Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gold Medal Corner -- Steve Brackeen

Back when Steve Lewis's Mystery*File was a print item, I did several columns called "Gold Medal Corner." One of them was on John Farris, aka Steve Brackeen, and a discussion on The Big Adios inspired me to reprint it here.

John Farris graduated from high school in 1955 and in 1959 he published Harrison High, which went on to sell a million or so copies and was made into a movie produced by and starring Dick Clark. Yes, Dick Clark, America’s Oldest Teenager. The title of the movie was Because They're Young, and about the only good thing about it is the title song, an instrumental by Duane Eddy. James Darren does a vocal of the song, too. That’s not quite so good.


Harrison High
wasn’t a Gold Medal novel, but it was a huge influence on me. I read it in 1959 in a Dell paperback edition, and I was consumed with unseemly envy. I wanted to be John Farris. I mean, here was a guy not much older than I was, and he was already a wildly successful writer. But I didn’t know the half of it. Here’s the some more of the story:
Farris sold his first novel the summer he graduated from high school, and it was published the next year. It’s a mystery called The Corpse Next Door, and it was a paperback original from Graphic Books. It’s not bad at all. Just don’t look at the cover when you read it, because the cover gives away the killer.

So what? you say. What does this have to do with Gold Medal. Well, I’m coming to that. After The Corpse Next Door, Farris took a pen name and started writing for Gold Medal Books. He was Steve Brackeen, and his three GM titles are Baby Moll (Crest, 1958), Danger in my Blood (Crest, 1959), and Delfina (Gold Medal, 1962). Some of you have noticed already that two of these books are not, technically speaking, Gold Medals. They’re Crests, and Fawcett usually reserved its Crest imprint for reprints. But not always. I don’t know how they decided such things, but both Brackeen novels are originals. So is the GM title, of course.


Farris must have been all of nineteen or twenty when he wrote Baby Moll. I don’t think anybody would have known that by reading the book. There’s a maturity here way beyond Farris’ years. The kid could write: “The Neptune Court occupied two blocks of beach land on a narrow peninsula known as Fontaine Beach. It was a mushrooming resort center. Ornate motels and hotels done in bold lines sprawled along the strip of highway in a growing chain. Every day bulldozers scraped at the raw land while sun-reddened men with fat stacks of blueprints watched and planned. The street crumbled away under the impact of the ready-mix trucks.” Remind you of any other Gold Medal writers you know? I think John D. MacDonald and Mickey Spillane were two big influences on “Steve Brackeen.”

All three of the Brackeen books I’ve read are set in Florida.
The plot of Baby Moll is the old “the minute I get out, they keep pulling me back in” story. Pete Mallory has a good business and is engaged to a nice young woman. But he has a past. He worked for a gangster named Macy Barr, and Barr wants him back for one more job, which involves finding out who’s killing all Barr’s top men. The way Mallory sees it, he doesn’t have any choice, so he goes. And naturally gets involved with several beautiful women, mostly scantily clad, and plenty of sharply written violence. You’re going to know who the killer is long before Mallory does, but the book’s moving so fast that it doesn’t matter.

Danger in my Blood
is about Denver Bryant, former government agent who pays a visit to an old friend and finds him murdered. There was violence in BABY MOLL, but it’s stepped up a notch in this one. Another fast-moving, sharply written book with good first-person narration.


Delfina
is a little different. For one thing it has one of those “photo covers.” What’s unusual about it is that the model is identified. It’s Senta Berger, “Viennese motion picture star.” Some of you old guys might remember her from such classics as Major Dundee and The Ambushers. Senta never caught on in the U.S., but according to the IMDb, she’s still making movies (and getting top billing) in Germany. But I, as usual, digress. It’s the book we’re supposed to be talking about, not the cover. Anyway, Clay McKinnon (not a first-person narrator like we have in the first two books) is a private eye who gets involved with the beautiful Delfina, which leads him to involvement with Latin American dictator who wants to go home again and a beautiful, if crazy, blonde whose preferred weapon is, well, here’s the back cover blurb: “Clay McKinnon thought he’d been to every kind of hell, but one still awaited him – She was blonde, and she liked to wield a whip . . . .” You got your private eyes, your blondes, and your bullwhips. What more could you ask for? This is great stuff, and Farris is still only around twenty-five years old. I think I envy him even more now than I did when I started writing this.


Various non-Gold Medal Bonuses: If you grew up during the 1950s and if you haven’t read Harrison High, you’re in for a nostalgic treat. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Farris (or someone using his name) wrote five or six sequels to this one. I’m accumulating these slowly. My wife, Judy, read them all when they came out, along with Farris’s big mainstream novel King Windom, which looks like an Elmer Gantry riff to me. There’s a Steve Brackeen hardcover that I haven’t read, The Guardians, but I have it and plan to read it. My personal favorite of Farris's books so far is Sharp Practice, one of the best homicidal killer books ever. Or at least that’s the way I remember it. Check out the Gold Medals, but be alert for the other books. You can hardly go wrong with any of them.

4 comments:

Fred Blosser said...

Didn't Stephen King say several years ago that he was a fan of "Harrison High" too?

I've wondered why some originals became Gold Medals and others Crest. The question occurred to me recently when I bought a couple of Clair Huffaker's '50s pb westerns at a used-book store. They were Crest rather than GM, although clearly pb originals. In Huffaker's case, maybe it was because his stuff was a little less formulaic than the usual run of GM oaters?

Bill Crider said...

I don't know the answer, Fred. Maybe there was a logical reason like the one you mention. Maybe there wasn't. I think Bill Gault's Joe Puma books were Crest editions, too.

Anonymous said...

Good piece, Bill. And I agree with you about Sharp Practice, a true classic.

Jeff

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I remember Senta Berger and the dumb juvenile jokes we'd make of her name.