Blackmailer by George Axelrod (Gold Medal, 1952)
George Axelrod wrote The Seven Year Itch and adapted The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the screen, and was often on TV talk shows in the 1950s. Ed Gorman, on his blog, said he was the kind of writer many young writers aspired to be: hip and successful, because Axelrod also wrote a Gold Medal crime thriller, Blackmailer.
This is a nifty bug on the wall view of the publishing industry. The narrator, Dick, operates a mid-level two-man publishing house that mostly issues coffee table books and crossword puzzles, every now and then a novel that never gets noticed by the critics. This is why he is flabbergasted when a sexy dish of a 1950s dame comes to his office saying she has the last written manuscript for a novel by a famous author who committed suicide, and won the Novel Prize. She shows him the first page of the manuscript. Dick knows the author’s style of typing and writing notes, on yellow paper, because he once worked for this writer’s main publisher and had seen the manuscripts. He knows the writer’s handwriting — so this is either the real thing or a very good forgery.
The dame wants $50K for the rights. Why? The book would go for a million at his regular publisher, and the public would buy hundreds of thousands of copies for this famous author’s unknown work.
The famous writer? Charles A., very Hemingway-esque wirh his five ex-wives, his bouts with alcohol, his love for fishing and big game in Africa, his various homes from key West to Paris, the Novel Prize, and the suicide…but wait! This book was published in 1951 and it would be a decade before Hemingway would shoot himself — and Charles A. shoots himself “accidentally” while cleaning a rifle, but that’s a nice way to say suicide, and it’s what was said about Hemingway in 1961. Eerie how Axelrod predicted this a decade early…
Dick says he will have to talk t6his over with his business partner and the dame says she needs an answer before close of business at 5 pm.
Then a letter from some power agent who handles top writers and actors in Nerw York arrives, offering the rights to the same manuscript! What the hell? The dame shows up at his apartment, and she’s being chased by two thugs iun suits who beat him up and toss his apartment around, make him and the dame get naked and doing the full body cavity search…for wnat?
Then, at a party for this eccentric tycoon, the dame is murdered…and then his ex-girlfriend comes into the picture, a once struggling actress with a similar background as Marilyn Monroe and now a famous star…she and the tycoon and the power agent seem to have their hands in this last novel scheme, which turns out to be a hoax cultivated by a young author who used Charles A’s notes for the book and three unpublished stories, and a good mimicking of a certain style; the tycoon has already sold the film and serial rights and some foreign stuff, and instead of dealing with the usual publisher, he wants to use Dick’s small company as a front, giving them 10 percent, whereas the tycoon will cash in the bigger profit…
But more people want a piece of this action, and more people are killed, and maybe the famous author was also murdered by the people he swindled $150,000 into believing they were investing a novel that did not exist on paper, but as a dream in the old alcoholic writer’s delusional mind.
Like a Raymond Chandler yarn, there’s plenty of snappy dialogue and a series of odd events loosely strung together, leaving you confused at times about what the hell is going on and who is doing what…but it’s a damn fine and funny and fast read.
Hard Case Crime reprinted it in 2006.