I was in need of some light reading, and so just finished one of Don’s earliest books, a Stewart Mann, private eye novel called The Hot One (1966), written as by Stephan Gregory.
It was a hoot and if you haven’t yet sampled the Mann series (there were five books), you owe yourself a glance at another side of Don that he rarely (understandably) revealed in the Bolan novels: he was one funny dude. I’ll always remember his warm Arkansas chuckle. The Mann novels are cast in the Shell Scott/Carter Brown style of sexy, breezy, funny, hard-hitting short mysteries that were popular in the 1950s and 60s. In fact, The Hot One totally holds its own in the Prather level of ribald detective fun.
This isn’t the voice Don used in his Joe Copp private eye books, by which time he’d firmly carved his own distinctive writing style, but is that of an enthusiastic young writer stretching his muscles for the main event (Bolan is three years away, remember). But there is foreshadowing of the big guy to come. Towards the end of this book, Mann has his moment of despair and considers bailing when he has a chance, but Don has him reflect, “Bug out, Mann, bug out. And I started to. But I knew I’d spend the rest of my life feeling like a whipped pup. I did care about the people involved.”
But about the humor: as this is a “sexy” 1966 paperback, most of the funny stuff are witty asides about this gal or that; my favorite is when Stew and a chick are trapped and it looks for sure like they’re gonna die, but when she sees Mann, she starts touching up her face. Don writes, “I watched idly, marveling at that creature called woman. At the gates of hell a woman would ask Lucifer for a comb and lipstick.” The plot is the purest hokum, seat-of-the-pants plotting with holes big enough to drive the War Wagon through…and I loved every word.
Well, almost every word.
A few caveats are in order if this series sounds interesting enough to you to go on-line in search of it. The ones to start with are The Insatiables and Madam Murder, which were published exactly as Don wrote them. The Hot One and The Sexy Saints were “spiced up” with about 10 pages of graphic sex (written by the editor) scattered throughout each book. Don was a romantic writer and these passages are easy to spot in their crudeness (and easy to skip over). More problematic is Don’s wonderful naming of Mann’s self-destructive sex impulse: ol’ creature. Just when everything is going hunky-dory for Mann, on a case or with life in general, ol’ creature stirs. Stew got booted from the Marines for doing a General’s daughter. Kicked off the cops for doing the captain’s wife. It’s a great literary device. Well, in Saints and Hot One, ol’ creature becomes ol’ baldy. Which I think is hilarious. Whenever the subject came up in conversation, Don invariably repeated the new name, rolled his eyes and there was that soft Arkansas chuckle again.
The only Mann to avoid is The Sex Goddess, which is incomprehensible through no fault of Don’s. The book was over the word-length so the editor arbitrarily deleted three consecutive chapters from the middle of the book. Yowza.
Upon finishing The Hot One, I found myself leafing through my correspondence with Don from when I was just a writer-in-the-making—a year from my first professional sale, two years from my first book sale. I had initially written Don a straight up fan letter, and waited awhile before letting on that I nurtured dreams of a writing career. In a letter to me dated 24 March 1974, Don wrote:
“I could have guessed that you too are a writer. Keep at it. Nobody ever said it was easy—and I’ll let you in on another little truth. The more “successful” you get, the harder “it” gets. I used to knock out those Stephan Gregory books in 5 or 6 days and never feel a pain. Now I pace the floor and sweat blood to get 8 or 10 pages a day. But it’s all worth it, so hell keep at it.”
Thanks, Don—for Stewart Mann, and for the advice.