RARA-AVIS: Block, John Warren Wells, and Scudder (warning: freakishly long)

From: bobav1 ( rav7@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Date: 19 Dec 2007

OK, Block months are ending, and I'm finally gonna chip in with a theory. I recently reread Sins of the Fathers and Stab in the Dark
(Scudders 1 and 4), and I reread my favorite, 8 Million Ways to Die, this past summer (Scudder 5). They were all even better this time, and I thought they were terrific books the first time around. Like many on the list, I prefer the pre-A.A. Scudder by far. I want to propose a theory on the sorta sleaze origins of Scudder. Please feel free to help or correct me …quot; there's a couple things, like the hardcover reprints of the early Scudders and the Ernie Bulow interview book, that I can't lay my hands on, and I'm sure there's more information out there, and there's lots more to say anyway. Let me start with some career context.

Block and Westlake are often grouped together: two prolific Grand Master contemporaries who came up together and have written multiple popular award-winning high-quality series. (They're both great, and I make no claim as to which is better, more important, or whatever.) But while they started from and are now in the same general place in the pantheon, their careers had very different phases early on. Both start out knocking out sleaze for Midwood, Monarch, Nightstand/Corinth, etc. via Scott Meredith, but:

Westlake publishes a hardcover a year starting in 1960, hits big with Parker/Stark in paperbacks, which lead to the film Point Blank starring Lee Marvin in 1967, the same year he wins a best novel Edgar for God Save the Mark. In 1970, the Hot Rock starts the Dortmunder series, which becomes a film starring Robert Redford in 1972. That's a hell of a successful writing career right there, 35 years ago.

Meanwhile, even by the early 1970s and about 15 years of professional writing, Block doesn't have nearly the fortune and fame. His first hardcover, Deadly Honeymoon, comes in 1967, and there aren't many others before 1977. He has a bunch of Gold Medals, including the seven-book Tanner series. Mostly what he has are pseudonymous works: Paul Kavanaugh and Chip Harrison and an undeterminable but probably pretty voluminous amount of sleaze. Among other names, he used Andrew Shaw, Sheldon Lord, Jill Emerson, "Dr." Benjamin Morse, and the one that I think matters for the early Scudders, John Warren Wells. Basically, Block's name is not a draw, and he's still writing sex-based books -- until the Scudders.

[Tangent: In checking a name above, I rediscovered the great Earl Kemp fanzine, and anyone who wants to know more about the early Block should check out: efanzines.com/EK/eI14/index.htm.]

Back to Block in the early 70s: there was no "Block" from 1971-75, just the pseudonyms. (His personal life is probably relevant here, but I'm not going there.) Block reappears with Scudder, and the first Scudders are paperback originals (a three book series, really) with at least one cover promoting "New York's Answer to Lew Archer." The first, The Sins of the Fathers, is a terrific book. Scudder is a fully formed character, and all sorts of common elements appear (the drinking, of course, but also newspaper atrocities, Scudder-administered beat-downs, etc.) in the early books. I won't give spoilers (the title does the job well enough). There are interesting themes of professionalism and payment for the private eye, policemen, and prostitute ("When someone hands you money, you take it"). There are three case studies in fatherhood (the girl's father, the boy's father, and Scudder himself). There's some thinking about religion and ritual (the tithing), and even a healthy chunk of scripture. The ethics of Scudder's resolution of this case and a previous flashback case are also rich and complex: doing the "wrong things for the right reason, or the right things for the wrong reason."

It's a damn good book.

A rather different reading experience is found in John Warren Wells's Tricks of the Trade, with the above-the-title tag, "The Joy of Hooking." The book consists of interviews (made up?) with nine New York City prostitutes. How they got started, how they operate, comments on technique and style, various philosophical thoughts. It was published in 1970 (pre-Joy of Sex, interestingly) by Signet / New American Library, a decided step-up from Nightstand and Midnight Reader. There's reasonable evidence that people read John Warren Wells: my copy is a 13th printing …quot; for all I know, this is Block's bestselling book ever!

[Tangent to make the case for Block's authorship: Johnny Wells is the main character in 1961's Lover by Andrew Shaw, and in Lynn Munroe's invaluable catalog, he cites John Warren Wells and Jill Emerson dedicating books to each other. (But unlike his recent trend, I kind of doubt Block will approve the republishing of the John Warren Wells titles.)]

I don't think that Tricks of the Trade warrants a close reading New Criticism style, but trust me when I say that story of Bernice matches a few of the elements found in the girl's story in Sins of the Fathers, and Gretchen owns real estate in Queens, like Elaine. So here's my reverse engineering of Sins of the Fathers: Take a John Warren Wells scenario of prostitution, adultery, homosexuality, (and more, but no spoilers), add murder, and have Scudder work out the Freudian psychological circumstances surrounding the sexual elements.

This time Scudder, not Wells, conducts the interviews. In particular, see chapter 10 with Marcia the roommate for talk of ego damage and hang-ups, even though Scudder claims, "I'm not a psychologist, a psychiatrist, any of those things. I'm just a man who used to be a cop."

This time Scudder, not Wells, produces the report (to both Hanniford's father and the reader) and puts the pieces of this "kind of prostitute" together: the life story, the motivation, how they got started, how they operate, and a philosophical/psychological explanation. (In the Scudder version, all but the technique.)

As for the later books, just on the surface, prostitutes and pimps play the key roles in 8 Million Ways to Die, and of course, there's Elaine throughout the series. There's more to say, but I've gone on way long, and this has taken me a while to put together.

What I see as the sleaze connections to Scudder in no way diminishes the early books, but provides a link between Block's named and pseudonymous writings professionally and thematically. After Scudder, Block writes as Block exclusively, I think, and he becomes a hardcover-publishing, book-touring Grand Master with many devoted fans
…quot; a path not clear in the early 70s.

Best to all, and where did Miker go?,

Bob V in NJ

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