Warren Murphy is and will always be my favorite author.
I was looking for one of his books in e-form today, and just reading through the description of a book I hadn’t seen before, I came across a small phrase that struck me cold — “Warren Murphy passed away in September 2015”. I missed the news entirely. Heck, I heard from him on FB sometime early last year I think, certainly less than a year before his death.
That makes it almost sound like I knew him. I didn’t. I just knew his books.
The first ones I read were the Destroyer novels. My father used to read The Executioner series, Mack Bolans, etc., Nick Carter. So I read them too. And in some pile of similar books at a used store, I came across a pulp-style novel about a killer named Remo. An expert in the art of assassination, courtesy of the House of Sinanju, the basis for all martial arts. It was a glorious premise — the cop who gets framed for a murder, goes to death row, dies (almost), and is resurrected and trained by a small organization that only reports to the President in an oblique way, designed to take on the forces that would destroy the country and who operate outside the law so far that the law has no chance of stopping them. The most lethal of all lethal weapons who could terminate with extreme prejudice.
But the pulp format belied something deeper — the books were fun. The banter back and forth between the student Remo and the trainer Chiun was rapid, insulting, brutal — and hilarious. I loved it.
Murphy wrote them with Richard Ben Sapir and I started collecting books by both of them, including the Destroyer series. Eventually, I found one of Murphy’s Trace novels. It was like striking gold. To be honest, I didn’t find Trace first. I found Digger. If that sounds confusing, it should…they are two series by Warren Murphy with different publishers. Both contain:
- a lush of an investigator who wears a wire for all his important conversations;
- insurance investigations for a big company that keeps him employed because one of the senior people likes him for a favour he did him once;
- an Asian girlfriend who frequently shows up at the end of the novels, listens to the tapes and identifies an important clue to help solve the crime; and,
- an ex-wife and two children that he doesn’t remember the name of and so calls them by generic nicknames.
Digger is Trace; Trace is Digger. But apparently there were issues with the first publisher (for Digger), and Murphy wanted to go higher end with the novels while the publisher was going pulpy. Murphy took the books elsewhere, they were more full novel length, and Trace was born. I still have the email from him where he explained some of the details (I posted about it on a list, said I’d love to find out the real story some day, another person on the list knew him and forwarded it to him, and he responded directly to me). Getting an email in my inbox from WARREN FRICKING MURPHY was like winning the lottery. I responded, and I totally acted like a fanboy. Never heard back again. I’m sure I went in the “loo-loo” pile.
But I was seriously hooked. I read Destroyer books even after Sapir died and Murphy wasn’t writing them anymore. I read all the Trace books. I hunted down Razoni and Jackson and the Digger novels. I read his King Arthur books, and Grandmaster (swords and modern mysteries!). I found out that he had written others under a pseudonym — Dev Stryker — with his then-wife Molly Cochrane, and gobbled those up too. Hard to find, and he wasn’t blazing the ebook road, so paper was the way to go (some hard to find ones I got through inter-library loans). But every once in awhile, I’d go searching and find a new one by him. Like gold, every time.
I even remember going to see the movie Lethal Weapon 2, and loving the banter, etc. For no real reason in particular, I stayed behind so I could read the credits. I partially wanted to see who the writer was to see if there were any books out there — and there it was. Warren Murphy’s name. Of course. No wonder I loved the writing. It was him.
I didn’t know for a long time that he wasn’t a secret. That he had two Edgars and two Shamus awards. That he’d been a president of MWA. That he was a screenwriter with multiple hits to his credit. That he was actually quite famous.
He was just the writer of the most fun books I had ever read. It was Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries for grown ups, and without the noir or the cozy or the modern forensics focus. Sure, I moved on. I read about V.I. Warshawski. I met Stephanie Plum. I devoured Kinsey Milhone. I fell in love with Susan the guidance counsellor that Spenser loved, and that Hawk seemed to have a warm place in his heart for too. The gumshoes, the sleuths, the professional detectives.
And it is what made me want to be a writer. For the first time, I saw a genre that I loved. Not kids mysteries, not series like Rick Brant or Tom Swift. Not sci-fi. True mysteries. Series that built a genre. Not an Agatha Christie-like sleuth, not a Sherlock Holmes. A plodder. Who got the right answer by hook or by crook, and by plain straight stick-to-it-iveness. My writing may never see the light of publication but if it ever does, if I ever get to introduce my protagonist, you can damn well bet that the dedication will be to Warren Murphy.
My library took a hit today. Five months after his death at age 81, but still a hit. I’ll miss his stories…