Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Man of Many Faces

Who was American author Robert Terrall, really? Under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms -- most memorably “Robert Kyle” and “John Gonzales” -- he wrote somewhere around 53 novels, including some humor-suffused numbers starring Manhattan gumshoe Ben Gates (Kill Now, Pay Later). But he also penned at least 29 books about another fictional private eye, Mike Shayne, using the “house name” Brett Halliday. After Terrall died in late March of this year at 94 years age, The Rap Sheet set out to discover more about this author described by novelist Ed Gorman as one of the “really fine craftsman” of the mid-20th-century paperback revolution.

In an interview with Terrall’s son, San Francisco journalist Ben Terrall, January Magazine’s sister publication learns what became of the author after he ceased publishing in 1986, how he got into the novel-writing game in the first place, how he felt about his respective fictional series, and what sort of father he was to his four children.

At one point in the exchange, Ben Terrall is asked about how his father looked at his literary trade:
Q: In 1979, your dad was interviewed by The New York Times. He was quoted as saying that he wasn’t enamored of the crime-fiction genre, but “it was a way of starting writing.” Why did he think that was the place to begin? And did he eventually develop a stronger interest in the genre, or did he always write mysteries just for the money?

A: Dad tried to make it writing “serious” novels, starting with his World War II book The Steps of the Quarry. But that novel took four years [to write] and didn’t go anywhere. So, as he had to support a family, he started writing more commercial stuff. He had already written They Deal in Death (which I love) in 1943 and A Killer Is Loose Among Us ... (a favorite of Charles Ardai’s), so he knew he was capable of producing that kind of stuff.

After the market for short stories in magazines dried up, he was writing whatever he could make a living at. The choice then was pretty much mysteries or westerns. He viewed them as entertainment, something that he could write relatively quickly so he could make time to write other, more serious novels. That didn’t work out as well as he hoped.

I wouldn’t presume to say I know how Dad felt about the genre, but I think it’s safe to say he was a complicated guy and had mixed feelings about the trade. He read a lot of world literature in translation, and went though at least two dense books a week. Dad could be a bit of a snob about what was and what wasn’t great writing, which sometimes drove me crazy when I was an angry young man (a very brief phase, I can assure you).

He could be dismissive about other writers in the field, though he told me Charles Williams [Talk of the Town, Dead Calm, etc.] was one of his favorite mystery/crime writers, and I can see why now. Williams was a great plotter and storyteller, and no hack as a writer. With Dad very much on my mind, I’m reading Williams now and loving his stuff.
You can read the full Rap Sheet interview here.



Post a Comment

<< Home