Sunday, June 25, 2017

Harry Whittington: The Last of His Kind

The days of the hard-working pulp writer might be over, but the image of someone sitting behind a typewriter, tobacco-stained fingers hammering out stories for which he or she is paid by the word, is still a romantic one. These days fiction writers are lucky if their work nets them anything approaching  minimum wage, while only a fraction can be said to make a decent living from their writing.  Nevertheless, back before the internet, when television was in its infancy, before the decline of national newspapers and the corporatisation of publishing, when paper was cheap and there was still a functioning working class, writers willing to do the hard graft could sustain themselves in a world of pulp magazines and cheap paperback houses.     
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Because even then only a select few were able to succeed in that  world.  Harry Whittington was certainly one of them. Over the course of four decades, he made a living churning out hardboiled crime stories, mysteries, westerns, soft-core porn, southern historical novels and soap operas. He could do this because he was well-versed in the market and how to write for it. From reading the likes of Hammett, Chandler and Cain, he realized early on the importance of both plot and those who inhabit the plot.  Perhaps he sensed that it’s the plot that turns the pages, but it’s the characters who leave a lasting impression. Which is as  true for Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Hammett’s Red Harvest, or Whittington novels like Web of Murder, Strange Bargain or Any Woman He Wanted.  

Whittington- not  the Harry Whittington wounded by former VP Cheney in that famous quail-hunting incident, though that Whittington and the incident could have come straight from one of writer-Whittington’s novels-  was the last of his kind.  From the early 1950s to the mid-1980s  he might have been the hardest working writers in Noirville, racking-up some 180 novels. In churning out his high-octane books, he deployed over twenty noms-des-plumes: Whit Harrison (for suspense and westerns), Clay Stuart (southern novels), Steve Philips (police procedurals), Hondo Wells (westerns), Tabor Evans (westerns), Harriet Kathryn Myers (nurse romances), Hallam Whitney (southern novels), Ashley Carter (southern historical- Falconhurst series),  Harry White (westerns), as well as Howard Winslow, Henry Whittier, Curt Colman, John Dexter, Kel Holland, Blaine Stevens and Suzanne Stephens. Whittington novels like The Devil Wears Wings, Fires That Destroy,  A Moment to Prey and A Ticket to Hell are tense affairs, with knuckle-crunching dialogue. But even though companies like Black Lizard,  Stark House and 280 Steps have reprinted several of his best novels, Whittington has never achieved the same status as Hammett or Cain, nor gained the same cult following as Thompson and Goodis.  

Born in Ocala, Florida on February 4th, 1916, Whittington, at an early age, fell in love with literature, particularly writers like Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, Balzac, Dumas, Anatole France, who wrote about the world as they saw it, and knew how to create complex narratives that could twist and turn in any direction.  It’s ironic that Whittington, given his love for these more literary types, would opt for “non-literary” pulp fiction.  But Whittington,  desperate to make writing his life, was willing to take his accolades and paychecks wherever he could get them. This after putting in more than a decade in the straight world, in a St Petersburg publicity agency, as an assistant manager of the town’s Capital Theater, followed by stints in the post office, and as the editor-in-chief of periodicals like The Advocate. 

No overnight success, Whittington set his sights on the paperback and pulp magazine market. Unable to find a publisher for his first novel, The World Before Us, he turned to westerns, publishing Vengeance Valley in 1944. No doubt he would have loved to have been a Dostoyevsky or Balzac, and maybe, in a way, he was. At least in so far as they wrote for a living and knew the importance of simply telling a good story. And, even though he hoped to be the next Scott Fitzgerald “with a touch of Maugham,”  the more Whittington moved in the direction of pulp fiction, the more he would come to respect others who wrote for that market.  In his essay, “I Remember It Well,” which prefaces the Black Lizard reprints of his work, he cites Day Keene, Gil Brewer, Talmage Powell and Fred Davis, who also wrote  by the word, putting in eight to ten hours a day in to make a living during those final  dog-days of pulp magazines.  To illustrate the competitive camaraderie amongst those writers: Whittington claimed he’d taught Brewer and Keene everything they knew about writing; meanwhile  Brewer claimed he’d taught Whittington as well as Keene everything they knew about writing, only to be contradicted by Keene who claimed he had taught both Brewer and Whittington everything they knew about writing. Probably they had all influenced each other.  Regardless, the onset of the paperback original meant it was no longer a matter of getting paid by the word.  Thanks to the exigencies of publishing, one now had to work to contract, which, of course, meant less autonomy for the likes of Whittington. 

It was was a hard road to travel, but a road nevertheless. As Whittington said half-jokingly in  “I Remember It Well,” he hadn’t realized  when he began publishing in the late 1940s that most successful writers in America were either college professors, ad men, reporters, lawyers, dog catchers or politicians. Not entirely true, but his point is well taken. Many successful writers had other jobs and, unlike Whittington, didn’t have to meet the demands entailed in scratching for a living. Naive he might have been, but nothing was going to hold Whittington back. Consequently, he quit his job to be a full-time working writer. Still it would be  seven years before he sold his first story, to United Features in 1943 for $15. It would still be another five years before he could sell stories on a regular basis.  

According to Whittington, he might never have entertained the notion of writing crime and suspense stories had he not attended  a 1949 writers’ conference in Chicago, where he was told by an editor that these were the very stories publishers were looking for. On the bus journey back to Florida, hemmed against a window by an overweight woman, Whittington plotted his first crime story. He claims he arrived home on a Monday, wrote the story that night, posted it on Tuesday,  and by Friday had a check for $250 from King Features, a long-standing Hearst outlet.  Fanciful or not, it illustrates Whittington’s writing speed and methodology,  while indicating the kind of money that could be made from writing pulp fiction. 

Whittington, who would write 30 novelettes for King, dove headlong into the beast that was the burgeoning paperback market. Companies like  Fawcett, who paid writers “not by royalty but on print order. Foreign, movie and TV rights stayed with the author. They were insane.”  It was a business model that seemed to work, at least for the likes of Whittington and Brewer. No matter that they drove themselves into the ground trying to fit into that system, which had the potential of paying well, however much it curtailed their options.  Of course,  there was a price to be paid for their servitude. To deal with the pressure entailed in churning-out books, working to deadlines, scrounging for contracts, and making promises that were difficult to keep, some would turn to alcohol or pills.  I don’t know if Whittington, who certainly liked to portray alcoholics in his fiction, was as much of a  drinker as Brewer or Thompson, but if so, it would have been understandable.  

Most likely more workaholic than alcoholic, it took Whittington, by his own admission,  thirteen years to master  the art of creating a compelling narrative. But once he did, he would immodestly say,  “I could plot, baby. I could plot.”  More importantly, he could also now sell practically anything he wrote, and live well off the proceeds.  Believing that not planning a novel was unprofessional, he admitted to having a range of experiences and knowledge of various locales that fit the sort of writing he was doing. Though he wanted to make the reader feel what his characters felt,  he had the wherewithal to move outside his own experiences, that it wasn’t simply a case of writing about what one knows. As he said,  “you don’t have to die in a fire to write about arson.” 

Whittington’s success eventually led to Hollywood. However, he had problems adapting  to the studio system. After all, Whittington had always worked on his own, while in Hollywood he was expected to be part of a team. Even so, his treatment for Trouble Rides Tall with Gary Cooper became a TV series, The Lawman. While IMDB lists ten film credits associated with his name: from the short The Wonderful World of Tupperware (1959) to TV work on Lawman, The Alaskans, Cheyenne, The Dakotas; and films like Desire In the Dust (1960, based on his novel), Black Gold (1962, based on his story), Adios Gringo (1965, based on his novel Adios), Fireball (1969), Dead in the Water (1991, based on his novel Web of Murder).  Undeterred, Whittington returned to Florida where he wrote, produced and directed  The Face of the Phantom, a horror movie no distributor wanted to take on. For the next eight years, Whittington wrote a number of scripts, but couldn’t sell any of them.  

The 1960s proved to be Whittington’s most prolific decade. His largest flurry of novels began in 1964 after he was contracted to produce a 60,000 word novel, for which he was paid $1000.  According to Whittington, he handed in a novel per month for the next 39 months. Those  39 novels have been referred to as Whittington’s “lost novels,” because they have been difficult to track down.  Published under various pseudonyms, most were adult-themed narratives (thanks to Whittington aficionado David Laurence Wilson, pretty much all of these books have now been accounted for).  Around this time he was also contacted to write a series of tie-in novels based on The Man From Uncle under the name Robert Hart-Davis, for which he was paid $1500. Not surprisingly, Whittington ended up mentally and physically exhausted.  Burnt out, he quit writing and found employment with the Department of Agriculture.  Though even during his eight year tenure with the Department he managed to churn out the odd novel. Eventually, Whittington, thanks to his wife, located a new agent who, after suggesting he change to writing name to Ashley Carter, negotiated contracts for some eighteen antebellum plantation novels  featuring Falconhurst, a series begun by  Kyle Onstott and, then, Lance Horner, as well as at least seven in the Blackoaks series, about a Mandingo slave, and six Longarm westerns under the name Tabor Evans.  

Despite his output, Whittington was smart enough to sometimes stand back to let his material crystallize on its own.  For example, having  signed a contract with  Fawcett in 1952 to write a novel for which he received a $1000 advance, Whittington produced  My Bloody Hands, about a crooked cop fed up with the corruption around him, including his own. However, he and his editors knew the novel wasn’t quite right, so Fawcett told  him to keep the advance and work on something else. Four years later, while visiting  a prison with a friend  who was interviewing an inmate for True Detective, Whittington, noting his surroundings, realized the  protagonist of My Bloody Hands shouldn’t be a corrupt cop but a citizen on the take and content to keep on doing so.  So he went home, changed the title, and, over the next month, finished the novel, which included an opening set in a similar prison. Consequently, he would say he was never sure if Forgive Me Killer took one month or four years to write. As for his usual working process, Whittington normally started with the climax, crisis or denouement and worked backwards, teasing and terrifying the reader, while establishing the plot that would unlock the story. Consequently, the novel’s shape would dictate its effect. Whittington liked to quote Spillane: “The first page sells the book being read, the last page sells the one you’re writing.”

For someone so intensely involved in the writing process, Whittington’s work, despite dubious portrayals of women, could be oddly political. As he once said,  “Not one of my heroes is ever permitted, by his own disenchanted sanity, to believe in the sanity of the social order around him.”  Regardless of how dangerous their situation, Whittington’s protagonists have only themselves to rely upon, and their true selves cannot help but be revealed. Faced with that moment of truth, Whittington’s libertarian heroes  “[Cannot] put on a happy face. He is pushed to the place where he can trust only himself, even when he recognizes the impossible odds he faces.”  

Like many other noirists,  Whittington would find greater favor in France.  Though, come the 1980s, with no new Whittington novels in sight, pundits there were beginning to think he had ascended to noir heaven, his death unnoticed by unappreciative Americans. Meanwhile, French periodicals like 813 and Magazine Litteraire were celebrating him,  the latter calling him  a “master of the roman noir,” and the best of the second generation of crime writers. Of course, Whittington was no stranger to French crime readers, with numerous novels published by Gallimard’s Serie Noire, beginning with You’ll Die Next (CarrĂ© Noir) in 1954,  followed by the likes of Hell Can Wait, published in 1956, four years before it appeared in the U.S., and The Humming Box in 1957. And from 1951 onwards, French magazines Le Fantome and Verrou had been publishing translations of his stories. Rafael Sorin in Le Monde compares him to Goodis, Tracy and Gault, adding , “Even the most minor of Whittington’s earliest narratives reread today does not fail to charm. Whittington, who acknowledges the influences of Cain, Frederic Davis and Day Keene is the most violent writer of this genre. His tomb of death can be the appliance freezer, alligators, mosquitoes carrying fatal virus. But his worst enemy is la femme. She who kills for money and devours those who succumb to her charms.”

But Whittington also had his American admirers.  Anthony Boucher- writing in the  New York Times of You’ll Die Next: "I couldn't have held my breath any longer in this vigorous tale whose plot is too dextrously twisted even to mention in a review." - and the eccentric suspense writer Harry Stephen Keeler, who said,  “Whittington is only writer I know who can make a sex scene last six pages without ever going out of bounds.” But it would only be in the 1980s,  thanks to Black Lizard, that his novels Forgive Me, Killer, The Devil Wears Wings, Fires That Destroy, A Moment to Prey, A Ticket to Hell and Web of Murder were reprinted, that Whittington would be rehabilitated for a new readership. While articles acknowledging his influence and the quality of his work began to appear   in magazines like The West Coast Review of Books, Twentieth Century Crime and Suspense Writers, Twentieth Century Western Writers. 

Given today’s market, it’s doubtful anyone, no matter how committed, could repeat Whittington’s accomplishments.  Whether in terms of output or the quality of what Whittington, on the top of his game, could produce. Today, despite the internet, there aren’t the same outlets and few if any that can pay the same rates, if at all. Likewise, there’s considerably less money to spend on writers unconnected  to corporate publishers. Consequently, few, given the choice or chance, would seek to travel down that road.  Even back in the 1980s Whittington, reflecting on his most prolific years, maintained there were fewer than “500 people in the U.S. make their living from full-time freelance writing,” which made him, since 1948, one of “fortune’s 500.” Though he described writing as “a blast,” he admitted there was a downside, saying, “With all the fallout, fragmentation, frustration and free-falls known to man, I’ve careened around on heights I never dreamed of, and simmered in pits I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and survived.” 

With these recent reprints and laudatory words, Whittington, who died in 1989 at age 74, might yet receive the recognition he clearly deserves. As hardboiled pundit Bill Crider said about Whittington’s A Night For Screaming, he could begin “with a tense situation and then dial up the tension on every succeeding page. He can put his protagonist into a situation that seems as bad as it can get, and then he can make it worse. And after that, he can make it worse still.” So welcome to  Whittington’s world, as psychologically gripping and off-kilter as Jim Thompson or David Goodis, and, plot-wise, as unrelenting as James M. Cain. And even though he never did become the next Fitzgerald,  when it came to hardboiled noir,  Whittington, at his best, was as good as anyone and far better than most.


Unknown said...

I'm not much of a pundit, really, but I sure enjoyed your post. Whittington's been a favorite of mine for 50 years now, and I always enjoy seeing a tribute to him and his work.

Woody Haut said...

Thanks, Bill. Much appreciated... Glad to hear there are other HW fans out there.

jurinummelin said...

Thanks, Woody, for the excellent article!

Rusty Barnes said...

Great article, thank you. Makes me wish someone would write a biography. But there might not be much to it, since he was writing all the time. Still, one can hope.