EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writers #8 – Robert Ray – Murdock PI Series

More shelf clearing, Readers!

Next up: Murdock for Hire, Book 2 in the hard-boiled PI series by Robert Ray,   featuring boat- building private eye,  Matt Murdock.

Author Robert Ray is a pretty cool guy.  Born in Texas in 1935, which makes him 86 years old, he describes himself as “author, teacher, dangerous thinker”.  In university he majored in languages, learning Russian, Chinese and Hindustani!  He bagged a PhD and has spent his professional life teaching writing at the college level.

Penguin published Ray’s first books in the Murdock series from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. I remember their witty titles: Bloody Murdock, Dial M for Murdock, Merry Christmas Murdock and Murdock Cracks Ice.  Then there’s a 20 year gap before the next two books in the series: Murdock Tackles Taos (2012) and Murdock Rocks Sedona (2015). Also a change of venue from California to New Mexico and a change in publishers to Camel Press Publishing  a mid-list publisher of genre fiction located in Washington State.

So what happened?  A familiar and unhappy scenario for many writers.  They publish a series of books then the publisher drops them because (a) their editor and in-house champion left the company or (b) the books didn’t sell quite enough. Quality doesn’t count, not even Hammett nominations, only biz revenues.  Authors’ careers increasingly resemble the business curves of  commodities.

So what happened to Ray in the intervening 20 years? Quite a lot as it turned out.

He returned to his teaching roots and with co-author, Bret Norris, created The Weekend Novelist, a step-by-step manual for wannabe authors busy with their day jobs.  It proved to be such a huge success that Ray went on to write two more follow-ups: The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery with his friend, Jack Remick as well as  The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.  Ray believes that  the books have taught more than 10,000 people how to write!

Ray also wrote a standalone thriller, The Hitman Cometh as well as several business texts and a book on tennis.

Today, with the help of Jack Remick, he maintains a vibrant blog on his website. Every Tuesday and Friday they write together at Louisa’s Bakery and Cafe in Seattle, a city where he and his wife live with three cats…so far.

I like this guy!!

Re-reading the opening chapters of Murdock for Hire, I’m struck by Ray’s spare, journalistic prose,  which zips you through the pages. The subject matter is pure “Wolf of Wall Street” stuff. Hapless businessman Eddie Hennessey tries the kinky sex and drugs of an exclusive hookers’ club and ends up unpleasantly dead. Murdock, who more than a little resembles Travis McGee (he loves boats and hot women), is asked to investigate.  It’s an enjoyable pulp read, the same but different.

BOTTOM LINE:   My copy of Murdock for Hire  is paperback, not first edition.  Prices on Abe Books, Amazon and Biblio range from $2 to $6.  Thierry value: $11.30US*

DECISION: Donate to Little Library

*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honor of Mr. Brainwash who sold old used T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)

 

 

 

EAT THIS BOOK: Forgotten Writers #7 – Stephen Paul Cohen

Back to clearing my book shelves, Readers!

Next up: two books by Stephen Paul Cohen, featuring investigator Eddie Margolis: Heartless (1986)  and Island of Steel (1988). Both published by William Morrow.

Stephen Paul Cohen is/was a real estate lawyer living in Minneapolis. His two private eye thrillers earned rave reviews in leading US publications. The New York Times called his writing “smart, desperate, gritty”. The Wall Street Journal gave it the ultimate praise:  “literate”.   I remember the emotional intensity of Cohen’s writing, something all we writers strive for.

Flipping through Cohen’s books 30 years later,  I realize that he’s writing noir – and nice juicy pulp fiction, too. The gritty street life he creates feels very real.  Just the same, he relies on many PI thriller tropes, which readers expected and wanted: Eddie Margolis, the hero, is a a desperate alcoholic who decides to avenge his best friend’s murder. He deals with corrupt rich and powerful men and beds deceitful dames. He’s betrayed by a lover. You know how it goes.

But that doesn’t mean the books are bad. Far from it. Genre publishers look for “the same but different”. By that criterion, Cohen’s books certainly deliver.

So what happened to Stephen Paul Cohen? There’s very little about him on the internet.  His books are available on Amazon.ca, but only as used copies.

One source of information is Allen J. Hubin’s review of Island of Steel on the Mystery File website.  Comments suggest that publishers may have dropped hard-boiled fiction in the early 1990s, because cozies sold better.  A fair observation, but I also believe that Cohen’s writing was ahead of its time. He was writing noir, which wasn’t popular then, but has since had a big resurgence .

I further suspect that unfavorable reviews may have played a part. In 1989, the year after Island of Steel came out, Cohen co-authored a speculative fiction thriller, Night Launch, with then Senator Jake Garn. The book should have been a slam dunk for both authors, but  Publishers Weekly gave it a thumbs down.  Did William Morrow drop Cohen because of that?

Ten years later, Cohen apparently tried writing again. His drug trade thriller, Jungle White, was published in Thailand by White Lotus Press, but not elsewhere. (Did Cohen move to Asia, the way a few of my friends have done?) A reviewer on the Things Asian website hated Jungle White so much he wrote a lengthy and damning review, renaming the book, “A White in the Jungle”.  I haven’t read it so I can’t comment either way.

All writers get the rare bad review. Most of the time the reader simply didn’t “get” the book. But when they feel compelled to vent to the whole world about it, I suspect a more self-centred motive is at play.  I have to ask the question: Did the Things Asian review make Cohen quit writing for good?

BOTTOM LINE:   My copies of Heartless and Islands of Steel are used Avon paperbacks, not first editions.  Prices on Abe Books, Amazon and Biblio range from $4 to $12.  Thierry value: $18.97US*

DECISION: Keep as rare books. 

*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honor of Mr. Brainwash who sold old used T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)