MILTON MAKES THE GRADE
Howard Browne (1908-1999) told me this story. I have no documentation for it, and you can believe it if you choose, or regard it simply as an amusing lie.
As for Howard Browne, he was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a baseball fan as a youngster, and hitchhiked from Omaha to Chicago to see Babe Ruth hit a home run. Unfortunately he wound up on the wrong side of Chicago, and had to walk the entire length of the city to see the Yankees play the White Sox. He didn’t let that stop him.
And he fell in love with the city of Chicago. He scraped a living at a variety of jobs including that of bill collector. Although his vision was always poor, his impressive bulk and powerful voice overcame reluctant debtors. However, he hoped to find a more rewarding profession, and eventually wound up as a magazine editor at Ziff-Davis Publications, where he worked for editor Ray Palmer on such pulps as Mammoth Mystery, Mammoth Detective, Mammoth Adventure, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures.
One day in 1946 he was working his way through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, performing the usual triage: This story is terrific, let’s buy it; This one is hopeless, return to author; This one just might make it, put it aside for a second look.
Then came a fat envelope. Browne opened it and found a novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by one Milton K. Ozaki. The story was much too long to use in one issue of a magazine and Ziff-Davis’s policy did not allow for serials. Ziff-Davis had a book division, however, including a line of mystery novels, so Browne slapped a buck-slip on the manuscript and sent it over to the book division.
Several months passed. Browne heard nothing and forgot about the incident. Then one day he found a copy of The Cuckoo Clock on his desk, with a note from the mystery book editor thanking him for the manuscript.
Browne trotted over to the book department and sought out the mystery editor. “Glad this book worked out for you. Obviously you liked it.”
“Liked it,” the book editor exclaimed, “I never read it!”
“Then why did you publish it?”
“Well, you recommended it, Howard, and I trust your judgment.”
Browne shook his head. “I never read it either. I just sent it to you because I couldn’t use it and I thought you might be able to.”
And thus an aspiring mystery novelist sold his first novel – without an editor ever reading his manuscript.
Fortunately The Cuckoo Clock was well received, and Ozaki followed it with another mystery novel published by Ziff-Davis, A Fiend in Need. He was on a roll, and soon was turning out mysteries in such volume that he needed a second by-line to avoid overcrowding the market. In 1949 he sold The Black Dark Murders to Handi-Books. He had entered the paperback original market.
Over the years he worked his way up through the second- and third-rank paperback houses until he reached Fawcett Gold Medal Books, generally regarded as the top market in the paperback original field. In the meanwhile, he juggled a profession as a beauty parlor operator—this provided a distinctive background for his first book!—and as a journalist. But he was most notable as a writer of detective novels. His style was fairly hardboiled, but he didn’t go in for the brutality of the extreme hardboiled school.
Milton Kiyoshi Ozaki was born in Racine, Wisconsin, in 1913. He lived for many years in Chicago, before retiring to Sparks, Nevada, a suburb of Reno.
He was the author of more than two dozen novels as Milton K. Ozaki or Robert O. Saber. He died in 1989. Along with far too many meritorious novels published in the past half century, most of Ozaki’s work had long since been out of print, although Ramble House reissued The Black Dark Murders in 2004.
Then the long arm of coincidence reached into the muddle that we call life. I was chatting one day with my friend Trina Robbins, cartoonist, author, and scholar. She mentioned a friend of hers named Frank Ozaki. Not exactly an everyday name. I asked her if Frank Ozaki was related to the mystery writer Milton Ozaki, and it turned out that he was Milton’s son.
My daughter was operating a restaurant in Tahoe City, California at the time, not far from Reno. And Frank Ozaki lived in Reno. One thing led to another, and eventually my wife and I were sitting down to lunch with Frank and his partner, Craig Chapman. In the course of conversation Frank mentioned that a mystery novel had remained unpublished at the time of Milton’s death.
You can imagine the look of lust in an editor’s eyes when I heard about that novel! It wasn’t easy to pry the manuscript out of the hands of the Ozaki family. Frank has several sisters, and they had long hoped to see the book published but had met little interest from major publishers. The world of detective fiction had moved on, leaving behind such talented writers as Harry Whittington, Day Keene, William Ard, Ennis Willie, Joel Townsley Rogers, and the enigmatic genius who hid behind the pseudonym N. R. de Mexico.
This looked liked a match made in hardboiled heaven. Ramble House, the parent company of Surinam Turtle Press, had already reissued one Robert O. Saber novel, but here was a chance to publish a brand new Ozaki mystery, a quarter century after the author’s death!
For what it’s worth, this time the editor did read the book before it was published. Win, Place, and Die is a marvelous story set in Reno in the 1970s. The self-styled Biggest Little City in the World was a lot littler then than it is today, but Ozaki’s writing is smooth and the world of Reno that he describes, complete with casinos and nightclubs, rings true to the last detail.
If you’re an Ozaki fan from way back, Win, Place, and Die will be a treat you might never have expected to experience. If you’re unfamiliar with Ozaki’s work, be prepared to be hooked and start looking for those two dozen plus novels that you’ve missed for all these years!
Richard A. Lupoff