Dennis Lynds: An Interview with a Juvenile Series Author

by Michael Morley
Copyright 1995 by jmorley@documentation
    The genesis of this interview goes back almost 30 years.  I was home from school sick one day in the fall of 1966.  My mother would usually bring me something to read on these days.  The book she put in my hands that day was "The Secret of Terror Castle," the first Three Investigators (TTI) book.  I still remember the excitement I felt reading that book for the first time; the mystery developing briskly as I turned the pages, the action seemingly spontaneous.
     I read every subsequent title in the series up through number 13 as they came out, thinking without knowing why, that this was a superior series to the other juvenile series I was also reading at this same time.  By 1970, the pace of my life began to accelerate.  None of my beloved Three Investigators books (nor little else) survived a stormy adolescence.
     It is now 1994.  As I approach middle age, I have begun to collect and read again the books of my childhood.  I acquired and re-read "The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot" and "The Mystery of the Moaning Cave."  Once again, I was impressed with the quality of this series.  The thought occurs to me again, this time with explicit consciousness: "Why might TTI be a superior juvenile series?"  With more resources available to me than at age 10, I resolved to find out.
     As I began to hunt for information and reference material on this series, I found questions accumulating more rapidly than answers.  Moreover, I found no bibliography of the sort that exists for Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and other juvenile series.  Thus, I have resolved to write one.  Many people from the Yellowback Library community have been very helpful in sharing their information with me:  Mark Wawrzenski, Steve Bolter, and Jim Cox, to name a few.  The bibliography is moving forward slowly, and is a bigger job than I imagined, but I am enjoying the process, and hopefully will complete the first release in early 1996.  My wife, Janice, has joined me in this task as a full partner to help assure a quality product. 
     One item of information that we discovered in our preliminary research was that William Arden is a pseudonym for a prolific mystery writer named Dennis Lynds.
     January, 1995.  During a book-hunting trip to Sonoma County we (Janice, my friend and relentless book scout Gene Zombolas, and myself) dropped in to see Gene's friend Bill Pronzini, the well-known mystery writer.  I mentioned to Bill that I was compiling a Three Investigator's bibliography, and that a writer named Dennis Lynds had written a number of books in the series under the name William Arden.  When Bill replied, "Yes, I know Dennis; he would probably be delighted to talk to you," I was both surprised and pleased at my good fortune in finding such a valuable lead.
     I wrote to Dennis Lynds, and asked if he would be willing to give an interview that might be used in a Yellowback Library article and/or inclusion into the TTI bibliography.  Three days later, while playing back our answering machine messages, a gravelly voice spoke: "This is Dennis Lynds.  I'm calling for Mike Morley.  Sure, I'd be delighted to talk about TTI with him; I may be able to tell him a thing or two he doesn't know."
     John Moffett, in his Yellowback Library January 1994 interview with Jim Lawrence, observed that "moments like this are great fun."  Let me add that the anticipation also includes some fear: What if he has changed his mind?  What if I make a fool of myself?  Finally, I dialed the number.  The phone was picked up at the other end:  "Hello?", "Hello, this is Mike Morley.  Am I speaking to Dennis Lynds?" (I had recognized his distinctive gravelly voice).  In a few sentences, he put me at ease.  We arranged a brunch interview on the weekend of February 25-26, 1995 at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, California.
     February 26, 1995.  As we approach the restaurant foyer, we make eye contact with a tall man in a cowboy hat who rises from his chair and smiles.  It is Dennis Lynds.  We get an outside table, far enough away from the other patrons so that background noise is minimized (for the benefit of the tape recorder) and begin talking.  Janice and I quickly become interested in Dennis Lynds himself, and not just in his contribution to the Three Investigators series.  After finishing the list of prepared questions we had brought, the discussion moved onto other topics:  the vagaries of the publishing industry, literature, politics, and history.
     After we finished brunch, Mr. Lynds invited us back to his home, where he showed us his impressive TTI library, as well as his substantial body of work in the adult mystery field.  Dennis Lynds is warm, gracious, helpful, and candid: our primary impression was and remains that this is a unpretentious person of achievement who is genuinely interested in sharing his knowledge and experience.
     What follows is an edited transcription of our conversation with Mr. Lynds at the Biltmore Hotel and at his home in Santa Barbara.

     Mike Morley (MM):  How did you get involved in TTI?
     Dennis Lynds (DL):  I was writing for Leo Margulies; he was the owner and publisher of an outfit called Renown Publishing Company; they used to have 40 pulps; by the time I met him, he was down to just Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.  I wrote for Leo and Bob (Robert Arthur) wrote for Leo.  What happened is that Bob wrote to Leo, asking if anybody in his stable of writers - one of them was Pronzini - was available, and he suggested me.  Here's the original letter from Bob Arthur that got me into it (Dennis Lynds shows us the letter).  And that's how it all started.

     MM:  So Arthur created TTI and approached Random House?
     DL:  Yes.  It was all his: the cut to Hitchcock, the contract and everything else.  He brought them the idea.  And he probably brought them three books.  At least.  At once.

     MM:  (Looking at the letter).  I see that Hitchcock got a big piece up front.  Did he actually write the introductions?
     DL:  No.  We all wrote them ourselves; it was the same thing with the (Alfred Hitchcock) anthologies.  Bob had done the adult anthologies too; Hitchcock had nothing to do with those either.  It was just an idea to differentiate the series and sell it to the readers.
     [N.B.  In the first Robert Arthur/Dennis Lynds letter, Arthur writes: The series has Alfred Hitchcock's name on it, and he gets a big chunk of money so that's why the royalty has to be small.  However, his name helps sell the books so that evens things out."]

     MM: TTI was your first writing for a juvenile audience?
     DL:  Yes, I had never written a juvenile before; never even thought about it.  Didn't want to do it.  I wrote juveniles and mysteries, to be honest, somewhat reluctantly. Heck, I was going to be the great American novelist.

     MM: So you wrote the juveniles to make a buck?
     DL:  Sure.  Ah, not quite.  That's the funny part; you never do anything just to make a buck.  You figure out later on that you put a lot of yourself into everything, always do your best, write your own way.
     MM:  You wrote under the pseudonym "William Arden" just to not confuse your adult audience: Or was that a restriction imposed on you by Random House?
     DL:  Well, a certain amount of hubris, I'm afraid (Lynds was going to be for my 'literary' work), plus suggestions from my publishers.  You see, Arden was one of my many pseudonyms at the time.  At one point I had two series going with Dodd, Mead, two with Random House, and one with Bobbs-Merrill.  William Arden was my second pseudonym (the first was Michael Collins).  We were living in Montecito at the time and the Arden milk truck came by every day.  So, okay,  I decided to be "William Arden" for my second Dodd, Mead adult series.  And that was about the time Bob Arthur approached me to do TTI, so I decided to use Arden on that series too.

     MM:  Where is Rocky Beach (the fictional southern California city where TTI live)?
     DL:  About Malibu, I figure, and it wouldn't work - there is no town there; Malibu isn't much of a town.

     MM:  It almost seems like Rocky Beach kind of grew.
     DL:  Yes.  The way he (Arthur) describes it, in every respect - I mean in geography, not the way he describes the town - the town sounds more like Santa Barbara and Ventura than any other, or like an East coast town, actually.  But the distance from L.A. is wrong, when he starts speaking of how easy . . . one of their fathers - I forget which - commutes to LA to work, right?

     MM:  Bob (Andrews, one of the Three Investigators).  Bob's Dad.
     DL:  Bob's father works down there . . . Yeah.  So, it had to be that close.  You can see we're not that close; we're 90 miles from L.A.  People do commute, but it's not considered really very good; it's a two hour drive.  They do it in New York, but two hours out here - people don't usually do it.  (Mary) Carey, of course, lived in Ventura.  She just died.

     MM:  I guess Mary Carey wrote under "M.V. Carey" because Random House thought that having a woman writer would alienate a portion of an audience which is mostly boys aged nine to fourteen.
     [N.B.  Mary Carey wrote 14 titles in the Three Investigators series.]
     DL:  Yes.  They're still doing it with my wife (Gayle Lynds, the thriller writer); she had to be "G.H. Stone" and this is only a few years ago.  She is furious about it . . . and you know, the letters I get come just as much from girls as boys.

     MM: After Hitchcock died in 1980, his estate didn't allow you to use his name anymore?
     DL:  No.  That was fine.  They (the European TTI publisher, such as William Collins Sons and Co., Ltd.) still use it in Europe.  Almost all of them still use the Hitchcock name in Europe; that's what they were selling it on.  Even the later books.  The reason, over here - that may have been a mistake - the reason over here was that everyone knew Hitchcock was dead, so we couldn't do it anymore.  In Europe they said "Who cares?"  They were right overseas.  I think they were wrong here.  

     MM:  As a kid, I always felt the TTI was a better read than other juvenile series.  As an adult, I still find this to be true.
     DL:  That's interesting.  Perhaps I would have read them as a kid, too.  You really liked them and you liked them better than the other series books?

     MM:  Oh yes.  Moreover, I can't tell you how many times I go into a bookstore, looking to buy these (Three Investigators books), and either a customer or the clerk says "Oh yeah, great books!"  But why might TTI be a superior series?
     DL:  Well, in those letters (the Robert Arthur/Dennis Lynds correspondence) you'll see some of it.  We got royalties, you see.  This was very uncommon for juvenile series; I don't know of any other series (authors) who got royalties; always a flat fee.  He (Arthur) insisted that we get royalties.  That, and the overseas percentage.
     [N.B.  In one of the Arthur/Lynds letters, Arthur says; "The agreement, incidentally, will be as far as I know unique in this field.  The customary practice in arranging for books in a continuing series is to pay a flat fee for all rights.  I have never heard of a case in which a writer also received a continuing interest in the book.  However, I have stipulated this with Random on the basis that I feel a writer should have an interest in his work, and also I want to offer some incentive for good work."]

     MM:  This makes sense; you got a percentage of the royalties, and therefore you had more self-interest, and you put more of yourself into the books; that would certainly be one reason why the TTI series could be superior to other juvenile series.
     DL:  He [Arthur] wanted it to be a superior series; this is what he was after.  We tried to make the series better; we really did.  They [Random House] got better writers.  Nick West lasted only two books; I do not know why.  Moreover, I approached the series with Bob's essential premise, the idea was that it would continue, that it could build, the income could build.  His idea; maybe from the letters you could probably [deduce this] . . . he had hoped to sell 10,000 hardcover titles a year on a regular basis, for those, you're talking about decent money.

     MM:  It appears he [Arthur] was right.
     DL:  Oh sure, he was for a time.  It worked very nicely.
     [N.B.  In another Arthur/Lynds letter Arthur states:  "I anticipate - and I'm working for - a series that will stay in print twenty-five years or more and pay royalties all that time.  Frankly, I have my sights fixed on The Hardy Boys, which have almost 50 titles in print and which sell almost 35,000 copies a year of each title!  Even if we can't catch them, I'll be happy to be in the same league with them."]

     MM:  What was the hardest part of creating TTI books?
     DL:  The hardest part of the whole process was getting the outline approved.  Trying to figure out what the editor at Random House wanted.  Editors are not writers.  All they can really tell you is "Well, I don't think this works," you say, "How doesn't it work?, "I don't know.  It just doesn't work."   We all learned pretty quickly that (if) you want to put a book out a year, you better start pretty near a year before.  You had to get approval, full approval with an outline.  There were some times it would be two or three full outlines back-and-forth before the  editor would finally say, "Well, I think we've got it now, you can start writing."  Then I would start writing.  Then the editor would hack away at the final manuscript.

     MM:  What is the present and future (if any) of the TTI series?
     DL: I don't know if the series is dead or not, I keep asking (Random House).  They don't know either.  I don't know how they blew it, but they blew it.  Somehow, back in the early 80s.

     MM:  1987 is the last one, the "Cranky Collector" written by Carey.
     DL:  They'd blown the series before then.  I don't know how.  There was a time when it looked like it was really coming up; it had shelf space almost up to the "Hardy Boys".  Then it began to lose its shelf space entirely.  I think what Random [House] did . . . somehow their sales force dropped the ball.  Maybe they were making so much money overseas, I don't know.  They lost their entree in the bookstores.  They just slowly dwindled and were not replenished.  On top of that, I think they went in the wrong direction; they went towards young adult [literature].  Well, that to my mind is silly.  Young adults - real young adults - are reading adult books.  I mean, they are reading Judith Krantz, for God's sake.  And anything else; they're reading DuMaurier; they're reading him, Harris [Thomas], they're reading "Silence of the Lambs" if they're real young adults.  So, I think what they [Random House] should have done is go back the other way.  Assume . . . realize, that their books were really aimed at 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th graders . . . really early [readers] and let it go at that.  Target that [audience] because teachers do like them [TTI books] for that reason.  Librarians never liked them, but they always stock them because they can get boys to read them.  There are many teachers who like TTI particularly because they are very good for bad readers.  Which the boys usually are.  It's very hard to find a book the boys will read.  They will read TTI.  Not all of them, obviously, but they can get boys to read TTI books.  However, we are talking about a lower grade than the books were originally aimed for.

     MM:  Yes.  Judith Rosenberg's "Young People's Literature in Series" [Copyright 1977 by Libraries Unlimited, Inc., P.O. 263, Littleton, CO 80160] supports this point of view by designating TTI as a suitable series for reluctant readers. 
     DL:  You can't get boys to read much else.  My daughter is a librarian, a children's librarian, and she has observed this.

     MM:  We note that there is a two-year gap between "Crooked Cat" (1970) and your next book in the series "Shrinking House" (1972), which coincides with the time period in which Nick West wrote two books.  Why the gap?
     DL:  What happened was very simple, and that's the biggest story I really have to tell.  They didn't like "Crooked Cat".  Really.  We had a hard time getting it going.  We fought, and they finally did it, but then while I was trying to get with them again, negotiating for the next contract, the ideas got harder and harder, you know.  Because you are so limited.  We had little arguments back and forth.

     MM:  You and Random House?
     DL:  Yes.  And they finally said, "Well, we really didn't think 'Crooked Cat' was that good."  Which, by the way, sold just as well as any of the others, and has continued to go fine; I always liked "Crooked Cat."  I'd known it was realistic . . . they found it perhaps, a little too realistic.  They didn't want me to be that realistic.  Which is sometimes hard; I'm writing adult mysteries at the same time.  I wrote adult detective books very realistically.  I enjoyed "Crooked Cat"; I liked my ride out to sea, and the thing hidden in the crooked cat.

     MM:  Yes.  The "Crooked Cat" is one of my personal favorites.  I'm not as fond of "Laughing Shadow." 
     DL:  That's one I kind of liked.  That's the second one.  But, actually, probably most people consider "Phantom Lake" as about my best.  That's the one with the Scot's Island and all that kind of stuff.  Anyway, after "Crooked Cat," I couldn't satisfy them.  So I quit, essentially.  And you'll find - I don't know how many years passed - couple of years.  Then they came in panic to me.  All of a sudden they gave me a call one day.  They were desperate; they needed one [a book].  One of their writers must have fallen through.  Who knows?

     MM:  Maybe Nick West fell out at that time?
     DL:  So they asked if I could get one out in about a month.  [I said] "Well, if you like the idea, I'm sure I can write it in a month.  No problem."  So I came up with the Shrinking House idea.  Maybe I needed that little breather.  They liked the Shrinking House idea right from the start, almost.  I always liked the Frank Levy [cover] artwork on that . . . with the patch on the awning [the secret in the story].  You have to look closely to see it, but it's there.  Anyway, "Shrinking House," I think turned out very well.  And from then on, we just went on.  I would do only about one a year.
     When I started, I expected to do at least two a year.  And that's why I went in on it.  Because the money was OK for two a year, not one.  But suddenly it started to get better.  Suddenly the royalties began to go up from overseas.  I mean, really up.  For a long time, we were just cruising, and then the German [publishers] must have forgotten to pay us . . . over two or three years.  All of a sudden, it started coming in enormous chunks.  We were doing very nicely, I assure you, on the German rights.
     [Locale change to the home of Dennis Lynds]
     MM:  These are your two daughters? (pointing to pictures on the wall)
     DL:  Yes.  Deirdre and Katherine, who likes to be called Katie.

     MM:  Are either of them fans of TTI books?
     DL:  Oh, yes, Deirdre is.  Her favorite part, I believe, is the cheap . . . the sleazy ride in "Purple Pirate."  She used to howl at that one, she loved that.  She also liked the Yaquali Indians in "Laughing Shadow;" she was critical of some of Carey's books because she found Carey left too many things unexplained, but that is her subjective opinion.

     MM:  What authors do you read yourself?
     DL:  My favorite writers would be [William] Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Hardy.  And John Hawkes; a fine modern writer.  I like Tim O'Brien a lot.  Of the more recent authors, O'Brien's work is really good.  One of the best of the war writers.  It amazes me how much their soldiers - his soldiers - sound exactly like my soldiers.  Armies don't change that much.  "Going After Cacciato" is his best, but then there's one called "The Things They Carried," which you can get easily and is now remaindered everywhere, and it's quite interesting.

     MM:  What are your current projects?
     DL:  In June [1995], I'm bringing out a mainstream novella and stories under Dennis Lynds.  [This] will come out from a small publisher, John Daniel.  And then, in October, I'll have another Michael Collins out.
     MM:  So you are still writing 8-10 hours a day?
     DL:  Not as much.  But pretty close.  Yes.

     MM:  Obviously, you haven't slowed down much.  Some of the readers of Yellowback Library might like to write you letters with questions about TTI or your other work; would this be an intrusion?
     DL:  Letters I don't mind.  They may only get a postcard back, but there you go.  My address is XXXXX.

     MM:  We had better let you get back to work; thank you so much for your time.
     DL:  You're welcome!

     Dennis Lynds, writing as William Arden, wrote ten of the original thirty "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" series, three of the thirteen "The Three Investigator Mystery Series", and one title in the "The Three Investigators Crimebusters" series.
     Mr. Lynds is a mystery writer better known to his adult audience under the pseudonym Michael Collins.  He has also written under the names Mark Sadler, Carl Dekker, John Crowe, William Arden, as well as his own name.  Mr. Lynds has won numerous awards, including the Edgar award in 1969, and in 1989 won the Private Eye Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.  Mr. Lynds lives in Santa Barbara with his wife Gayle Lynds.  Gayle Lynds, writing as G.H. Stone, wrote three of the "The Three Investigators Crimebusters" series [published by Alfred A. Knopf]. 
     We are extremely indebted to Mr. Lynds for his time and assistance in helping us with compiling background and bibliographic information for our upcoming TTI bibliography and reference.  Please look for Mr. Lynds' current book, "Talking to the World and Other Stories," published by John Daniel and Company, Santa Barbara, California.
Back to the Dennis and Gayle Lynds Interviews.