King of Crime: Part I — The Earlier Years
In a couple of weeks—on March 2nd, 2021, to be specific—Hard Case Crime will publish their third Stephen King novel, Later. Although King is generally thought of as a horror writer, he has written numerous crime short stories, novellas and novels, giving them a unique twist. In Part 1 of a three-part series, I look at King’s earliest involvement with crime fiction. Next week, I’ll explore his more recent writings in the genre, including his previous two books with Hard Case Crime and the Mercedes series. Then, on publication day, I’ll review Later and look ahead to King’s next crime novel, Billy Summers.
When a young Stephen King went into Lisbon Falls with his mother on their weekly grocery shopping trips, he always headed straight to the drugstore, which had a couple of wire spinner racks stocked with hardboiled paperbacks featuring covers with scantily clad women — the same types of covers favored by Hard Case Crime.
In a 2013 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, King said his mother read Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie novels. He found the Perry Mason books too stylish and artificial for his taste, but he loved Christie’s mysteries. However, he couldn’t figure out how to construct detailed puzzles like hers. “I was never built to be the sort of writer who plots things,” he said. “I usually take a situation and go from there.”
As a teenager, King submitted stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, rarely garnering more than a form rejection. His first professional sale was to Startling Mystery Stories, although “The Glass Floor” is not a mystery.
Five years before he came up with the pseudonym Richard Bachman by combining Richard Stark (a pen name used by crime writer Donald Westlake) and Bachman Turner Overdrive, he published “The Fifth Quarter” under the name John Swithen (also the name of an incidental character in Carrie). The story is a caper about dishonor among thieves, so it made sense that King would use a pen name to differentiate it from the horror tales he was publishing in men’s magazines at the time.
Several of King’s short stories involve gangsters and hit men. Robinson’s wife in “Dolan’s Cadillac” was murdered to prevent her from testifying against a crime lord. In “The Ledge,” Stan Norris is forced to take an unusual walk by the mobster whose wife he’s involved with. The mob gets into the stop-smoking business in “Quitter’s Inc.” “The Wedding Gig” is about a jazz band hired to play at the reception for a mobster’s grotesquely obese daughter. The wife of a hit man’s victim finds an innovative (albeit supernatural) way to repay him in “Battleground.” Another hit man is given an unusual assignment in “The Cat from Hell.” “Man with a Belly,” which will be reprinted in Killer Crimes this year, is about a mobster who hires a hit man to punish wife her for gambling. “My Pretty Pony” is a flashback from an aborted novel about a boy who grew up to be a brutal hit man. King fictionalizes an incident from the John Dillinger saga in “The Death of Jack Hamilton.”
Stories like “Strawberry Spring,” “Cain Rose Up,” “Suffer the Little Children,” “The Gingerbread Girl,” “Blockade Billy,” and “The Man Who Loved Flowers” feature serial killers and homicidal maniacs. A crime writer relies on his aggressive George Stark-like pseudonym to resolve a dangerous situation in “Rest Stop.” In On Writing, King suggests that his story “The Night of the Tiger” was inspired by an episode of The Fugitive.
In “The Doctor’s Case,” which first appeared in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, King gives Doctor Watson the opportunity to shine from the reader’s perspective, as well as from that of Holmes. It is his only published work that makes use of another author’s characters, although it’s not the only time he attempted to pick up where another crime writer left off (see below).
“Umney’s Last Case” opens with a quote from one of the masters of noir, Raymond Chandler. It is the story of 1930s-era detective Clyde Umney, who discovers that his world is unraveling. Then he comes face to face with his creator, author Samuel Landry, who is remodeling Umney’s universe prior to moving in. From Landry’s perspective, Umney’s life is ideal — an escape from the everyday horrors of the real world to a place where time never seems to pass. After Landry forces Umney to take his place in the 1990s, it doesn’t take the former detective long to figure out how things work. He decides to write his own crime novel and set things right.
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In 1977, King moved to England with his family, intending to soak up enough local color to write a novel set there. One of the ideas he considered was a mystery set in the fictional universe of Dorothy L. Sayers — a Lord Peter Wimsey novel. He completed fifteen pages (one chapter plus the first page of a second), which he sent to his editor, Bill Thompson. It isn’t known why he didn’t finish it — whether Thompson didn’t encourage him or he lost interest in it.
In this manuscript, Wimsey is depressed because his beloved Harriet died during the German blitz of London. The plot is reminiscent of a British-era Hitchcock thriller. Many years later, in Bag of Bones, Jo Noonan, who owns a complete set of Wimsey hardcovers, dubs the moose in Sara Laughs “Bunter,” which is the name of Wimsey’s faithful manservant.
King and crime writer John D. MacDonald were fans of each other’s work. MacDonald wrote the introduction to Night Shift and his series detective, Travis McGee, was often seen reading a King novel. There had long been rumors of a “black” McGee novel (the books in the series all have colors in their titles) that would be published posthumously. However, this proved to be an urban legend. After MacDonald’s death, King approached his son Maynard, asking permission to write a final McGee novel called Chrome to “put a button on the series,” with the royalties from it going to charity, but he was turned down.
King’s novels often feature criminals of various stripes: embezzlers, thieves, rapists, stalkers, plagiarists, drug lords, child abusers, wife beaters and murderers. Johnny Smith helps the Castle Rock police catch a serial killer in The Dead Zone and the murder of two little girls is an inciting incident in The Green Mile, where just about everyone in Cell Block E was guilty of a major crime. 11/22/63 could be considered a mystery novel in which Jake Epping plays detective while trying to ascertain whether Oswald acted alone when he assassinated the president. Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half is a crime writer and nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery killed a number of her patients before kidnapping and torturing her favorite author. Former LAPD lieutenant Jack Sawyer is asked to come out of retirement to assist local authorities in the Fisherman serial murder case in Black House. Dolores Claiborne explains why she killed her abusive husband in the novel of the same name.
Three of the four stories in Full Dark, No Stars are in the crime genre. “1922” is the confessional of a man who murdered his hectoring wife and dumped her body in the well because she wanted him to sell their farm and move into the city. “Big Driver” is a revenge tale. A writer of cozy mysteries who is brutally assaulted takes matters into her own hands and punishes her attacker. She discovers that real life isn’t as intricately plotted as fiction, so her plans don’t work out as smoothly as she’d hoped. “A Good Marriage,” which uses the BTK killer as inspiration, is about how someone might live for decades with a serial killer and never suspect — and what a person might do once they’ve stumbled upon the truth.
In 2005, when Charles Ardai asked King for a blurb to help promote his new noir imprint, Hard Case Crime, he did so knowing that King was fond of the genre. Instead of a blurb, King decided to write a book for them.
Next week I’ll discuss the way King has infused his crime fiction with the supernatural — both subtly and overtly — and how his Mercedes series evolved from straight crime to accepting that there are things in this world beyond explanation.