EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Books #3 – The Old Dick by L. A. Morse

Older heros, where are they?

In recent years, especially in noir crime fiction, authors and editors have pushed to create  “geezer lit”.  But the sub-genre hasn’t really caught on even though crime fiction readers are an older demographic.

True enough, modern protagonists of crime fiction, especially cozies, have become slightly older, but they’re not really old.

Two notable exceptions did take off.  First of all, there’s the intrepid Miss Marple, inspired by an elderly friend of Dame Agatha Christie’s step grandmother. Miss Marple made her first appearance in a short story published in 1927.

Then more than half a century later,  author L.A. Morse introduced Jake Spanner, his 78 year old PI. The Old Dick was Morse’s first crime novel and he won an Edgar Award for it.

In the early days of Crime Writers of Canada, L. A. Morse was much admired by the membership and perhaps more than a little envied because of his smashing success with The Old Dick. Though Morse worked as an administrator at the University of Toronto, he was actually an American from Los Angeles with two degrees in English literature from the University of California.

Re-reading The Old Dick, it’s easy to understand why it was such a hit. The writing is excellent: Morse goes for the comedy, with wry observations and epigrams packed into every page. He’s channelling his inner Raymond Chandler with observations like :

  • “When you got old, you either went soft or you got dry. Fortunately, I had gotten dry.”
  •  “One of the few advantages of getting really old is that people don’t talk to you…They’re probably afraid that old age is contagious.”
  • “People have always divided the world into “us” and “them”, but when you’re old, you never fit in, so you’re always “them”.”

The Old Dick was not Morse’s first book. He’d already published, The Flesh Eaters, about a 15th century Scottish cannibal clan. He went on to write three more crime novels, all with a satirical edge. He took on Mickey Spillane with two hard-boiled  novels, The Big Enchilada and Sleaze, whose hero, Sam Hunter “made Dirty Harry look like Mother Teresa”. He then showed his cozy side in An Old-Fashioned Mystery, penned by the mysterious and reclusive author, “Runa Fairleigh”.

In the mid-1980s, Morse turned to screen writing. He was one of the writers of    Jake Spanner, Private Eye, a 1989 film starring Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine. Though the movie centred on the Jake Spanner character from The Old Dick, the plot bore no resemblance to the book at all. Despite a strong cast, it failed to take off.

At this point Morse abandoned writing altogether.  He turned to another medium for creative expression: he became -and still is – a sculptor. He became an expert bird watcher and published a two volume reference book on trashy 1980s movies and videos.

BOTTOM LINE:   Abe Books lists the value of my used, unsigned paperback from $4 to $8US.

DECISION – SELL, KEEP or DONATE? 

DONATE with an ounce of regret for the good writing between the covers