Plots and Gunpowder: A Personal Biography of Thriller Writer Gerald Verner (2021) by Chris Verner

The intriguing title for this biography put me in mind of Guy Fawkes when I first saw it. In fact though, it refers to Gerald’s Verner’s dual interest and careers in pyrotechnics and crime fiction. I have only encountered Verner’s work in three of the British Library Crime Classic short story anthologies: The Long Arm of the Law (2017), The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018) and Settling Scores (2020). This biography intended to have an introduction by Martin Edwards, but I think in the initial copies there seems to have been an error and not all of it was included. Thank you for putting me straight on this Martin! Hopefully later editions of the book will have this error rectified.

A key puzzle of the early family history and life of Gerald Verner is untangling how he went from his birth name of John Robert Stuart Pringle to the name he later wrote under and then legally adopted. To aid the unravelling of this mystery, Chris Verner, son and writer of the biography, goes back to the 1700s to explore Verner’s family history from that point. A family tree is included but the print quality is unfortunately not great and is rather small. The first chapter of this book included a significant quantity of extraneous history not related to Gerald Verner and sometimes, even his family. This gives the book a less direct approach to considering Verner’s life and work and will be of most interest to those interested in family history and genealogy. However, the first chapter concludes with an additional mystery in the life of Gerald Verner: Why did his parents have the same surname before marrying?

The answer is two cousins foisted into a shotgun wedding and the marriage does not last for long. Gerald’s mother was an actress and decided to use Geraldine Verner as her stage name, revealing the likely origins of Gerald’s later change of name. One fact which really interested me was that Gerald and his mother worked in the same plays and from this period onwards, they both pretended they were brother and sister, rather than mother and son. The reason put forward is that if it was known she had a son, it might have affected her career. This deception was so extensive that Chris and his own mother, (Gerald’s second wife), did not know Geraldine was not Chris’ aunt, until he began writing this biography of his father. The long use of the deception is the thing that interests me the most and seems to suggest a greater reason for adopting it for so long.

As a young adult Verner was homeless for a period in the 1920s and Chris includes some fascinating anecdotes of what Gerald’s younger life was like:

‘During this down-and-out period in London, he obtained lodgings in a house of crooks, including a fence and a bag snatcher. He describes his life from going bad to worse as during this time. To appease his timid landlady, he sat up all night guarding the body of a dead lodger in his bed. She was terrified the dead lodger would wake up! In return for this gesture, he was absolved from the cost of board and living for the week, which was just as well because he couldn’t have paid for it anyway.’

This is definitely one of those “Did I just read that sentence right?” moments! At other times Gerald Verner worked as an artist for advertisements and magazines and even did pavement drawings. He also brushed shoulders with those involved in organised crime in London during the night club boom. These experiences influenced his work, and his homelessness in particular was a factor in his first work of fiction, The Clue of the Second Tooth, which he wrote on scrappy pieces of paper using a pencil. It was from there in 1927 that he went on to regularly write stories for The Sexton Blake Library magazine. He published under the name of Donald Stuart as well as using the pseudonyms Derwent Steele and Nigel Vane.

One of the points brought out in this biography which interested me was how extensively writers such as Gerald re-used and recycled their own work in order to squeeze the most profit out of them. For example, Gerald Verner wrote the play The Shadow in 1928, which then was adapted for film in 1933 and was novelised in 1934, before finally being re-written for The Sexton Blake Library in 1938. I don’t feel this is a criticism as it was a necessity for writers so they could live off their earnings. At one stage Verner was writing one novel a month for a three-year contract. Gerald’s prolific writing of stories though was very likely fuelled by his need to dig himself out of bankruptcy. He was financially ruined by his second play, Sexton Blake in the early 1930s. He had formed his own company to do it, but unfortunately the production expenses were high, and the play was not open for very long. It didn’t help that the bloodhound playing the role of Pedro freaked out whilst on stage and leapt into the orchestra pit. I think the play had to do without a dog in the cast. This order of bankruptcy was only removed in 1956 and unfortunately it would not be the last time Gerald Verner would be in such low financial waters. That said bankruptcy did not prevent him from throwing a Christmas party in the 1930s at ‘an old haunted country manor house,’ in which the guests had to solve a murder mystery, complete with bloodstains and special effects. I think it is when the book reaches this stage of Gerald’s colourful and unusual life it is at its most engaging.

Another idea Chris brings out in his book is the impact paper shortages had on authors. They began during WW2 but continued for many years after the conflict ended. For prolific writers like Verner, it had a considerable adverse effect, as it hugely restricted the number of books he could publish each year. So much so that it pushed him into writing radio serials and adapting books for the stage, including Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero and Peter Cheyney’s Dangerous Curves and The Urgent Hangman. Gerald would also go on to take part in radio programmes such as Stump the Storyteller, which ‘was a challenge to famous authors,’ that involved four items being concealed in a box. Upon being revealed the contestant writer has four minutes to conjure up a story with those objects.

As well as looking at the events in his father’s life, Chris also discusses in more detail specific books and briefly explores the different way Chris and his father viewed his work. I found the passage below particularly interesting, as it swims in the opposite direction of other contemporary writers who were trying to do different things with the mystery story:

‘I once accused my father of writing stories that were superficial and lacked depth of character depriving them of literary value. He replied that his stories were thrillers, each chapter with a suspenseful ending enticing the reader to press on. There wasn’t time for pages of character description. That sort of detail would slow up the pace. My father didn’t want his readers to stop and think about his characters too much. He was far more interested in the puzzle of an impossible murder, or the identity of a master criminal, and didn’t want character studies to hold up the action.’

Given how much Gerald wrote it is not surprising that he sometimes ran out of ideas in the runup to a publisher’s deadline. Such a moment arguably influenced what happened with a first-time writer’s manuscript… Noel Lee, new to writing, sent Gerald his manuscript to pass on to his publishers and to put in a good word for him. So, he was somewhat surprised to find it, sometime later, published under Gerald’s name. It transpires that Verner had a deadline which he was not going to meet, so he sent Noel’s book in place of the work he had not finished. He says he intended to swap the texts later on, but the publishers loved it, (despite wondering why the plot didn’t fit the title), and according to Gerald the book he was working on was blown up in the Blitz. There was some retrospective compensation for Noel, and he did go on to write for the publisher under his own name, but it took him some time to get over it. He was naturally aggrieved when it happened, but ultimately the two writers became good friends.

A fun fact for fans of classic crime fiction is that Gerald’s second wife was a widow, and her first husband was Jack Ronald. Jack was the adopted son of James Ronald, a crime writer who you might have heard of, if you are a regular reader of my blog and Jim’s The Invisible Event. It felt like a “six degrees of separation” moment.

When Chris reaches the point in time when his parents divorced, there is an inevitable change in tone, and I imagine it can’t have been an easy section to write. There is an attempt to be even-handed, yet the narrative voice does become quite distant and feels quite concise. This is not a criticism but an interesting change to note. The divorce had a huge impact on his father’s ability to write and their quality of living went downhill considerably. Chris does a good job of describing the relationship he had with his father at that time and the types of responsibility he took on. Fireworks, once a hobby now a career move, are more at the forefront of the narrative with Gerald and Chris being involved in firework displays. Gerald only stepped back from being involved in such performances when at the age of 73 he had chunks of his right leg torn off in a firework accident. Ouch!

The biography concludes with a look at the afterlife of Verner’s work. Initially I found this final chapter difficult to get into as the focus switches to Chris himself and this might just be me, but I found his emphasis on the money he was getting from various rights and the name dropping he does about his own career, came across as bragging, (even though that might not have been the intention). I was more interested in learning about how and when his father’s works have been reprinted – predominantly through the Linford Mystery Library and Ramble House. Furthermore, Chris also talks about how he revised and completed a piece his father left unfinished: The Snark was a Boojum. Chris has also gone on to complete other texts and expand some of his father’s shorter works.

Overall, I would say Chris has an engaging history to share about his father and his work. I think the biography is at its best when it is discussing events within the author’s adult life, rather than in Gerald’s earlier history. These earlier chapters had some odd uses of the present tense which mentally tripped me up when I was reading. However, these moments are eased out once the narrative on Gerald gets under way. Gerald Verner is not an overly well-known author from the Golden Age of Detection, but based on his biography, I would definitely say he is writer who deserves to be better known. If anyone has read any of his novels and has a favourite or two, let me know in the comments below!

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Level Best Books)

P. S. I have got just the one blogger recommendation, this time for blogging buddy Brad who writes at Ah Sweet Mystery. In 1948 Gerald Verner produced a radio mystery called The Show Must Go On, ‘a musical thriller […] telling of the adventures of a theatrical company at rehearsal in a haunted house.’ In 1950 it was turned into a novel and, under the name of Tread Softly, into a film in 1952.

9 comments

  1. Quite a number of Gerald Verner books are available in kindle format but the only one I read was titled The Shop Window Murders. It wasn’t very good. My notes say “a simple case made complicated by witnesses telling stupid lies for stupid reasons. Dull case, dull detective, dull book.” If I ever read any more its because they are free with my Amazon Prime membership.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Yes, the blackmailer would undoubtedly get a shock when he turned up at twelve. A shock from which he would never recover, for by that time he would be dead.”

    Verner is full of HIBK moments and, presumably, because he wrote so much and at such speed, full of delicious statements such as the above from The Grim Joker.

    I was addicted for a while, but got over it. If you must try one, Noose for a Lady is marginally better than many.

    Liked by 1 person

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