Joe Gores – Author, Detective

On the occasion of his 87th birthday comes this article about the author Joe Gores originally published in the San Rafael Independent on Sep 27, 1975. I enjoyed all of his books that i’ve read so far, the best might be Hammett but the most fun was 32 Cadillacs.

Joe Gores: A writer with a lively past
By Albert F. Nussbaum
Author Joe Gores c. 1975
Author Joe Gores c. 1975

At five-foot-eight and 220 very solid pounds, Joe Gores doesn’t look like most people’s conception of a professional writer. He has a deep voice, a steady gaze, and no one will ever accuse him of plucking his eyebrows. He looks like a weightlifter, which he is, or a construction laborer, which he used to be; but Joe Gores is a full time writer. A good one.

He has had some 100 articles and short stories appear in a wide range of periodicals, and many of them have been included in hardcover anthologies all over the world. He has had six books published: four novels; a huge, 200,000-word history of undersea salvage; and an anthology of classical South Seas tales.

He is the only writer ever to win two of the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Awards in the same year, one for a novel and the other for a short story. Not a bad record for a man who decided to become a writer only after it became clear that his first choice for a vocation wasn’t going to work out.

All through grade school and high school in Rochester. Minn., Gores wanted to be a cartoonist. Artists like Milton Caniff, who drew Terry and the Pirates at that time and later drew Steve Canyon. Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), and Burne Hogarth (Tartan) were his heroes. He spent long hours creating his own comic strips, and drawing and inking and coloring panels. That is, he did when he wasn’t engaged in something more physical like playing football or working in a construction company lot, unloading boxcars of cement, lumber, or bricks to keep in shape for football and earn money for college.

When he entered Notre Dame in 1949, he was still convinced he wanted to be a cartoonist, but he eventually came to see that as an artist he would always be derivative. And he realized that what had interested him most about his comic strips were the story lines.

SO BY HIS JUNIOR year he had switched over to an English Literature major and was working on an ambitious novel about love, hate, and death in Europe — things he knew little about in a setting he had never visited. Had he been looking for a formula for failure, he couldn’t have found a better one.

Then, abruptly, he took off for Fairbanks. Alaska, alone, at the age of 19, behind the wheel of a 1941 Ford He figured he had 2,000 miles to go. but when he reached the Canadian border at the Waterton-Glacier National Park in Montana some 2,000 miles later, he found he still had 2.000 miles to go His preparations for travel equaled his preparations for writing.

While in Fairbanks he worked briefly as a logger, once went four days without eating because he was broke, and for several months slept in a gravel pit a few miles outside of town. His two best buddies in Fairbanks, whom he met in the shape up at the laborers’ union local, slept in the dugout at the softball field and on the roof of the post office, respectively.

GORES FINALLY GOT a job at the Standard Oil Bulk Plant and worked there until deciding to drive back to the states (Alaska was still a territory in 1951). As soon as he graduated in 1953. he was behind the wheel of the old Ford again, this time heading west. He ended up in San Fernando, working as a hod carrier. That fall he went up to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend Stanford University. They had a creative writing major there, and Gores was going to be The Great American Novelist.

He found a place to live above a bodybuilding gym and worked in the gym as an instructor. Working out in the gym was a field agent for a San Francisco private detective firm. Gores wanted to be a writer, but he also had to support himself, and he had to have something to write about. And he came to realize that the writers he most enjoyed reading weren’t the so-called serious or mainstream novelists, but the mystery-suspense authors like Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler. Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald. Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household. Detective stories, especially those of Hammett which he had begun to collect, were dominating his reading.

SO HE BECAME a detective and found it wasn’t quite the way it is pictured in books. He spent his first month on the job, working without pay except expenses, delivering stolen and repossessed cars to various points in San Francisco and the rest of the state. When this initiation was over and he was finally hired, he received the munificent sum of $275 per month and a junk car to drive in exchange for a 70-hour week.

He loved it. He doted on it. He worked, ate, slept, loved — ail within the limits of his job. He drove 5,000 miles a month without leaving San Francisco, but he was ready to go anywhere in the state at a moment’s notice. He was so eager to learn and experience new things that he often got the jobs no one else could or would handle.

AS A CONSEQUENCE, he was threatened or attacked with autos, tire irons, firearms, wrenches, knives, hammers, razors, fists and feet. He had a logger’s German Shepherd turned loose on him in redwood country and had a curse put on him by a gypsy fortune teller in Palm Desert.

He would carry 75 open files at a time, turning in dozens of reports a week, and sleeping as little as four hours a night. Then, in 1957, his feet began to itch again. He took a leave of absence from the detective firm and jumped an old freighter bound for Tahiti. He found a $25-a-month, grass-roofed hut outside Papeete and spent a year there, skin diving, bumming around the islands by yacht, seaplane and outrigger canoe, and writing. And his fiction style began to change. He began, at last, to tell stories.

He recalled those old comic strips of his where his interest had been in the story, the plot and the characters. For four years he had averaged 300 rejection slips (always printed, never with a kind word scrawled upon them) a year. Now he sold his first story for $65 to Manhunt, the old pulp magazine.

IN THE MEANTIME, his draft board was making threatening phone calls to his mother. Reluctantly, Gores returned to the states and was drafted into the Army. His first duty assignment was to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he was supposed to spend his two years of military service retyping two million file cards. Happily, he managed to get transferred to the Pentagon and spent the time writing biographies of generals, instead. In I960 he returned to San Francisco and the detective business. Then the owner of the agency died, the company faltered, and Gores and the company’s former general manager formed their own detective (read that as investigating, skip-tracing and auto-repossessing) firm in 1961.

1961 is also the year Gores received his Master of Arts degree from Stanford It was in English Literature, not Creative Writing. He was refused a degree in Creative Writing because, in the words of the evaluator, his work read “as if it had been written to be sold ”.

GORES HAD ALWAYS believed, and still does, that the whole idea was to get good enough at his art and craft to make people willing to pay for it. Today he plans to turn that letter into a plaque and display it with his numerous writing awards — but when he received it. it was a crushing blow.

Wanderlust struck again in 1962, and Gores was off to Kenya, East Africa, inspired by a desire to see first-hand the land and animals he had read about in the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard as a youth. He ended up in Kakamega, Kenya, 260 miles upcountry from Nairobi. There he continued to write stories for stateside magazines, and for a year he taught school (he was the English Department) at Kakamega Boys African Secondary School, a boarding school which had so little money they had to feed some 300 kids on a shilling (14 cents) each per day. Gores traveled by foot and Land-rover some 10,000 miles in East Africa, collecting 6.000 colored photos, climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro (19,400 feet) and to Point Lenana on Mount Kenya (15,000 feet), and he visited the Mountains of the Moon in eastern Uganda, where there are still active volcanoes.

WHEN LEAVING, HE planned to go overland and down the Nile, through the Sudan and Egypt to Alexandria by auto, Nile steamer, camel, and train. Instead, he got as far as Juba in the Sudan when a revolution broke out. He was trapped there for two weeks living in an abandoned game safari lodge and eating one meal a day in a refugee station which had been set up for those fleeing the bloodshed in the Congo. Gores got out, finally, but thinking about it can make him shiver on warm nights.

He was back in San Francisco in early 1965 and returned to the detective business where he was still a partner, but he left the firm again in 1966 to devote his full time to writing. HIS FIRST BOOK brought him national and international attention — A Time of Predators won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar as Best First Novel of the year. At the same time, Gores was also awarded a second Edgar for Best Short Story — a twin feat no one had ever accomplished before and which no one is likely to duplicate in the future.

Meanwhile, Gores had been approached to research and write a massive nonfiction project. “Marine Salvage,” a non-technical, 200,000-word history of man’s ability to lose things in the sea and find them and get them back again, spanning from 1900 BC and projecting techniques to 2000 AD. This was published in 1971.

He returned to the suspense novel with Dead Skip, Final Notice (1973), and Interface (1974). He wrote a screenplay for the latter which was purchased for film production. The hope is that shooting will start this year. Also, in 1974, Gores edited Honolulu: Port of Call, an anthology of classical South Seas tales.

HIS BOOK FOR 1975, Hammett, promises to be another winner. He has written a detective novel set in the San Francisco of 1928, and he uses Dashiell Hammett as the detective. This was an inspiration. Hammett, after all, had been a Pinkerton operative for years, and his most famous novels and stories deal with detectives — Sam Spade and the Continental Op — moving against a San Francisco background.

Who could identify with Hammett better than Joe Gores whose own life and writing parallels Hammett’s in many significant ways. Hammett, of course, is not the end. Gores has tried his hand at a new medium, writing scripts for the popular Sunday night TV show Kojak. The first, No Immunity for Murder, should be shown sometime in the fall schedule. Others are planned. And Gores and popular novelist Bill Pronzini are serving as co-editors of Tricks and Treats, the 1976 annual anthology of short stories from the Mystery Writers of America.

HE IS ALSO WORKING on a detective novel called Gone, No Forwarding, which is the third of the series begun with Dead Skip and Final Notice, a sequel to his successful Interface, this one called Carbonado and an intricate suspense crime novel called Come Morning I’ll Be Gone. Over the years Joe Gores has done a lot of living but the experience that means the most to him is the daily one of sitting down at his typewriter and from nothing but his own experience, imagination and intuition creating a fictional reality.

These days that typewriter is located in Tamalpais Valley. Gores moved from San Francisco to Marin County in 1972.


  1. This article appears to be written by the Nussbaum who was friend and adviser to Dan Marlowe, who wrote The Name Of The Game Is Death and other crime-paperbacks in the 1960's and 1970's. Nussbaum went to prison in the 1960's for murder and bank robbery and when he got out lived with Marlowe and wrote articles, novels, and short stories, all crime-related.

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