Friday, December 15, 2017

Best, Bill

So there I was, sometime in 1978, reading a copy of ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, which had a small section of classified ads on the last page. Among those tiny-print listings, there was an ad for something called THE NOT SO PRIVATE EYE, which seemed to be a fanzine devoted to private eye fiction, my long-time favorite sub-genre of mystery fiction. Back issues were available, so I sent off a check to the editor/publisher, Andy Jaysnovitch, and in due time I got a box in the mail containing all the issues that had been published up until then. I was only vaguely aware of what fanzines are, and that was because I’d read about ones devoted to science fiction, although I’d never seen one. The small Texas town where I grew up wasn’t a place where you would run into such things.

But when I started reading TNSPE, as it was known to its subscribers, I knew right away that I loved this sort of thing: articles about private eye fiction and its authors; reviews of books new and old; and maybe best of all, a letters section where fellow fans could get together. A prehistoric version of Facebook, if you will.

As I looked through those letters and saw the names and addresses of the guys who had written in, I noticed one thing right away. Some of them were from Texas! There were fellow fans of the stuff that I loved! I had never met or even corresponded with any. As far as I could tell, I was the only person who read Mike Shayne or Shell Scott novels anywhere in the vast Lone Star State.

Not only was one of those fans in Texas, he actually lived in Brownwood, a town I knew quite well because I had relatives all over that part of the country. Bill Crider, his name was. So I acted on impulse and wrote him a letter introducing myself. (The other two Texas fans who had letters in TNSPE were Joe Lansdale and Tom Johnson, and I could write a lot about them, too, but this is Bill’s day.)

Bill wrote back immediately. He recognized my name from a story I had published in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, “Down in the Valley”. That started a pattern that went on for years: I’d write a letter to Bill, and five or six days later, I’d get one in return. (The post office was a little more efficient and dependable in those days, or at least so it seemed.) We talked about books we’d read and movies we’d seen and got to know about each other’s families. After a while, since Brownwood was only a two-hour drive away from where I lived, I drove down there one Sunday and had lunch with Bill, his wife Judy, and their kids Allen and Angela. Later, Bill took us all out to Greenleaf Cemetery and showed me the grave of Robert E. Howard, a writer both of us admired greatly. And he gave me a bunch of duplicate paperbacks from his collection, great old Gold Medals and other vintage paperbacks.

Later, I made another trip to Brownwood and delivered a VCR to him. They had just started selling those to the public, and my dad sold them at his TV shop, so I was able to get him a good deal. The thing was enormous and heavy, had a corded remote, and would record a whole two hours on a videotape. But for the early Eighties, it was a pretty cool deal. On that same trip, Bill took me to a couple of used bookstores in Brownwood, so I went home with more books again.

Around that same time, Bill sold his first book, a Nick Carter novel written with a friend of his named Jack Davis. I remember unfolding one of Bill’s letters and seeing the first line: “The Nick Carter book SOLD!” From that beginning, he went on to become one of the most beloved and acclaimed mystery writers of the past three decades with his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series as well as other mystery series and stand-alones. And while he was doing that, he published a bunch of critically acclaimed Western and horror novels and became one of the most reliable authors of house-name men’s adventure and Western novels. We worked together on six books, four in the Cody’s Law series under the name Matthew S. Hart and two in the Trailsman series as Jon Sharpe.

We saw each other fairly often at conventions like Aggiecon and Armadillocon and best of all, the annual Cluefests in Dallas. On the Friday evening of Cluefest, Dallas mystery fan Barry Gardner (who, as it turned out, was the son of Bennie Gardner, aka Gunnison Steele, one of the Western pulp authors I greatly enjoyed) held a barbecue at his house for a small group of fans and writers that included at various times Bill, Scott Cupp, Marv Lachman, Richard Moore, Steve Stilwell, Bruce Taylor, and others I know I’m forgetting. Those evenings are some of the best convention-related memories I have.

With the rise of the Internet, Bill and I traded emails instead of letters, but we stayed in touch. He started a blog (which in the early days featured frequent posts about how much he disliked mowing his lawn) and that blog inspired me to start one of my own. By this time he had moved from Brownwood to Alvin, near Houston, to teach at Alvin Community College. We still ran into each other at conventions but not as often since real life kept us away from them more than it used to. But every time we saw each other, it was like the proverbial no time at all had passed. We could sit down and pick right up talking about books, writing, movies, and anything and everything else.

The trials that Bill has gone through over the past decade are probably well known to everyone reading this. He helped his wife Judy battle cancer and then, after losing her, fought the disease himself. Through it all, he’s continued to turn out fine books, kept producing his blog until very recently, and adopted three kittens whose luckiest day ever was the day Bill found them. He’s been able to make it to a few conventions. I saw him at Armadillocon in Austin in 2016, and again, the times we spent together there will always be favorite convention memories.

At the bottom of that very first letter from Brownwood all those years ago was the signature, “Best, Bill”. That’s exactly what everyone who knows Bill has gotten from him: his best friendship, and it’s very good indeed. Here’s to you, Bill, with thanks for the past forty years. It’s been my honor and my great pleasure.



George said...

Thanks for sharing those wonderful memories of Bill Crider!

Richard Moore said...

Great memories James and a wonderful tribute!

Charles Gramlich said...

Only wish I could know him as you have

Tom Johnson said...

I remember those fanzines quite well, James, and remember all the contributors and fans in those long ago days. Bill has been a power on the Internet over the years, and every time I see something on alligators, I instantly think of Boll Crider. Who would have thought alligators could remind you of someone special?

jhegenbe said...

Wonderful story, James. It brought back many fond memories of my own, similar experiences. Life-long friends are the best friends.

Peter Brandvold said...

Wonderful reminiscence, James. Thanks for sharing it. I wish I could have met Bill in person but I've read many of his books and will continue to read more in the years ahead.

David Cranmer said...

I enjoyed learning this history, James. And what a great pic! Thanks for sharing

Jeff Meyerson said...

Since Blogger suddenly seems to hate me and keeps deleting all my posts from the computer - but maybe not from the phone - let me try a second time to comment.

Thanks for the great reminiscences. I especially loved the picture. Bill has told us that VCR story several times over the years.

And as he always says, I miss the old days.

Lee Goldberg said...

Thank you so much for sharing your memories of Bill. Great stuff!


Walker Martin said...

I still have my issues of THE NOT SO PRIVATE EYE and a couple years ago Andy came up to me at the Bordentown, NJ pulp show and I was happy to see he was still interested in old fiction magazines. I'm sorry to see that Bill is having health issues and I wish him well.