A newish but really rather interesting customer got in touch the other day (a customer who first came to me through a perceptive between-the-lines reading of the blog, by the way). He had a very particular reason for trying to assemble the works of Norman Firth – might I have anything hidden away in the deepest vaults? He suspects that he is the only person in the world still collecting and reading Firth, although I’m not at all sure that the author of Spawn of the Vampire (1946) – and a man once known as “The Prince of the Pulp Pedlars” – can have been altogether so entirely forgotten.
As it happened, I had five Firths. Details duly sent off. All booksellers know what happens next: the answer routinely comes back that the customer already has all these, has had them for years, that these are the really common ones, do we have anything else? (i.e. what they really want are titles which are utterly impossible to find, may not even actually exist, and that certainly no-one has seen within living memory). But this time, wonderful to relate, a circumstance at least as rare as the books themselves, this wasn’t the answer that came back. Despite determined looking over the years, my customer didn’t have four of the five. They are now winging their way to a new home – happiness all round.
The event seemed worth recording, if only because such things so seldom happen. But the further thought occurred that there may perhaps be other Norman Firth titles lying hidden out there still looking for a happy home. Over to you on that. Only the difficult titles, of course, which don’t include the handful of hardbacks or anything else currently listed on the internet. He usually published as N. Wesley Firth, but also used a multitude of pseudonyms, including Jackson Evans, Joel Johnson, Net Anson, Jackson Haines, Mac Raine, Rice Ackman and even Olga Hendry (his wife’s name). Earl Ellison was his most regular nom-de-plume, but this requires care as the name was later taken over (1950 onwards) as a house-name by John Spencer & Co. Leslie Halward was another of his regular pseudonyms, although this also requires care as there was another Leslie Halward, who had some fiction and an autobiography published by Methuen and Michael Joseph in the 1930s. Other Firth pseudonyms may well now be lost in the mists of time.
His principal publishers were the quirky and related West London imprints of Bear, Hudson Limited and Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Limited, as well as the (also inter-connected) Grant Hughes and John Spencer & Co.; other titles appeared from Utopian Publications and the Staffordshire imprints of Clifford Lewis and Curzon Publishing, as well as London’s Brown, Watson Limited and Mitre Press, and Pillar Publishing of Dublin. He also did some publishing on his own account, e.g. the Gaze Publishing title depicted, published from his home at 66 Park Road, West Birkenhead.
Institutional holdings of his books are sketchy – about twenty titles published as N. Wesley Firth; three Olga Hendry titles in the Castleton series published by the Mitre Press; a couple each by Leslie Halward, Joel Johnson and Jackson Evans, and a western from Rice Ackman. This can only represent a fraction of his output. In the course of his short life (he died at the age of twenty-nine) his output was prodigious and covered a huge range: gangster stories, crime stories, thrillers, romances, westerns, some science fiction, sporty stories and even school stories – his Harcourt series containing distinct echoes of Frank Richards and Greyfriars. He is said to have been capable of punching out 6,000 words at a sitting – and on occasion to have supplied single-handed the entire contents of magazines like Futuristic Stories and Strange Adventures, using a variety of different names.
Some of the titles illustrated here give the flavour both of his breadth and versatility, as well as his strengths and weaknesses. Piccadilly Nights (written as Jackson Evans) is ostensibly “a new and daring novel of London’s haunts and night life”. It’s in fact written in the typical style of a American gangster novel, with most of the characters sounding more American than English (Bats O’Reilly excepted – his Irish brogue gets subtly stronger the more menacing he becomes): but this was presumably precisely what the publishers (Grant Hughes) wanted. It’s a story which begins on Merseyside with a botched gangland execution. The killer flees to London, falls in with a naked beauty discovered in her bath via a fire-escape, wins some money wrestling against “The Cockney Maniac”, and pulls off a nicely-tuned and delightfully plausible mail-order scam involving a wholly fictitious naughty book (this must surely be based on fact from the murky underworld of pulp publishing). He then muscles in on the turf of London’s pin-table racketeers and marries bizarrely at gun-point. There is precious little night-life and the star-crossed lovers, cabin-in-the-forest ending is straight out of American film-noir – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the very film.
In contrast, although Dangerous Dames has an ostensibly American narrator, the tone is almost entirely British stiff upper-lip – “I had only gone as far as the end of the street, when that quality known as chivalry made me stop and think”. Neither the title nor the leggy H. W. Perl brunette on the cover seem to have any particular relationship to the plot (or any relationship at all, come to that – they must have been designed for another book altogether). It relates the tale of a Hollywood film company down on its luck and resolved to risk everything on making an epic blockbuster filmed on location in Egypt. “The Mummy Walks” is re-titled “Flame of the Pyramids” and strange things start happening almost at once. En route to Egypt there is a pleasant glimpse of post-war 1940s London, “now the lights were up and the look of strain had gone from the faces”. A scene in the Egyptian Room of the just re-opened British Museum introduces a mysterious English blonde, who issues a warning. That night a cameraman is murdered. The mystery blonde later turns up on the ship, leaves it mysteriously, but crops up again in Egypt. After that it all gets a bit Indiana Jones, bad guys, whips, drug-dens, guns and pyramids. Occasionally we feel the mounting pressures of deadline, word-count and a need to unravel the plot in a hurry – “No words of mine are apt enough to describe that scene, I will leave it to your imagination mainly …” – but on balance it’s all rather fun.
Possession is a romance of what is sometimes condescendingly called the mill-girl novelette type. Actress turns down Hollywood – the love of a good man, the much more enticing lure of a bad man, eternal triangle, twist in the tail, all of that. Borrowed Love (written as Joel Johnson), with its similarly poignant Perl artwork, has all the look of something cut from the self-same cloth: in fact it commences with the brutal escape of an English deserter from the Foreign Legion and a getaway to Marseilles, where death stalks and treachery and retribution abound. Studio Revels begins with a girl from a New York sweatshop replying to a curious modelling advertisement and hastens on to the “inside story” of Greenwich Village and “queer, crazy characters, torn from a page of life, the riotous studio parties, the life of a professional model, and the excitement of the hunt for a crazed strangler”, which must have ticked any number of marketable boxes for the publishers (Hamilton & Co). Firth undoubtedly knew his business and the dreams and foibles of his readership.
As is often the case, the only account of his life I’m aware of which goes beyond the merely perfunctory comes from the pen of Steve Holland, who devotes several pages to Firth in The Mushroom Jungle. I can only add a little to that. Firth is usually said to have been born in Birkenhead on 20th October 1920, but I believe in fact that he was born slightly earlier on the 8th October – and at Crumpsall, just north of Manchester. Certainly his birth was registered, as plain Norman Firth, at nearby Prestwich, a mile or two from Crumpsall. His parents, Henry Wesley Firth and Mary Elizabeth Tattersall, had married in the same area in 1911 – and Norman Firth appears to have been the youngest of several children born in the locality. His father is said to have been a theatrical producer of some kind, hence perhaps the theatricality of some of Firth’s stories, but I have been unable to verify this. Henry Wesley Firth’s own father had been a draper in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, and that appears to have been his son’s occupation too. In 1901, at the age of twenty-three, he was certainly working as an assistant in the drapery department of a large London store. Mary Elizabeth Tattersall was a local young woman (from Gorton): both her parents worked as cotton-twisters in the Manchester mills (which I suppose gives a certain poignancy to the mill-girl novelettes). The name Wesley, by the way, seems to relate to the Wesleyan sympathies of the Dewsbury Firths. Henry Wesley Firth was baptised at the local Wesleyan chapel in 1877, and the name was commonly used as a middle-name in the wider family. Although it was not formally part of Norman Firth’s name (at least as evidenced by birth, marriage and death registrations), it’s not difficult to see why he used it.
During the war, Norman Firth worked on the assembly lines of an aircraft factory (probably Rootes at Speke). He married the seventeen-year-old Olga Hendry (1927-1996) at Birkenhead in 1944 – and by the following year he was published author, with the short story collection This is Murder, Lady and the novel Murder for Sale, both appearing in that year. From there, the pace of his writing grew exponentially. He lived in London for a time in 1948, staying in a mews cottage at 22 Roland Way, attached to the house in Roland Gardens belonging to Benson Herbert. Herbert (1912-1991), science-fiction writer, editor and publisher (Utopian) was one of Firth’s major supporters in terms of constant commissions. Firth was, however, already becoming increasingly ill, and returned to Birkenhead, where he died of tuberculosis on 13th December 1949, leaving a twenty-two year old widow and a young daughter. His relentless writing round the clock over a period of five years had earned him a little more than the average working wage – his effects were declared at a not unreasonable £1,449,10s.10d when probate was granted to Olga Firth in February 1950. She re-married at Birkenhead in 1956 and I believe his daughter later emigrated to Australia.
The only one of his books for which I have found contemporary reviews is When Shall I Sleep Again? – a James M. Cain sort of tale posthumously published by Gifford in hardback in 1950, dedicated to Olga, and later reissued by the Thriller Book Club. Here’s what the Western Daily News had to say (1st August 1950): “There is ‘strong meat’ in this novel of sex and intrigue in a small mid-Western town following the arrival there of a fugitive from justice in New York. The story is one of murder, jealousy and spitefulness, and is so well told that the reader will probably gain every satisfaction in the fate that overcomes the man and woman (one can hardly say hero and heroine) who are the main characters. This is a really vigorous thriller with an astonishing climax”.
“So well told” – yes, Firth had the gift of a natural writer in rapidly conjuring scenes and characters. What he writes, we see. Great literature? – obviously not, but he apparently had ambitions to write more seriously one day. His colleague and contemporary Bevis Winter felt that his “vast store of knowledge” and “grinding experience” stood him in good enough stead. This may well be so, but I suspect that his style of writing, more filmic than truly theatrical, cutting freely from scene to scene, might well have steered him towards writing for television, as a number of his contemporaries did. We shall simply never know. Let me know if you find anything.