by Donna Moore
"There's a new kid on the block, snarling, spitting, already rock'n'roll"
Ken Bruen on PointBlank
I couldn't have put it better myself. PointBlank is a new name amongst crime fiction publishers-a small press with big ideas, and all of them good ones. Since its emergence on the scene in March 2004 PointBlank has already published five books and has several more due out later this year, and into 2005. The very idea of all that hard work makes me want to lie down and take a nap.
The man behind it all is JT Lindroos and I asked him how it all began:
"PointBlank is an offshoot of Wit's End Publishing, a publishing company I started with my wife Kathleen Martin in early 2003. We published a couple of books by Charles Willeford but ran out of money despite making a profit. We were planning on publishing Al Guthrie's TWO-WAY SPLIT and Al was going to join us as an editor and acquire more books for us, but we were on shaky ground and as such I emailed Wildside Press (John Betancourt's highly successful publishing company) and asked if they'd be interested in a mystery imprint. It took them about five minutes to decide they were. PointBlank was born on that fateful day in early March 2004. Kathleen's been working overtime proofing and copyediting our books. Al has done a brilliant job bringing in new authors (and some seasoned pros too) and much of the success of the imprint is thanks to his efforts. So we were up and running immediately, and we had out first book available two and a half months later."
Commissioning Editor Al Guthrie had a lot of good material already on tap: "I have a website, Noir Originals, which showcases hardboiled/noir writers. So when JT asked me to commission some titles for PointBlank, this was the obvious place to look. Although Noir Originals acts as a showcase for new writers, there's also an e-zine part to the website and I found plenty of material in both areas."
PointBlank's focus is in two distinct areas-bringing new talent to the attention of the reading public, and re-issuing neglected classics. Their philosophy is simple-to publish great books. And it's a labour of love. Al Guthrie says: "We want to publish crime fiction we like. But we also want to produce the best-edited, best-written novels with the best covers." And JT adds: "We're not trying to cut a niche as a hardboiled/noir publisher even if it may seem that way. We publish books we like without being too careful to stick to what usually constitutes a 'mystery'. We hope and trust our occasionally unorthodox books will find their way to the shelves of people who love to read, period." This outlook means that the books they publish are varied, quirky and exciting.
One interesting concept is the 'Reader' series, which will introduce people to the work of some of the greats. JT explains the idea behind this: "The READER series is intended to work as an introduction to each author. For example, our first selection, the JAMES SALLIS READER, will include a new introduction by Jim, his novel DEATH WILL HAVE YOUR EYES, his short novel RENDERINGS, eight short stories, a selection of literary essays on the likes of Paco Taibo and Gerald Kersh, a sampler of his poems, and a few autobiographical essays. We'll follow that with similar Readers by Dennis Lynds, Ed Gorman, Charles Willeford and Bill Pronzini. The Reader series also resulted in us deciding to publish Dennis' complete 'Dan Fortune' series and Bill's 'Nameless' books."
There are some real treats among the books being re-issued. The two currently available are James McKimmey's SQUEEZE PLAY and James Reasoner's TEXAS WIND. SQUEEZE PLAY is a noir tale written in 1962, but which still feels fresh and exciting today. Al Guthrie was a man with a mission: "A long-term goal of mine has been to get 50s/60s paperback greats Day Keene and James McKimmey back into print. McKimmey, in particular, has been sadly neglected. I'm delighted that SQUEEZE PLAY is now available, and we have two Day Keene novels due out soon."
Reasoner's TEXAS WIND was written in 1980. Very few copies were sold because the book went out of print almost immediately after it went into print, due to the financial collapse of the publisher, Manor Books. James Reasoner didn't even get his promised advance. And things didn't improve from there: "The good thing was that the people who got a chance to read the book seemed to like it. That word-of-mouth grew, and I was approached several times about reprint deals. More than once, it seemed like the book was on the verge of being reprinted, only to have things fall through for one reason or another." When Al approached Reasoner about reprinting it he agreed "…although given the track record of the book I thought about warning them that they were probably jinxing their whole operation by taking it on. Al and JT acted quickly (they probably didn't want to give the TEXAS WIND curse time to catch up to them), got the book out, and I've been very pleased with everything about it." Reasoner says: "In reading back over the book itself, I still like it. I've written many novels since then, so I see a few things I would do differently now, but I think it holds up well and has some of that raw power that you often find in first novels. I know I kept turning the pages, and I knew what was going to happen!"
As a big Charles Willeford fan, I'm particularly excited that PointBlank will be re-issuing a new edition of Willeford's novel THE DIFFERENCE, as well as the first reprints of his early MADE IN MIAMI and THE UNDERSTUDY.
So how do JT and Al find these treasures? Well, like all good PIs, with a mixture of intelligent investigating, dogged persistence and good old-fashioned luck. Al says it involves: "…finding suitably good material, seeing if it's available, tracing the author or estate, offering them a contract."
One such search involved Frank McAuliffe who published five books before his untimely death in 1986. He received the Edgar Award in 1972 for one of those books-FOR MURDER I CHARGE MORE. Three of the published works feature a paid assassin called Augustus Mandrell. McAuliffe's daughter, Liz Gollen, describes the protagonist: "Augustus Mandrell is a private, professional killer. He is utterly unscrupulous, pandering always to the highest paying customer. These memoirs are farcical, zany, sexy, and in a somewhat startling fashion, bloody and shameless. Mandrell has no respect whatever for anybody's laws much less national or political barriers. He has the utmost contempt for all forms of establishmentarianism, and he particularly hates the military. He is a kind of underground, creeping Don Quixote. You can't help but love him...sort of." Irresistible.
Author Walter Satterthwait was a big fan of the series and had been helping the family try and get Frank McAuliffe's work back into print. Liz Gollen takes up the story:
"The Mandrell books are written in 'commissions', usually four or five to a novel. The 'commissions' are the assignments Mandrell takes on. Walter originally helped us publish one of the commissions, 'The Dr. Sherrock Commission', in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. We were thrilled, but he kept insisting that eventually he felt he could get a publishing house to republish the whole series. In the meantime Walter said another author friend of his, Bill Crider, had heard a rumor that there was a missing unpublished Mandrell novel. I looked into it and sure enough, my father had written one very long commission (novel length) about Mandrell being commissioned to kill the President of The United States. The timing was catastrophic for both my dad and President Kennedy, for two weeks after he submitted it to Ballantine Books, President Kennedy was shot. This novel, which is now to be published for the first time under the title, THEY SHOOT PRESIDENTS, DON'T THEY?, is supposed to be out within a year and immediately followed by the reprints of the other three books: OF ALL THE BLOODY CHEEK, RATHER A VICIOUS GENTLEMAN and FOR MURDER I CHARGE MORE."
I asked JT and Al if there were any books they would love to bring back into print, but which they haven't yet been able to get the rights to. JT says: "Yes. Charles Williams, Gil Brewer and Elliott Chaze. We tried. We're still holding our breath for Brewer." And Al adds: "The book I'd most like to reprint is YOU'LL GET YOURS by Thomas Wills (William Ard). I have his widow's name, but haven't been able to track her down."
As far as the debut authors go, JT says: "We go after people and books we like, and take suggestions. We are closed for submissions since we don't have people reading the slushpile, but some still slip through. Mostly by recommendation."
The first of the books by debut authors was Al's TWO-WAY SPLIT, commissioned by JT, who says of it: "Everything you've read about it is true and if Al's not in the big leagues with his third novel, I'll eat my shoe." Having read TWO-WAY SPLIT myself, I don't think JT will be chomping down on any shoe leather, and if he is, I'll join him. Al's debut novel is a simple, heart-warming, noir tale of a post office robbery gone wrong, an unfaithful wife, a couple of psychopaths, a pair of seedy PIs, and a man who really loves his mother. It's a book which takes that noir finger of fate and gleefully pokes you in the eye with it.
Also out now is Dave Zeltserman's FAST LANE, and due out later this year are Ray Banks' THE BIG BLIND and Duane Swierczynski's SECRET DEAD MEN.
I asked them all to describe their books, and also how they came to be involved with PointBlank.
Dave describes FAST LANE as a novel which "…features a hard-boiled PI, Johnny Lane, cut from the same cloth as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. A good guy, sensitive, charming to the ladies, and the type of guy any man would want to drink with. While ostensibly a hard-boiled PI novel, Fast Lane is really about one man's spiritual journey to self-enlightenment!" Hmmmmm-sensitive? Charming? If you say so Dave! FAST LANE is a reworking of a previous book called IN HIS SHADOW, written in 1992. "At that time the large NY publishers would actually look at your stuff if you sent them a polite, well-written note and your book sounded interesting. I had a number of large houses request IHS, and was roundly rejected by all, although a couple seemed close and about half a dozen of them told me they liked the book but it was too dark or not formula enough for them." After several frustrating years, Dave chose to self-publish through iUniverse, hoping that word-of-mouth and some good reviews would help. "Allan Guthrie turned out to be one of the 203 people to actually part with his hard-earned money to buy this unedited, raw book that would eventually become Fast Lane."
Ray Banks' THE BIG BLIND is due out at the end of October. "Alan Slater and Les Beale are a couple of alcoholic, chip-chasing double-glazing salesmen in Manchester. A dead dog, a dead croupier and a couple of Triad death threats later, Slater has a midlife crisis he can't walk away from." Like Dave, Ray, too, had submitted his book everywhere and had become steadily more downhearted with each rejection. So he shelved it temporarily, but not before he had sent it to Al, and was thrilled when PointBlank said they wanted to publish it: "They're doing wonders for the reputation of the small press… And they've never been particularly interested in finding a 'market' for a book--all they care about is if it's good or bad, the way it should be. It's been a dream come true, to be honest. Al's a superb editor with an eye for detail, narrative and character and he's a gentleman with it. Oh yeah, and both him and JT are the hardest working guys in publishing--I believe acceptance to publication has taken about nine months. And that's nine months of solid communication, too. Bless 'em. And their cotton socks." Al is equally enthusiastic about Ray's writing: "If he doesn't end up being one of the all-time greats, I'll be genuinely surprised. THE BIG BLIND is in-your-face noir, raw, poetic, visceral. Ray takes language and relentlessly bends it to his will. If you listen closely, you can hear it begging for mercy."
Duane's SECRET DEAD MEN will also be out late October or November. "What if the Grim Reaper were a private eye? SECRET DEAD MEN follows the adventures of Del Farmer, a detective with an unusual gift: he can collect the souls of the recently dead and store them in a hotel in his brain. The idea is that they help him solve crimes...but it never quite works out that way. And his latest case, a grisly double-murder, is about to steer him into a violent hell of sexual deceit, fractured identities, and cheap apartment toilets."
And how did he come to be published by PointBlank?
"I am in possession of a series of photographs that would be extremely compromising to Mr. Allan Guthrie, were they ever to see the light of day. Part of our 'understanding' is that Mr. Guthrie will publish whatever I write, and he'll pretend to be my friend."
Strangely, Al's side of the story is that it's he who has the incriminating photos of Duane, rather than the other way round. "We came to an agreement that he would let me publish anything he wrote in exchange for me keeping quiet about the photos. Seems to have worked okay so far. The man with the longest name in crime fiction is a genius wordsmith and has an imagination the rest of us can only hope for. Undoubtedly the quirkiest, maddest premise I've encountered, I knew from the first ten pages of SECRET DEAD MEN that I was reading something special."
When pressed, Duane told me the real story of how he came to be published by PointBlank. Now, you need to know that all the first-time PointBlank authors acquire nicknames. Duane says: "This all started when I called Al Guthrie 'Sunshine' as a joke. I mean, he makes a big deal of being this surly, sunlight-hating guy, but he's really a big sweetheart." Duane's nickname is 'Leblanc' which "came about one day when we were joking about 'feel-good noir'... call it 'white noir.' This morphed into 'blanc noir,' and then finally 'Leblanc' was born." Ray is 'Kuncklebuster' due to a typo for 'Knuckleduster' in an ad for his book, and Dave's is 'Underwood' because his original author picture was an Underwood typewriter. Mine is 'Kafka', but I hasten to add that it's not because I share Franz Kafka's writing skills. Nor, before you cast aspersions, is it because I look like an extremely large and well-fed cockroach. Anyway, back to Duane's story:
"Back in November 2003, Sunshine agreed to run an excerpt from my forthcoming bank robbery novel, SMELL THE ROSES at his excellent online showcase, 'Noir Originals.' We started gabbing via e-mail, and eventually he mentioned his new gig as the acquisitions editor for PointBlank. This was like Sunshine saying that he'd just gotten out of a bad relationship, and he was in the mood for a casual fling, and he felt like getting really drunk that night.
"At the time, I had a novel called SECRET DEAD MEN that I'd written back in 1998. It's a weird detective/noir/horror/SF hybrid. The book landed me my agent, David Hale Smith, but we had a hard time selling it, because... well, it's a hybrid. I put it in a drawer, and turned my attention to doing nonfiction books about vice and crime. Moved back to Philadelphia. Fathered two children. Watched some TV. Pulled some paper clips apart, and tried to reform them into their original shape, which is damn near impossible.
"Finally, in fall 2003, I decided to dust SECRET DEAD MEN off and send it back out into the wild. I did some minor rewrites, tuning it up here and there, and thought about trying small presses. Enter Al Guthrie. On that magical April day, when Al said he'd like to publish SDM, I was stunned and thrilled. 'You sure you read the right book?' I wanted to ask, but I figured I'd keep my trap shut for now.
"I can't tell you how cool it is to work with editors who 'get' your work. This is the beauty of a small independent imprint like PointBlank. You can take risks. Let your freak flag fly."
After all the horror stories you read in the Press about the publishing business, small presses like PointBlank do an enormous amount to balance out the scales. JT describes the process: "We bug authors we like and harass them to become a part of this venture. Most relent. We edit and proof and design and launch, sometimes within a month from acquiring the book. There are some nice perks to working with us; we're small and dedicated, and we let the author take as big a role in the publication of their books as they like. If they don't like the jackets, we create new ones. If they don't like our marketing plan, we modify. Usually the author knows his or her readership and we want to use their experience and knowledge to our mutual benefit. It befuddles me how some larger publishers treat their writers. Asking my friend Barry Bayley once about the business he replied: 'Publishers look on writers as farmers look on their cows.' It got me thinking. We may be sluggish sometimes, but we do try to make it an enjoyable and fruitful venture for all involved."
And it's not just the people directly involved who share the enthusiasm and excitement that encapsulates PointBlank. JT says: "We approached authors like Jim Sallis and Bill Pronzini and suggested working with them on their terms. We want to balance the young turks with seasoned pros to be able to help the former get their foothold into the writing business... and sometimes to keep the pros on their toes. We've honestly been blessed beyond any expectations with the kindness of many a terrific writer. I'll only name Ken Bruen and Jack O'Connell, since neither of them has had anything to gain from giving a helping hand, but if you look at the list of authors on the website you'll know the rest."
Duane also talks about this aspect: "I want to mention the amazing support we've all received from Ken Bruen. As I once mentioned to Ray, this is like the Pope giving a shout-out to a bunch of altar-boys. Talk about inspirational."
The website, by the way, is well worth a visit: http://www.PointBlankpress.com/
And, speaking of the wide range of authors, there's also an anthology due out very soon. According to JT: "It's a collection of brilliant fiction by most of our authors, and is intended to be a cheap introduction to the imprint. It will be priced as low as we can ($9.99) and all the profits from the publisher and the authors will go to charity. Who's in it? Jim Sallis, 'Michael Collins,' Dennis Lynds, Gary Phillips, Dave Zeltserman, Bill Pronzini, Al Guthrie, Marcia Muller, Jack O'Connell, Charles Willeford (with a previously unpublished story), Duane Swierczynski, Maxim Jakubowski, Ray Banks, Russell James, Frank McAuliffe, Mark Timlin, Bill Crider, Ken Wishnia, James Reasoner, Rob Kantner, Ken Bruen...anybody else? Donna Moore."
No-I'm not entirely sure what she's doing there either.
Al Guthrie describes some of the other books in the pipeline: "Bill Crider's Truman Smith series has been commissioned in its entirety. Now that's a coup! I've also commissioned a couple of non-fiction titles. Lee Horsley's THE NOIR THRILLER is a masterful piece of academic work on noir fiction and deserves to be on every crime fan's bookshelf. And recently, through the help of the amazing Ken Bruen, I've commissioned a series of crime author interviews by Craig McDonald called ART IN THE BLOOD, which I'm very excited about. Rob Kantner's Ben Perkins short story collection, TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO, is another title that's being awaited expectantly." Then there's British author Russell James. "I had an idea that PAYBACK and SLAUGHTER MUSIC weren't currently available in the States. Since they're two of my favourite noir novels (either side of the Atlantic), I had to ask. Russell obliged."
And what of the future for PointBlank? JT says: "We hope to be able to grow and publish great books by authors new and old, and offer an alternative to the conglomerates that have turned book publishing into a branch of accounting, with our idiosyncratic entertainment that might just make you think." And Al adds: "I've been in the book trade for a long time. PointBlank is a breath of fresh air." And the most rewarding aspect? "Offering contracts to first-time authors."
I'm going to leave the last word to Frank McAuliffe's daughter Liz: "It has always been my family's dream to get my father's books back in print, not for any monetary gain, we all know writers are rarely compensated in fiscal enormity. (Thus, perhaps the dubious question...why on god's green earth do they do it?) But we, as a family, wanted very much to collect enough books to pass on to grandchildren, great-grandchildren etc."
Thanks to PointBlank Press that dream has now become reality.
Donna 'Kafka' Moore