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LIST 68 – Autumn 2015

Lynn Munroe Books specializes in vintage paperbacks, hardboiled mystery and "vintage sleaze" paperbacks.

 

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Thank you: Tom Lesser, Robert Speray, Justin Marriott, Joe Kenney,  Sohn Enis, Dr. George William Smith, James Byron Smith, Donna Medlin, Paul Hofrichter, Nelson DeMille, Ralph Hayes, Rachel Parker-Stephen, Pearl Stephen, John S. Littell, Joanmarie Kalter, Pat Hawk, David Whitehead, Chris Eckhoff, & Bruce Black at bookscans.com.

Next list: Christa Faust

As always, all the books shown are copies I gathered for this list and are all for sale. If you see something you want just send me an email and I will let you know condition, price and availability.


 

PETER McCURTIN

 

“So I want to be a paperback writer.” – The Beatles, 1966

 

Peter McCurtin was a paperback writer. None of his books ever came out in a hardcover edition in the United States. He wrote fast-paced pulp fiction, Westerns, thrillers and crime novels from the late 1960s into the 1990s. We will probably never have a complete list of all of his books.

Until the groundbreaking research of British author David Whitehead, we thought Peter McCurtin was just a pseudonym, a house name. We learned from David Whitehead that McCurtin was a real person, born in Ireland on October 15, 1929. He immigrated to the United States as a young man and found work as an editor and writer. His name is found as co-editor of NEW YORK REVIEW, as assistant editor of ALL-MAN, as editor of CAVALCADE. The first published book under his own name was a 1968 Midwood called ANYTHING GOES. McCurtin was soon working as an editor for Midwood publisher Harry Shorten.  Shorten would lose Midwood, but he put McCurtin to work editing books for his other lines, Tower, Belmont (later Belmont Tower), and Leisure Book.  And there, as an editor, McCurtin also wrote some of the books, both under his own name and house names. And he used his own name as a house name too, hiring other writers to create books under the byline “Peter McCurtin”. And so both the stories are true: Peter McCurtin was a real person and a house name too.

The biographical information provided on Whitehead’s Ben Bridges website has been reprinted verbatim too many times by other bloggers for me to repeat it again. I encourage you to read Whitehead’s work to learn more about McCurtin’s life. My interest here is to begin to create a more comprehensive checklist of his books. Due to McCurtin’s love of pseudonyms (and pseudonyms who wrote as other pseudonyms), and due to his use of ghost writers, we know it will probably never be complete. The publisher’s files from those days were destroyed many years ago. McCurtin did not donate his papers anywhere, and he was estranged from his children when he died in 1997. A call to his children for information is met with a reply that they do not wish to talk about him. Some of the pen names remain for now a mystery, but others are well known. And at the least we have all the books he published and copyrighted under his own name.

For reasons of his own, McCurtin began to rely more and more on ghost writers for the books appearing under his own name. His favorite ghost was George Harmon Smith. When George was interviewed by James A. Corrick for PAPERBACK PARADE #36 in 1993, he said he had written a number of titles that were published under the house name Peter McCurtin. That interview led many to assume McCurtin was nothing but a house name. George said he wrote Westerns under McCurtin’s name, so the story spread that he had written all of the Sundance books. I will attempt to show here that he did write some of them, but others were by McCurtin, and others still were probably collaborations.

It is not true that Peter McCurtin did not write any of the books that were published under his own name. He was a writer/editor, and he pounded away at his manual typewriter for years. His books have a lusty Irish temperament that few others could ever duplicate. He was a fine writer, but he wasn’t always able to complete every project he started. Due to time constraints or health constraints, he would enlist ghost writers.  We know from copyright records that Ralph Hayes was one of them. And we know from interviews that George Harmon Smith was another. For unknown reasons, all of the McCurtin books by Hayes were copyrighted, while George Harmon Smith’s name never appeared once on a McCurtin copyright.

Because of the unique nature of his work as editor who was also a writer, when I say “written by Peter McCurtin” here I mean “either written by McCurtin himself or possibly a collaboration finished or fleshed out by one of his ghostwriters, often George Harmon Smith”.

When one of the writers, Leonard Levinson, was interviewed by Joe Kenney for PAPERBACK FANATIC in 2012, Levinson explained that he wrote some books for McCurtin, while others were more collaborative. He would receive the first 30 pages of a book like THE CAMP from his editor McCurtin and then flesh it out, turning it into a completed novel. In this way, McCurtin and Levinson became collaborators. McCurtin would also give incomplete manuscripts or work that needed to be changed or rewritten to George Harmon Smith, so those books can be called collaborations too. As I will show, some of the books have definite authorial clues from both McCurtin and George Harmon Smith. There is little doubt that George was completing or polishing or making sense out of his editor’s outlines and incomplete ideas. It just gets a little hazy, since George was sometimes editing a manuscript that his editor (McCurtin) had given to him, started by one writer (McCurtin) to be completed by another (George). Somehow they made it work.

I learned a great deal from the excellent research on McCurtin’s men’s adventure series by Joe Kenney of the most excellent Glorious Trash blog,  and by Justin Marriott of the superior British fanzine PAPERBACK FANATIC. Their work opened a lot of doors for me and I wish to thank both of them here.     

The Levinson interview also offered the first description of McCurtin I have seen:

 “I delivered a manuscript to Midwood. A couple weeks later an editor called…and invited me to his office, and explained that Midwood was part of a publishing mini-conglomerate called Belmont Tower (BT), which also published other types of books under other imprints, and would I be interested in writing a Mafia thriller. …Naturally I said yes. The erotica editor walked me down the hall and introduced me to the thriller-diller editor Peter McCurtin…

“Peter was fifty-something, charming, gentle, jovial, dressed like a college professor, resembled Winston Churchill. He asked me to write a novel in the Sharpshooter series published by BT’S Leisure imprint, based on the Marksman series, which was based on the Assassin series… Peter wrote the first Assassin, MANHATTAN MASSACRE. He told me to write lean and mean…. He gave me MANHATTAN MASSACRE and a Sharpshooter. I took them home to study… Peter demonstrated how to write violent melodrama populated by believable characters in vivid locales, but didn’t layer description because pulp fiction has got to move. His style reminded me of the great Mickey Spillane.”

 

I will try to chart the convoluted and overlapping SHARPSHPOOTER, MARKSMAN and ASSASSIN series, all edited by Peter McCurtin, here. He also started and edited the SOLDIER OF FORTUNE series under his own name. McCurtin’s books are in what I call a ‘dirty’ style, meaning no flowery words, no fluff, nothing extra, lots of swearing and excrement and bloody violence. When you are in the mood, they are great fun to read.

So we may never know 100% of the books McCurtin wrote or co-wrote. This is an attempt to gather what we do know from existing records, interviews and the memories of writers and editors who worked with McCurtin.

Peter McCurtin died in 1997.  Nobody wrote much about him in the decades after his death. Soon he was so forgotten many people assumed Peter McCurtin was only a house name.  Now, 18 years later, he is at least no longer so forgotten. In a recent contribution to Joe Kenney’s Glorious Trash blog, Leonard Levinson remembered Peter McCurtin: “I was very fond of Peter’s warm, affable personality, especially his sardonic sense of humor”.

 

The first book I can find by Peter McCurtin is ANYTHING GOES, Midwood 34-930, his 1968 introduction to Harry Shorten, publisher of Midwood Books. Soon McCurtin was working as an editor for Shorten’s Belmont & Tower lines, which would merge into BT, Belmont Tower. ANYTHING GOES has a loose, colloquial first person easygoing style with lots of ribald comments and jokes, rapid-fire brief paragraphs, lots of earthy sex.  The second Peter McCurtin Midwood is written in a totally different style. The writing is clean, with long descriptive paragraphs.  It is thoughtful, interior, reasoned, with precise grammar. The second McCurtin Midwood was ghosted by George Harmon Smith, a high school principal with a firm grasp of the correct usages of each word he employed. He plays by the rules. He might use a vulgar word when the situation called for it, but never gratuitously and never repeatedly. Seeing the different styles of these two books under the same byline helps act as a key to identifying the real author of many later McCurtin titles.