be profitable. I still think about them whenever I see a magazine rack in a grocery store or drugstore and remember how it used to be.

Todd Mason said...

What I fail to understand is why diminishing returns set in with the digests and other fiction magazines...but I suspect distributor disinterest didn't help.

Lohr McKinstry said...

I note that "The Pawns of Death" was published under the good old Robert Hart Davis house-name. Readers must have thought he was a really prolific guy.

James Reasoner said...

I dedicated one of my Mike Shayne novellas (the very Man From U.N.C.L.E.-influenced "Death From the Sky") to Robert Hart Davis, but Chuck Fritch, the editor of MSMM at the time, didn't run the dedication, possibly because he didn't figure any of the readers would get the connection. I've read that Leo Margulies came up with the Robert Hart Davis house-name as a tribute to Robert H. Davis, an early pulp editor who was Margulies' mentor.

Bill Pronzini said...

Thanks for the review, James. I tend to cringe at my early work, especially those on-consignment novellas for Renown; you were more than kind to the Shayne and Chan.

For the record, Wallmann and I wrote six "Romer Zane Grey" novellas for Zane Grey Western Magazine, all but one of which were reprinted in a series of paperbacks published by Belmont Tower in the 80s. Five featured Arizona Ames, the other Yaqui. We later shamelessly adapted two of the Ames for Leisure ppbk western novels, DUEL AT GOLD BUTTES and BORDER FEVER, as by William Jeffrey.

I also wrote one lead novella which appeared in the next to last issue of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Mystery Magazine, "The Pillars of Salt Affair." It's easily the best of the Renown for-hire jobs, a damning with faint praise statement if ever there was one.

Bill Pronzini said...

And thanks from Marcia for the nice words on "A Time of Wolves." It really is a fine story, and was adapted for the best of three episodes of a pilot film for a proposed supernatural western TV series starring Bruce Dern, INTO THE BADLANDS (1991).

James Reasoner said...

Bill,
"The Pillars of Salt Affair" is the best of the U.N.C.L.E. digest novellas. I still have vivid memories of reading it in the big brown armchair at my aunt's house, in a copy of the magazine I bought brand-new at the Rexall Drugstore in Comanche, Texas. I thought about trying to dig up a copy so I could reread it for this week's post but ultimately went with the other two instead.

Bill Pronzini said...

Surprised and pleased that you think so highly of "Pillars of Salt Affair." Must be a lot better than I dimly remember it; I'll have to pull out my shelf copy of the issue and give it a fresh look.

James Reasoner said...

Well, I was 14 years old and a huge MFU fan. I'm still a huge fan and mentally about 14 years old, so I'm sure I'd still like it.