RARA-AVIS: Gault's return

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 14 Apr 2001

William Cambell Gault did not publish a mystery novel between DEAD HERO
(1962) and THE BAD SAMARITAN (1980) in large part because the juvenile sports novels were much more lucrative. The initial writing of SAMARITAN dates back in the seventies. In conversation or a letter, Bill told me that he thought of the title and suggested it to Ken Millar/Ross Macdonald at one or their writer's luncheons but Millar said "Why don't you write it?"

The recent discussion of Gault made me miss him and his unmistakable voice, especially the pure voice of his letters. Reaching into a random stack of them, I lucked into perhaps the first I received. I wrote Gault at the suggestion of my editor at Harlequin which had just started the Raven House line of mysteries. Helen Heller was her name and she mentioned one of her other writers was an old guy named Gault. I bubbled with excitement and she suggested I write him as he fretted some about returning to the mystery field after so many years. She sent me early copies of his first two "comeback" novels, which were months away from general release. The letter dates from February 21, 1981.

"...let me protest--nobody is as good as you seem to think I am. If I was that good, why didn't THE BAD SAMARITAN sell through my regular agent? It kicked around for a couple of years before he sent it back. Then this friend of mine in Florida sent it to the cheapest house in America (I forget the name) and they turned it down for about five hundred bucks and it went to Harlequin. I agree with you that Cana (THE CANA DIVERSION) is better than Samaritan. I had to rewrite Samaritan every time a new minimum pay editor got hold of it at Harlequin and only after Helen came in did I find somebody who had the faintest God-damned idea of what a mystery should be."

Helen was a real fan and was well-read in the field and Gault said "with a little schooling from her, maybe I will learn to read more mysteries. I was never a mystery reader, one reason probably why I too often relied on old and tired themes and gimmicks. When I got into the book end of the field, everybody was copying Chandler, who is still my all-time hero in the genre."

I cannot resist quoting another paragraph from that letter because it captures the sound of this feisty guy and it also refers to two of his friends often discussed here, Millar and Fred Brown. It was in answer to a question I had raised about Milwaukee writers groups in the 40s & 50s.

"Fred Brown and I were in the Allied Authors in Milwaukee, Bob Bloch in the Fictioneers. I don't know why we never got together. When I went into the army during World War II (sounds like an MGM rerun) Fred and Larry Sternig brought in a lot of women who couldn't write, but I guess Fred and Larry thought they might fuck. I was burned, started another group, but we worked it out later. Same thing happened here in Santa Barbara. Ken Millar (Ross Macdonald) and a couple of locals started a writer's club (or two weeks luncheon gathering, I mean) about twenty-three years ago. About two years ago, some other writing quiff hounds brought in women they lusted for. Women writers were always welcome; the others we didn't need. So now we have two writers' lunches in Santa Barbara, the new-old group and the old-new group and Ken has come back to join us and some of the others who quit coming when the writers group turned into a social gathering. I like to talk shop with writers, pipe wrenches with plumbers, plows with farmers and pussy with women."

One last quote from the same letter:

"Don't think of plotting as your weakness; it was a thought that troubled me for years. If you get a theme, the plot will come. Try to remember there are no lay characters or throwaway lines. As you are working with your various characters and situations, draw lines between characters and situations that don't seem to be connected. Make the connection and a whole new vista may unfold. Waste NOBODY. They all might have potential."

Pretty good advice from a true professional.

Richard Moore

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