Friday, July 08, 2011

Frederick Nebel

I've been reading stories from three series the prolific Frederick Nebel wrote for Black Mask and Dime Detective in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one result, aside from my enjoying the stories, has been some thoughts about the demands of writing for a monthly or weekly magazine.

I'd previously read some of Nebel's MacBride and Kennedy stories, featuring police Capt. Steve MacBride and his ubiquitous bane and sidekick, the alcohol-sodden reporter Kennedy of the Free Press. Tough Dick Donahue, a private-investigator Nebel creation who came along a couple of years after MacBride and Kennedy, had a reporter sidekick of his own named Libbey. But Nebel came up with the nice trick of making Libbey a more annoying character than Kennedy, and thus added a bit of variety while satisfying the public's taste for drunken newsmen.

The weekly and monthly pulps are long since dead, and with them, presumably, some of the conflicting pressure on authors to keep things fresh from story to story while at the same time maintaining the formula that holds a series together. Today’s closest counterpart to the pulps is probably weekly television, where the creators of, say, Law & Order, might jiggle the camera a bit more or less one week, or have Sam Waterston and gang vary slightly the pitch in which they delivered their somber, issue-of-the-week headlines.

Even though the pulps are gone, series are still a staple of crime fiction. How do authors change things up even while they stick to the series formula?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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33 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I hate to say this because of how much I enjoy the series and love the writing, but James Lee Burke seems to do it by killing off Robicheaux's wives.

Robert Crais has given Joe Pike his own books, which allows him to keep the same characters but altering the point of view.

Ed McBain was able to do it by altering the mix of detectives in each book. Carella was almost always the prime (at least in the later books) and Fat Ollie was always around, but Meyer, Brown, Hawes, Parker, et al played more or less important roles in each book.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! That's a grim tactic, but it appears to have worked, given Burke's critical reputation.

A few authors will set their books in the same universe but bring a different one to the fore in each book. For some reason, I can't think of any names, however, with the possible exception of Tana French.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I love those Nebel stories in that Pulp Anthology I bought on your recommendation,Peter, and I certainly plan to catch more of them.

Interestingly I've just started watching the 'Zatoichi' series of Japanese films, which I think ran to 27 films, and of the four I've seen so far, show a consistently high quality despite those 4 being directed by 3 different directors.

I think what that series longevity , - and the Coca Cola company's,- proved though is, that if you've hit on a winning 'formula', there's no reason to change it.

btw, was yesterday's the only contribution Mohammad made to your blog? :)

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was the first comment of his, yes. No surprise since it the post my first real comment on Ibne Safi.

The Zatoichi movies are an interesting case, because each director may have brought his or her own touch.

There may be no reason to change a successful formula -- other than ennui on the part of the artist or the audience. The changes in this case may have been an effort to differentiate one Nebel series from another and thus to be able to get two of that popular writer's creations before the public at once. I shall have more to say about Nebel.

July 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl for a good description of the pulp industry. Pohl, who wrote quite a few stories for them himself, edited several of the good ones (SF rather than crime). His memoir above was written in 1977, and the man is still writing books and blogging.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I'm not familiar with the pulps, just never got into the habit of reading them. Can't think why.

At any rate, as you may know by now, Peter, I do LOVE mystery series.

But it's magic to keep them fresh. Some authors can do it. Some just can't. When the 'can't' happens I just stop reading the books at that point and remember the good early days.

Rex Stout, to me, is the king of keeping a series going year after year without, basically, changing a thing. How he did it is magic.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are the same people at the beginning of the series way back when as they were at the end. It's true that the last book has a major death in it (NOT Archie or Wolfe) but that doesn't really count as a change since it was the last book. More or less.

I still re-read my favorite Wolfe books and still love them dearly.

But really, how many Rex Stouts can there be?

Anne Perry is another who keeps her series fresh book after book after book. The Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series is just as good now as it ever was. In fact, one of the titles from within the last couple of years, DARK ASSASSIN is one of the best in this long-lived series.

Her William Monk series too is just as fresh. Though the relationship of the two main protagonists did change a few books ago.

If you even like historical mysteries, you will love these.

Her trick, I think, is to keep each case and the mysteries involved completely different and very sinister book to book. Also, the setting: Victorian England is ripe for all sorts of intrigue.

Her writing too, is topnotch.

Ngaio Marsh is another writer who managed to keep her Roderick Alleyn books fresh throughout most of the years she was writing them.

Lee Child rather has an easier time of it with the Reacher books since each book has him in a different setting meeting different people. They're really almost all stand-a-lone books in a way. With just Jack Reacher in common. Still, Lee does a masterful job.

Again I say, when it's done well, it's basically magic.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister: Thanks. I look forward to comments from the days of pulps. From pulps to blogs ... the man ought to have enough to say to shut some of us up!

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I suspect that Linkmeister will weigh in in the matter of Nero Wolfe. I haven't read enough to comment authoritatively, but one thing Stout did was to at least once kill off a significant supporting character. I think he also occasionally integrated current events into his books.

As for the pulps, not that much is available on the crime side, and I have almost no idea how much has been collected in books from the other genres that were published in pulps.

A few fat collections of crime writing from the pulp era have been published in recent years.

July 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Stout threw in current events, but not as much as he could have. During the war he had Wolfe and Fritz dieting in order to join the infantry while Archie was a Major in Army Intelligence. Later on he had Wolfe pushing J. Edgar Hoover's nose in, and during Watergate he had Lily (Lily!) bashing Nixon. Most of the time, though, the stories remain relevant without that kind of window dressing.

Conan Doyle didn't use current events much, but like Stout it was because the events he described could happen even now.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew about Wolfe's diet and the clash with J. Edgay Hoover. I had not heard of Lily bashing Nixon!

July 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

EdGAY Hoover?
Is that what they call 'a Freudian slip', Peter?

and the word verification is 'quaires'!!!
Curioser, and curioser!
Whats the name of that Indian sleuth, again?

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! The typo was mere sloppiness, and not a jab at J. Edgar Hoover's affectational preferences.

Which sleuth would that be?

July 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Who ever the sleuth is in that Indian writer's stories

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ibne Safi's sleuth is Col. Ahmad Kamal Faridi, aided by his acid-tongued sidekick, Hameed.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

That sounds almost like the reverse of the Holmes-Watson association!

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Faridi is a bit like Holmes in his enigmatic way, I suppose, but he has a harder edge than Holmes had, I think. Hameed sounds a but like a typical sidekick -- lazy and a chaser of skirts -- but his sarcasm, too, has an edge.

July 09, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

I think it was Please Pass the Guilt. Lily's father was a lifelong Democrat who'd made a fortune building sewers in the city, so she came by it honestly.

At one point Archie says "To the best of my recollection . . ." and Lily interrupts to say something like "Don't SAY that! You know how I feel about it!"

Now, if you wanted to split hairs you could say she was actually bashing Haldeman or Ehrlichmann, but . . .

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A fortune building sewers, you say? Grimy, unglamorous, but, by God, necessary and for the benefit of the people!

July 09, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Good for the Celtic Kagemusha. That hints at a Japanese film title, right?
The word verifications on this blog are a hoot. They look like very sensible parts of the language.

As for breaking up the monotony (and I'm not a fan of series that are stuck), you do have to put your protagonist into a realistic situation. That involves deaths, illnesses, failures, marital problems, intentional offenses and unintentional ones, and misjudgments. I use all of those. I also shift the locations around. Almost invariably, a scene is fixed in my mind before I look for a plot and a place to go with it.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Thats right, IJ: an Akira Kurosawa film, it means 'Shadow Warrior': a great story idea

July 09, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes, I remember that well. There are a number of great Japanese films. My favorite SEVEN SAMURAI.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew about the Kurosawa film, but I had not known what a kegemusha was. Thanks.

I.J., my verification word for this post sounds decidedly like a piece of Midwestern American slang: choogie.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., that's probably my favorite of the limited number of Japanese movies I've seen, and more evidence for the proposition that Takashi Shimura may have been the greatest of all film actors.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

'Seven Samurai' still the greatest film I've ever seen.
'choogie' sounds like an abbreviated form of 'choo choo ch'boogie'

'unticker'....could that be an alternate 'Monty Python' term for the state of the bird in the legendary 'Dead Parrot' sketch?

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, it's been too long since I've listened to Louis Jordan!

"Unticker" could be cardiac surgeon's jargon, the command to lift a to-be-transplanted heart from the chest cavity.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Take me right back to the track, Jack!

July 09, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Make that Toshiro Mifune for me.

"pedly" sounds like an insulting comment on my comment.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's hard to conceive of Shimura without Mifune and vice versa. I give Shimura the prize because he could play worried old warriors, wily detectives, and weak, sick old men with equal skill. I can't think off-hand of any movie actor so versatile as he was.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Perhaps that would be 'Up Ticker', Peter; the surgeon's equivalent of the submarine skipper's 'up periscope'?
just a thought

Good point about Shimura; although I think both Mifune, and Tatsuya Nakadai, - who played memorable villains, not just for Kurosawa, and also @lear' in Kurosawa's 'Ran' had greater screen presence.

What to make of 'sibritl'
the Japanese pronunciation of awful 70s-80s British comedian, Syd Little, perhaps?

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall keep an eye out for Tatsuya Nakadai. Thanks.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If they had greater screen presence, they may have been greater stars, but not necessarily greater actors. It's an interesting question.

July 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There are so many great series with different qualities that keep them fresh.

I have become a Nero Wolfe fan, thanks to a certain terrific blogger, who contributed here on the series.

The snappy -- and oftentimes hilarious -- dialogue keeps the books fresh. The writing is crisp and to the point and top-notch.

I do find political issues amidst the writing, sometimes a subtle mention of current news, sometimes more than that.

A book written in the early 1930s clearly brings up the Depression, low wages, etc. A book written in 1940 rightfully criticizes a corporate law firm and a royal family from Eastern Europe in league with the Nazis to steal the natural resources of a country.

Donna Leon keeps her series fresh with different issues, although her characters remain the same.

Sjowall and Wahloo tackled various issues and often brought in characters other than Martin Beck, i.e., the team.

Arnaldur Indridason tackles different issues, and seems to vary his style. On the whole, his writing is superb and his main character quite interesting, including in his introspection.

And then there's Inspector Montalbano, who is always interesting -- and hungry -- tackling a complex case with social issues, surrounded by a cast of characters -- and filled with so much wit! A delight to read written so well by Camilleri.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The first prerequisite for keeping a series fresh is to come up with a compelling premise and to execute it well. But "Come up with a pair as compelling as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin" or "Write like Camilleri" is not exactly workable advice.

July 11, 2011  

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