Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Unsung pulp hero Art Crockett

Some weeks back James Reasoner wrote a review of an issue of Two-Fisted Detective Stories on his blog, and I couldn't help noticing that one of the writers in that magazine was one Art Crockett. I remembered having seen the name somewhere before. I did some brain-work and I sure remembered that it was in the introduction to a true crime anthology Murder Plus that was edited by Marc Gerald in 1992.

Gerald writes about the time when he was recruited to work for True Detective magazine that was focused on true crime. He goes on for quite a while about Crockett:

My boss was Art Crockett. Pushing seventy, he wore a fedora over his horseshoe of hair and a cardigan vest over white starched shirts. He walked with a cane, had a lame eye, a wisecrack for every occasion, and a two-pack-a-day
cough though he'd recently cut down to a half a pack a day. Doctor's orders.

If Art looked and acted the part of the wizened, tough-guy editor, he had a right to. He had lived the life.

Raised a few blocks up from our office, Art received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart as a radioman with the 100th Infantry Division in World War II. After his discharge, he worked a series of unsatisfying jobs - in a salt factory, a refrigeration plant, and as an elevator repairman. Then, with a wife and two kids to support, Art quit his day job, rolled the dice, and began hammering out plots fast and for money - a penny a word.

His first stories appeared in second-generation detective fiction pulps like Manhunt, Pursuit, Menace and Conflict. In the early 1960's, he edited a bizarre string of
sex-cum-violence magazines, unreasonable facsimiles of legitimate men's adventure titles like Argosy and True that featured lavishly illustrated covers of dolled-up girl-Nazis equipped with leather, whips and chains. When they folded, Art left for greener pastures of the True West publications. It was a short stay, for they, too, closed up shop, and when they did he turned to True Detective.

Art was a considerable literaty talent although thirty-five years of high-speed writing had taken its toll. When necessary, he could still knock out a masterful yarn. Mostly,
he just churned out tawdry blurbs and titles on his Royal manual, circa 1936, something he could do like nobody's business. ("The poor joker on the floor was literally beaten to death. That was bad enough. But what his blood-dimmed eyes beheld before the end came may have been even worse." Or "It was the ultimate humiliation for the man who was obsessed with sex, and no power on earth could stop her as she approached him with her menacing knife.")

Gerald also says that Crockett died of a heart attack in June 23, 1990. If Crockett was in his seventies in 1988, when Gerald came to work for True Detective, he must've been born in 1918 or thereabouts.

Gerald mentions also other writers who wrote lots of true crime stories: Jack Heise, Bud Ampolsk, Bill Kelly, Bill Cox and Walt Hecox. Of the names, I can find real fiction writing credits only for Walter Hecox. (The Bill Cox here seems to be Bill G. Cox, so he's not the pulp and paperback writer William R. Cox.) Gerald calls Jack Heise "all-time pulp great", but I can't find any support for the claim of him being a pulp writer. But then again, Gerald seems to equate true crime mags and pulp mags. (This guy may be the same Bill Kelly Gerald refers to.)

Here's a list of Art Crockett's and Walter Hecox's crime stories from the Fictionmags Index.

By the way, Gerald's book is a great anthology: it features stories by writers like Robert Bloch, Jim Thompson, Bruno Fischer, Lionel White, Dashiell Hammett and Harlan Ellison, almost every story being pulled from a true crime magazine. Mention is also made of Charles Burgess and Robert Faherty, whose rare entries in book-length writing Gerald speaks of admiringly. Has anyone read Burgess's The Other Woman, published by Beacon in 1960, or Faherty's Swamp Babe, published by Crest in 1958?

Edit: Based on what Allen Hubin found, it seems probable that Art Crockett was born in 1921.

10 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I have, but haven't read Swamp Babe. I also have it in another edition with the title Big Old Sun (at least I think I do). That was the original title.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks for the info on Art Crockett, Juri. I enjoyed the one story of his that I read and certainly wouldn't hesitate to read more.

Todd Mason said...

In his BARE*BONES rundown of WEB DETECTIVE, incompletely reprinted in CRIME DOSSIER, Peter Enfantino surveyed a Lot of Art Crockett and his colleagues's (including occasionally such folk as Ellison and the SMLA men) work for that most prominent of the sleaze crime-fiction digests (before it became WEB TERROR and went over to shudder-pulp-style weird sadism...as opposed to, say, everyday sadism...stories).

Alan G. Ampolsk said...

Apologies for the late-arriving comment, but I've only just discovered your post. Bud Ampolsk was/is my father (for more on the indefinite tense, see www.dementianights.com). Art Crockett worked for him on most if not all of the books you mention - my father was editorial director, and Crockett was an assistant editor. Later the roles were reversed - in the 90's my father worked for Crockett.

Gerald's information is mostly accurate but his chronology is off on one point -- Crockett didn't move in sequence from the men's adventure books to the western to the crime books. They were all produced simultaneously, and Crockett worked on all of them. The publisher was Reese Publishing, which at its height was putting out 17 monthly titles (including the men's books -- they used a different corporate name for them but it was the same organization). My understanding is that Crockett worked on all of them throughout. He wound up as editor of the crime books at a time when Reese had folded most of the other titles, so that's why it seems that he moved from one to the other.

You won't find much of my father's stuff under his own name because - apart from some of the late true-crime work - he used a variety of pen names, including Don Unatin and Bill Ryder.

I'd be glad to try to fill you in more, as best I can. Unfortunately my father isn't able to remember any of this anymore, but I can work from what he told me and what I lived through. I hope that's of some value.

Juri said...

Thanks for the info on your father, Alan - and sorry to hear about him being in a bad condition! With your permission I'll post your comment on top of the blog.

Nancy said...

My mother, Sheila Barnes, wrote for Art Crockett in the mid to late eighties too. She was in her seventies as well and had moved back from "retirement" in Florida to her beloved Hell's Kitchen. She actually lived down the block from the True Detective offices and I loved telling people my dignified, well-bred, attractive silver-haired mother wrote many of the lurid True Detective tales - usually under the names Nancy O'Brien and Ted McDermott (all thinly-disguised family names). My mother, a newspaper reporter for most of her life, loved working for Art Crockett and telling people what she penned. My mother died two years ago but I still have a number of True Detectives from her time there. I'm glad I stumbled upon this blog, very much by accident, looking for another unrelated friend with last name of Crockett.

Juri said...

Nancy, thank you very much for your comment - very interesting! I couldn't find any stories for the names you mention, but I believe they were for the so-called true stories, not the fictional ones usually indexed on this site:

http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm

Nancy said...

Thanks so much for reminding me of a wonderful part of my mother's life and you're right - she wrote the "true crime" stories. By the way, my great-grandfather on the other side was Finnish, a Salonen that somehow got changed to Williams. When he arrived here from Finland he ran a boardinghouse for Finnish sailors on Cherry Street in lower Manhattan. Small world.

Juri said...

It sure is. Finns used to get around, when there wasn't much here.

I'll post your original comment on top of my blog one of these days, as it is possible that someone's interested. ;)

Juri said...

By the way, Nancy, did your mother write only for True Detective or did she contribute to other mags as well? And did she ever talk about Art Crockett? It would be interesting hear comments about the man himself.