BLAME IT ON JOHN ROTH:
Back during the Struggle to Save the World from the Clutching Tentacles of the Red Octopus of Godless Atheistic Communism, I was a proud member of the United States Army. I was assigned to a certain organization whose members were a mixed crew of military and civilian personnel. My boss was in fact a civilian, one Norman Webster, Ph.D. Among my co-workers was another civilian, Mr. John Roth. There were also a couple of military officers, Victor Spelta and Frank Mittenzwei. Both of them were captains and I was a mere lieutenant, so it was my job to stand straight and follow orders.
On my first day of work with this outfit, Doc Webster suggested that we head out together for lunch and get to know one another. I was the new kid in the gang, after all, and so I was, after a fashion, the Guest of Honor.
As we started to leave the office John Roth said, “Wait a minute. I’m sorry, my sock is falling down.” He walked back, sat down behind his desk, and opened a drawer. He removed a common hammer and a handful of thumbtacks. He pulled up one trouser leg and proceeded to hammer thumbtacks through his sock, into his leg.
Somehow the sound was more disconcerting than the sight.
He dropped the hammer back into his desk drawer and stood up. “Okay, let’s go.”
Later on, Captain Spelta told me, “John was wounded and lost part of his leg. He has a wooden leg from below the knee. He loves to pull that my-sock-is-falling-down gag when we get new people in. You should have seen your face when he started hammering!”
John Roth was an amazing man. Brilliant, generous, and quirky. After a while we discovered a mutual interest in literature and we’d talk books and writing whenever we got a chance. One day he asked if I’d ever heard of Tiffany Thayer or a book called Thirteen Men. In fact, I hadn’t.
John opened his desk drawer—the same one where he kept his hammer and his supply of thumbtacks. He lifted out a battered volume in a blue cloth binding. “Take a look at this.”
It was a remarkable book. For one thing, it had odd end-papers. They were drawn in a distinctive pen-and-ink style. I flipped through the pages and noticed a number of drawings, all of them done in the same style. John urged me to read the first paragraph in the book.
Look, this happened in 1956, amico. I don’t have a copy of Thirteen Men handy to refer to, but I remember those initial sentences to this day. If this isn’t the exact opening of Thirteen Men, it’s “close enough for federal work,” as we used to say:
“This is the damnedest book you’ll ever read. Probably not the best and certainly not the worst, but the damnedest.”
Thirteen Men is indeed a bizarre and intriguing novel. First published in 1930, the thirteen men of the title are members of a jury sitting in a murder trial – and the defendant. The first twelve chapters of the book are told by the jurors, one chapter from the viewpoint of each member. The thirteenth and final chapter is told from the viewpoint of the defendant.
Indeed. Thirteen Men hooked me, and in later years I read a number of Thayer’s other books. He was a cynical, wisecracking individual with no illusions. Or maybe his world view was composed entirely of illusions. In any case, he emphatically rejected the bland, moralistic, conventional beliefs which Americans of his generation were expected to accept, or at least to give lip service.
He wrote his own version of The Three Musketeers and a massive historical work that he claimed would reveal, once and for all, the reason for the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. He wrote a lengthy science fiction novel, Dr. Arnoldi, which became a great favorite of mine.
I discovered that he had his connections to the world of science fiction, with which I was becoming increasingly involved in those days. I’m talking about the 1960s now. Thayer himself was born in 1902 and had died in 1959. Thayer had been the founder of the Fortean Society, an organization devoted to promoting the works and the deeply skeptical world view of Charles Fort (1874-1932), a sort of scientific magpie who devoted much of his life to collecting odd and unexplained phenomena and compiling books of his findings.
If Fort were alive today he would surely find a welcoming home on cable television.
Any number of science fiction writers and fans were also devotees of Fort’s—and, by extension, of Thayer’s. These included the British science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell, whose novel Sinister Barrier is allegedly based on Fortean concepts. The underlying premise of Sinister Barrier, as one of Russell’s characters puts it, is, “I think we’re property.”
One wonders—no, scrub that!—I wonder if Tiffany Thayer ever met Jack Woodford. I think they would have hit it off famously. Either that, or murdered each other. I guess we’ll never know, but it strikes me that they were same kind of guy.
And my old pal John Roth—oh, John Roth would have fit right in with these two characters.
Most of Thayer’s books are out of print these days, although Thirteen Men—his first and most famous – is kicking around in at least one facsimile edition. Copies of the original printings are less expensive and more interesting, thanks largely to the impressionistic illustrations by the eccentric genius Mahlon Blaine.
The Illustrious Corpse, by contrast, is a relatively conventional crime novel. We have selected it for republication by Surinam Turtle Press because of its rarity. If things work out as I hope, we’ll be publishing more of Tiffany Thayer’s works in the future. Maybe even Dr. Arnoldi.