Syndicate Books is a new independent publisher, dedicated to bringing back the works of great and influential crime authors back in print. They started this fall by bringing out British author Ted Lewis’ hard as nails Jack Carter Trilogy. Jack Carter And The Mafia Pigeon, the third book in the trilogy, appears in the U.S. for the first time. We talked with Syndicate head and founder Paul Oliver about his endeavor, Ted Lewis, and legacy publishing.
MP: How did the idea for Syndicate books come about?
PO: It goes back to when I owned a bookstore in the Philadelphia area. We sold used books as well as new and in the process of handling all of those second hand books you encounter some interesting things. It could be an author you’ve never heard of and is utterly out of print, yet they have a run of blurbs from incredibly famous writers on the dust jacket. Or recognize that the translator is someone who worked on the most imminent books of the day. Little things like that. I’d take those books home and give them a read. Sometimes they were out of print because they weren’t very good or were particularly dated. But sometimes, not often, I’d read something really good that for whatever reason had slipped through the cracks. I wanted to publish those books.
2. Was there a particular reason Ted Lewis’ Get Carter Trilogy came out first for Syndicate?
PO: I learned about Ted Lewis from Max Allan Collins. At the time, in a former life, I was working on the reissues of Derek Raymond’s excellent Factory Novels and I thought they might be up Max’s alley. I wrote to him and somewhere in my email I described Derek Raymond as “The Godfather of British Noir.” All caps. Max was gracious enough to write back and explain to me that if I wanted to talk about “The Godfather of British Noir” then I needed to be talking about someone named Ted Lewis. Ted’s books were thoroughly out of print and very expensive, a hundred or so dollars for a mass market paperback, and knowing two of the three movies (yes, there is a third movie—titled “Hitman”—starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier) I thought it was worth investigating. I was in the process of reading Lewis and scheming about starting Syndicate when I moved to Soho Press. It didn’t take long before Stuart Neville, one of our most acclaimed authors at Soho, shared that he was a huge admirer of Lewis. I knew I had to do it.
That’s the long answer. The short one is: GET CARTER. There’s not many cooler book/movie combos going.
MP: For those who only know Jack Carter from the Michael Caine film, what are they missing that are in the books?
PO: I think the Carter in the novels is a little more human. Caine’s Carter is colder, if not more ruthless, but in the end as much interested in preserving his own name as he is avenging his brother. I think Caine’s Jack Carter evolves in the final scenes where his fiery need for personal satisfaction burns off his own ego and leaves a genuine need to avenge his brother’s death. The Jack Carter of Lewis’ novel has sincere misgivings about how he was with his brother from the start of the story. Notice that I didn’t say he has misgivings about who he was or who he had become. Carter is a villain. He is a gangster who is proud of what he has achieved but at the same time very much in conflict over how he treated his brother in life. Some of the novel’s best writing occurs in an extended flashback of Jack and Frank as kids and the moment where they went down separate paths.
MP: What makes Ted Lewis’ books important to crime fiction?
PO: He is uncompromising. It’s the most remarkable trait among his many gifts. Lewis wrote incredible dialogue and described the English postwar society with remarkable nuance and, well, disdain. But his characters were all villains and that’s what is really neat to me. In his most notable novels they are not merely people on the wrong side of the law but thoroughly bad people. Jack Carter is a high level enforcer for a London-based organized crime family (read: Kray Brothers) and he is very good at his job. These are hard tales about bad people doing bad things to other people to maintain their standard of life. In a word: crime. A lot of writers want to do this but either come up short on experience or nerve. It takes a lot of both to write a character like Jack Carter or George Fowler (the protagonist of the forthcoming novel, GBH).
If you wanted to find a literary blood brother to Jack Carter you’d only find a handful. Maybe only one: James Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant from the USA Underworld Trilogy. As Max Allan Collins writes in the introduction to Jack Carter’s Law, “Carter makes Parker look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” And it’s true. Donald Westlake’s Parker would despise Jack Carter and that’s why Ted Lewis created something remarkable and, for lack of a better word, true.
MP: Each Carter book has an intro by a filmmaker or author who admired the author. Do you plan to do that for all Syndicate Books?
PO: I do. When you’re making the argument that a writer that has fallen out of print or somehow slipped out of the crime fiction canon deserves to belong there, you need a spokesperson. It’s also a very sincere process. Sometimes blurbs or intros are about money or currying favor. Ted Lewis is dead. The people who wrote those intros and blurbs stand to gain very little by doing so and I think that makes the whole thing a little more interesting.
MP: I also love the covers, they draw a nice connotation to the period in which they were originally published without being anachronistic. Can you tell us about the artist and how you both approached the look?
PO: Thanks for that. I love them too. The artist is Katherine Grames and she was incredible to work with. Carter is a very stylish man. He’s kitted out in a mohair suit and monogrammed cufflinks, and very detailed about his gear. This is the height of the Mod 60s and Carter is kind of a Mod superman. Katherine loves fashion and loved the idea of designing these books. You’ve seen her design on some of Soho’s most prominent titles: Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series, Kwei Quartey’s Murder at Cape Three Points, and one of my favorites, the redesigned Station Series by David Downing. Basically she’s great.
MP: It seems lately that legacy publishing has been reserved for online publishing, but there’s been some resurgence this year of bringing some of the authors back into physical print to be sold in stores as well. What makes you see the larger market for them?
PO: It’s not that ebooks are regressing, because they’re still an incredibly large portion of a publisher’s business. But two years ago on a subway car in New York you saw a lot of tablets and reading devices. These days you’re seeing books again. Books are a rugged technology that will be hard to replace and it will be even harder for electronic books to replace the alchemy that exists between the design of a book, its contents, and a reader.
MP: Is there anything you can tell us about future endeavors for Syndicate?
PO: I’m thrilled to say Syndicate has its second project. There’s still plenty to be done with the rest of Ted Lewis’ novels, including the publication of what many consider his final masterpiece, GBH, but I’ve also gone ahead and lined up our next project. And it is a coup. In 2015 Syndicate Books will publish the complete works of Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster and crime fiction legend, Margaret Millar. Millar was a two-time Edgar-winner (literally receiving the honor of “Grandmaster”) and a Los Angeles Times “Woman of the Year.” In life she was more famous than her fellow crime author husband, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) but for one reason or another her books have fallen out of print. She’s tremendous and like Lewis (or any great crime writer) she was interested in the bad wood beneath the veneer of society. It just so happens that she was writing about the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
Paul Oliver is founder and head of Syndicate Books. They have so far released all of Ted Lewis’ previously out-of-print Jack Carter Trilogy, and their upcoming releases include Lewis’ novel GBH and the complete works of Margeret Millar. You can find all volumes of the Carter Trilogy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.