Friday, December 24, 2010

Remembering Richard Jessup

Ed Gorman here...

I played The Cincinatti Kid the other night and as I watched I thought about what a hard mile Richard Jessup, the author of the novel, had walked before hitting it big before his novel became a major film.

We first see Jessup in the early `50s when Gold Medal was promoting him as their own angry young man. The books were thick and dealt with social themes such as race and juvenile delinquency. I haven't read them in years but I remember liking them a great deal. His mainstream work always had a hard edge. And somewhere in here he wrote radio and live TV including the science fiction series Tom Corbett. I believe that he also wrote some juvenile sf as well. Two of his long Gold Medals became movies.

His next incarnation, after the angry young man phase ended, comes in the middle to late period of that decade. Jessup, under at least two pen-names, writes crime novels and westerns. After the James Bond boom he creates a spy series that people seem to love or despise. He had a good time kidding the form. Having never cared much for Bond in any form, I appreciated the joshing. 

But then...

Jessup wasn't a one-hit wonder because he wrote three or four moderately successful novels after Kid. His publishers were careful to disassociate him from his genre work. I recall seeing an edition of Kid that gave the impression this was a first novel.

But he never came close to achieving another huge seller or one as culturally important as Kid. So what if he took The Hustler as his template and used poker instead of pool? Kid was indeibly Jessup just as Hustler was indeliby Walter Tevis. 

It's difficult to learn what he did exactly after the success of Kid. There were the books I mentioned but as an old paperback original writer he seemed to have a lot of time on his hands. He'd done a fair share of TV work early on, maybe he went back to that, though IMDB doesn't show much.

In the early eighties he wrote two door-stopper size suspense novels both of which were damned fine novels. My sense is that they were moderately successful. Jessup was a fine craftsman who worked comfortably in at least three different genres. 

I think what we're looking at here is the career of a working writer who got awfully lucky with the best book of his life but still was never recognized for much of the memorable (memorable to me, anyway) work he did early on.

Most of his books are great reads--he was a hell of a good western writer; and his Gold Medal Wolfcop is a fine hardboiled novel. He brought a precise, evocative style to all his books and at least once a novel he fried your brain. I'm thinking here of Wyoming Jones when Jones is caught with a young Indian woman who is betrothed to the Chief. Jones is tied to a post and prepared for being burned at the stake if the young woman doesn't prove to still be a virgin. An old Indian woman is to examine her. Chandler always said that you needed to work inside the formula, give it touches that only you could bring. Jessup did that frequently. 

He died way too young of lung cancer. It made me remember all those dramatic author photographs of him with a cigarette between his fingers.


  1. I remember those Gold Medal novels. Could be a Kindle gold mine for someone.