It’s odd how much impact a few poorly-chosen words can have on an author’s reputation, particularly when said author isn’t around to refute scurrilous allegations. The author of over one-hundred and twenty novels, translated into nearly three-dozen languages, contributor to the wildly popular Sexton Blake series and editor of a pair of highly acclaimed anthologies, and within a few years of his death, out-of-print and seemingly forgotten. How on earth does this happen?
Well, in the case of Gerald Verner, it’s largely a matter of some unfortunate statements being repeated and embellished until they took on an undeserved verisimilitude. Then, too, there’s the matter that Gerald Verner wasn’t around to refute the remarks being made about him so the scurrilous labels stuck. What is it that was said, and more importantly, was it at all true?
Verner’s been tarred with the nastiest brush that can be used on an author; the term “plagiarist” has been used frequently. Near as I’ve been able to determine, this originated with statements made by a British scholar known for his expertise in supernatural and mystery fiction. What was said was: “During his lifetime he had over 130 books published under four pseudonyms, an oeuvre which may be cut down as much as by half because of recycling earlier material and, at times, outright theft.” Pretty harsh language, even coming from a man known for hyperbolic statements.
So, is there any truth to this? Well, yes and no, with an emphasis on “no”. Born John Robert Stuart Pringle, at some point he legally changed his name to Gerald Verner, though his writing career began as “Donald Stuart”. As Stuart, he began writing for the Sexton Blake Library in the late 1920s, achieving real success as the next decade unfolded. Now here’s where there’s some fire to the smoky allegations. For those unfamiliar with Sexton Blake, he’s a lightweight Sherlock Holmes, and throughout the hundreds of stories the detective remains pretty much a cardboard cut-out used by the various authors to move along the plot. The stories are very heavily plot-driven and one could rename the lead character “Bob Smith” without losing any relevance.
With this sort of scenario, many authors including Anthony Skene, Edwy Searles Brooks, Gwyn Evans and, of course, Gerald Verner engaged in a practice that came to be known as “de-Blakeing”. Simply stated, the author would retain the plot, remove all references to Sexton Blake, change the setting and assign the Blake role to another character or characters and presto! A “new” novel! A survey of the thrillers published by Wright & Brown throughout the 1930s will yield dozens of examples. Is this “theft” or “plagiarism”? Certainly not by any criteria I’m familiar with. For starters, it seems rather impossible to steal from oneself; secondly, on a smaller scale I can’t think of any writer who, having written a particularly evocative description or well-imagined scene, doesn’t find a way to incorporate the work into another piece. I believe that the harshest term that can be applied is “cannibalizing”, and, as I’ve said, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t do it at least on some level.
So was Gerald Verner guilty of plagiarism or theft? Almost certainly not by any standard with which I’m familiar. You’ll note that I have not named the party responsible for the original statement, nor do I intend to. When one tries to discern what possible motive there could be for attempting to sully another writer’s reputation, I’m mindful of the fact that in the very small field of scholarship of this sort of material the pay is pretty much non-existent, so the main rewards are being noticed by your peers. Making outrageous statements is a sure-fire way to get noticed and nothing screams “attention whoring” like calling a colleague a “plagiarist”, particularly when they aren’t around to refute the charges. This being the case, I’m simply not going to dignify this individual by mentioning his name.
Having spent most of my adult life in the publishing trade, I can attest to the fact that plagiarism does happen and that there is a time-honored way in which it is dealt with. It’s called “blacklisting”. Not to put too fine a point on it, but once it has been proven that a writer actually stole another writer’s work it is extremely unlikely that they will ever make a sale again. Editors and publishers talk to each other all the time and in a case of plagiarism it isn’t the offending writer that the attorneys are going to come after (lawyers aren’t stupid, they know what writers earn); no, they’re going after the deepest pockets possible, and that would be the publisher. Simply stated, no publisher wants to entertain the risk of working with someone who may cause them an unpleasant and costly lawsuit.
So with that issue out of the way, is there any other reason that Verner’s work would have been allowed to fade into obscurity? The main reason would seem to be one that is common to all authors who, despite producing quality work, seem to vanish from the public consciousness for lack of a “champion”. Exactly what do I mean by a “champion” ? Well, let’s look at Verner’s heyday, the 1930s and 1940s, synonymous with the golden age of the American pulp magazines. There are basically two ways that an author remains in the public eye. The first and simplest is that they keep writing and don’t die, while taking at least some interest in the business end of being a writer. Looking at the mystery field, John D. MacDonald comes up as a fine example. Despite authoring new books at a pretty good clip right up until his death, MacDonald (or as is more likely, his agent) was pretty diligent about mining his previously published work for new sales, be they collections of stories from the pulps, reprinting early novels, or even combining two or three books into an omnibus. MacDonald served as his own “champion”.
Looking at supernatural fiction, two names leap out when we look at the American pulps: H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Were they the best authors that Weird Tales produced? In my opinion, no, I think Clark Ashton Smith vastly superior to either. However, H. P. Lovecraft had his disciple August Derleth and Howard had Glenn Lord working tirelessly to maximize his presence in the marketplace. Smith, after drastically scaling back his fiction writing, simply wasn’t interested in the business end of things and didn’t have a champion working to keep him in the public eye. By the mid-1950s Lovecraft and Howard were well on their way to iconic status and Clark Ashton Smith was forgotten by all but a small handful of collectors.
Until very recently, Gerald Verner was lacking a champion. Verner passed away in 1980. His last book has been published in 1967, and, other than a handful of short pieces that appeared in the 1970s, his writing career was in the past, and like so many of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic his memory faded from the public perception. The sad reality is that publishers like living authors that they can count on to fill a particular slot on their schedule on a regular basis. Whether it be the careful researcher who takes a year to research a book and six months to write it, or the high-volume producer who can be counted on to turn in a new novel every six months, publishers like to be able to rely on a steady flow of new material. One doesn’t get that from a deceased author, nor does a deceased author show up to chat with Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon; nor will said author have a block-long line waiting to meet him at Barnes & Noble. No, the entire success or failure of the book will be laid at the desk of the editor who gave the green light on acquiring the property. A risky position to be sure.
Another thing that worked against Verner is something that a reasonable person would consider an asset (have I mentioned that the publishing business is quite often less than reasonable?): the sheer volume of work available. Where does one begin without some guidance? Wouldn’t such research be considered part of an editor’s job? Well, there’s that “reasonable” bit again. In a reasonable world, looking for new acquisitions, whether from the bright young thing with their first book or digging through the archives of old fiction magazines, would be among the top duties of an editor. Sadly, that’s not the way things work in modern publishing. The author really does require that “champion” if their work is going to remain in-print.
What’s happened with Gerald Verner has been very interesting from a book collector’s point of view. Slowly and steadily a following has developed. Twenty years ago you could buy most any title in fine condition for around twenty bucks. Fast-forward to today’s market and the same book is now commanding prices of $100-$200! While the modern publishers slept, Gerald Verner became a highly collectible author. With that collectability came new representation for the literary estate and new interest in the author.
The present book is comprised of two novellas published in the 1930s, The Menace of Li-Sin and The Vengeance of Li-Sin. Both books are a perfect fit for DTP’s foray into the Asian Menace genre (loosely defined as thrillers featuring an Asian villain, often drawn along the lines of Fu Manchu). Other like titles include works by Eugene Thomas, Edmund Snell, Walter Brown, H. L. Gates, and others. However, the genre of Asian Menace was not something that Verner usually worked in (hence the pen-name of “Nigel Vane”). Here, for the first time, the alias is being acknowledged in the book itself.
I also must commend to you the rear section of this volume which features a comprehensive bibliography compiled by the author’s son. Chris Verner has graciously allowed us to reproduce his work herein. Chris Verner’s researches have enabled us to dispose of the canard that as many as a half of Verner’s published books can be dis-counted as rehashes. In fact, he informs me that nearly 90 of around 130 titles were entirely original.
Verner’s bibliography yields some very interesting information. Seemingly his attention seems to have focused more on radio and TV during the 1950s (not an uncommon thing for writers of his generation), and his high points of productivity in the literary realm seem to be split between the 1930s and the 1960s. The last few years of the 1920s (his Sexton Blake years) saw him establish himself as a reliable producer of material, and then he gravitated toward thrillers under his own byline during the 1930s. It’s hoped that this volume will serve the twofold purpose of introducing readers to the thrilling sub-genre of Asian Menace and the thrillers of Gerald Verner!