A Further Peek Behind the Scenes of Reprinting the Golden Age: Interviewing the Stark House Press

It has a been a while since I have had an interview on my blog, an even longer since I have interviewed a publisher who is doing classic crime reprints. It struck me lately, when I was compiling a short list of my favourite reprints of the year, that many of my preferred titles came from the Stark House Press. Their catalogue of mysteries is full of striking and memorable texts, so I thought it might be interesting to find out a little bit more, to see what goes into the making of their reprints, as well as get a sneaky look at some of the titles coming our way in 2021. So from here on in I will hand over to Greg Shepard.

Easy questions first…

Question 1: Let’s start with an easy one, what is your role within Stark House Press?

I am the publisher of Stark House. I decide what we publish, what the books will look like and what supplementary material will be included. I select the introductions, write the teaser copy, create the bibliographies and short biographies, and market the books. 

Question 2: What type of mystery fiction would you say Stark House concentrates on reprinting?

Our main focus is on noir and hardboiled fiction from the 1950s and 60s, with a strong secondary focus on suspense and mystery fiction from women authors of the same period. 

[You can access their full catalogue at this address: http://starkhousepress.com/mysteries.php%5D

Question 3: How do you go about deciding which titles and authors to reprint?

Mainly it comes down to taste. If I enjoy reading an author, I figure others will too. Sometimes I take suggestions and I am always happy to discover a “new” vintage author. Of course, public domain notwithstanding, the bottom line is whether I can track down and acquire the reprint rights from the copyright holders.

Question 4: I have noticed in the titles I have read from the Stark House stables that the titles and authors chosen, are often pushing boundaries in one way or another. It might be an unconventional manner of plotting, the decision to show female characters in a less stereotypical and more complicated light, or in the case of Bernice Carey’s The Body in the Sidewalk (1950) a desire to comment on the problems of racism. Is this important in which books you decide to reprint?

Character is the most important element to me, the ability of an author to create believable well-drawn characters then set them up with interesting conflicts. I enjoy twisted situations more than puzzles, so I tend to pick authors who deal with issues rather than whodunit crimes.

Question 5: Is there any author you have wanted to reprint, but have not been able to?

There are always a few that get away, but I never say never. I’m still trying to work with the literary agency who controls the rights to Elizabeth Fenwick. I tried to acquire the rights to a Celia Fremlin book from the UK agent to no avail. But I’ll keep at it.

Question 6: Looking back at the authors you have reprinted, what is the most interesting thing you have learnt about one of them? Have you ever been surprised by anything you have found out about one?

Artists fascinate me in general, but I can’t think of anything that really surprised me about them. It was a nice surprise, however, tracking down Jean Potts’ 3rd cousin, Deb Potts, whom I’ve had many interesting conversations with. And Nancy Ingling, Ruth Sawtell Wallis’ granddaughter. And meeting one of Bernice Carey’s sons when he and his wife travelled through our area in their RV.

Question 7: The artwork on covers has an important role to play in reader purchases. I would say the designs you employ are quite distinctive and eschew “cozy” vibes. What were your own aims for the covers? What did you want them to suggest about the titles you are reprinting?

The main objective that I aim for is tension. Or, at the very least, unease. Sometimes we use vintage art, but I also use modern graphic artists like James Heimer and JT Lindross, both of whom I enjoy working with. I’m always asking the impossible of my art director, Mark Shepard, but he usually comes through. He created the Elisabeth Sanxay Holding covers with their distinctive b&w photo art. I want the books to draw the reader’s eye, but I don’t go for a specific “cozy” look for vintage women authors because that feels like a cliché by now.  

Question 8: Another unusual feature of many of the Stark House titles is that they come in the form of a twofer, i.e. readers get two novels in one book. This is an idea which has appealed to me and I was wondering what made you decide to make that choice?

Originally, I wanted to reprint paperback authors from the 1950s and 60s in a mass market line, but found that we’d have to charge too much for a single book to sell many copies. This was 20 years ago, before we discovered print on demand. So I figured that if I reprinted two books at once in a trade paperback, I could justify the higher price and give the readers more for their money. I wasn’t trying to copy the old Ace Double format, I just wanted to create a model that made sense considering printing costs and wholesale discounts. Now the 2-fer has become part of Stark House’s style, and I’m happy to keep going with it.

Question 9: What is your favourite title from the mysteries you have reprinted so far and why?

I don’t have a favorite. My favorite is usually the book I’m currently reading. I could say that in general I love authors like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Jean Potts, Bernice Carey, Dolores Hitchens and Elizabeth Fenwick (not to mention most of the hardboiled authors on our list), but I hate playing favorites with their books. But just to give you an idea of my tastes, some books that have stuck with me are Holding’s The Innocent Mrs. Duff, Potts’ The Evil Wish, Wallis’ Too Many Bones and Carey’s The Body on the Sidewalk.

One of my favourites too…

Question 10: Would you describe yourself as a fan of classic crime novels, and if so, has this been a lifelong love or a recent one? Is there a subgenre you prefer more than others?

I love genre fiction. I started reading science fiction first back in the mid-60s, and moved into mysteries gradually in the early 80s via crime authors like Raymond, Chandler, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Cornell Woolrich and W. R. Burnett. I discovered Holding via the Ace Double editions of her books which I read back in the 1970s and fell in love with. She was, in fact, one of the first authors I thought of when I decided to begin reprinting mysteries. But I read everything: hardboiled, Golden Age, gothics, suspense, adventure, spy, fantasy, horror, science fiction, westerns, classic lit, you name it.   

Question 11: What titles and authors can classic crime fans look forward to in the coming months from the Stark House Press?

Well, considering that probably 75% is what we publish is hardboiled and noir fiction, the list is skewed a bit toward a male audience. Presuming you are interested in the whole line—but with a specific nod toward the women writers–authors I have lined up for 2021 include Day Keene, Richard Neely, Carter Brown, Dolores Hitchens (The Abductor and The Bank With the Bamboo Door), James McKimmey, Jonathan Craig, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (3 novelettes), Lionel White, Bernice Carey (The Fatal Picnic and Their Nearest and Dearest), Charles Williams, Jean Potts (The Only Good Secretary and The Troublemakers) and Helen Nielsen (Sing Me a Murder and False Witness).

I hope this has whetted your appetite and piqued your interest, as well as added a few more additions to the never ending to-be-bought list. If you have tried any of the Stark House Press titles, let us know which were your favourites in the comment section below.

10 comments

  1. Thanks for this insight into the workings of Stark House. It brings to mind a general question/comment. I think that somebody needs to republish Lawrence G. Blochman’s books, but I’m afraid that authors like him may “fall through the cracks” of the reprint biz. Who will do it? I’m generalizing here, but I imagine not Dean Street or British Library (not a British author), not Coachwhip (he’s not obscure and ‘GAD’-y enough), not Felony & Mayhem (not aimed particularly at a female audience), and as described above, not Stark House (not noir enough). So an appeal to Stark House: would you consider stretching your mandate enough to include Blochman and authors like him in your list? BTW, I’d be happy to be corrected/proved wrong about my very sketchy characterization of the publishing situation above.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re the second person to recently sing the praises of Lawrence Blochman. Xavier at the blog At the Villa Rose, is also quite the fan. I would be interested in trying some of his work, but availability is naturally the issue. But who knows, hopefully some publisher might reprint them. What about American Mystery Classics? I think a key factor might be whether the rights are easy to get a hold of.

      Like

  2. Great post Kate.

    I like everything I have read that has appeared from Stark House, but the standouts so far are Lionel White in toto, Dan J Marlowe’s Name of the Game is Death, and Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. Anyone jonesing for James M Cain should read the Chaze. Charles Williams is also one of the stars of noir.

    Didn’t someone call you a “GAD nay-sayer”? Further evidence!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t remember anyone calling me a “GAD nay-sayer”. I wouldn’t think it an entirely accurate statement. I like books with unusual and unconventional premises, but I still enjoy the likes of Sayers, Christie, Crispin etc.
      Are there any SHP titles from next year you are looking forward to?

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      • I do like the publisher’s commercial considerations being part of the discussion (like the reason why Stark House went with twofers). But there may be other good candidate interviewees apart from publishers. Editors who put together collections of short stories probably also have interesting stories and perspectives to share. Authors of monographs, of which you have reviewed several, probably also have some interesting stories about how they went about it and the challenges they encountered.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed that – it was very interesting and informative. I did wonder who it was you interviewed though? Did I miss his (I am assuming it was a he) name?

    Liked by 1 person

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