“Scudder, I found out, was not that easily abandoned. And so in 1977 I started writing a short story about him, ‘Out the Window,’ and it ran long enough for us to call it a novelette. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine published it in their September issue, and two months later they printed another, ‘A Candle for the Bag Lady.’ (The latter was briefly retitled ‘Like a Lamb to Slaughter,’ so that it might serve as the flagship story of a collection with that title, and that’s a story in itself—but one I’ll save for another time.)”
Yesterday I was glancing through The Night and the Music, my self-published collection of Matthew Scudder stories, and I came across the paragraph quoted above in the overview essay, “About These Stories…” It struck me that now was as good a time as any to supply what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.” And what better place to tell it than here?
In 1981, Arbor House published A Stab in the Dark, the fourth Matthew Scudder novel and the first hardcover. A year later they brought out Eight Million Ways to Die, and no sooner was that book in the stores than I got a call from Arnold Ehrlich, my editor at Arbor House.
He wanted to know the title of my next Scudder novel.
“Don wants to list the book in the catalog,” he explained. Donald I. Fine, the sui generis founder of Arbor House, approached publishing as if it were a mad race to the finish, and his lists of forthcoming books lacked the pinpoint accuracy of, say, the annual weather forecasts in the Farmer’s Almanac.
“Just let me have the title,” Arnold urged. “We can change it if we come up with a better one. Just something to let the world know that you’ve got another Scudder book in the works.”
Well, I didn’t—nor was I at all certain that I ever would. Scudder leaves an unfinished drink on the bar at the end of Eight Million Ways to Die, and goes straight to an AA meeting, and while that might be good for his liver, I felt it might well finish him as a character. The five books of the series, while individual novels in their own right, seemed to me to constitute a single mega-novel, and one that came to an end with his confronting the central problem of his existence and proclaiming himself to be an alcoholic.
Where could he go from there? Probably nowhere, I decided, and I’d have to find somebody else to write about. But meanwhile here was Arnold Ehrlich pestering me for a title, and I couldn’t know for certain that I was done writing about Scudder, and—
“Like a Lamb to Slaughter,” I said.
For no particular reason, all of the Scudder titles had run to five words. The Sins of the Fathers, Time to Murder and Create, In the Midst of Death, A Stab in the Dark, Eight Million Ways to Die—five words apiece, every one of them. It seemed to me that five-word titles had a cadence that seemed to match the books. (It was in fact a pattern that prevailed until the twelfth book, A Long Line of Dead Men, although I stretched a point in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes; dictionaries notwithstanding, I decided that ginmill was one word, not two.)
But I digress. The point is that for a while I’d spent odd moments coming up with possible titles for future Scudder books, and one that had come to mind was the five-word phrase I’d passed on to Arnold.
“Terrific,” he said, and that was the end of it.
Except it wasn’t.
Because a year or so later somebody called me to congratulate me on the great review I’d received in Penthouse. The reviewer had proclaimed Like a Lamb to Slaughter a solid entry in the Matthew Scudder series and a fitting sequel to Eight Million Ways to Die.
The reviewer explained what had happened: “The damn magazine has such a long lead time that even when I review from galleys, the book’s old news by the time my review is published. It’s frustrating to love something and give it a rave, only to find out it’s already been remaindered by the time Penthouse hits the stands. So once in a while I’ll see something in a publisher’s catalog, and it’s by a writer who never disappoints me and it’s in a series I know I can count on, and I’ll take a chance.”
Ah well. No harm, really, because it may startle you to hear this, but not that many people buy Penthouse for the book reviews…
That would have been sometime in 1983. It would be several more years before I wrote a sixth Scudder novel, but it was also in 1983 that Arbor House brought out a collection of my short stories, Sometimes They Bite. While a story about two fishermen on North Carolina’s Outer Banks supplied the book’s title, it was anchored by a Scudder novelette, “Out the Window.”
By the following year, Don Fine was no longer at Arbor House. A while back he’d sold his company to Hearst while staying on as publisher, but within a few years he’d sufficiently alienated the Hearsts so that they fired him. Eden Collinsworth replaced him as publisher, and one day she asked me when they might expect to see a new Matthew Scudder novel. After all, they’d announced Like a Lamb to Slaughter some time ago, and it would be nice to publish it.
I explained that might be a long time coming. But they’d done well with Sometimes They Bite, so how about another volume of short stories? And there was certainly no reason we couldn’t call it Like a Lamb to Slaughter.
Eden was uncertain. She wanted a new book from me for their next list, but short story collections had a limited audience, and what she really wanted was Scudder. Now I’d had the sense (or maybe it was pure luck) to hold back a second Scudder novelette from Sometimes They Bite, and I was now able to tell Eden that a Matthew Scudder novelette called “A Candle for the Bag Lady” could be the highlight of the new collection.
“I wonder,” she said. “Do you suppose that could be the title of the novelette as well? Like a Lamb to Slaughter?”
In a book he wrote as Hunt Collins, Evan Hunter has an agent tell his protagonist that a prospective publisher wants to change his title. “If he’ll publish the thing,” the writer says, “I don’t care if he calls it My Vagina Was Magenta.”
“You know,” I told Eden, “I think that’s the perfect title for both the novelette and the book.”
In that case, she said, they’d go ahead with it.
“That’s great,” I said, “and I think it’ll do fine. It’s off to a good start, you know. It already got a really strong review in Penthouse.”
SPEAKING OF MATTHEW SCUDDER…
…I’ve been reading about him lately. Three of the novels have gone out of print, and I’ve been able to get the rights back to A Stab in the Dark, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and A Long Line of Dead Men. I’ll be making them all available shortly, both as eBooks and as trade paperbacks, very much in the manner and format of The Night and the Music.
While the text is in pretty good shape—we were able to obtain digital files—I’ve still had to read each book and clean up those typographical errors that managed somehow to insinuate themselves therein. And that’s been an interesting experience. The oldest of the three, A Stab in the Dark, was written over thirty years ago, and I’m sure it’s been at least twenty-five years since I read it.
I’m not sure just when the books will be available, but if you follow this blog you’ll be among the first to know. I can tell you that the books will be similar in appearance to The Night and the Music, as you can tell from the preliminary cover art for Stab. And the pricing will be the same: the trade paperback editions will be priced at $16.99, while the eBooks will carry an introductory price of $2.99 which will increase to $4.99 after two or three months.
And yes, you’ll be able to order signed copies of the paperback from LB’s Bookstore. And most if not all of the mystery specialty booksellers who carry The Night and the Music will have these three books available as well.
Reading those three Scudder novels has been enjoyable, I blush to admit, but it’s forced me to interrupt another enjoyable task, the ePublication of ten stories about that criminous criminal lawyer, Martin H. Ehrengraf, the dapper little chap who rarely sees the inside of a courtroom because all his clients somehow turn out to be innocent. I’ve made six of them available for Kindle and Nook (and some for Smashwords as well) and I’ll finish the job when the time becomes available.
Meanwhile, if you’d like an introduction to Ehrengraf, or want to renew your acquaintance, you might like to begin with The Ehrengraf Defense. The covers for all the stories are uniform, so just think how splendid they’ll look on your virtual bookshelf!
Also available: The Ehrengraf Presumption, The Ehrengraf Experience, The Ehrengraf Appointment, The Ehrengraf Riposte, and The Ehrengraf Obligation. Kindle links for those can be found on the About LB’s Fiction page of this blog site, but I know y’all are resourceful enough to ferret them out on your own, even as the Nooksters and Smashworders among you can find your way to the appropriate place.
I hope it won’t be long before Ehrengrafs 7 through 10 are available as well. And will there ultimately be a book? I think so, but first I hope to write a couple more stories to fill it out. Again, if this happens, you’ll learn about it here.