Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rick Brant and the Case of the Baffling Book


[1] The Mystery Envelope.

by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Monday, March 24, 1997, approximately 2 P.M. A cool, sunny day.

The postman climbed slowly up the six brick steps with a bundle of letters, circulars and a small package. Little did he suspect that this was a parcel fraught with destiny.

The unsuspecting carrier had just dropped a minor mystery into my mailbox – not a major one, but a puzzle that I could not solve at the time, and not in the intervening sixteen years. 

The dingy little package contained a slim red book. My jaw dropped.

[2] The Slim Red Mystery Book.

BUT FIRST, a little background —

Since about 1957 I have collected a number of obsolete popular cultural printed materials: broadsides, illustrated magazines, dime novels and juvenile series books. Series books were the first, thanks to ‘Buy one, get one free’ offers at bookshops. Soon I discovered that my favorite series books could be had secondhand at a tenth of the price of new copies. I was hooked. My chief purpose in collecting was to read and enjoy the books, and finding elusive titles became a lifelong quest. In the 1980s, to assist my search for these volumes, I began subscribing to various collector fan magazines and corresponding with other collectors and dealers. The principal journals were and are Dime Novel Round-Up, Yellowback Library, the Horatio Alger Society Newsboy, the G.A. Henty Society Bulletin and an iconoclastic publication called The M&A Review or The Mystery and Adventure Series Review, published at very irregular intervals by Mr. Fred Woodworth of Tucson, Arizona. This last-named journal can arrive anywhere from once to four times in a given year. It is always worth the wait. The magazine is lovingly hand typeset and printed. Articles are intelligent and eclectic, and geared to readers and book lovers, rather than investors.

[3] The M&A Review, 1980 - Present.
“Fred Woodworth is an anarchist and atheist writer based in the United States. He is anarchist without adjectives, saying: ‘I have no prefix or adjective for my anarchism. I think syndicalism can work, as can free-market anarcho-capitalism,  anarcho-communism, even anarcho-hermits, depending on the situation. But I do have a strong individualist streak. Just plain anarchism—against government and authority—is what I’m for.’” — wikipedia entry

In addition to the M&A Review, he has published a political opinion journal, The Match, since 1969, espousing his personal, highly ethical philosophy.

According to Mr. Woodworth: ‘THE M&A REVIEW is published irregularly (whenever the editor can get around to it) by Fred Woodworth, Post Office Box 3012, Tucson, Arizona 85702. Subscription is at no fixed price: free or whatever you care to donate. Donations, however, MUST be in either cash or stamps. Checks will be silently ignored… Purpose of this magazine is to discuss obsolete popular culture, particularly old-time series books. Typesetting and printing by Fred Woodworth. All pre-press work and platemaking is done with solar power. No computer equipment is ever used here for any purpose whatsoever.”

[4] The Deadly Dutchman. Original Grosset & Dunlap edition, 1967, and M&A Review reprint, 1986.
Incensed by the price gouging of some second-hand book dealers, Mr. Woodworth decided to reprint several scarce books, including Number 22 in the Rick Brant series — The Deadly Dutchman. (At the time, no one else was providing moderately priced reprints for series book collectors. Copies of this book were priced at from about a hundred to nearly a thousand dollars.) A limited edition appeared in 1986, completely reset, rather than photo reproduced, featuring a picture cover and a dust jacket. Graphics were by J. Clemens Gretter (who signed his work ‘Gretta’), a major G&D series book illustrator during the 1930s. Ironically, copies of the reprint that make it to the open market now sell for high prices. (In order to thwart other book ‘scalpers,’ Fred later reissued the very first number of the Review, which had become a pricey collectible.)

[5] Joseph Clemens Gretter (1908-88). A classic Hardy Boys dust jacket illustration, 1934.
For those unfamiliar with U.S. series books from the 1940s-60s, three series stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of originality, intelligence and storytelling: The Rick Brant Science-Adventure Series by ‘John Blaine’ (Harold L. Goodwin), the Ken Holt series, about a young investigative journalist, by ‘Bruce Campbell’ (Sam and Beryl Epstein), and the Tom Quest Series by Francis Hamilton ‘Fran’ Striker, about a young explorer. Although I enjoyed the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Hardy Boys mysteries and the Tom Swift books, Rick Brant was my all-time favorite. The author was an actual U.S. government scientist, involved with atomic energy following World War II, and his books were a goldmine of arcane first-hand scientific and ethnographic information. (Globetrotting Hal Goodwin had served as a combat Marine, a journalist and project director with the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA, NOAA and other agencies.) The books were well written, cleverly plotted, packed with international adventure and Cold-War espionage, and the characters were three-dimensional. Our teenaged heroes — Rick Brant, the son of a scientist, and Donald ‘Scotty’ Scott, an ex-Marine — are brave and resourceful, but like real youths they also make some impulsively bad judgments and have to take the consequences. I think Rick is injured more than any other series book character. His broken bones do not heal magically overnight, either. Villains are particularly nasty pieces of work. Rick’s family members are not sappily perfect ‘Leave It to Beaver’ stereotypes, but nevertheless a loving and functional group. His father heads a private scientific foundation on mythical Spindrift Island, off the New Jersey coast. Rick’s mother, sister Barbie and the family dog often play key parts in the ongoing saga, as do several scientists from the foundation and U.S. agents of the ‘Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Group” (JANIG, a fictional stand-in for the Central Intelligence Agency, is loosely based on the real life Military Intelligence Service’s J.A.N. branch from World War II. The CIA was rarely mentioned during the 1950s.)

[6] Three of the best boys’ adventure series: Rick Brant, Ken Holt and Tom Quest.
Grosset & Dunlap published the Rick Brant books in 24 volumes between 1947 and 1968, (23 stories plus the nonfiction Rick Brant’s Science Projects in 1960.) An unpublished 24th story written in 1968 was rescued from oblivion and issued in 1990 as The Magic Talisman, thanks to some dedicated fans.

[7] A group of Rick Brant covers, 1947-65.
The first sixteen volumes were clothbound books with separate color-lithographed dust jackets. Volumes 1-7 were bound in a smooth brick-red cloth with black lettering. Volumes 8-16 were bound in a rough brownish tweed cloth with black lettering. (Reprints of 1-7 also were bound in tweed.) Numbers 17-23 were published only in full-color lithographed ‘picture covers.’ Reprints of 1-16 had color picture covers taken from the original dust jacket artwork.

[8] The three Rick Brant series binding formats: red, tweed and pictorial.
The relative scarcity of collectible series books may often be gauged by a volume’s position in a given series. Earlier volumes in longer series were reprinted many times, while the final two or three might have gone to press only once. Numbers 21-23 of the Rick Brant series became high-priced ‘collectibles’ as a result, although a substantial number had been distributed. Author Harold Goodwin found that 8,500 copies of Rocket Jumper had been sold. Fred Woodworth pointed out that of the ‘scarce’ titles, ‘over eight times as many copies exist as there are known Rick Brant fans in series collecting circles. In the case of Rocket Jumper there are almost THIRTY of the books for every one of you out there… Be calm and remember that all things come to those who wait.’

[9] Rocket Jumper. Original Grosset & Dunlap edition, 1966, and the Mystery Edition.

Thanks for waiting. And now for the mystery…

A decade after Fred Woodworth released his reprint of Rick Brant’s chilling encounter with The Deadly Dutchman, my strange package arrived in its smudged envelope with four 32-cent stamps, a book rate sticker and a return address of ‘ACME Book Warehouse/ 24 Ellis/ San Francisco, CA 94102.’ Inside was a series book that was not supposed to exist.

The book that I removed from the San Francisco envelope was a copy of Rick Brant Number 21, Rocket Jumper. Oddly enough I already had a G&D copy in its colorful picture cover. This book looked strange, however. It seemed to be a first format red binding! None of the books after number 17 was supposed to exist in that format, but here it was in three dimensions, with texture, mass, specific gravity and a slightly musty aroma. The thing was real all right. But what was it?

[10] James E. Ogden, Rick Brant Electronic/Science Adventure Series Guide, New Fairfield, CT, 1998.
There was no note or invoice in the envelope, just the anomalous book. The next day, I wrote to the ‘Acme Book Warehouse,’ seeking clarification, but my letter was returned a few weeks later as undeliverable. Was the mystery volume a gift, or a shipment destined for someone else that had gone astray? Judging by a flurry of correspondence in the Summer, 1997 issue of M&A Review, others had received similar anonymous packages. Nearly all letter writers assumed that the book was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Fred Woodworth, but Editor Woodworth denied any involvement. (Although his politics have made him many enemies, his candor has never been questioned.) The mystery deepened. (Perhaps the Acme outfit was a subsidiary of the firm that sold Wile E. Coyote his paraphernalia in the old Road Runner cartoons?) Collector James E. Ogden, who would publish the Rick Brant Electronic/Science Adventure Series Guide a year later, received thirteen copies of the anomalous book, shipped from Austin, Texas. All other mystified recipients reported the nonexistent San Francisco address.

[11] Ellis Street and Vicinity, San Francisco, CA, U.S.A., from Google Maps.
By a coincidence, I traveled to San Francisco in Autumn, 1997. Naturally, I found an opportunity to visit ‘No. 24’ Ellis Street. Starting at the corner of Stockton and Ellis Streets, I found an unoccupied ‘Great Western Bank’ and a B.A.R.T. (‘Bay Area Rapid Transit’) Deli, an International Restaurants, and a parking deck. Today, the same block is tenanted by an Apple Store, a ‘Crate and Barrel,’ and a parking deck. Nary a book warehouse in sight. The ‘street view’ option from Google Maps reveals no Number 24, which should be located within the Apple computer store on the right.

[12] Ellis Street, San Francisco, CA, from Google Maps Street Views.
Every couple of years, I would pull the odd volume off the shelf and examine it for clues. Of the five basic journalistic questions, I had partial answers to What? (A book) When? (1997) and Where? (San Francisco and Texas — or somewhere else.) The Who? and the Why” remained elusive.

Minute examination of the physical volume is of little help, except to establish its strangeness. Its paper stock is thinner, lighter and whiter than the authorized Grosset & Dunlap picture cover edition, but it was printed from the identical offset plates. Superficially, the cover resembles a first format red binding, but the color is too bright and the spine was designed for a thicker volume. The binding lacks the grooved hinges common to all G&D series books. Endpapers resemble the earlier version of Rafael Palacios’ map of Spindrift, with white landmasses on blue water. (Later endpapers use black outlines on a white background.) The cover typeface is nearly identical to that used by G&D, but a close comparison of the author’s name reveals an ill-proportioned O in ‘JOHN’ and the shapes of the serifs in several letters differ as well. The lightning bolt logo reads ‘A Rick Brant Electronic Adventure.’ (By 1966, when Rocket Jumper first came out in picture covers, the motto had been changed to ‘A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story.’)

[13] A Comparison between a Grosset & Dunlap title page and that of Fred Woodworth’s reprint.
One small clue finally emerged about a year later, however. Because of the same inflated prices that impelled Fred Woodworth to reprint The Deadly Dutchman, I was happy to obtain a U.K. reprint edition (World Distributors, Manchester, Ltd.) of a scarce Ken Holt title to complete my set of that series. (I couldn’t afford the ‘astronomical’ prices for a G&D original quoted by Fred Woodworth’s ‘venal dealers.’) When The Mystery of the Sultan’s Scimitar arrived, I was struck by the resemblance of its binding construction to my Rick Brant book. The spine design was awkwardly proportioned and the book lacked grooved hinges. I now suspect that an English distributor obtained a number of unbound G&D copies of Rocket Jumper and fabricated new bindings, using an earlier format as a template. Due to thicker paper stocks used before 1960, the dust-jacketed books needed wider spines.

[14] A comparison of a Grosset & Dunlap lettering detail with that of the Mystery Edition.
Theorizing about production deals with only part of the puzzle. Okay, the books were assembled in the U.K. or elsewhere, possibly from unsold stock. The sixty-four-dollar questions remain: who shipped them to about a dozen collectors and why? Postage alone came to $1.28 per book, and unless he/she rescued the volumes from a trash bin, (or pilfered them,) the books themselves must have cost something. Printing the misleading ‘Acme Book Warehouse’ envelopes was another expense. Yet there was never a hint of reimbursement or a follow-up ‘gotcha!’ letter. And how were the recipients chosen? Questions, questions…

[15] A comparison of binding constructions between a typical U.K. series book reprint and the Mystery Edition, showing the lack of grooved hinges.
I would like to thank my benefactor for both a very interesting book and an intriguing mystery. His/ her perplexing book surfaces occasionally on various collectors’ online forums, and fingers still point to Fred Woodworth. A TV detective citing ‘Motive, Means and Opportunity’ would conclude that he ‘fit the frame’ on all three points. Yet, on purely stylistic evidence, I’m reasonably certain that this oddball book is not his work. The printed pages are the unadulterated Grosset & Dunlap mass-produced product. The badly proportioned cover typography and crude assembly fall far below his meticulous design standards. Of course, the person who distributed the books did not necessarily have to be the one who produced them. Lastly, at least a circumstantial connection exists between the mystery book and the Mystery and Adventure Series Review. A majority of the recipients seem to have been subscribers to the magazine and/or purchasers of Fred’s Deadly Dutchman reprint.

[16] Harold Leland Goodwin, aka John Blaine, 1914-90.

WELL, there you have it. The book is as much a conundrum today as it was in 1997.

In hopes that this message will reach the anonymous sender: Your unexpected gift was and remains much appreciated. I prize it highly. Unsolved mysteries make the world that much more interesting. 

5 comments:

  1. Wish I could solve this mystery, but I can't. I just want to add a "me, too" and name Rick Brant as my favorite kids series. In fact, when I sold my collection of boys' adventure books some years ago, the Rick Brants were the ones I couldn't part with.

    In my youth I read hundreds of boys' adventures, dating back to Burt L. Standish and Victor Appleton the First. Most of them were obviously cranked out without much thought. As a boy and as an adult I was impressed by the quality of Rick Brant's writing. Many of "Blaine's" vivid scenes stayed in my memory my entire life. It was Blaine/Goodwin who taught me the value of "local color" in adventure writing. You felt he'd actually visited the places he described. I got a special thrill when he set a book in the Philippines, where I'd spent a couple of boyhood years. Alas, I never met any pirates.

    I'm not making Goodwin out to be some kind of genius, but he clearly was a good, caring craftsman who put into each book a little more than he needed to.

    [P.S.: I own "The Deadly Dutchman" but I never saw a copy of "Rocket Jumper."]

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  2. Wow, very interesting little book mystery! I came upon it today as I sit here "baby-sitting" my one summer school student trying to make up his World Geography course. The last few weeks as we've neared the end of the school year, I've gotten interested in pushing my little Rick Brant series closer to completion. I don't have and have never read the last 5 books, so your story regarding "The Deadly Dutchman" is interesting.

    I give this series at least partial credit for the development of my fascination with gadgetry!

    Thanks,
    Stan

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  3. Despite Fred's denials, I believe he's the one who sent the book. I'm basing it on the way he always sent my copies of Mystery and Adventure Review, in white envelopes, using stamps, not meter stickers. I always thought that Fred might have had some aversion to stepping into a Post Office, and was probably mailing his copies from the nearest mailbox. By using a non-existent return address and different font for the anonymous gift book he might have hoped to direct attention away from him. But the act of getting a free copy of such an edition would create a mystery, and he would definitely be a suspect in the commission of such a generous act.

    Fred is an interesting individual, and sadly I let lapse a correspondence that went for a time a few years ago. Fred was very generous in sharing things with me. My correspondence with him was a few years after he sent out copies of the Rick Brant book, so I didn't get one of those, darn it.

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  4. If you read the back ads in the Review at that time, Fred advertises that he has a boxful of the red Rocket Jumpers still available. They appear to be the same as the other books he produced, so I don't think it's much of a mystery. Mike

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  5. I was the recipient of a copy of Danger Below! way back in the 90s. It's not an original, but the stories were and are what's important to me.

    To this day, I don't know who sent the book to me. I always suspected Fred had a hand in the book arriving in my mailbox. :)

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