Bruno Fischer: Everyman Crime Fiction Writer
Fischer broke in as a sports reporter for the Long Island Daily Press (1929-1931). Before his long career as a prolific fiction writer starting in 1936, Fischer worked at the Labor Voice (1931-32), a socialist newsletter. He went on to edit the Socialist Call (1934-36), the official weekly for the Socialist Party.
He also wrote for other socialist journals including an essay titled "The Old Guard" for Modern Monthly (June 1936). Leon Trotsky was a TOC mate. Ruth Fischer also contributed reviews to socialist journals as late as 1949. Always politically active, Fischer reported memberships in the Social Democrats and the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish socialist fraternity.
Bruno Fischer ran as a Socialist candidate for the New York state senate (12th district, Manhattan, NYC) in 1938. He also corresponded with Dr. Hannah Arendt, the famed political philosopher, on various Jewish relief organizations. Allegedly, Bruno Fischer claimed that one of his series characters (PI Ben Helm?) was based on Norman Thomas, the American socialist leader and three-time Presidential candidate (1940, 1944 and 1948).
Commentators of Bruno Fischer’s fiction have noted his placing regular guys in dilemmas and letting them find a solution, not always so tidy and clean. A strong Fischer enthusiast, Bill Pronzini has written that "one of his [Fischer’s] recurring themes is the morality play: ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations in which their moral standards are tested and sometimes corrupted." The New York Times Book Review critic Anthony Boucher once wrote Fischer had "a fine sense of the impinging of crime and violence on ordinary life, a biting handling of the economic factors in human motivation".
One of Fischer’s better early crime novels was The Restless Hands, first appearing as a novella in Mystery Book Magazine (Summer 1949). It was brought out in hardback as a Red Badge mystery by Dodd, Mead (1949) and later in softcover by Dell Books (#910). This novel (the third title in a series of five) featured his ex-cop, PI Ben Helm, a New York City detective married to a Hollywood starlet. The Jerry Powell cover art and lurid teaser ("Sudden death reached out of the darkness, and plunged a town into darkness!") gave the paperback the look of the vintage horror pulps.
This compact, rapid tale is spun out in nineteen chapters, each told from a different character’s point of view. The setting is Hessian Valley, a stop "one hour and fifty-two minutes after the train left New York [City]." Rebecca Sprague, "the town beauty," is physically threatened. Three men -- Tony Bascomb, George Dentz, or Mark Kinard -- are suspects and the unassuming, low-keyed PI Ben Helm is hired to unmask her tormentor.
Bruno Fischer was a deft innovator as illustrated by The Restless Hands’ plot structure. Similarly, in his 1947 Ziff-Davis book, More Deaths Than One, Fischer presented a murder through eight sets of characters’ eyes. Jack Glick in the NYT thought the unusual plot structure was "both refreshing and successful". The Restless Hands as a detective story fared well with the critics. Elizabeth Bullock writing for the NYTBR found it had "depth and body and surprises other than those inherent in the plot." The New Yorker concluded Restless Hands was "solid, tough stuff, with a better-than-average background."
Bruno Fischer’s twenty-fifth, final, and perhaps most ambitious novel was titled The Evil Days (hardback, Random House, 1973; softcover, Ballantine Books, 1976/1993). It was his first novel in fourteen years since the publication of The Girl Between (Fawcett, 1960). The dustjacket copy attributed this lengthy hiatus due to Fischer’s editorial stints at Macmillan’s Collier Books (a paperback house) and Arco Publishing Company (a textbook house). Lee Server has suggested Fischer "experienced some sort of writer’s block" and his writing days were finished. The Evil Days dustjacket copy also reported on impressive metrics: Fischer had sold ten million book copies over his lifetime and seen his work translated into a dozen languages.
The Evil Days is a gem of a crime novel -- what a pity it was Fischer’s last. Fischer cited it as one of his favorites. His sense of pace, mastery of a multi-layered plot, and eye for detail adapted well to the thriller novel concept popularized in the 1970s. The Evil Days remains an old-fashioned, fair-play whodunit that even uses poems and acrostics for its clues.
Set in the fictitious New York City suburb of Mount Birch (population 8,000), the protagonist is Caleb Dawson, 36, an editor at Lakeview Press, "a venerable and respected book publishing house". No doubt, Bruno Fischer delved into his own career to portray the publishing world. The Evil Days running one week from Tuesday to Tuesday is subdivided into chapters covering that time span.
Sally Dawson, Caleb’s wife, finds a pouch of jewels worth a quarter million dollars (1973 value) in a shopping center parking lot. Caleb has a modest job, and they lust for a bigger, better life. They conspire to swap the jewels for a settlement from the owner’s insurance company. Things are complicated by Caleb’s elected position on the Village Board of Trustees charged with overseeing the local police department.
A juicy subplot is the cold-blooded murder of Gordon Tripp, a celebrated poet who just had his manuscript rejected by Caleb. At the last moment, Edward Martaine, the affluent business executive owning Lakeview Press, decides to green light the poetry manuscript’s publication. The decision raises some eyebrows at the publishing house. Caleb protests in vain that the poet had no talent and his volume will lose money.
The jewels actually belong to Edward Martaine’s wife, Norma, who has had her eye on Caleb Dawson. To solve Gordon Tripp’s homicide, Caleb focuses on a cryptic St. Valentine’s Day poem left in Tripps’ verse collection. Besides a sinuous plot, Bruno Fischer offers us a snapshot of the 1970s New York commuter-suburbs with such details as shadflies, Little League games, and marijuana.
Bruno Fischer didn’t disappoint his old pulpster fans -- he still had a lurid scene or two up his sleeve. Sally Dawson, early in the novel, vamps naked except for wearing the gaudy jewels. Caleb ogles her as a voyeur from outside their bedroom window.
"She looked at her image and I looked at her. The diamond earrings dangled a good three inches from her earlobes. The magnificent bracelet sparkled like fireworks on her tanned forearm. The huge emerald-cut diamond was like a brass knuckle on the middle finger of her right hand. The three-strand pearl necklace lay on her luscious breasts with her pale nipples caught between the strands. Only the thistle-shaped brooch was not on her because clearly there was nothing to pin it to.
"Or so I thought. The brooch was held between two fingers.Smiling down at it, she brought it to her navel, and I had a mad notion she was going to pin to her skin. Of course she didn’t; with a naughty giggle she tried to pin it to her pubic hair." (65-66).
At a further juncture, Fischer gives us a cynical view of the publishing world. Caleb Dawson goes to a luncheon to negotiate a book contract.
"High on gin, we haggled amiably over their demand of fifty thousand dollars’ advance on his novel and a sixty-forty split on the reprint rights. By two o’clock our only agreement was to meet again later in the week -- same place, same martinis -- with the addition of Harve Atkinson, decision-maker." (129)
Bill Pronzini has noted The Evil Days is "a mordant tale of thievery, kidnapping, murder, and adultery." NYTBR’s Newgate Callendar (a pseudonym used by Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Harold Schonberg) commented on the "everyman" protagonist (Caleb Dawson) grappling with a thorny ethical problem.
"This one is about a woman who finds a bag of diamonds in a shopping center. Greed takes over, and her husband finds himself in a legal and moral impasse. That is the fundamental idea of the book. How can a basically decent man escape from these quicksands? Fischer handles the problem in a sensitive manner. He also has the ability to draw together a rather complicated series of events into a unit. And along the way he has planted a really ingenious clue. Much better than average."
Critic Jon L. Breen has commented, "If MWA gave a comeback of the year award [in 1973], it might go to Bruno Fischer for The Evil Days."
Bruno Fischer was one of the early members of Mystery Writers of America. Ed Hoch relates how he met Bruno Fischer at a MWA New York chapter meeting in 1949 at a 52nd Street restaurant. Fischer was the first real live mystery writer Ed Hoch ever met. Fischer still has his ardent champions, most notably such writers as Bill Pronzini, Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, and Gary Lovisi. Certainly in Fischer’s lifetime, he earned high praise from such critics such as Anthony Boucher who once wrote Fischer "displays a warm understanding of human relationships". Allen J. Hubin collected Fischer’s story "The Man Who Lost His Head" in the watershed PI fiction anthology, Best of the Best: Detective Stories 25th Anniversary Collection (E.P. Dutton, 1971).
Fisher used the "Russell Gray" pseudonym to publish his mystery-terror stories. In cases where multiple stories appeared in the same magazine issue, he adopted the "Harrison Storm" pen name. Perhaps less known was his "Jason K. Storm" pseudonym. It was used for at least one erotica title, Domination (Olympia/Ophelia Press, 1970), recently offered for auction at e-rauction.com. Olympia Press, operated by Maurice Girodias, first published The Ginger Man, by James Patrick Donleavy, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, and the British edition of Story of O by Pauline Reage. One has to wonder if the Jason K. Storm titles were much sleazier or kinkier than, say, a "shudder pulp" novelette like Fresh Fiancés for the Devil's Daughter (first appearing in Marvel Tales, May 1940) penned under the Russell Gray pseudonym.
Gryphon Publications published Fischer’s last work, A Mate for Murder and Other Tales from the Pulps, a six-story collection, in 1992, the year he died. His novel Silent Dust scored an entry in the seminal critical study of crime fiction, 1001 Midnights. Fischer’s stories exhibit a creative durability and have consistently placed in mystery anthologies over the decades, most recently "We’re All Dead" in The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (Carroll & Graf, 1996) edited by Maxim Jakubowski. Director/producer Matthew Galkin (HBO’s "Family Bonds") is adapting the same story for film (Stick Figure Productions, NYC). More recently, David Bischoff selected Fischer’s House of Flesh for the book of essays on landmark horror titles, Horror: Another 100 Best Books (Carroll & Graf, 2005).
Apparently none of Fischer’s fiction was dramatized for the large or small screen until 1995, three years after his death. Showtime TV ran an episode of Fallen Angels, the neo-noir anthology TV series, based on his novella No Escape! (first published in Detective Tales, January 1949). It starred CSI’s own William Petersen. Bruno Fischer once summarized his approach to fiction writing in Contemporary Authors. "Though I’ve had my flings at editing and newspaper writing, I am essentially a free-lance writer -- setting my own pace, working at home, being pretty much independent. I’m a storyteller, in particular, a recounter of mysteries, dedicated wholly to the printed word."
Fischer spent his last few summers living in a bungalow at the bucolic Camp Three Arrows, a socialist cooperative in Putnam County, New York. He passed away while on his annual Mexico vacation on March 16, 1992. He was 84. Robert Z. Melnick, an old family friend, says Camp Three Arrows is still in operation today. Interestingly, among its archives is a document titled "Notes for a Master's Thesis on a Summer Housing Cooperative Called Three Arrows" written in 1967. Evidently, Fischer held his socialist beliefs passionately enough to attempt a scholarly treatment of them.
Bruno Fischer was a very prolific pulp author known for his mystery stories that appeared in many of the genre titles.
(1908-1995) Also wrote as: Russell Gray, Harrison Storm
Bruno Fischer was the author of 25 novels and more than 300 short stories, a contributor to Black Mask and Manhunt magazines, and the uncrowned king of the notorious “weird menace” pulps. The first fiction he wrote was for the literary maga-zines—”which paid nothing,” he recalled for this author. Fischer got married and worked at newspapers for a living when he began selling to the pulps. “I was the editor of the Socialist Call, the official weekly of the Socialist Party. I was getting $25 a week—when I got it,” he said. A friend talked to him about the pulp stories the friend had recently sold. Fischer bought some of the magazines and decided pulp was for him. Among the hundreds of pulp titles available, Fischer was taken by the line of modern, “realistic” horror/terror titles, the so-called shudder pulps: A Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, Sinister Stories, and others— unashamedly depraved exercises in melodrama. Each story was an overheated brew of vicious, often deformed villains, voluptuous, abused heroines, and vile torture devices. Fischer said he thought the emphasis on description and atmosphere worked to his strengths as a writer. He sat down and wrote a story about a woman trapped in an elevator with a cat she believes is a witch. Within two weeks Fischer received a check for $60—real money in those dark depression days. Fischer excitedly sat down and wrote a 10,000-word story. A check for $125 followed.
Bruno Fischer, the uncrowned king of the notorious “weird menace” pulps (HS Media)
For his first pulp story, “The Cat Woman” (published in Dime Mystery, November 1936), Fischer took the pseudonym “Russell Gray,” a name he had used during his newspaper days when writing two pieces for the same edition. Other stories appeared under the pen name “Harrison Storm.” Although some members of Fischer’s family were shocked by his lurid stories, his father carried copies of Fischer’s weird-menace pulps in his back pocket, ready to show them off to friends. Fischer was also a significant contributor to another pulp subgenre, the so-called defective detective story. Growing out of the “weirds” in Popular’s Strange Detective Stories and Dime Mystery, the “defectives” featured protagonists, the hero crime-solvers themselves, who were handicapped by bizarre or deadly diseases and medical problems. Fischer, under his Russell Gray pseudonym, contributed tales of the deformed, crablike private eyes Calvin Kane and Ben Bryn.
Fischer was a reliable pulp writer who could turn out stories based on a title idea supplied by an editor or built around a cover illustration that had been commissioned before anyone had written anything to go with it. With a hectic work schedule, and with the notion that everything he was writing was ephemeral, Fischer learned to write it right the first time and not go back for much editing. While the pay averaged a penny a word or less, a steady producer like Fischer could make enough to live on in those years before World War II. He took his family to a small pleasant coastal town in Florida and worked from there for some years. The market for the terror/weird menace stories eventually dried up, the perverse magazines run out of business by censors. Fischer had done what many pulp pros advised against and tied too much on a single market. Now he had to work his way into the good graces of other pulp editors and learn how to craft a different sort of story. He began to crack the detective pulps at this time and soon became as prolific at writing crime and private eye stories as he was at the terror genre. His name appeared on the covers of all the leading detective magazines in the 1940s, of which there were many.
He published his first novel, So Much Blood, in 1939. The topic earned him $500. Considering Fischer’s lurid excesses in the weird-menace days, his crime fiction was remarkable for its low-key tone and frequent use of everyday settings and characters. When violence came it was not gaudy but mundane. The murderers used the weapons at hand—scissors, a straight razor, a cookie jar—and the blood flowed across an everyday kitchen floor. The kind of mystery stories Fischer wrote, he said, “weren’t really mystery stories, they were stories. They could have been printed in any magazine.”
Living in the New York commuter town of Croton-on-Hudson, Fischer remained a productive author for his hardcover developer, and in the early 1950s he became one of the earliest of the first generation of paperback-original writers, as the paperbacks took over the market from the dying pulps. Softcover reprints of such Fischer titles as More Deaths Than One and The Bleeding Scissors did well, and in 1950 Fischer agreed to write an original for one of the growing new paperback developers. He wrote the 65,000-word novel in 18 days. It was called The Lustful Ape, and he signed it with the pen name from his weird-menace days, Russell Gray.
That same year, Fischer began a more creditable relationship with another new developer of softcover originals, Gold Medal topics. John D. MacDonald recommended him to the Gold Medal editor. He wrote House of Flesh for Gold Medal. The lurid cover, with a beautiful woman and some snapping hounds, looked not so different from the old weird-menace covers. House of Flesh eventually sold 2 million copies.
Fischer wrote a topic or two a year through the 1950s and continued writing short fiction as well. He wrote as well for the new magazines that had replaced the old crime and detective pulps—magazines like Manhunt, which paid much better than the pulps ever did. Then, in 1960, Fischer’s experienced some form of writer’s block. Deciding he was done writing for the foreseeable future, he took a friend’s offer and became a paperback editor at Collier topics. He stayed at the job for a decade.
Fischer wrote only one other novel, The Evil Days, published in 1974. He spent his later years between a summer home in an old socialist cooperative community in New York’s Putnam County and in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Al-lende, where he sometimes gave lectures to the expatriate retirees about his adventures as a mystery writer. In his last years he lost his vision, but Fischer would still get the old itch from time to time and would let his fingers roam over the keys of his battered typewriter.
- “A Friend of Goebbels” (1943);
- “Anything But the Truth” (1944);
- “Ask a Body” (1945);
- “Call the Cops” (1943);
- “Case of the Handless Corpse” (1944);
- “Case of the Sleeping Doll” (1946);
- “City Under Fire” (1941);
- “Coney Island Incident” (1953);
- “Daughter of Murder” (1942);
- “Dead Don’t Die, The” (1949);
- “Dead Hand Horrors” (1939);
- “Dead Hang High, The” (1942);
- “Death HitchHikes South” (1942);
- “Death Lives on the Lake” (1943);
- “Death on the Beach” (1944);
- “Death Paints a Picture”
- (1945); “Death’s Black Bag” (1943);
- “Death’s Bright Red Lips” (1946);
- “Death’s Secret Agent” (1944);
- “Don’t Bury Him Deep” (1946);
- “Enemy, The” (1946);
- “Flesh for the Monster” (1939);
- “Girl Miss Murder, This” (1943);
- “Happy Death Day to You” (1942);
- “Homicide Can’t Happen Here” (1942);
- “Homicide Jest” (1942);
- “Hour of the Rat, The” (1948);
- “I Thought I’d Die” (1948);
- “Killer in the Crowd, A” (1947);
- “Killer Waits, The” (1943);
- “Killing the Goose” (1945);
- “Kiss the Dead Girl” (1952);
- “Lady in Distress” (1949);
- “Locket for a Lady” (1943);
- “Me, My Coffin, and My Killer” (1943);
- “Middleman for Murder” (1947);
- “Mind Your Own Murder” (1945);
- “Murder Begins at Midnight” (1943);
- “Murder Has Seven Guests” (1942);
- “Murder Mask” (1943);
- “My Problem Is Murder” (1944);
- “Night Is for Dying, The” (1943);
- “Pickup on Nightmare Road” (1948);
- “Scream Theme” (1945);
- “Seven Doorways to Death” (1943);
- “Silent as a Shiv” (1948);
- “Smile, Corpse, Smile” (1948);
- “Stop Him” (1953);
- “They Came with Guns” (1957);
- “They Can’t Kill Us” (1941);
- “They Knew Dolly” (1942);
- “Trap, The” (1948);
- “Twelfth Bottle, The” (1944);
- “Waldo Jones and the Killers” (1942);
- “Wrap Up the Corpse” (1945);
- “X Marks the Redhead” (1944)
- “Beauty Butcher, The” (1937);
- “Beware the Blind Killer” (1941);
- “Beware You Loved Ones” (1938);
- “Blood Farm, The” (1940);
- “Body I Stole, The” (1940);
- “Burn Lovely Lady” (1938);
- “Cat Woman, The” (1936);
- “Commerce in Horror” (1939);
- “Corpse Wields the Lash, A” (1937);
- “Dance in Death’s Cabaret” (1939);
- “Darlings of the Black Master” (1937);
- “Death Came Calling” (1937);
- “Death Dolls, The” (1940);
- “Death Sends His Man-nikins” (1937);
- “Devil Is Our Landlord, The” (1938);
- “Flames for the Wicked” (1940);
- “Girls Enslaved in Glass” (1939);
- “Girls for the Pain Dance” (1937);
- “Girls Who Lust for Death” (1940);
- “Home of the Deadless Ones” (1941);
- “Hostess in Hell” (1939);
- “House of the Man Butcher” (1940);
- “House That Horror Built, The” (1937);
- “I Loved the Devil’s Daughter” (1938);
- “Inn of Shipwrecked Corpses” (1941);
- “Maid and the Mummy, The” (1937);
- “Man Who Loved a Zombie, The” (1939);
- “Mates for the Bat Man” (1939);
- “Mistress of the Dark Pool” (1940);
- “Models for the Pain Sculpture” (1940);
- “Monster of the Purple Mist” (1938);
- “Mummy Men, The” (1940);
- “Murder Truck, The” (1940);
- “My Touch Brings Death” (1940);
- “Plague of the Black Passion”
- (1938); “Prey for the Creeping Dead, The” (1939);
- “School Mistress of the Mad” (1939);
- “She-Devil of the Sea” (1938);
- “Singing Corpses, The” (1937);
- “Slaves for the Wine Goddess” (1939);
- “Song of Evil Love” (1940);
- “Thing that Darkness Spawned, The” (1938);
- “Venus of Laughing Death” (1937);
- “We Who Are Lost” (1941)
- “Bodies for Satan’s Broiler” (1940);
- “Books of Torment” (1940);
- “Dead Man’s Story, The” (1938);
- “House That Horror Built, The” (1937);
- “Monster’s Wedding Night” (1939);
- “Our Lovely Destroyer” (1940);
- “School for Satan’s Showgirls” (1939);
- “Valley of the Red Death” (1938);
- “White Flesh Must Rot” (1940)
- Angels Fell, The (1950), also published as The Flesh Was Cold;
- Bleeding Scissors, The (1948);
- Dead Men Grin, The (1945);
- Evil Days, The (1974);
- Fast Buck, The (1952);
- Fools Walk In (1951);
- Go Between, The (1960);
- Hornet’s Nest, The (1944);
- House of Flesh (1950);
- Kill to Fit (1946);
- Knee Deep in Death (1956);
- Lady Kills, The (1951);
- More Deaths Than One (1947);
- Murder in the Raw (1957);
- Paper Circle, The/Stripped for Murder (1951);
- Pigskin Bag, The (1946);
- Quoth the Raven (1944);
- Restland Hands, The (1949);
- Run for Your Life (1953);
- Second-Hand Nude (1959);
- Silent Dust, The (1950);
- So Much Blood (1939);
- So Wicked My Love (1954);
- Spider Lily, The (1946)
- Lustful Ape, The (1950)