Friday, October 08, 2010

Forgotten Books: Tickets for Death - Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser)

I’m pretty sure I’ve told some of this story before, so those of you who have already heard it please bear with me. In the spring of 1978, I had been selling short stories to Sam Merwin Jr. at MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE for a little over a year. Sam and I corresponded frequently – no email in those days, of course – and in one letter I asked him who was currently writing the Mike Shayne stories that appeared in the magazine under the Brett Halliday by-line. Honestly, I wasn’t angling for work, I was just curious. I’d been reading the stories and wanted to know who wrote them, since I knew by then that the original Brett Halliday, Davis Dresser, didn’t write the magazine stories. (In fact, by 1978 Dresser had passed away.)

Sam replied that he had been writing most of the stories himself and named several recent entries that he’d done. Then he asked me if I would like to try my hand at one, since he liked the short stories I’d been writing for him. The Shayne yarns ran 20,000 words, he told me, and paid “a flat, lousy three hundred bucks”.

Well, to a 24-year-old freelancer struggling to build a writing career, the idea of writing a 20,000-word story seemed a little daunting, but $300 didn’t sound lousy at all. In fact, it sounded like a fortune. That would pay the rent for two months on the apartment where Livia and I were living, with some left over to buy groceries. Plus I had been a reader and fan of the Mike Shayne novels ever since I was ten years old and checked out a copy of THIS IS IT, MICHAEL SHAYNE from the bookmobile that came out to our little town every Saturday from the big library in the county seat.

So of course I wrote back immediately to Sam and told him I’d love to write a Shayne story. He was pleased and said he would send me a copy of the Mike Shayne “bible”. He also instructed me to “just get the story down” and not worry too much about making sure everything was consistent with what had come before. He could go through it and make it sound like a Shayne if he needed to, he said.

But I’d been reading the Shayne novels off and on for years and was confident that I knew the characters, the setting, and the right style for the series. This was the biggest opportunity I’d had so far in my career, though, so I wanted to make sure I got it right. In order to do that, I quickly rounded up the first ten or twelve novels in the Shayne series (I already owned some of them, and the others were still very easy to find back then) and read them one after the other, totally immersing myself in the world of Michael Shayne before I ever wrote a word of my first story, which was published in the December 1978 issue of MSMM under the title I had given it, “Death in Xanadu”. As far as I remember, Sam changed one word in the manuscript, so I think I did a pretty good job of making it sound like a Shayne yarn was supposed to sound.

This is why, with a few exceptions, my Mike Shayne stories read a lot like they were written in the Forties. Those first dozen or so novels by Davis Dresser were my model for all the ones I wrote. (One of my Shaynes was actually set in the Forties, but that’s a whole other story.)

All of which is my nostalgic, very long-winded explanation for why it’s been 32 years since I last read the 1941 Shayne novel TICKETS FOR DEATH. After all that time, it seemed new to me when I recently reread it.

Mike Shayne has been accused of being the generic hardboiled private eye, and in some of the later books that may have been the case, but the early books were something totally different. Those novels are a highly appealing blend of hardboiled action, screwball comedy, and fair-play detection. Imagine Sam Spade marrying Pam North and solving cases like Nero Wolfe with a gathering of suspects at the end and a detailed explanation of who the killer is, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the early Shayne novels are like. Phyllis Shayne, Mike’s beautiful young wife, was killed off in the series in the mid-Forties, but she’s still around in this one and is, in fact, the reason Shayne gets mixed up in a case involving counterfeit tickets being cashed in at a greyhound racing track in a resort town north of Miami. When the two of them arrive in town, they’ve barely checked in at their hotel when a couple of gunmen working for a local mobster ambush Shayne and try to kill him. Naturally, they wind up dead for their trouble, although Shayne is wounded in the exchange of gunfire. It’s nothing that guzzling down a few glasses of cognac at every opportunity won’t cure, though.

From there, it’s not long until one of the people involved in the counterfeit ticket racket is murdered. Several more murders occur in fast and furious fashion, because this is one of those books where all the action occurs in the space of five or six hours. You’ll probably think you have things figured out – it seems pretty obvious what’s going on – but things are seldom as simple as they seem in Mike Shayne novels, and that’s certainly the case here. Dresser throws in twist after twist, and I’m reminded of the fact that the plots in these early Shayne novels often rival those of Erle Stanley Gardner’s for complexity. Shayne, of course, is two jumps ahead of everybody else (and three jumps ahead of the reader most of the time), and always figures out not only who the killer is but also how he can collect the biggest fee.

TICKETS FOR DEATH is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year, and if you’ve never sampled a Mike Shayne novel, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start, although the early ones probably are best read in order.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Great story, James. I have a stack of old Shaynes that I haven't tucked into yet. I'll start at the start, as they say. Can't wait.

And on a funny, related note, some months ago at our local Goodwill here in Maine (one of my favorite used-book stores), I found two perfect copies of MSMM: One of them is the Feb, 1976 issue.

And the other? December, 1978, with "Death in Xanadu" at the top (and also including a tale by one J.R. Lansdale).

I recall finding it in the store and letting out a little yelp because I knew it was your story. Got some strange looks, but it was worth it--it's a great read.


Unknown said...

A great story can't be told too often. Thanks for the memories.

Mark Justice said...


How long did you write the Shayne stories?

I have a big stack of issues of MSMM I haven't read, and was wondering who wrote the Shaynes.


George said...

I hadn't heard that story before so I'm glad you retold it. After reading your fine review of TICKETS FOR DEATH, I have an overwhelming urge to read a Mike Shayne novel.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I just love seeing all those covers and what a neat story.

Chris said...

Thanks for the story, James. When is the memoir coming?

Paul D Brazill said...

Smashing story. I've yet to read a Mike Shayne. But i will.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Mark, there's a list of all the Mike Shayne stories Livia and I wrote here:

Somewhere on-line I think there's a list of all the Mike Shayne stories from the magazine, starting in 1956, with the actual authors of many of them identified. I'll see if I can find it.

No memoir is in the works, although I could probably cannibalize a short one from some of these blog posts. Maybe one of these days.

Juri said...

A memoir from is certainly expected.

Todd Mason said...

Fascinating stuff. I've only read a bit of this over the years (your adventures in the Shayne trade, that is), and was MSMM mostly a penny/word market in those years (I started reading MSMM with the June, 1978 issue)? 1.5c not too shabby by that standard, though still the bottom of the market rate for crime fiction at the time (though I gather even after Davis purchased it, AHMM wasn't paying too much more at first...and in absolute terms, EQMM not exactly paying Riviera vacation money). Merwin really was a writer who, with more confidence in his own ability, really should've made even more of a mark.

And what a talent pool he cultivated, between you younger writers and the old pros who would use MSMM as a salvage market.

Even as late as WHEN DORINDA DANCES (the latest Dresser Shayne I've read so far), they were not tired at all...and boy, Dell sure wasn't trying too hard with that photo cover...the "Shayne" is barely redheaded...

James Reasoner said...

MSMM paid a penny a word for everything except the Shayne stories, which as you note were 1.5cents. When Chuck Fritch took over as editor, he brought in even more of the SF/fantasy/horror authors he knew, giving the magazine even more of a California slant.

I don't like the photo covers of those late Shayne editions. They're not quite as bad as the Shell Scott photo covers, but almost.

Todd Mason said...

Yeah, Fritch's MSMM, which I liked a bit better than Merwin's, was a bit like the CHASE he wanted to do back in the GAMMA days, I suspect.

Richard R. said...

Man, I'd sure like a peek at that Shayne bible, if you have it, but I suspect it was a victim of the fire. Great story and review. I have this one (McGinnis cover) , but I'm not sure I've read it.

James Reasoner said...

I think I had lost the Shayne bible even before the fire, but it's certainly gone now. It was pretty detailed, including character descriptions and personalities, as well as descriptions of Shayne's office and apartment. I'm pretty sure Merwin is the one who wrote it.

Todd Mason said...

It is pretty remarkable how good MSMM, FANTASTIC, and AMAZING were in those years even given the micro editorial budget...if you had a story that MSMM wouldn't take, where did you go with it? And considering that MSMM was the primary hardboiled market in the '70s, even though EQMM had a taste of that and AHMM wasn't averse to it, was there essentially nowhere else to go with that kind of fiction? (CAVALIER, which paid somewhat better?)

James Reasoner said...

I sold one story to CAVALIER and quite a few to the other magazines published by the same company, DUDE, GENT, and NUGGET, enough so that I was on good terms with the editor, John Fox, and was considered a regular member of his stable, I think. Quite a few of them were crime stories, although always with some slant that would make them acceptable as men's magazine stories, too. I wrote several about a porn movie writer/director who also solved murders. Everything I sold to Dugent (the company name) was written specifically for their magazines, though. I never took a rejected story and added a sex scene to it in order to sell it to them, although other writers have told me they did that. I would have liked to sell more to CAVALIER. I got 250 bucks for the one story of mine they bought. The other Dugent mags paid half that -- but I was still grateful for those sales, too, don't get me wrong!

There were several small press magazines that started in the early Eighties -- SPIDERWEB/SKULLDUGGERY, HARDBOILED, and JUST PULP come to mind -- that paid small amounts and were decent markets for a while.

Evan Lewis said...

I know I have some of those issues with your Shayne stories. Gotta find 'em.