Robert Wade (left) and Bill Miller in the 1940s
- The tall man stopped running as soon as he had crossed the hot asphalt of Front Street, and skidded into the cool maw of the Greyhound Bus Tunnel. With an effort, he forced his lean body to proceed at no more than a fast walk. Since no cry had been raised behind him, nobody paid him special attention. And although his blue, deep-set eyes darted from side to side, the rest of his gaunt, hawk-nosed face remained set in impassive, almost bored, lines. He did hot look like a fugitive....
- His name was Max Thursday. He rented an office — its glass door labeled Private Investigator — on the fourth floor of the Moulton Building, and a small duplex at the corner of Union and Ivy. He owned a car and a satisfactory bank account. But the maddening circumstances of this second Saturday in August had made it impossible for him to turn to any of these for rest or aid. He neither carried nor owned a gun....
— Calamity Fair, Wade Miller
Shoot to Kill cover. Thirteen of Wade’s novels have been sold to Hollywood. Nine of the films were actually made.
This is the opening to Calamity Fair, the fifth in the series of Max Thursday crime novels set in San Diego in the late ’40s. Author Wade Miller is actually a writing team made up of two local men, Robert Wade and Bill Miller. William Miller died in 1961. Bob Wade now lives and writes in San Carlos, at the foot of Cowles Mountain, which, he says, he “does not climb.” His roomy wood-and-glass ranch home is on the shores of Lake Murray, though, says Wade, “I do not fish.” The home overlooks Mission Trails, a golf course he admits he “does not play.”
Wade and Miller. "Nobody had used San Diego the way we had. We’d say, ‘How about a scene on the ferry?’ or ‘What about Point Loma, Old Town, or the Mission?’"
Robert Wade is the author of 46 novels (in collaboration or singly), most under pseudonyms. San Diego mystery fans also know Wade from his “Spadework” column in the San Diego Union, now the Union-Tribune. In “Spadework” Wade has reviewed three or four mystery novels every two weeks for the last 15 years and has become the informed voice for local literary murder aficionados.
Was that hotel Thursday was living in, the Bridgway, based on the Island Hotel?
Wade at 71 is a slim man with wispy reddish-brown hair, a fair complexion, and eyes that indicate a benign intellect. His relaxed, confident manner is unsurprising, given his five-decade career of discipline and accomplishment coupled with a considered economy of effort. His library is lined on three sides with his books — 14 foreign-language editions, book club selections, Reader's Digest condensed versions, paper and hardcover. All his work, 35 with Miller and 11 on his own. Worldwide sales exceed 15 million copies. In 1956 Wade and Miller won a coveted Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for their short story “Invitation to an Accident.” In 1988 Wade received the Life Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in acknowledgement of his contribution to the genre.
Robert Wade today: “I got the chance to talk to Chandler a little bit and found him very quiet and shy. He let his books speak for him.”
Today Wade sits in his office in a reclining desk chair in front of a word processor where he writes his column and works, “whenever I feel like it,” on a new novel in the Max Thursday series. He is in no hurry to produce more fiction because, he says with a satisfied smile, “I don’t have to.” In 1993
Harper Collins will reissue four of the six Max Thursday novels: Calamity Fair, Uneasy Street, Murder Charge, and Shoot to Kill. Thirteen of Wade’s novels have been sold to Hollywood. Nine of the films were actually made, including Touch of Evil, the Orson Welles film noir masterpiece that stars Welles himself, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh. The famous mood-thriller was based on Badge of Evil, a Robert Wade-Bill Miller collaboration written under the pseudonym Whit Masterson. The novel was reissued in 1992 by Carroll & Graf Publishers.
According to Wade, “My career in Hollywood is kind of peculiar in the sense that I originally broke into writing in radio shows in San Diego. I went up to Hollywood and wrote radio shows, and it was an interconnected kind of colony. I got into selling stories to movies, and then eventually I did two screenplays — one of which was produced. Kiss Her Goodbve. I started working Ion the project with Nicky Nayfack, who had made Forbidden Planet. He liked the story of Kiss Her Goodbye, so we made a deal for Bill and me to write [the screenplay). They had a pretty good cast lined up, people like Will Geer, Ilf Steven Hill, Yvette Mimieux, I and Robert Taylor to play the B villain. But then (Nayfack) had the bad taste to die, and the project went into limbo until Bruce Newberry bought the thing and filmed it.
“It died on the vine. I don’t know if he ran out of money or made a bad distribution deal or what. For years I tried to find out what happened to it. Anyway, I’ve seen the movie once or twice and I don’t recommend it. They didn’t do a very good job.
“More recently I worked on a (screenplay) for Disney which never yet has been filmed, but I still have hopes for it. They’re calling it Menagerie. It’s set in the San Diego Zoo. I’ve been on the advisory board for the zoo for the past 22 years. I know the behind-the-scenes stuff.
“One of the Max Thursday stories, Guilty Bystander, was filmed and released in 1950. Directed by Joseph Lerner for an independent company. Zachary Scott played Max Thursday. Faye Emerson, a San Diego girl, played his wife. It used to play on television quite frequently.
“If you liked the book, you wouldn’t like the movie. They ran up against a production code problem. At that time, you could not show the kidnapping of a minor child. You take that out, what have you got? They had the child merely ‘misplaced.’ He had gone off with his babysitter or something. It just took the guts out of the whole thing.”
he novel Guilty Bystander was written in 1947 by Wade and Miller, a year after the success of their first collaboration. Deadly Weapon. Guilty Bystander is the first of the Max Thursday series and introduces the San Diego detective at a low point in his life, just after World War II. Thursday is living in a seedy -hotel on Fifth Avenue between Island and Market — the fictitious Bridgway: “Rooms 50 cents and up.” Wade and Miller often mixed real San Diego locations with settings “spun from whole cloth.” The Moulton Building, for example, where Thursday kept his office never existed. Wade named it after a friend of his.
The novel begins:
- Wednesday, February 8,4:15 p.m.
- The room wouldn’t stay still. It kept swinging in slow, creaking circles like a carousel running down. He was lost in a fog — a hot, sticky fog. A voice echoed down an empty street toward him, calling his name. Georgia's voice. He waited for it to fade away as it always did.
- The voice kept calling. “Max! Max, wake up!"...
- “Do you mind if I open the window?” she asked. “It’s pretty stuffy in here....”
- “I hadn’t noticed,” he said. He scooped up a bottle from the uncarpeted floor. “Stuff like this —" he frowned at the label “— Old Cathedral makes you overlook that sort of thing.”
Thursday’s debut in Guilty Bystander is a piece of complex characterization compared to the works by authors with whom Wade Miller vied for space at the drugstore book rack. In 1947 these competitors would have included Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Critical comparisons to both of these writers have followed Robert Wade and the Wade Miller team, though the kind of lyrical romanticism and almost compulsive, idiosyncratic morality of Chandler’s Marlowe plays but a small role in Wade’s books.
If comparisons are to be made (and they are inevitable more or less), Wade and Miller’s crime novels are much more like Hammett’s in their almost transparent prose that calls little attention to itself. Hammett had certainly written about drunken detectives and men who might do the amoral kinds of things Max Thursday does on occasion. In Shoot to Kill, for example, Thursday frames his ex-girlfriend’s lover for a murder simply because he’s pretty sure the guy did it, he can’t prove it, and he wants the guy to go over for it anyway. The Continental Op or Sam Spade might have done something like that, but hardly Philip Marlowe.
In one scene in Guilty Bystander, Thursday, roused from a bourbon binge by his ex-wife, agrees to help find their five-year-old son Tommy, who has been kidnapped (not wandered off with the babysitter, as he did in the movie). Thursday questions the partner of his ex-wife’s new husband — the husband himself having gone missing. Thursday drinks several tumblers of absinthe the man (a doctor) pours for him as he begins his interrogation, then becomes incoherent and blacks out. The doctor’s body is found later that night — shotgun wounds to his torso — and Thursday is the prime suspect in his murder. This is realistic human behavior. The man is roused from a slide to the skids, agrees to snap out of it long enough to attempt to track down his own son, and the first thing he does is get whacked on a psychedelic liqueur and black out. Max probably didn’t kill the doctor, but we don’t know for sure what did happened until the end.
Chandler? No way. Hammett? Maybe. This is more like something from the neo-post-modernist (post-postmodernist?) hard-boiled practitioners James Crumley or James Ellroy, though Wade is uncomfortable with such comparisons.
The ongoing voice of morality in the Thursday novels (and in the non-Thursday Deadly Weapon) is homicide detective Lt. Austin Clapp. All of the Thursday novels bear a prologue-type quote from the lieutenant that is not, itself, found in the text of the novel. This is from Guilty Bystander:
- “Mrs. Mace, I’m tired of hearing about innocent bystanders. From where I stand every John Doe in this town is responsible for a killer. Killers are made, not born — and who’s responsible? The public or society or whatever you want to call it. As long as things like this happen there’s no such animal as an innocent bystander. And that includes you — and me."
Today, killers in crime novels are largely seen as victims of child abuse. Forty years ago, the perception that they were “victims of society” was just catching hold.
A physical description of Thursday is provided at least once in all six of the novels. This is from Fatal Step:
- He was a big man with wide shoulders and long legs. His weight wasn’t intended for six feet of height, but it was evenly distributed. Only his face hadn’t gotten its share.
- A prominent arched nose jutted from a lean countenance that was all planes and tight-skinned angles with no gentle fat. The face was impassive and stern.
Another recurring character in the series is Merle Osborn, Thursday’s girlfriend through five of the six novels in the series. In Calamity Fair, she is described this way:
- A tall brusque young woman, she could be handsome when she put forth the effort.
- Today she wore her usual mannish suit of gray worsted, one button missing, and flat heeled shoes. During the man shortage she had been promoted to the police beat, an important post on the lurid Sentinel and she had been good enough to keep it since.
Thursday’s San Diego of the late ’40s and early ’50s is a dustier, less traffic-choked city but had no shortage of crime. North Park is referred to as a suburb: alleys in Hill-crest were unpaved. La Mesa was a distant small town, not quite in Arizona. Much use was made of San Diego’s proximity to the border, but any temptation to stereotype Mexicans was consistently resisted.
A woman named Buena in Shoot to Kill is a Mexican-American woman in a wheelchair who runs a beauty parlor that is a front for a bookie joint — mostly for women. She is described as “a local, fourth generation American...an ambitious, inflexible girl who had worked her way through college as a theater usherette, waitress, carhop, bank messenger. An economics major at San Diego State, a phenomenal scholastic record....”
Obviously Wade and Miller were not straining for political correctness 42 years ago, the way Robert B. Parker can be sensed today doing the limbo for feminists and pop psych wisdom. At one point Thursday does assume that because she has Mexican blood, Buena has connections in Tijuana. But four decades ago, this was a much safer assumption than it is now. in both the collaborations and the singly written novels, Wade seems to have an implicit understanding that avoiding cliches of any kind, including gender or racial stereotypes, made for better reading.
As for the literature of Southern California (so much of which seems to gravitate to the crime novel), Wade and Miller were right up there with Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald in giving the reader a sense of place. In the following passage, again from Calamity Fair, are not-so-distant echoes of Nathanael West in the author’s description of a San Diego hustler-cum-psychic, a nicely rendered little model for the cultural absurdities in our neck of the woods. This was written 43 years ago:
- Thursday checked the 30th Street address as a matter of routine. This fringe of the North Park suburb was loosely a business district: homes elbowed other homes which had been converted into shoe-repair shops and dressmaking establishments.
- Number 3319, existed. It was an ice cream cone, upside down.
- The stucco cone, three stories high, was one of those depression-built refreshment stands which housed one enterprise after another, down through the years. Apparently, coats of whitewash kept the flimsy, pointed structure from falling apart. High on its tip, another ice-cream cone, this of fraying plaster and right-side up and a mere yard long, still balanced like a dancer.
- Thursday chuckled...He read the metal sign swinging over the shabby lawn.
- JOAQUIN VESPASIAN, Personal Relations Counsellor. In smaller letters this was explained: Phrenologist, Spiritual Consultant, Your Personality As Revealed By Your Palm, Helpful Secrets Of The Egyptians, Handwriting Analyzed. Then, challengingly: Why Not Meet The Real You?...
- Inside the cone somebody shrieked.
If there are no ice-cream cone structures housing psychic hustlers within a few blocks of that address today, certainly all. that’s missjng is the architecture. And the character of Vespasian resounds with San Diego characters you might find in or around any number of street-corner liquor or convenience stores today. Peter Lorre as a contemporary 7-Eleven jockey with an astrology con on the side:
- “Look, Maxie,” — Vespasian put a confidential hand on Thursday’s elbow — “we’re both smart enough to know the private cop business is based on contact work (update to read “networking”!. Now this setup I got might not look like much to a big fellow like you but things drift through here, little things you might use." When he got to selling, Vespasian talked in a breathless, yapping voice like a terrier. “Of course, I don’t pretend that this crystal-ball pitch is anything but the old fakeroo.”
- “Now, I’m one of the finest little contacts you could make, Maxie. You can ask them
down at the police department, go ahead. They’ll tell you I’m inside and often. How about it?”
Eminent mystery critic James Sandoe, with the old New York Herald Tribune, described Wade as “the grand old hand of the hard-boiled mystery,” and indeed the bulk of his work has been in this field, though by no means all. Wade has penned works of comedy and adventure, like the 1955 Mad Baxter.
The 1963 Gold Medal paperback of Mad Baxter depicts a broad-shouldered blond man holding a Mediterranean beauty. They are standing upright in a Jeep. Possibly the hero is steering with his knees. The couple are being chased by Sardinian gunmen wearing fezes. The cover blurb over the title reads, "A sultry Mediterranean Island where the sun was hot, and the women were hotter — and a handsome, hard-loving American didn't stand a chance, MAD BAXTER by Wade Miller.” This is followed by a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Have you ever read anything but a good one when the author was Wade Miller?"
On the back of the book, some editorial assistant at Fawcett had written the book synopsis:
- He was a knight astride the front seat of a jeep (sic] — a raw, wild, reckless giant who had handled women and explosives all his life and hadn’t been blown up or married — yet.
- Then he returned to the island of Sardinia — where the sun beat down on hot-blooded women who lived and loved and hated with a desperate passion. For Baxter it was like diving into boiling oil — because he’d forgotten all about Grazia, the girl he’d once made love to in a moment of careless enthusiasm.
- But Grazia didn’t forget — and wasn’t about to forgive — not until she’d gotten even for all the women Baxter had had — not until this tigress of a girl and her whole wildeyed clan had come hurtling down out of the hills for their own special vengeance.
The 160-page book itself is a tightly written action novel with a lacing of bedroom farce. It was never filmed — one of Hollywood’s myriad missed bets.
Another of Robert Wade’s major departures from the hard-boiled mystery is The Stroke of Seven, written in 1965 under his own name with no collaborator. Here Wade anticipated Tom Clancy by two decades. The novel came fast on the heels of Seven Days in May and the 1964 bestseller Failsafe, but Wade’s plot is completely original.
In The Stroke of Seven, maverick Army Colonel Crosson is assigned the job of picking a team to secretly penetrate the U.S.’s ultimate cold war military bastion, the NORAD base beneath Blackfoot Mountain in Colorado, just to determine whether or not it can be done. (Imagine Harrison Ford as Crosson.) The subtext is a grimly brilliant bit of dramatic irony: If the team fails, they die, just as if they were Russian soldiers. If they succeed, they prove the United States is vulnerable and millions could die as a result. The novel is better written and no more dated than most Cold War-based suspense thrillers, including recent Tom Clancy novels.
On the back of the 1947 Penguin edition of Wade and Miller’s first published book. Deadly Weapon, the writing team is pictured sitting on a desktop with their backs to each other, a typewriter between them, the desk strewn with crumpled paper. Miller has his hand on his forehead in a thinking posture, and Wade is either drawing on a pipe or chewing a pen. Both men are depicted in rolled white shirtsleeves. Wade says this is fairly representative of how they would spend much of their eight-hour days producing fiction in the years from 1945 to 1961. Robert Wade wrote his first novel at the age of eight, in 1929. “Luckily,” he says, “no copies survive.” At 12 he and fellow student Bill Miller were assigned to provide entertainment for a Wilson Junior High School English class. That one-act play resulted and a collaboration that lasted 30 years.
Both Wade and his partner graduated from Hoover High School in 1938 and attended San Diego State College. They worked together on campus publications and dramatic productions and formed a little theater group to stage their plays and a motion picture company to film feature-length silent comedies. Wade helped finance these projects by working as a newspaper reporter for the East San Diego Journal, a grocery clerk, shoe salesman, service station attendant, truck driver, stage electrician, and radio script writer for a local interview and feature show called San Diego Scrapbook.
After seeing overseas duty with the Army during World War II, Wade took up radio scriptwriting again, this time for the Mutual Broadcasting System, for which he wrote more than 200 shows. He also resumed his collaboration with Miller. Their books in this period bore the pseudonyms Wade Miller, Whit Masterson, Dale Wilmer, and Will Daemer.
Why use pseudonyms? Why not just Robert Wade and William Miller?
“Well,” Wade smiled and shifted in his chair slowly, “that question requires a kind of boneheaded explanation. First of all, publishers didn’t and possibly still don’t believe that a joint name on a book is commercial. They think it confuses the public. They prefer to have one name. When we wrote Deadly Weapon, we wrote it as Wade and Miller. They suggested we drop the ‘and’ out of it. We agreed; it was our first book sale.
“Now we wanted to write more books than our publisher at the time [Farrar, Strauss & Co.] could absorb. But the publishers felt, after putting in the time and money on a first novel, anticipating the usual loss, that they had a vested interest in the author’s name. So when we wanted to go to another publisher, still keeping the one we had, we needed another name. We used Whit Masterson simply because it has the W.M. initials.”
What were your work habits like, you and Miller?
“Kind of Spartan, actually. We originally worked six days a week, eight hours a day in an office. We would arrive at around nine a.m., break for lunch, and then come back until about five. But we discovered we were kind of flaking off on the sixth day and not getting much done. So we cut it back to five days. Sometimes we’d both be working at the typewriters, sometimes one of us would be staring out the window while the other one typed. We had known each other for so long, we were comfortable with each other. Our output on any given day varied. Sometimes it would-be nothing. We would just talk out plot problems, ‘What are we going to do about this or that?’ and we would end up with nothing written that day. Our record was writing one book in a month. On average, from beginning to end, it would take us about six months to do a book.
“We worked together on all the plotting and the outlining. One of us would have an idea from out of the air or something we had read about, and then if we both liked it — and this was the cardinal rule of our collaboration, that we both had to be enthusiastic about what we did — we would outline it in detail. For a 200-page novel we would sometimes have a 40-page outline. We both respected the other’s opinion.”
Do you remember exactly how you met?
“We were both, of all things, studying the violin. This was the depression. Middle-class Americans at that time felt that every child should be exposed to a musical education. Well, if I’d had a choice, I would have liked to play the piano, but my family was struggling, just trying to keep a roof over our heads, and there was no way they were going to buy a piano. However, there were violin classes available where they would loan you the violin. So both Bill and I ended up in a violin class for similar reasons, and neither one of us had any talent for it. Number one, we didn’t like it; so we kind of came together with a mutually shared aversion to violin and we ended up in the same English class.
“The teacher was sort of innovative, ahead of his time. He decided it would be nice to have some entertainment for the class. He called on me and Bill and asked if we would write something for the class. We said sure and came up with a one-act mystery. We found out we not only could do it but enjoyed doing it together. From age 12 until the age of 41, when he died, we were collaborators.
“What our career goals were, early on, was to write plays. We wrote, produced, and staged many of them in college, renting an auditorium where we could. We were devotees of Broadway theater. We did three two-act plays in San Diego that were farces in the George Abbott style. Then we went into the service. I went to Europe and Bill to the Pacific. We had written an outline for a three-act play using Hitchcock’s style of surprise and misdirection and various things like that. As I recall, we called it City of Angels, which became the title of another Broadway show.
“War came along, we didn’t do a thing with it. We were writing short stories and sending them back and forth by mail. When we felt they were in good shape, we sent them in. Back then, the short story market was a lot better than it is today. Even so we weren’t able to crack it. Looking back, I realize why. We were trying to write the New Yorker story without any of the training. background, and talent that was required to write a New Yorker story.”
You never sold to the pulps back then? Black Mask, Dime Detective, Mammoth Detective?
“Oh no!” Wade leaned forward and shook his head. “It hadn’t even occurred to us. We were aiming for the slick, high-quality market. We were submitting to Harper’s, New Yorker and were consistently turned down. I never paid any attention to the pulps. Later I sold to Mammoth, but at the time it was not even a question. We were trying to keep our hand in while we were getting ready to be great dramatists on Broadway!
“Eventually we did sell Deadly Weapon to Howard Browne, who was editing the Ziff Davis pulps. He serialized the novel in Mammoth, and that’s how I met Howard.”
(Howard Browne is the author of a series of novels featuring Chicago private eye Paul Pine. Browne has also written many television and film scripts, has taught writing at UCSD and lives in La Costa. Wade and Browne still speak to each other several times a year by phone.)
Returning to the collaboration years with Miller, Wade said, “We had this outline and we had done a show for the Mutual Theater of the Air about a talking hippopotamus that had become vice president of the United States, which is something of a commentary on that office.” Wade chuckled.
“We began talking about doing a legitimate play and we remembered this outline that we had, and we got the idea of doing it as a novel. Bill was in the Philippines, the war had ended, and he wasn’t doing anything, so he sat down, wrote a first draft, and sent it to me.
“I was back in San Diego by then and had an office downtown. I looked at it and thought, ‘This is great!’ But I looked around for a market and realized that what we had was a 40,000-word novel in a market that demanded a minimum of 60,000. So I conceived a new subplot, put in an extra 20- to 25,000 words, and sent it in to an agent I’d never met nor had any correspondence with, just got his name from a friend. He sent me back an enthusiastic letter, and two days after that he had a deal with Farrar Strauss.
“That was Deadly Weapon. It was a big success, and that’s how we became mystery writers. Wade let out a short chortle and spread his hands, “Without ever wanting to be!”
What was it like to be, in a sense, competing with Hammett and Chandler? They were very popular, and so were you in the late ’40s.
“Well, both Hammett and Chandler were, I won’t say over the hill, but Hammett had stopped writing altogether, and Chandler was in his declining phase. Chandler’s great books were written pre-war, but yes, we were competing and in many cases emulating them.
I don’t see much emulation of Chandler. Hammett, yes, because of the sparseness of the prose and terse sentence structures....
“Yes,” Wade nodded. “I’ve always had that reaction. I don’t see the resemblance to Chandler either.”
Did you know Raymond Chandler?
“I met him, but I can’t say I knew him. It was funny, actually. I attended a meeting of the Mystery Writers of America which was held in Mission Hills. Chandler was the guest of honor; and I’ll always remember being in this mansion, in a living room like a hotel lobby, and Chandler sat in this huge wing chair. Everybody came by, paraded past him as if paying homage to royalty.” Wade laughed, his eyes narrowing. He worked his shoulders slightly as if subtly scratching his back against the chair. “I got the chance to talk to him a little bit and found him very quiet and shy. He wasn’t outgoing at all. He let his books speak for him.”
Where did you get the idea for the character Max Thursday?“The reason we got the (character) was that our publisher, after Deadly Weapon, asked, ‘Would you write a series?’ So we said okay and kicked it around. We thought we needed a guy who could give us an opportunity for some growth and change and so forth. So we had this idea for a guy who had just returned from the war, at the lowest point in his career as a detective. He’s hitting the bottle, and we gave him a reason to pull out of it, and we just took it from there.”
- How would you describe him? What kind of man is he in your mind?
“He’s basically a decent man in a violent milieu. He is shaped by that violence and sometimes plays by its rules. Generally, he is trying to do the right thing and achieve equity or justice. He is certainly a flawed human being, by no means a perfect person. I don’t think he’s the sort of fellow that would do well at parties. I don’t know that you’d care to have him as a buddy. But he is somebody you would like to have at your side in an emergency.”
The character develops and evolves quite a bit over the course of the six books.
“Yeah, that is something we wanted the character to do; and the reason Bill and I gave up the character is that we just couldn’t figure any other way to change him. We were thoroughly bored with trying to write the same character. I always admired Erie Stanley Gardner for being able to write that same character [Perry Mason] for the 50 or 60 books that he did without ever running out of enthusiasm for it.
“We couldn’t make a series out of our first book. Deadly Weapon, but we did use some of the characters from that story in the Thursday series.”
What is the genesis of the name Max Thursday? How did you come up with it?
“It was just a name we came up with after kicking around about a dozen. We wanted something that would stick in the reader’s mind. Remember that Joe Friday came after Max Thursday. In fact I once told that to Jack Webb, who didn’t think it was very funny. I met him in a restaurant one time, and I said, 'I hope you’ll acknowledge that, like the days of the week, Thursday comes before Friday.’ He gave me his gimlet-eyed stare as if he were thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy anyway?’ ”
What about some of the other characters? Was Austin Clapp based on a real cop, for example?
“There was a friend of ours named Ed Diechmann, a police lieutenant who did several jobs, he wasn’t homicide at the time. He was also a writer who wrote true crime material based on his experiences. He was a good cop, and as much as Clapp is based on anyone, it would be him.”
Did you consult him or anyone at the San Diego Police Department about procedure?
“We would sometimes ask Ed what they would do in a case like this or that, but we really didn’t delve into the actual police department. Most of it was either stuff we read, stuff we had gathered by word of mouth or, yeah, using Ed as a reference. We knew how the department operated.”
What about Merle Osborn, Thursday’s girlfriend and reporter from the “lurid” Sentinel? First of all, was there a paper like that in town at the time?
“It’s sort of a combination of the old San Diego Sun and the Journal, both of which were pretty freewheeling in comparison to the U-T. But Merle wasn’t based on any one person. We knew some women with some of these characteristics. You’ve been around newspapers enough to know that they attract a certain kind of person and a certain kind of woman. It’s not a put-down, it’s just that certain occupations require certain personalities.” Was that hotel Thursday was living in, the Bridgway, based on the Island Hotel, which is near the location mentioned in the novel?
“Both of us being native San Diegans, we knew the area very well, but no, we just described it as a type of hotel in the old Tenderloin District.” Was there anything advantageous about having San Diego as a setting other than the fact that you and Miller lived here?
“For one thing, it was new. Nobody had used it. If they had, it was just peripherally. A guy named Jack Lattimer did a short-lived series and did a little bit of San Diego, but he moved on to Hollywood and became a very successful screenwriter.
“When we did it, nobody had used San Diego the way we had, especially for a hard-boiled mystery setting. We would just go around town and pick out locales. We’d say, ‘How about a scene on the ferry?’ or ‘What about Point Loma, Old Town, or the Mission?’, whatever. It was just fresh and exciting as far as we were concerned. I think it comes across that way in the books, the fact that we were excited about it. We were learning a lot about San Diego too, while we were writing about it.”
Who were the writers that influenced you, beyond Hammett, or let’s even say Chandler?
“Well, I don’t think it shows, but the writers that influenced me were G.K. Chesterton and Ellery Queen, people like that. But I don’t see them in my writing.”
You had some very intricately twisted plots that made perfect sense, much like Queen or Chesterton. The end of Guilty Bystander is a brilliant corkscrew of an ending.
“Yes, well, I guess I was thinking of style more than anything else. Hitchcock was a very big influence on me. Plotting was always a strong point with us. Two or three of the Whit Mastersons are beautifully plotted. The Death of Me Yet, The Gravy Train, The Man With Two Clocks."
What about the new Thursday novel, reprising Max’s kidnapped son Tommy, from Guilty Bystander?
“Well, when I went to the Bouchercon (a mystery writers’ and fans’ convention) a few years ago, I was kind of taken aback by the number of people who wanted me to bring Thursday back. I had kind of toyed with the idea over the years, but I hadn’t done anything with it. But there was so much response and interest and urging...” Wade laughed mildly. “I thought maybe I should do it, so I started outlining a story which picks up Max several years after Shoot to Kill. Enough to make him older, time has passed. What I’m doing is a reverse on Guilty Bystander in the sense that in this he has retired but is called back from where he is living in Mexico to rescue his son again. Full circle. Of course, now his son is in his late 20s, and he too is not an entirely admirable character.
“I’m not working on it very fast. I’ve got to admit I don’t have the drive to write novels like I used to. I can afford to be picky and choosy and do what I want.”
Since your writing career took off in 1946, have you done anything except write?
“I owned a restaurant in La Jolla at one time. And the old restaurant business aphorism is true: Anyone who goes into it with a lot of money and no experience comes away from it with a lot of experience and no money. My brother-in-law and I opened Gino’s Italian Kitchen on Pearl Street, and we ran it for several years. But I’m a writer and that’s really the only thing I’ve done that has met with any success.”
Exactly how successful were your novels? Many of these books have gone into six, seven printings or more.
“The interesting thing about them is that they have delivered real long-term earnings. I’m still getting royalties on Deadly Weapon. That was 46 years ago. The foreign money keeps coming in.
They did some Italian reissues. Wade Miller was one of the biggest-selling authors in Italy. Not anymore, but they’re bringing us back again.”
Has there been anything you regretted about your career choice as a writer? “I can’t complain too much. I regret sometimes the things that didn 't happen, some of the films that weren’t made. Like, Steve McQueen bought one of my books, Man on a Nylon String, and he was perfect for the part. I really thought it was going to be a big picture, but he died. There was another one I spent three years of my life working on, based on a Wade Miller story called Devil on Two Sticks. Buck Houghton, the old Twilight Zone producer and I were going to make a movie out of it. He and I wrote the script, we had the director from Dog Day Afternoon, and we got Cliff Robertson to commit to star in it. He had just won an Oscar. And we had Paramount commit to being the production studio. Paramount went to the television networks to get a commitment from them to air the film on television, and they wouldn’t give it. The whole thing died. I regret that.
“But life, as a writer, is full of rejections and disappointments, and I’ve had more good breaks probably than any writer you can name. I went into the business with complete naivete, thinking I could write for a living and actually managed to do it!” Wade laughed with real astonishment. “If I had known then what I know now. I’d be too scared to do it because I know what the odds are and how difficult it is.
“It’s like selling Deadly Weapon. Everybody told me afterward that it was impossible to get an agent; well, I got an agent just by sending in the manuscript. Then they said, ‘You’ll have a hell of a time getting it published as an unknown writer.’ I got a contract within a week after sending it to the agent. Then they said, ‘First novels just disappear.’ I’m still getting royalties after 46 years.
“I’ve had good luck. The critics have been kind to me, and the public has been good. I’ll take my disappointments, such as they are.”