Last summer, during my interview with Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, I asked him to identify his five favorite classic crime and mystery fiction covers. His final selection was the beguiling front (shown above) from the 1959 Crest paperback edition of William Campbell Gault’s Sweet Wild Wench, the fourth of Gault’s eight novels featuring Los Angeles private eye Joe Puma. That illustration of an indiscreetly inviting and underdressed blonde is credited to American artist Robert K. Abbett, who I’ve already written about twice before on this page (but whose work deserves many more showcasings). And it nicely represents the story inside, which has much to do with Puma’s reputation as a “dame chaser.”
The tale starts out pretty tame. Puma, a big, Italian-descended guy with a fast-boiling temper and a kid brother prone to questionable behavior, has recently seen a slowdown in his business. So he goes to work temporarily for District Attorney Sam Griffin, who wants him to look into a local religious cult called the Children of Proton. It seems the cult has convinced a deep-pocketed young woman to contribute heavily to its cause, and her more conservative, widowed father isn’t pleased with her choice of charities. The woman’s name is Eve Deering, and as a teaser on the back of Sweet Wild Wench explains, “She was slim and she was stacked and the gold of her hair matched the gold of her bank account.” Eve is certainly generous with her apples, and just about everything else, so it’s no wonder Puma has a devil of a time concentrating on the case. But concentrate he must, especially after another private investigator, Burns Murphy--who’d been looking into the Children of Proton himself--is shot to death behind his steel desk. The cult leader discovered the corpse, or so he claims: he is now Suspect No. 1. It falls to Puma to resolve the mystery of Murphy’s killing, while also contending with an increasingly unpredictable Eve Deering--and juggling her with another “special friend,” Adele Griffin, who also happens to be the D.A.’s sister.
Of course, that balance is hard to maintain at times--such as when our hero follows Eve to her apartment for questioning, which turns into something entirely different after she suggests they dance:
Her body was firm but yielding; her breasts needed no artificial support. They were taut against my chest.Over the course of this adventure, Puma’s willingness to use people--and be used himself--will be tested. So will his loyalty and his appetite for playing politics. There are clear compensations for his being foolish, and only costs to his being blind.
She danced well. With grace and instance response but still with enough individuality to make her presence felt. Her mouth was close to my ear and I thought she nibbled.
It’s the booze, Puma, I told myself. You’re imagining things; it’s wishful thinking.
And then one of her sharp teeth sent pain dancing through the ear lobe and I knew it wasn’t the whisky; it was the wench. I stopped dancing and found her mouth and her body melted into mine and she whimpered.
Sweet Wild Wench doesn’t break any new storytelling ground or reinvent the American private-eye legend. It is not a work that you should feel poorer for never finding the time to read. Still, it’s a solid early effort by an author who no less an authority than Bill Pronzini once called, in his introduction to a collection of Gault’s short fiction (Marksman and Other Stories, 2003), “a writer of the old school, a consummate professional throughout a distinguished career that spanned more than half a century.”
William Campbell Gault was born on March 9, 1910, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He later “studied at the University of Wisconsin before going into the hotel business,” as William L. DeAndrea explained in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). “He was part owner and manager of the Blatz Hotel [opposite City Hall] in Milwaukee from 1932 to 1939.” However, Gault didn’t figure to devote his life to the hospitality industry. In the mid-1930s, according to Pronzini, “he entered a story called ‘Inadequate’ in a Milwaukee Journal-McClure Newspaper Syndicate short story contest. The judges found it to be anything but inadequate, awarding it the $50 first prize. Spurred on by this success, he wrote and placed several more stories with the McClure Syndicate, then in 1937 entered the wide-open pulp field with the sale of a drag-racing story, ‘Hell Driver’s Partnership,’ to Ace Sports.”
In 1942, Gault married Virginia Kaprelian and started a family (they would eventually have two children together). He finally checked out of the hotel biz, and instead picked up a job operating a shoe-sole cutting machine. Most of his energy, though, he devoted to fiction-writing. During World War II Gault put in a couple of years (1943-1945) with the 166th Infantry, but subsequently returned to his typewriter. He was a prolific scribbler, contributing several hundred stories to a wide range of pulp magazines, from those specializing in detective fiction to others directed at audiences craving romance, science fiction, and soft porn. Gault even freelanced for The Saturday Evening Post and McClure’s, and by the late 1940s his yarns--a number of which starred a Duesenberg-driving dick named Mortimer Jones--featured prominently in issues of Black Mask.
“It was a great time,” Gault told an interviewer in the early 1980s. “We had a chance to learn our trade. The early pulp writers pre-empted Hemingway. The unfortunate thing was that Hemingway could write and they couldn’t. They got away from that florid prose of the Victorians to straight, almost journalistic writing. That’s why they don’t have to give you a Dickens description. They say three things and you know the character.”
After the Second World War Gault joined the westward migration to Southern California, took up residence in the L.A. district of Pacific Palisades, and began palling around with other writers such as Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, Dennis Lynds, and Fredric Brown, the last of whom would become an early champion of his literary endeavors. With the era of pulp magazines waning, Gault switched to composing novels. The first of many stories he would write for juvenile readers, Thunder Road, was published in 1952, along with his initial plunge into the mystery-fiction genre, Don’t Cry for Me. Writing about that latter book in The Rap Sheet, author-editor Ed Gorman praised Gault’s real-seeming characters, people who debated books and politics, and who worried about news of atomic bomb tests; and he heaped particular congratulations on Gault for his ability to get inside the head of his disillusioned protagonist, Pete Worden, whose neighbor has been murdered. “The narrative is so intimate,” remarked Gorman, “it sounds like a man talking to his shrink. Or going to confession.” Others were impressed with Gault’s efforts as well. Don’t Cry for Me won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Building on that triumph, Gault churned out more than half a dozen other standalone crime novels during the 1950s, all of them profuse with details of what life was like in the postwar, spotlight-sprouting City of Angels--the sports, the culture, and the kitsch. Among the works he produced during that decade were The Bloody Bokhara (1952), his only Milwaukee-set novel; a much-lauded boxing mystery titled The Canvas Coffin (1953); Square in the Middle (1956), and Death Out of Focus (1959). In a retrospective on Gault’s career, published in the Winter 2008 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, critic and novelist Jon L. Breen drew attention as well to 1954’s Run, Killer, Run (otherwise known as The Sweet Blonde Trap), if only because it’s “a rare third-person Gault novel” that “illuminates his political stance: Republican, socially concerned, anti-McCarthyite, a consistent voice for non-simplistic morality.”
Series gumshoe Joseph Puma debuted in Shakedown, a 1953 paperback mystery that Gault (bowing to the demands of his hardcover publisher) had released under the pseudonym “Roney Scott.” Just two years after that, in Ring Around Rosa (aka Murder in the Raw), the author introduced readers to another L.A. peeper, Brock Callahan. Those two protagonists were similar in many respects, both of them former jocks and lapsed Catholics. But Puma was neither as well educated nor as good-looking as Callahan, and he tended to take on a lower class of clientele. Puma was often on the payroll of professional wrestlers, prostitutes, and other questionable sorts; Callahan--a Stanford University football standout nicknamed “The Rock,” who went on to nine years of renown as a lineman with the Los Angeles Rams, until age and redundant injuries drove him from the gridiron into the grittier existence of a confidential dick--worked for faded film idols, corporate heavyweights, and sports stars. Also different were the two protagonists’ associations with guns (Puma carried one, Callahan usually did not) and their attitudes toward marriage. Joe Puma seemed intent on wedding money--and lots of it--while the more traditionally minded Brock Callahan insisted on being the breadwinner. Callahan was also the guy with the steady relationship. In his first outing he met a prosperous interior decorator named Jan Bonnet, with whom he remained throughout the series, despite their regular fights and Callahan’s periodic contemplations of infidelity. (“Don’t get me wrong; no woman can buy me with her body. But only a prude would discourage them from trying.”) Although Bruce F. Murphy, in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999), stated his preference for the Puma books over the Callahan stories, “if only because they do not have Callahan’s petulant and quarrelsome girlfriend, Jan,” I think the ups and downs of the Brock-Jan romance make it more credible, and certainly less cloying, than the comparable union between Robert B. Parker’s Boston gumshoe, Spenser, and psychiatrist Susan Silverman.
Critics appreciated Gault’s fiction-writing “voice” and his series leads, especially Callahan, who The New York Times called “surely one of the major private detectives created in American fiction since Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.” Yet after the publication of The Hundred Dollar Girl (his final Puma novel) in 1961, and the Callahan book Dead Hero in 1963, Gault abandoned detective fiction. He was making a much better income penning sports-related stories for boys, and those juvenile books stayed in print longer. Besides, Gault groused, “You can’t write 25 or 50 classic mysteries. It’s not possible.” He definitely needed to a break.
As it turned out, his break stretched for most of the next two decades. Not until 1980 did the public receive Gault’s eighth Brock Callahan novel, The Bad Samaritan. And that book marked more than just one new beginning. In an earlier work, Vein of Violence (1961), Callahan had helped his aunt Sheila solve a murder and had befriended her new husband, Texas oil millionaire Homer Gallup. In The Bad Samaritan we learn that Aunt Shiela is gone and Callahan has inherited enough money to set him up comfortably for the rest of his days--sufficient funds, too, to convince him that he can finally swap rings with Jan, which he does. As the sleuth remarks, “Hard work, honest dealing, persistence, intelligence--and being Aunt Sheila’s nephew had finally earned me the financial security that is every American’s birthright.” By then, Callahan and his new wife have also forsaken Los Angeles for the quieter California coastal town of “San Valdesto,” a thinly camouflaged Santa Barbara, to which Gault had moved long ago.
After years of grilling suspects, commiserating with the loved ones left behind by murder, and nursing a recurring ulcer, The Rock has supposedly withdrawn from the gumshoe game. He now owns a nice abode with a live-in housekeeper who makes great Irish stew. He has a regular golfing schedule, time on his hands for invigorating six-mile runs, and lots of dough he can use to treat his friends to lunch. But as he notes in The Dead Seed (1985), “Retirement was not the blessing I had imagined it would be.” So it doesn’t take much to interest this former football guard in one case after another, whether it involves violent hillbillies, loopy religious cultists (a recurring theme in Gault’s fiction), or plans to construct a nuclear power plant in San Valdesto. That last plot complication comes from his 1982, Shamus Award-winning novel, The CANA Diversion, an out-of-the-ordinary tale in which Callahan investigates the disappearance--and later the slaying--of his fellow private eye, Joe Puma. (The two protagonists had previously crossed paths in a 1986 short story, “April in Peril.”)
Having reintroduced Callahan in The Bad Samaritan, the author proceeded to enlist him in six more adventures, concluding with 1992’s Dead Pigeon. But Gault’s last published novel was in fact a non-series, non-mystery called Man Alone (1995), which Breen recalls had originally been “written in 1957 and admiringly rejected for commercial reasons by his publishers.” The author died in 1995, at age 85, though his last short story, “An Ordinary Man,” didn’t appear until the following year in New Mystery Magazine.
Gault seems to have been not only well-respected as an author (in 1984 he received The Eye lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America), but well-liked as a person. In his later years, he contributed columns to Mystery Scene, working with editor Ed Gorman. Gorman has since described Gault as “the sweetheart of sweethearts,” and in his blog a couple of years ago, he recounted his “favorite Bill Gault story”:
[It] came one night when we were talking about his old friend John D. MacDonald. They were friends from the pulp days but had had a falling out over the Vietnam war. Bill was against it, John D. for it. They didn’t communicate for several years. But around the time of this phone call they’d started corresponding again and Bill was very happy about it.As many Rap Sheet readers probably know already, Gault had another friend, too, with the last name of Macdonald. As Robert L. Gale explained in his 2002 book, A Ross Macdonald Companion, Gault met author Ross Macdonald (né Kenneth Millar), the creator of Los Angeles private eye Lew Archer, “at a party in San Diego in 1951 given by E.T. Guymon Jr., an avid collector of detective books. Gault moved from Pacific Palisades to Santa Barbara in 1958 and joined with Macdonald and others at regularly scheduled writers’ lunches. In 1976 Macdonald asked Gault to suggest changes in The Blue Hammer at proof stage. Gault hesitantly did so and was pleased to note that passages he thought should be deleted were gone. Grateful, Macdonald dedicated the novel to Gault.” It’s testament to Gault’s political open-mindedness that he and the considerably more liberal Macdonald should have become good friends.
So we’re rambling on and Bill said, “You know how much money John made on those Gold Medal paperbacks? One hell of a lot. And you know what he did with it?”
Now, being the low-born type I am, I was ready for some gossip. He bought fourteen-year-old hookers? He spent it all on his heroin addiction? He was helping to fund a violent overthrow of the government?
“No,” Bill said in an accusatory way, “he invested it!”
I laughed my ass off. He sounded like one of my uncles back from the war. Now, why would a regular fella invest his money when he could blow it on booze and broads and a little gambling now and then?
I can only share regrets voiced by Pronzini, Gorman, and others that William Campbell Gault--whose books are sufficiently captivating that you’ll want to read more than one at a time--has largely been forgotten, most of his work long out of print. Breen captured the novelist’s significance nicely in Mystery Scene when he wrote: “Gault was one of the strongest voices in genre fiction for ethical behavior and racial and political tolerance. His voice was so distinctive, few fans would fail to recognize it in a blind test. Artificial distinctions of genre aside, he was a serious writer, as concerned with social issues and non-simplistic morality as with telling a fast-moving story. Quite a few writers could plot, pace, and people a mystery as well as Gault, but not many could reach a reader as deeply on a gut level.”
If you stumble across a copy of Sweet Wild Wench, or Don’t Cry for Me, or any of Gault’s other 30 adult novels, take my advice: Pick it up. Buy it. Read. I won’t insist that you thank me right away.
READ MORE: “William Campbell Gault Interview” (Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine); “Vein of Violence, by William Campbell Gault (1961),” by Utter Scoundrel (Lies! Damned Lies!).