Thursday, July 28, 2011

William Campbell Gault - writer for teens?

William Campbell Gault (1910-1995) was a prolific pulp author whose work I would like to read more of. As of now, I've only read a few of his books, all of which I've enjoyed, including his debut novel Don't Cry For Me from 1952. Gault had a long and varied writing career that included over 70 novels and hundreds of stories for pulp magazines dating back to the 1930's. He is most well known for his Brock Callahan mysteries.

One of the many short stories Gault wrote was "See No Evil" which first appeared in the September 1950 issue of New Detective. It is a strong character study of two Mexican-American brothers trying to deal with hard times, racial prejudice and hot rod hoodlums in Southern California. Pete, the older brother in a poor family narrates the story. He works in a warehouse where he often encounters prejudiced remarks from fellow employees. He does not like his job. He is worried that his younger brother Manny is part of a hot-rod gang, and doesn't have a job. When a cop comes to their home accusing the younger brother of robbing a house, Pete reluctantly defends him. What he finds out is that Manny is innocent and has been earning money by racing cars. He feels terrible to have doubted his brother. This is a sensitive story with social relevance significant to the time in which it was written. It presents these minorities not as a group but as a specific family whose concerns aren't that much different than others. It is their love and faith towards each other that enables them to get through hard times and stay away from a the dangerous criminal world.

Like Frank Bonham, Gault turned his writing talents towards writing for Young Adults, almost exclusively throughout the 1970's. This included stacks of hardcovers and most of these titles appeared in paperback form as well. Sadly, it is difficult to find these books in public libraries today as they have been discarded by the truckload. I do remember checking out several as a teenager though. As I recall, the appeal of these books was that they were character driven and more often than not dealt with social issues. In this sense, comparisons could be drawn to the novels of John Tunis. Gault's books for teens were often based around sports and featured many car racing stories. Gault's interest in writing realistic stories about youth dates back to the 1930's. Several of his early stories including "See No Evil" featured such characters. Again, like Bonham, what makes Gault's focus interesting is that he was one of the first writers to include minorities as main characters in his stories. According to Marvin S. Lachman in American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers, "In Mr. Quarterback (1955) the protagonist is a boy of Polish American origins going to an Ivy League school. His hero in Drag Strip (1959) is Juan Arragon, a Hispanic from the slums."

Gault's juvenile books almost always revolve around a sports theme as do his novels fro adults. Gault was an avid sports fan who played football in college and was a hot-rodder in his youth. His most well known detective novels feature his detective Brock Callahan, an ex-professional football player for the Rams.

When Gault returned to writing mysteries, he merged this concern with youth and racial tensions into a Brock Callahan story entitled the Chicano War (1986).
Here is some info. about the three William Campbell Gault books I have read:

His first mystery novel Don't Cry For Me (1952) won an Edgar award in 1952. One of the main characters in the story is a poor pulp writer named Tommy Lister who has sold over 10 million words. He is murdered because, desperate for money, he attempts to blackmail a killer. The narrator, Pete Worden, sympathizes with Lister and favors his yarns over the literature discussed by intellectuals. Pete Worden is both tough and sensitive. He fought in the war, played football and loves fast cars, yet his family members often make him cry. Also, he tries to act a role model for characters such as the 19 year old Chris. These characteristics are to be repeated throughout Gault's career.

In The Karters (1965) Tom is an established winner at the drag strip but when he sees his eleven year old brother is attempting to build a go-kart, he tries to help him become a success. What happens is that Tom becomes so concerned in helping his brother that he too becomes interested in karting and abandons the drag-strip. He becomes a sort of fatherly figure in organizing the racing.

The theme of family was carried out throughout Gault's mystery writing career. In his last novel, Cat and Mouse (1988), Brock Callahan hires a young neighbor in his early twenties to help him solve his last mystery. The elderly Callahan treats Corey like a son and Corey jokes with Callahan by calling him "Pop". In addition, Callahan is friendly with the local Mexican-Americans and works with several of their youth groups. Their lawless activities help save Callahan's life. Callahan is also respected by the police but they aren't able to help him in the same way. He is doubtful of the law. The police, when fighting crime, do it because they have a job to do. The Mexican-Americans fight crime because it's a personal threat to them or they are seeking vengeance. When their hearts are involved, the law is of no use to them. Gault portrays many of the officers as bigots and shows that the Mexican's activities are more often justified. As Callahan remarks in the last line of the novel, " isn't hard to be a good citizen if you have vigilante friends". The Mexicans are like family to Callahan.

Gault's message is a positive one. He seems to be saying: don't rat on your brothers and sisters but instead have faith in them. Gault not only believed in this through fiction but also in real life. When asked in an interview what religion he practiced, Gault responded "Faith in man".

I was happy to find out that pulp historian and author of the Nameless Detective mystery series, Bill Pronzini, is a fan of both Bonham and Gault. It makes sense to me though, as I adore Pronzini's work as well. Here is a link to an essay Pronzini wrote about William Campbell Gault.
Like Pronzini, Gault often references pulp fiction and its authors in his books.


  1. Happy to find your blog - I LOVE pulp covers *and* YA, so I look forward to reading this in more detail!

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