This is going to be the hardest review I've ever written, but not because of the text within the book, a collection of short detective stories written by prolific author Guy N. Smith. It's because Guy died on Christmas Eve, because of what he's meant to me for a very long time and because of my personal connection to this particular volume, which I received only a couple of weeks before the news of his passing. It doesn't seem real that he's gone. It seems strange to be living in a world without him, as much a force of nature as the winds that pummel his beloved Black Hill.
My time with Guy goes way back. I can't remember how old I wasn't when I saw my first Guy N. Smith horror novel, in a charity shop somewhere in Wales, snapped it up and devoured it. It was one of his 'Mark Sabat' novels, occult thrillers pitting an ex-priest, SAS-trained killer and exorcist against the forces of evil, but it wasn't the first in the series and that didn't matter. It did its job anyway and I'd been hooked. Ever eager for more horror, I rapidly built a collection, picking up new titles at W. H. Smith's, often at the rate of four per year in the late eighties, and tracking down old ones in other charity shops or market stalls.
They were always entertaining, even if their literary quality varied. Some novels like 'Deathbell' or 'Fiend', are both quality reads and thoroughly original ones. Guilty pleasures like 'The Sucking Pit' or his bestseller, 'Night of the Crabs', are really pretty awful but, my goodness, there are few books as much fun to read. Because it's so long since I've read some of these books, I was actually planning to start a runthrough of his novels this month, but I'm interrupting before I start to write this as a memorial and a review all in one.
Still short of his full output, at some point I ordered some from Black Hill Books, a bookseller that I'd found in the back of 'Book and Magazine Collector' magazine and was shocked when Guy himself replied to me. He was the first name author I ever met and the one I first and most called friend. He and his family kindly put me up on more than one occasion, as I visited to help research his copious bibliography, to attend his annual fan club gatherings and to help him out with computers. He had written so many of his books by hand and had only progressed to a word processor by this point, so I gave him a desktop from the stack I'd acquired through work and served as his technical support.
There was a point where we talked weekly, if not daily. I helped him get his stock as a bookdealer up onto ABE Books. I laid out the first three books that he self-published under the Black Hill Books imprint, a few chapbooks and some issues of his fan club magazine, 'Graveyard Rendezvous', where my first fiction was published. He gave many of us fans opportunities that have grown, for some, to fully fledged careers as writers. I'm not one of those but I wouldn't have written what I've written, if it hadn't been for his support early on. It's ironic that he would pass before my own collection sees print, a book that I've dedicated to him with thanks for all his support, but after he dedicated this one to me, with the same sincere thanks.
I'm also in the acknowledgements, because this is older material that was assembled from a variety of obscure sources, one of which was me. The first six of these stories, which all revolve around Guy's fictional detective, Raymond Odell, and his trusted young companion, Tommy Bourne, first saw the light of day in an old book catalogue of his called 'Caerlaverock' in the mid-seventies. It's within the bounds of possibility that these are the only copies left in existence, so I scanned the stories, OCR'd them and sent them in to be published. Others came from the obscure fanzine 'Thing', published in the early seventies, and were provided by Shane Agnew and Chris Hall. It seems highly appropriate to me that an author who so valued his fans that he opened his home to any who might wander up to it, would end his career with a book built from old material of his that the fans provided.
I learned a lot from Guy, who was a writer's writer in that he could write anything and probably did. He wrote for whatever market was buying, whether that be horror novels for NEL in the seventies or Hamlyn in the eighties; books and articles on field sports for a variety of publishers, including 'The Countryman's Weekly'; or even readers letters for porn mags, which he churned out in the seventies by the thousand words. However he also wrote for himself, his love for the old boys papers reflected in stories such as these, anomalies for their time and published for no pay, nothing more than the joy of writing them.
So I'll grit my teeth, still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he's gone, and review this on its own merits. It's not great literature, but it wasn't meant to be. It was meant to be fun and it is; thirteen cases in the careers of Odell and Bourne each short but effective. The backdrop of how Odell is called in by an inept Scotland Yard to solve baffling case after baffling case doesn't quite hold up, but it doesn't matter because we're hooked by Guy's characters getting down to business. The crux of all of these stories is the crime committed and it's great to try to figure out whodunit before Odell does. I've always liked Guy's detective stories, whether Stan Webster, Raymond Odell or Dixon Hawke, and feel that he's arguably more natural with them than with the horror for which he's best known.
As Guy states in his introduction, Odell is a hybrid detective. He's partly from the Sherlock Holmes line, catching his crooks through exquisite observational skills, but he's also partly from the Sexton Blake line, a man of action as good with his fists as his intellect. The stories here tend towards the former, but there are a few examples of the latter and it's fun watching the styles merge, especially in the Tommy Bourne introductory story, 'The Making of a Detective'. Some are brief and not deep at all. Others are surprisingly complex and unusual for their lengths. I particularly enjoyed 'Quick-Change Artist', which is a neat way to almost get away with murdering your shrew of a wife.
Even with three new stories, previously unpublished, one of which neatly kills off fellow fan Shane Agnew, this is a slim volume, running under two hundred pages even as a mass market paperback. I would love to see more but, of course, that's not going to happen now, unless one of us discovers a fresh story in a stack of manuscripts from a filing cabinet. Now that Guy is no longer with us, it may be time to go digging. I know I have plenty of other still unpublished material, including at least a trio of early novels.
Rest in peace, Guy. May you find plenty of time up there to keep on scribbling. We'll catch up when we join you, however many years from now that might be and however many 'Mark Sabat' novels in you've got. You can settle down and write all those westerns now and novels full of detectives and gamekeepers and pipe smokers. We fans owe you a great deal and we won't ever forget that. Thank you for everything. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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