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Friday, May 17, 2019

Ross H. Spencer: Armed and Humorous

     Private eye novelist Ross H. Spencer (1921-1998) is, in my view, one of the funniest fiction writers ever. Born in Hughart, West Virginia and raised in Hubbard and Youngstown, Ohio, Spence served in the Army in World War II (Bronze Star) and in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. After working in Chicago as a railroader, landscape contractor and chain link fence salesman and installer for forty-two years, the cigar-smoking, beer drinking writer returned to Youngstown with his wife Shirley.

    In his one-story house on North Dunlap Avenue on the west side of town, Spence built a model railroad layout and a bar in his basement where he regularly entertained a few close friends. I met Spence and Shirley in July 1990, and until his death eight years later, spent at least one night a week in his bar listening to Dixieland Jazz, classic country tunes, and music from the big band era. In August 1992, we traveled to Chicago where Spence took me around to his former stomping grounds to meet some of his old beer drinking buddies. Spence knew a lot about baseball, and loved the Chicago Cubs. In football he hated the Bears and favored the Browns. As often revealed in his whacky, off-the-wall private eye yarns, Spence didn't think much of politicians, Bible-thumping preachers, or fakers of any kind.

    As a self-taught writer without a high school degree (he was kicked out of eleventh grade for smoking), Spence started writing at age 58. During his relatively short but intense writing career, he published thirteen novels. His first five books were mass market paperbacks published by Avon between 1978 and 1983. This series, beginning with "The Da Da Caper," are written in an unique style of one-sentence paragraphs. From the "Da Da Caper:"

     That afternoon a little guy with straggly red hair and shiny blue eyes came in [to the PI's office].

     He said I want you to find out why my mother is receiving a lot of obscene telephone calls.

     I said well before we find out why we got to find out who.

     He said oh that's easy.

     He said I know who.

     I said who?

     He said me.

     He said but I don't know why.

     I sent him over to the Ammson Private Detective Agency.

     I said Ammson is absolutely tops in situations of this nature.

     Ross H. Spencer's remaining books initially came out in hardback, then were published as paperbacks. Several of them were also published in England, France, Italy and Japan. My favorites include: "Echoes of Zero," "Monastery Nightmare," "The Missing Bishop," "Kirby's Last Circus," and "Death Wore Gloves." Critics, including those at "The New York Times," compared his brand of humor to the works of Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, S. J. Perlman, Groucho Marx, and Damon Runyon. I see similarities in his work to writers Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard and Charles Bukowski. And you can throw in a pinch of Mickey Spillane.

     Spence gave me the title to my book "The Ghosts of Hopewell," a work I dedicated to him. He died on July 25, 1998, a year before the book came out. Tom Grimes, in his recent memoir, "Mentor," wrote: "Every writer is alone, and every good book is difficult to write." This is probably true for most writers, particularly the serious literary types, but it didn't apply to Ross Spencer. He was not only a happy guy, he loved to write. This is because Spence's talent far exceeded his literary ambition. Writers of "serious" fiction tend to be angst-ridden basket cases because their literary ambition exceeds their talent.

     All of Spence's books are available on Amazon.com. If you give him a try,  I think you'll thank me.


  1. Jim, I think our very own Thornton Knowles would have liked Ross. Did they ever meet?

  2. Since Mr. Thornton is a product of my imagination, in other words fiction, in a way they did meet.

  3. Just purchased a copy of Monastery Nightmare on the strength of your recommendation. I'm sure I'll like it.

    1. His style is not everyone's cup of tea, so if you don't, it's not that you don't have good taste in literature. But what the hell, give it a try.