Friday, May 21, 2010

Forgotten Books: Is A Ship Burning? by Richard Sale

Reading this book immediately after last week’s Mr. Strang was an exercise in culture shock. Mr. Strang was all melodrama and bullets in the center of the forehead (both essential elements in a Carroll John Daly story).  So I had to shift my brain into another gear when, on page 3 of Is a Ship Burning?, the narrator started showing off his Latin and dropping names like Nietzsche, Carlyle and Schopenhauer.

Is a Ship Burning? really isn’t that kind of book, but young novelist Richard Sale (26 when this was published in 1937) was trying to cover all the bases.  This book delivers action, adventure and romance in roughly equal amounts, with just enough discussion of the human condition to make literary minds feel smart.

Our narrator is John Banion, communications officer aboard a luxury cruise ship. Since the dust jacket pictures a ship on fire, and Sale’s prefatory note says, “The S.S. San Marino is not the model of any ship which suffered similar disaster,” there’s never much doubt about what’s going to happen. What makes it interesting is watching how it comes about and what it does to the characters we come to know.

The title comes from a telegraph message received from another ship 40 miles away.  They see a glow in the sky and ask if a ship is burning. This is the moment our cast of character realize they are in serious trouble.

For the first 2/3 of the book I found this compelling reading. Sale sucked me right in and I read almost the entire book in a day. Toward the end, when several survivors are sprawled on a raft cooking in the sun, I was less enthused, but can’t really blame that on the author. It’s just a thing with me. I don’t like reading about people trapped in snowstorms - or breaking their legs while alone in the woods - or lost in the desert - etc., etc. Some folks obviously find drama there, but such stuff makes me snooze.

(You'll note that some obligingly soul signed the name "Richard Sale" on the title page of my copy. All I know for sure is - it wasn't me.)

While exercising his literary muscles between hardcovers, Sale was busily churning out 400-odd mystery and adventure stories for the pulps.

Coming Sunday: I’ll reprint the first in Sale's popular Candid Jones series from Detective Fiction Weekly. Candid is a private dick turned newspaper photographer, and employed by the same paper as his pal Daffy Dill.  And tomorrow: A Candid Jones cover gallery.

Previous Richard Sale posts here on the Almanack:
A brief look at the Daffy Dill and the pulp cover for “Dancing Rats”.
A Forgotten Books review of Not Too Narrow … Not Too Deep.
A complete Daffy Dill story, “A Dirge for Pagliaccio”.
An episode of the TV show Yancy Derringer.
An early short-short story called “10 O’Clock”.

I eventually hope to review all of Sale's novels in order of publication.

Not Too Narrow ... Not Too Deep, 1936
Is a Ship Burning? 1937
The Rogue, 1938 (serialized in Argosy, no book edition)
Cardinal Rock, 1940.
Sailor Take Warning (aka Home is the Hangman), 1942
Lazarus No. 7 (aka Death Looks In), 1942
Passing Strange: A Story of Birth and Burial, 1942
Destination Unknown (aka Death at Sea) 1943
Benefit Performance, 1946.
The Oscar
, 1963
For the President's Eyes Only (aka The Man Who Raised Hell), 1971
The White Buffalo, 1975

For links to more of this week's Forgotten Books, visit George Kelley!


Deka Black said...

is a surproisng change. Not many writers are able to do such a change of subject in his works. I remember now marion Zimmer Bradley. Darkover and the Mists of Avalon (very different works, in my opinion).

George said...

Richard Sale is an underrated writer. I've enjoyed everything I've read by him.

Richard R. said...

So, you're pretty sure that's not Sale's signature in the book, or are you pulling our collective leg?

Evan Lewis said...

I would guess that's his real signature. I paid twelve bucks for the book 20 years ago, and probably would have paid the same anyway, so I doubt anyone went to the trouble of forging his name.

boiledoverbooksn said...

Evan -- Just to check your postings, I dug out my own copy of Is A Ship Burning, signed by Sale during the 'eighties, and found a very similar-looking script, in just about the same spot on the page. I'd say Mr. Sale also left some ink in your book.

Thanks for posting the short stories, though the pdf. files haven't worked for me. Years back, I was very impressed by Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, and have consequently been recommending it often. I really should reread that one!


David Laurence Wilson