Thursday, 15 October 2020

Rough Trade

Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: PS Publishing
Date: Dec. 2017
Pages: 415
Not currently available in eBook format or paperback

In 2012, Hard Case Crime published Robert Silverberg's novelette Blood on the Mink, packaged together with a couple of short stories (Dangerous Doll and One Night of Violence). These stories had been written by Silverberg in the late fifties and early sixties for pulp magazines of the time. The success of the HCC paperback prompted a new interest in the authors crime back catalogue, and so in 2017, British independant publishing house PS Publishing release a limited run of his stories from the same period as Rough Trade.

This new collection contains 23 short stories (but does also include One Night of Violence from the HCC paperback) covering the years from 1957 to 1961. Most of the stories are around ten to twelve pages in length, with a few 10,000 worders increasing that to 30 page tales. All of them appeared in one of two pulp magazines that Silverberg was providing a constant stream of material too, Guilty and Trapped. As he says in one of the introductions that preface each story, for some reason Guilty was the more poular magazine despite it covering exactly the same type of crime/hardboiled/delinquent teenager type of content as its companion magazine. Both magazines were edited by the same man, W.W. Scott, to whom Harlan Ellison introduced Silverberg. Thus was born a period of his life where he supplemented his living by sending rapidly written shorts to Scott for consideration.

Silverberg left college and got married in 1956. He immediately began to write full-time - he had already started writing science fiction whilst in college, and wanted to continue to write for a living. Whilst his partner went to work, there was pressure on him to contribute to their living costs. At this time there were very few publishers issuing regular science fiction magazines, nowhere enough for Silverberg to earn good money. Needing to branch out, he began to write for many of the pulps inclinding submissions of Westerns, Sports and Mens Adventure tales. But crime was still king in the late fifties, and so he eventually began to churn out the sort of stories that he hoped would appear in Manhunt

Unfortunately, Manhunt was a tightly controlled shop. Most of the stories it bought (at premuim prices) were from writers who were signed up with literary agent, Scott Meredith. Meredith was already working closely with the editorial team at Manhunt to ensure his clients got to the top of the pile. Very occasionally, someone else would sneak through - but it was a rare moment indeed.

So after Ellison had connected W.W. Scott and Silverberg together, the sci-fi author began to nurture a growing relationship with the editor and began to supply a constant stream of stories suitable for the second tier of crime magazines (at a lower price point obviously). This partnership continued through to the early sixties when Trapped and Guilty started to see dimishing sales, and with the writing on the wall, both closed down before the end of 1961 (after experimenting with longer content - hence the origin of the lengthier Blood on the Mink novelette at this time).

For Rough Trade, the introduction and the notes that accompany each of the stories are nice touches that shine a light on the authors personal circumstances, his influences at the time, and his relationship with editor W.W. Scott. The style of writing is very much in keeping with the requirements of the magazines at the time. Short, snappy and fast moving plots that encourage a fast read in a single sitting. Robert Silverberg is a talented writer who can turn his attention to most things, and it shows here, not a single word or phrase is wasted. The range of genres on show is impressive; crime, revenge drama, delinquent youth, suspense and a touch of thinly veiled horror amongst others.

Reading them now, some of the stories do suffer a bit from having rather thin plots, the limitation of length holding them back or necessitating swift resolutions that are not particularly satisfying. But in the main, I enjoyed the ecclectix mix on offer with a few real gems included. Below are some of my personal favourites.

It's Always Night (1957)

A great little poignant short about a talented jazz-saxophonist who has been reduced to years of plying his trade on the New York subway after being blinded by a colleague in a bar room brawl. His girlfriend has just abandoned him, and he thinks another musician is trying to muscle in on his territory.

Mobster on the Make (1958)

The story of Johnny Price and his self-propelled rise amongst the mobsters he so admires in Reesport, N.Y. Beginning as a young man in his first job delivering groceries, he takes his chance when an opportunity presents itself to get involved in the gangland hit of a local criminal. Silverberg beautifully showcases Price's desire to climb the ladder and make a name for himself by any means.

Winner Take All (1959)

My favourite tale. A first person narrative by Ned Prentiss, one of two remaining cousins who have inherited a cool six million dollars each. Ned decides to marry his cousin, Elsie, in order to combine their wealth - but things don't go according to plan. A fantastic tale, that swoops across the East and West Coast and tracks the scheming nature of ultra-rich famalies in the late fifties.

The Farmers Daughter (1961)

A real twist in the tale story that genuinely surprised me with its creepshow finale. Travelling salesman Jack Marshall finds himself caught in a rainstorm between towns in the backroad farmlands of middle America. Silverberg plays on the attitudes city-folk and country-folk have for each other, and how the middle classes see themselves in comparison the those from depressed sections of society.

The Killer and the Blonde (9.46) (1961)

A wonderfully gritty noir short about established criminal, Henstall. He has travelled across America committing robberies, sometimes requiring a murder or two, for years. He's successful, and is proud of his achievements and the free-wheeling life it has supported him through. But then he meet the blonde in the title... The atmosphere drips off the page like blood out of a gun-shot wound as Silverberg ramps up the lowlife escapes of a murderer and an escort.

Rough Trade is only availble in harback from PS Publishing or second-hand booksellers. There was also a limited run of a slip-cased edition signed by the author, but you'll be lucky to afford one of those. It's a shame it's not available in eBook - maybe one day.

The collection highlights the incredible talents of Robert Silverberg. He is an immensely readable author who was able to produce a massive amount of literature during this period of his life. Not all of the stories hang together to be fair, but as a collection of the type of stories being published at the time, this is a great example. Recommended.

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