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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

THE CUTTING EDGE -In conversation with George G. Gilman

The US publisher called the Edge series, "The most violent westerns in the world."

And they were but it was stylised violence, Grand-Guignol violence, written by an author who didn't much like violence but managed to tune into what the western reading public wanted.

"I was worried about the amount of graphic violence I was asked to put in the Gilman books and it was a cold blooded decision (pun intended) by me to counter-balence this with humour. Fortunately my publishers and later the reading public didn't seem to mind even though some of the jokes were very anachronistic that tended to ruin whatever degree of realism I had manged to convey in the narrative."

The humour certainly became a big part of the series. And perhaps that's what made them stand out from the other Oater-Nasties in the bookshops, maybe it was this often surreal humor that makes the series so evergreen. The series ended in 1989 and the books are not in print but there is still an huge demand. At the time of writing there is a copy of Edge no 60 on Ebay and it's currently been bid upto £31. Not bad for a cheap paperback.

Besides the Edge books George G. Gilman, real name Terry Harknett, created Adam Steele (there are 49 books featuring this character) as well as other lesser series characters and was responsible for the Fistful of Dollars novelisation under the name Frank Chandler. As well as several other original dollar westerns he also penned a number of mysteries but it is Edge which is his signature series.

"My first published books were hardback mysteries for Robert Hale featuring a London private eye called Stephen Wayne. And later I wrote several crime novels for a handful of paperback and hardback publishers. But it was Edge that eventually allowed me to become a full time writer."

Terry was born in Essex in 1936 to a working class background. He went to a secondary modern school and was a very practical boy, developing an interest in mechanics.

"After my initial boyhood ambition to become a motor mechanic was dashed by a school career visit to the Ford Motor Company factory in Dagenham - I was born only a few miles away. I decided I wanted to be a mystery writer instead."

Motor mechanics to mystery hack is quite a radical turn around. Can't quite see the connection there somehow but for Terry it made perfect sense. The motor industry's loss is the reading publics gain.

"I was always painfully shy as a kid, still am in many ways. In fact I still have a phobia about being the centre of attention. I wanted to be rich and, as a fifteen year old, it seemed to me that only those born with a silver spoon in their mouths or famous people in the public eye got to be rich. There was once exception - writers, who could beaver away in their lonely studies writing books that would bring them wealth - some of them, anyway. And since my favourite reading matter was American hard boiled crime fiction this was the genre I would make my fortune working in."

Only in life, as I'm sure Edge pointed out somewhere in his laconic drawl, things never quite work out as planned. Terry's first job was as a copy boy with The Reuters News Agency. He stuck at this for nine months and then he went across to Fleet Street and got a post in a features syndicate agency. Here his duties was buying articles, crossword and strip cartoons and then flogging them onto various markets. It was here that Terry started writing short stories and he saw several syndicated via Newspaper Services.

National Service came next and saw Terry serve with the RAF. He chose to be a typist which gave him access to a typewriter and a good amount of free time. He started writing books, actually writing two unpublished novels on RAF headed notepaper. Terry says that these books were basically Raymond Chandler copies but not anywhere near as good as the master who was his favourite author.

After finishing his duty to his country Terry went back to Reuters but soon he left and got a job at the Twentieth Century Fox publicity department. He was based in Soho Square and not Hollywood which rankled somewhat. Eventually Terry went back to work for Newspaper Features again but the company was in trouble and would soon go down the pan. Eventually Terry came into contact with the late Peter Haining when he went up before a board for a job with The National Newsagents Society.

Someone there thought Terry was unsuitable for the job but meeting Peter Haining was the start towards becoming a bestselling writer. By this time Terry was churning out Chandleresque crime novels for Robert Hale, present day publishers of the Black Horse Western series. Terry was a Chandler buff and read everything the great man published but he felt he could never aspire to his greatness. Didn't stop him trying, though.

Eventually Terry ended up with New English Library where Peter Haining was in charge of the paperback division. Terry's first novel for the imprint was The Weekend Game and he followed that up with W.I.T.C.H. The latter book, about militant bra burning feminists, was written under the name Jane Harman which was Terry's wife's maiden name. The title stood for - we intend to create havoc.

Terry took whatever commission he could find (although he did turn down an offer of £1000 a book for writing hard core porn) and this led to him penning the novelisation of the Clint Eastwood movie, A Fistful of Dollars and then several other spaghetti western based novels. He was asked to create a new western series for New English Library - all action, violent in the style of the Italian westerns which were taking so much money at the box office and Edge came from that.

"I had never read a western novel when I did my first and I consider that fact was a cornerstone to the success of George G Gilman.. For Edge had to be an original concept since having no idea what a western book should be like I had to create the series almost out of thin air. Of course I was aware of Hollywood's version of the Western locale and what the stock characters that peopled it looked like since I grew up in an era when the cinema and television were awash with oaters."

Gilman's Edge was a hit - not initially but it gradually gained a large audience which continued to expand, making the Edge series the benchmark by which all other westerns of the period were judged.

In total the series went on for 61 books, spawned a series of Italian comic book adaptions and the pen name George G. Gilman even had his own fan club.

" I think a good western needs a fast moving story, believable characters and some violent action with a seasoning of gallows humour."

The Edge character certainly delivered those ingredients in spades. Edge would always emerge from seemingly desperate situations, often cheat almost certain death. In many ways the character was a superhero - where Batman had his utility belt, Edge had his cut-throat razor. Where Superman had his cape, Edge had his Winchester. The Edge books provided sheer enjoyable escapist fiction, never taking itself too seriously so that although westerns, the books seem to be lodged in a sub-genre of their own.

I wondered if Terry had ever been to the American West.

"Jane (my wife) and I took one of those bus tours of the South-western US many years ago - Los Angeles-Grand Canyon-Las Vegas-San Francisco and many points between. All this really gave me in terms of research for the Gilman books was a sense of "the big sky" and vast distances spread out beneath it. And I must admit the most significant part of the trip for me was walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles where my all-time favourite fictional hero Philip Marlowe plied his trade."

And so I've spoken to a literary hero of mine and I'm as excited as the kid I was when I first read the Edge novels. To my mind the Edge series is the perfect example of the British pulp tradition and the books, although very violent, are never downbeat and the narrative is so slick your eyes slide smoothly from page to page. Pick one up and before you know it your hooked which is part of the reason the books fetch so much on Ebay. Terry though, forever modest, has a theory on that.

"It never ceases to amaze me that that my ancient scribblings continue to interest readers. Although I take little notice of how they come and go on e-bay. For I think most people who acquire them in this area are collectors hopeful of making a bob or two profit in the future, rather than readers seeking to enjoy my deathless prose!"

We'll have to agree to disagree on that point as I know many people who love the Edge series as well as a lot of Terry's other Gilman stuff. Adam Steele is always worth a read but Edge is something special - these are great books that I believe will one day see a resurgence. All it takes is an enterprising publisher to start issuing the classic westerns, much in the way Hard Case Crime are doing for mysteries and a new legion of fans will be found.

Terry's top ten western movies
In no particular order:
Leon's Eastwood Dollar Trilogy
Once upon a time in the west
The Shootist
The Searchers
Soldier Blue
Rio Bravo
High Noon
Terror in a Texas Town

George G. Gilman on the web:

A man called George G. Gilman

Gilman Forum

Known Pen-names
George G Gilman, Adam Hardy (with Kenneth Bulmer), Jane Harmon, Joseph Hedges, William M James (with John Harvey and Laurence James), Charles R Pike (with Kenneth Bulmer and Angus Wells), William Pine, Thomas H Stone, William Terry


Ray said...

Well done, Gary. I have nothing but admiration for the Edge books.
After Edge has to be the exploits of Jedediah Herne and Barnaby Gold.
One of those books that didn't happen was the one where Edge and Herne met up.
An excellent post.


Thanks Ray I'm glad you enjoyed it. I grew up reading the Edge books so it's kind of amazing to email back and forth with Terry. Chandler's his hero but he's very much mine.

Joanne Walpole said...

Very interesting. Based on your previous review I actually bought a job lot of 5 Edge books on eBay for £3.20 + £5.00 p&p. Sounds like I was lucky. I'm really quite excited to read them now I've heard what the author has to say. Thanks to you and him for sharing :-)


Jo, I'm sure you'll love them. Above all they're fun and that's what reading should be about.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Jo (and Gary),

I'm sure that, as new western writers, you would enjoy reading Terry Harknett's own article, appropriately titled "Writing Westerns". This appeared when Edge was at the height of popularity, in the August 1979 edition of the US magazine The Writer, and is well worth tracking down if that's at all possible.

It covers some of the ground Gary does here, but includes more detail on Terry's working methods, as you might expect. It covers creating an original character, outlining, research, and ten rules, "which," Terry says, " I have adhered to" but "are no guarantee of success, for what they amount to is merely that forty-nine percent of perspiration". (There's also "two percent inspiration".)

In my opinion, westerns' biggest marketing problem today is standing up to the PC brigade . . . and the PC doesn't stand for Piccadilly Cowboys but Politically Correct. These shadowy, seemingly hard-to-name people want all new westerns to be Plastic Water-Pistol Westerns.

Another colourful quote from Terry's article: "This all happened when the screen western (under the influence of Italian movie makers) had hung up its guitars in the cozy bunkhouse and come out with blazing guns onto the dusty streets and wind-blown high plains. Clint Eastwood did not wear a white hat, and when he shot a man, the blood flowed -- and showed. The movie West was suddenly tough, but nobody was writing books like that."

Today, the problem has shifted to "nobody is allowed to write books like that". Other than for writers who reside in the US, the only regular market for genre westerns is offered by Robert Hale Ltd's Black Horse Westerns, where the approach has become increasingly cautious and PC-affected. The prompt and courteous email I received today about Faith and a Fast Gun, completed and air-mailed from NZ one week ago, accepts the book on a condition -- "provided you will allow us to tone down references on pages 91, 93, 103, 121, 128, 130, 131 and 138."

I'm grateful, but damn! Another eight or so tasty lines lost to the blue pencil!

Steve M said...

Nicely done Gary, keep up the good work feller.

Charles Gramlich said...

YOu're making me want to go back and dig out all those old edge books I've got. Now where are they?

Michael Martin said...

actually a while back i did see some old westerns re-published and on a shelf near the front of Lincoln Waterstone's.
Also as there are many many paperback sellers around here i might just have to watch out for some bargain Edge books.

Randy Johnson said...

I loved this series when it was coming out. I think I had them all but the few never published here in the states.
A few years ago I found a site that had six Edge ebooks. They featured an older Edge than in the original books.