Lawrence Block On The Hellcats and Honey Girls Trilogy with Donald E. Westlake

Tuesday, July 09, 2013 by Libby

In August of 1957 I answered a blind ad, took a test, and landed a job as an assistant editor at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, where I spent my days reading amateur work and writing encouraging rejections. (Encouraging because we wanted the authors to submit more material, accompanied by more reading fees; rejections because the stuff was, by and large, terrible.) It was a great learning experience for a writer-in-training and by the time I left there the following May, I had sold a slew of short stories and articles. The first thing I did when I got home to Buffalo, New York, was write a novel, and I wrote a batch more in the months that followed. I was by then back at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and was supposed to be writing papers for my professors. Instead I was writing soft-core sex novels for Harry Shorten of Midwood Tower.

Around this time, Don Westlake answered the same ad, took the same test, and landed the same job. And he, too, began writing for Harry Shorten at Midwood; I first became aware of him when I read his first Midwood title,

All My Lovers, by one Alan Marshall. I remember a scene where the brothers of a slum girl, who’s been led astray by a young executive type, go to the rotter’s luxurious apartment and beat the crap out of him. Then they leave and the scene closes with these lines: “They did not take anything. They were not thieves.”

I thought that was pretty damn good and wondered who’d written it.

A few months later Don got his first look at me, although it might have been through a one-way mirror for all I saw of him. I was in New York City on Christmas break and had gone to the Scott Meredith office, where I was now a client—though not the sort whose picture they put on the wall for all to see. There was a sliding window in the antechamber where they hadn’t put my picture, and my agent Henry Morrison and I talked through a book project. And Don was in the bullpen office on the other side of that window and saw me, although I did not see him.

And this was the conversation he overheard:

“That last book I delivered.”

“A Strange Kind of Love. What about it?”

“Is it too late to change the dedication?”

“I’m afraid so. Why?”

“I’m not seeing that girl anymore.”

Well, I went back to Yellow Springs and the academic year finally ended, and in June I came back to New York and got a room at the Hotel Rio on West Forty-Seventh Street. I turned up at Scott Meredith one afternoon to pick up a check or drop off a manuscript, and I ran into a young fellow on a similar errand. It was Don, of course, who had quit editing and was freelancing, and who lived nearby himself, in a railroad flat on a very nasty block in the West Forties between Ninth and Tenth avenues.

We introduced ourselves, and walked out of that office and into a friendship that lasted for fifty years. And that is why A Girl Called Honey, the first book in this triple volume and itself our initial collaborative effort, bears this dedication: “For Don Westlake and Larry Block, who introduced us.”

I had one year to go at Antioch College, but it was not to be. Sometime that summer I got a letter from the school saying they’d come to the conclusion that I’d be happier elsewhere. And I knew they were right. I was already doing what I wanted to do, and I figured I’d keep on doing it.

But by the end of the summer I’d decided against doing it in New York, at least for the time being. I moved back to my parents’ house in Buffalo, and I went on writing books for Bill Hamling of Nightstand Books and Harry Shorten and writing crime fiction for magazines. Don was doing much the same in New York. He and his wife and infant son were living in an awful block in Hell’s Kitchen when we met and moved to the upper flat in a two-family house in Canarsie, Brooklyn, a ten minute walk from the Rockaway Parkway stop at the end of the Canarsie Line.

We stayed very much in touch. I don’t think it ever occurred to either of us to pick up the phone; long-distance calls were for emergencies, or when somebody died. We wrote letters and probably put more creativity into that correspondence than into our work.

And somewhere along the way we discussed the possibility of collaborating. I wrote the first chapter of A Girl Called Honey. I sent a carbon copy to Don, and he wrote chapter two and sent it to me, and we continued in that vein until the book was done. We never discussed the plot or the characters. At one point I tired of a character he’d introduced and killed him off, whereupon Don retaliated by getting my character arrested for murder.

Damn, that was fun.

The lead’s name was Honour Mercy Bane, and Don thought we should call the thing Piece without Honour, and maybe we did. Who knows? We sent the manuscript to Henry, who sent it to Harry Shorten, who published it with the title it bears now. We split the money and decided we’d have to do it again sometime.

And did, before too long. The second book turned out to be So Willing, and Shorten published that one, too. I don’t know what we called it, but it may have been The Virgin Hunt, or something like that. This time Don wrote the first chapter, and we tossed it back and forth until we had a book. I may have moved back to New York by then. Or not.

One of Don’s chapters began, “Oh well, what the hell, there was always Adele.” But when the book appeared some idiot at Midwood changed Adele’s name to Della. God knows why. My best guess is that his mother’s name was Adele, and he took umbrage.

If he were here, I’d tell him what he could do with his umbrage. And one of the first things that occurred to me when Bill Schafer proposed reprinting these books was that good old Adele could have her name back. She wasn’t even my character, it wasn’t even my line, but I’ll tell you, it’s very satisfying to have it the way it was supposed to be. The third book was Sin Hellcat, and it was brought out by our other mutual publisher, Bill Hamling at Nightstand Books. The first two books we wrote together were published “by Sheldon Lord and Alan Marshall,” and that’s the byline we tacked on Hellcat. But Hamling was having none of it. The book was published “by Andrew Shaw.” I’ve no idea what our title may have been, but I’m sure it wasn’t Sin Hellcat—not that there’s anything wrong with it...

I blush to admit it, but I’m uncommonly proud of Sin Hellcat. If one writer had produced it, it would qualify as a tour de force; as the work of two pairs of hands, you could call it a tour de force majeure. As you’ll see, it’s a first-person narrative telling one story in sequential order, with other episodes of the narrator’s prior life recounted one per chapter along the way.

What I like most about it is that it’s no mean trick to tell which of us wrote a particular chapter. If I flip the book open and start reading, I can’t necessarily tell myself. Somehow, without ever talking at all about the book during its writing, we matched our styles to a remarkable degree.

Oh, I could tell you now who wrote which chapters. But then I’d have to kill you. . . .

{Excerpted from Afterthoughts by Lawrence Block}

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