A Walk in the Darkness with Gerald Verner

 John Pelan


If there’s one thing that Ramble House (with its subsidiary imprints Surinam Turtle Press and Dancing Tuatara Press) has acquired a reputation for, that would be ‘rescuing’ various authors from obscurity. I’ve written before on the topic of how important it is for an author to have a ‘champion’ to sustain interest in their work after said author is no longer with us. It’s an uphill battle on the publishing front, even if one can point to a track record of profitable reprints as recently as ten or fifteen years ago. That won’t do at all: editors aren’t looking for solid mid-list titles that show a consistent, modest profit (though why they aren’t is one of those great mysteries)—they want the next big thing. Now the only way that you have the next big thing is to have a full platform to support this particular author/book.

A full platform means that, in addition to the book being published, there’s been talk regarding film or television adaptations, the author is vigorously traveling the talk-show circuit and making appearances, foreign rights are being negotiated, etc. That sort of effort is not going to be utilized in promoting the work of a deceased author. The main reason for this, quite simply put, is that the author’s body of work is a finite thing, the end is in sight, whether it be with book twelve or book ninety-five, and at some point the well runs dry. Publishers don’t like that, not at all: they want to know that their author can reliably produce new work on a regular basis, whether that means a new book every six months or every eighteen months. The time-table doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that there can be a time-table and the editor can mark one of his slots as “filled.”

Now what does this all have to do with Gerald Verner? Well, Mr. Verner was one of a group of British authors who specialized in the writing of ‘thrillers.’ Prior to WWII, publishing was a considerably different sort of beast than it is today; the UK had inexpensive hardcovers targeted to the lending libraries, paperbacks, a plethora of general fiction magazines, as well as some pulp magazines, and the unique ‘story papers.’ Across the pond in the US was an entirely different kettle of fish, with hardcovers, specialty pulps focused on mysteries and thrillers, and, of course, the general interest fiction magazines such as Argosy. Many of the writers on both sides of the pond, in order to make any sort of decent living at the frightful rates being paid, had to maximize their return on a given piece of fiction. Frequently this would lead to a very similar story taking place in the old west, in the untamed jungles of Africa, the mysterious East, and even inter-planetary locations. Almost no one thought less of the authors who engaged in this activity, save for one self-styled ‘expert’ on the genre who disapproved of the practice and singled out Gerald Verner to take the brunt of his misplaced criticism.

The unfortunate statements were repeated and embellished until they took on an undeserved verisimilitude. There was also the matter that Gerald Verner didn’t bother refuting the remarks. What is it that was said, and more importantly, was it at all true? Basically this ‘expert’ accused Verner of plagiarism (more specifically self-plagiarism), but as the remarks got repeated, the rather important qualification ‘self’ was dropped and the canard that was spread about was that Verner was a plagiarist.

Happily we can once and for all lay to rest the scurrilous allegations and look at how the book collecting world rediscovered and redeemed the work of a man we now acknowledge to have been an important figure in mystery / thriller fiction and one whose work is being enjoyed again by a new generation of readers.

Verner had been tarred with the nastiest brush that can be used on an author; the term “plagiarist” had been used, not frequently but by an ‘expert’ in the field to whom far too much attention was paid when issuing hyperbolic statements of this sort. As near as I’ve been able to determine, this originated with statements made by a British scholar known for his expertise in supernatural and mystery fiction. What was said was: “During his lifetime he had over 130 books published under four pseudonyms, an oeuvre which may be cut down as much as by half because of recycling earlier material and, at times, outright theft.” Pretty harsh language, even coming from a man known for hyperbolic statements.

So, is there any truth to this? Well, yes and no, with a strong emphasis on the “no.” Born John Robert Stuart Pringle, at some point he legally changed his name to Gerald Verner, though his writing career began as “Donald Stuart.” As Stuart, he began writing for the Sexton Blake Library in the late 1920s, achieving real success as the next decade unfolded. Now here’s where there’s some fire to the smoky allegations… For those unfamiliar with Sexton Blake, he’s a lightweight Sherlock Holmes and throughout the hundreds of stories, the detective remains pretty much a cardboard cut-out used by the various authors to move along the plot. The stories are very heavily plot-driven and one could rename the lead character “Bob Smith” without losing any relevance. In point of fact, the Sexton Blake stories are far more notable for the supporting characters than they are for the lead. While I wouldn’t advocate trying to tackle the whole series, (it would just be overwhelming), picking and choosing by author will yield some very entertaining reading.

With the platform of Sexton Blake many authors, including Anthony Skene, Edwy Searles Brooks, Gwyn Evans, and, of course, Gerald Verner, engaged in a practice that came to be known as “de-Blakeing.” Simply stated, the author would retain the plot, remove all references to Sexton Blake, change the setting and assign the Blake role to another character or characters, and—presto! A ‘new’ novel! A survey of the thrillers published by Wright & Brown throughout the 1930s will yield dozens of examples. Is this theft or plagiarism? Certainly not by any criteria I’m familiar with. For starters, it seems rather impossible to steal from oneself; secondly, on a smaller scale I can’t think of any writer who, having written a particularly evocative descript-tion or well-imagined scene, doesn’t find a way to incorporate the work into another piece. I believe that the harshest term that can be applied is “cannibalizing,” and, as I said, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t do it at least on some level.

So was Gerald Verner guilty of plagiarism or theft? Almost certainly not by any standard with which I’m familiar. You’ll note that I have not named the party responsible for the original statement, nor do I intend to. When one tries to discern what possible motive there could be for attempting to sully another writer’s reputation, I’m mindful of the fact that in the very small field of scholarship of this sort of material the pay is pretty much non-existent, so the main rewards are being noticed by your peers. Making outrageous statements is a sure-fire way to get noticed and nothing screams “attention whoring” like calling a colleague a “plagiarist,” particularly when they aren’t likely to see the article in the first place.

So with that issue out of the way, is there any other reason that Verner’s work would have been allowed to fade into obscurity? The main reason would seem to be one that is common to all authors who, despite producing quality work, seem to vanish from the public consciousness, and that would be the lack of a “champion” as I mentioned at the beginning of this introduction. Exactly what do I mean by a “champion”? Well, let’s look at Verner’s heyday, the 1930s and 1940s, synonymous with the golden age of the American pulp magazines. There are two fundamental ways that an author remains in the public eye. The first and simplest is that they keep writing and don’t die, while taking at least some interest in the business end of being a writer. Looking at the mystery field, John D. MacDonald comes up as a fine example. Despite authoring new books at a pretty good clip right up until his death, MacDonald (or, as is more likely, his agent) was pretty diligent about mining his previously published work for new sales, be they collections of stories from the pulps, reprinting early novels, or even combining two or three books into an omnibus. MacDonald served as his own “champion.”

During his heyday, Verner was one of the most successful thriller authors working for Wright & Brown, with seemingly a new book being issued every couple of months. His fan-base was pretty extensive; no less than the Duke of Windsor was a devoted reader, who even went so far as to have a set of fifteen of Verner’s thrillers specially bound for his private library. While it’s true that publishers play a huge role in determining which authors will be their stars, it’s also true that the reading public doesn’t always behave the way the publishers wish them to, and they frequently create their own stars. There’s an interesting parallel with baseball cards and the Baseball Hall of Fame. As might be expected, the cards of players enshrined in the Hall of Fame command much higher prices than the cards of players who failed to achieve that honor, except for those players and managers that the general public feels should be inducted whether the actual voters (the Baseball Writers of America) agree or not. A fine example of this is a gentleman named Gil Hodges, the first baseman for the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers and later a highly regarded manager. It seems pretty clear by now that the BBWA isn’t going to enshrine Mr. Hodges, but to collectors of sports memorabilia it hardly seems to matter. Since some time in the 1980s, collectors as a group seemed to feel that Mr. Hodges belonged in the HOF, and prices of his autograph, cards, used equipment and what have you began to reflect that.

The same thing happens in the book collecting world, and sometimes it takes a generation or longer. An author that has been largely ignored gets rediscovered by a new generation and, with or without a champion, becomes collectible. What’s happened with Gerald Verner has been very interesting from a book collector’s point of view. A following has slowly and steadily developed. Twenty years ago you could buy most of any of his titles in fine condition for around twenty bucks. Fast-forward to today’s market and the same books are now commanding prices of $100-$200! While the modern publishers slept, Gerald Verner became a highly collectible author. Collectability within the thriller or mystery genre is, by and large, a meritocracy. It may take time, but the readers and collectors generally get it right. This is precisely what occurred with Gerald Verner and seems to be occurring with contemporaries such as Edmund Snell and Anthony Skene. I’m one of those odd types that saves book catalogs, and in some rare cases (such as this one) they can prove to be quite instructive in tracking the rise and fall of an author’s popularity. In the case of Gerald Verner we can see a down period—well, let’s not mince words here—a bottoming-out in the late 1970s to early 1980s, where just about any title could be had for twenty bucks or less and frequently even at bargain prices; the books didn’t sell. The albatross of that old criticism was in full effect without readers investigating for themselves.

Then came the 1990s and a strong revival of interest in the American pulps and their literary brethren across the pond as personified by the story papers and the imprints targeting the lending libraries. Readers and collectors alike started looking at the 1930s and 1940s with renewed interest, authors such as Walter S. Masterman, Roland Daniel, and others were being discussed again, and the collecting world rediscovered Gerald Verner. Here’s where those old catalogs become quite interesting. We see prices start to creep up, barely outpacing inflation, and by the end of the decade prices are becoming commensurate with the most hotly collected authors of the period.

Gerald Verner came to Dancing Tuatara Press and Ramble House in quite an unusual manner. In 2015 as I was expanding DTP to include the sub-genre of thrillers centered around Asian super-villains (the offspring of Fu Manchu as it were), a pair of books I wanted to include were the two Li Sin novels by Nigel Vane which I thought nicely comple-mented our other titles in the genre by authors such as Eugene Thomas, Edmund Snell, Herbert Asbury, Walter C. Brown and others. Of course “Nigel Vane” is none other than Gerald Verner! While I do wish he had written more stories of Asian menace, as he certainly had a gift for respectfully handling the material, his rationalized supernatural pieces can stand comfortably alongside the works of some of our flagship authors such as Edmund Snell and Walter S. Masterman—as this present volume will certainly demonstrate. While we don’t have any plans to reprint all one-hundred and thirty of Gerald Verner’s novels, you shouldn’t be surprised to see more titles under either or both the Dancing Tuatara Press or Ramble House imprints.


John Pelan

All Hallows Eve 2016

Gallup, New Mexico