Dennis Lynds
by Jack Adrian, The Financial Times of London

Dennis in his and Gayle's library, 1990s, Santa Barbara.

Dennis in his and Gayle’s library, 1990s, Santa Barbara.

Unusually for a mystery writer — as a breed, they tend to favor things as they are, rather than as they might be — the American author Dennis Lynds, politically, came from left of centre. This did not mean he preached bloody revolution. He wrote to entertain — ‘I hope my books excite [and] thrill,’ he once said – but he also wrote to inform, especially why losers lose and some winners do not necessarily belong in the ranks of the righteous.

In a writing career that spanned more than four decades, Lynds used at least eight pseudonyms, and in most of his work (even his early pulp stuff) the sins of society — rampant greed, ugly consumerism, want of compassion, bigotry – are targeted and judged. Sometimes the losers are helped through the winning tape.

In the early part of his career Lynds wrote for literary magazines such as New World Writing and the celebrated Prairie Schooner, and four of his short stories were later anthologised in the annual Best American Short Stories volumes (a selection of his mainstream stories was published much later, in 1980, as Why Girls Ride Sidesaddle). His earliest novels, Combat Soldier (1962), a gritty narrative based on his own wartime experience, and Uptown Downtown (1963), sold but did not set the East Coast literary set afire, and like many writers before and since he settled down to produce pulp fiction to pay the bills, in the process learning how to write commercially.

He finally scored a popular and critical success with a private-eye novel featuring the one-armed Dan Fortune, Act of Fear (1967), which won him the coveted Mystery Writers of America ‘Edgar’ award (after Edgar Allan Poe) for ‘Best First Novel’.

Dennis Lynds was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1924 but was educated at Brooklyn Technical High School, and Cooper Union School, New York, while working as a junior chemist for the Pfizer company. He attended Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College but was called up in 1943, later serving with the 12th Armoured Division in France and gaining a Bronze Star and Purple Heart as well as three battle stars.

Out of the army, he rejoined Pfizer before launching into a career as editor of several technical journals put out by the chemicals industry. At the same time he went back to college, gaining a BA in chemistry from Hofstra University in 1949, and an MA in journalism from Syracuse in 1951.

Lynds began writing detective stories in the early 1960s, much later rationalising his deliberate shift from mainstream to mystery fiction thus:

Suspense novels are no less novels than sonnets are poems. The basic mark of a ‘crime’ novel is exactly that – it centres on . . . a specific moment of violence at a particular time and place. I chose to write ‘crime’ novels (because) . . . I think a society and its people can be seen in sharp outline at such moments of violence.

He wrote tough, taut tales mainly for the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, some featuring a seedy, crooked detective with one arm who liked working the slot-machines (thus, quite literally, a one-armed bandit) called Slot Machine Kelley. Lynds dreamed up the notion from personal experience: a private detective he knew only used writ- or summons-servers who were seriously disabled, figuring that no one would ever assault someone who was physically handicapped.

In 1963 Lynds had a stroke of luck. The paperback publisher Belmont Books had revived the old 1930s pulp and radio hero the Shadow, using the character’s creator Walter Gibson. But Gibson only wanted to write the opener and, casting around for another scribe to take up the contract the editors fell upon Lynds, who over the next three years turned out a total of eight Shadow novels. The character appealed to him because he was an avenger who righted wrongs and uplifted the innocent, and Lynds was able to infiltrate some of his own strongly held views on contemporary American society into what was essentially a series of pulp thrillers.

Reviving his idea for a one-armed hero, Lynds now wrote his breakthrough novel Act of Fear, starting a series that in the end ran to over 20 densely plotted, finely characterised and highly regarded suspense novels. And winning the Edgar in 1968 seemed to release a pent-up flood of literary creation. Hard on the heels of his Dan Fortune books, issued under the name ‘Michael Collins’, Lynds became ‘William Arden’, starting not only a series of excellent industrial espionage thrillers in which, by the by, he was able to comment on the evils of out-of-control big business, but also another series of mysteries, this time for the juvenile market.

A year or so later he became ‘Mark Sadler’, for a series featuring an upper echelon (‘We’re Madison Avenue, not Tenth Avenue’) private eye called Paul Shaw, characterised by a reviewer for The New York Times as ‘action without recklessness, a social point of view that presents no easy answers’. Yet another series – written as ‘John Crowe’ – featured not a central character but an entire area in California, the fictional Buena Vista County.

Something of a Stakhanovite, Lynds wrote seven days a week, nine to five every day and eight to eleven four nights a week. This regime, punishing for most other writers, enabled him to slip into his schedule various odd jobs every now and again, such as the novelisation of a Charlie Chan television movie, Charlie Chan Returns (1974), and a dozen ‘Nick Carter’ (America’s answer to Sexton Blake) thrillers, including Triple Cross (1976), White Death (1985), Mercenary Mountain (1986) and Blood of the Falcon (1987), as well as TV scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

As well as his Edgar, Lynds gained a special award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1969, as well as the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988 and the Marlowe Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern California chapter of the MWA in 2003.

Even so, he viewed the business of writing with a mildly jaundiced eye: – ‘[It’s] a terrible way to make a living,’ he once said. ‘There’s no security, fringe benefits. You’re living on a banana peel and spend all your time waiting for the mail.’

Dennis Lynds, chemist, novelist and scriptwriter: born St Louis, Missouri 15 January 1924; married 1949 Doris Flood (marriage dissolved 1956), 1961 Sheila McErlean (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1985); 1986 Gayle Hallenbeck Stone; died San Francisco 19 August 2005.

[©2005 Financial Times Information. All rights reserved Global News Wire – Europe Intelligence Wire ©2005 Independent Newspapers (UK) Limited August 26, 2005, Friday.]