A Conversation with Randal S. Brandt

A Conversation with Randal S. Brandt

Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (May, 2012)

Randal S. Brandt, April 2012 (Kendal Reynoso Lukrich/Kendal Rey Photography)

In 1998, while helping to clean out a mini-storage space in Walnut Creek, California, librarian Randal S. Brandt came across the find of his dreams—a complete, unpublished novel by his favorite author. The manuscript was The Last Match by David Dodge, who had died some twenty-four years earlier, and was hidden away among the papers he had left to his daughter, Kendal Dodge Butler. Dodge, a popular travel writer and The New York Times best-selling author of the travel guide The Poor Man’s Guide to Europe, is best known for his mysteries, two of which have been turned into movies—Glenn Ford took the lead role in Plunder of the Sun in 1953, and in 1955 Alfred Hitchcock made his novel To Catch a Thief into a timeless classic starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

After converting the fragile typewritten original to electronic format, incorporating the author’s many corrections and additions, and correcting typographical errors, Brandt posted a synopsis of the unpublished novel on his website, A David Dodge Companion. Eight years later, acclaimed pulp fiction publisher Hard Case Crime would publish the novel, which Lowestoft Chronicle can testify is a terrific read and a worthy addition to the Dodge canon of work.

This month Lowestoft Chronicle cornered Randal S. Brandt, the world’s foremost David Dodge chronicler, to find out more about his ongoing work and learn about his latest discoveries.

David Dodge wearing his new Navy uniform, pictured with wife Elva in November 1942.

Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): Randal, you briefly mention on your website your meeting with David Dodge’s daughter, Kendal Dodge Butler, in 1997. What made you decide to contact her? You haven’t said much about that meeting. How did it go? Did you discuss How Green Was My Father and How Lost Was My Weekend and her travels with her father?

Randal S. Brandt (RSB): If the circumstances of my meeting with Kendal were described in a novel, no one would believe the incredible coincidences. My wife and I had been reading David Dodge’s books for a couple years when we happened to notice the phrase “Dead Men Pay No Taxes” in a column in our newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle. The item, written by columnist Jon Carroll, was about David Dodge’s tax situation—20 years after his death! It mentioned his daughter (this was how we learned her last name was now Butler) and that she lived in Walnut Creek, which is a city just 15 miles from where we live in Berkeley. We looked up her address and wrote her a letter, explaining that we were fans of her father’s books, that we were practically neighbors, and that we’d love to meet her, if she was so inclined. We got an enthusiastic message back from her almost immediately and we made plans to visit her at her home.

Kendal was incredibly gracious. She said that her father always enjoyed meeting people who liked his books, and that she felt the same way. She had gotten out some copies of short stories that had been published in magazines, clippings, and family documents to show us. When I explained that I was a librarian and that I had been considering putting together a bibliography of her father, she offered to let me borrow them. Over the years, Kendal’s support for my research never failed. She generously shared details of her life with her parents with me and allowed me access to family photographs, correspondence, and other documents. That’s why the website is dedicated to her.

The timing of that meeting turned out to be fortuitous, as well. It was less than a year later when Kendal decided to retire, sell her house, and move back to Mexico. We did keep in touch after she moved, though, and whenever she returned to the Bay Area, we always managed to arrange a visit.

LC: When you helped Kendal Dodge Butler clear out her storage space in Walnut Creek did you expect to find unpublished David Dodge material? Was Kendal aware of the unpublished manuscript? What were your initial thoughts about The Last Match?

RSB: Honestly, I had no idea of what to expect. Kendal had indicated that she had papers from her parents, but even she did not really know what was included. Certainly, I was hopeful that the papers would yield unpublished material, and I was thrilled to discover a completed novel and a couple of short stories. The manuscript of The Last Match was kind of a mess. It is a typescript carbon copy, on thin paper, with numerous corrections, additions, and deletions in Dodge’s handwriting. The first thing I did was photocopy it, so that I could handle it without risking any damage to the original. But, it was pretty tough reading, with all of the annotations. Kendal wanted a copy, naturally, so I made the decision to re-type the whole thing, making Dodge’s corrections as I went along. (Of course, this turned out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part when Hard Case Crime came calling several years later, but that is another story.) When I first read The Last Match, I thought it was a solid novel, but not Dodge’s best effort. It has all of the hallmarks of David Dodge at his best: clear, uncluttered writing, sparkling dialogue, well-drawn characters, and globe-spanning settings. It is certainly an obvious attempt to recapture some the magic of To Catch a Thief, with a protagonist, “Curly,” who is less than honest, to put it mildly, and a heroine who is beautiful, rich, and seemingly unattainable to someone like Curly. It also contains a lot of recycled material, especially from Dodge’s travel writing. In some ways, though, that makes the novel one of Dodge’s most personal (as Kendal’s afterword to the Hard Case Crime edition makes perfectly clear) and it is a book that grows on you. Kendal’s initial reaction to it was not entirely favorable, and neither was Charles Ardai’s (the publisher of Hard Case Crime), but they both changed their minds about it. I read it again recently and it does stand up nicely with Dodge’s other works.

LC: In terms of that question you’re often asked (“Why David Dodge?”), he’s such a good writer that there certainly ought to be a website dedicated to him, and I’m enormously grateful to you for providing one. What exactly made you decide to create the website “A David Dodge Companion” in the first place?

RSB: There are a variety of reasons why I created the website. The first is that there just isn’t that much biographic or bibliographic information about David Dodge anywhere else. Once I started collecting this information, I wanted to share it. Naturally, the easiest way to do that is with a website. Remember, though, that this was in the mid-1990s, early days of the internet. At the time, I was working in a small academic branch library at UC Berkeley and was tasked with creating the first website for my library. The University Library as a whole was also developing its web presence and had started conducting classes and workshops for library staff in basic HTML. I attended some of those classes and got started. Each library staff person was also given a small amount of personal web space to do with as they pleased. I used mine to create the first version of the David Dodge website in 1997. It was very, very basic at first—just a listing of Dodge’s books, short stories, and articles. A couple of years later, Kendal’s stepson, Lewis Butler, proposed registering a domain name as a birthday present for Kendal. So, “A David Dodge Companion” is really a collaborative effort between Lewis and me. He hosts it and maintains the domain; I provide the content.

LC: You’ve said before that your original idea for the website was a bibliography of Dodge’s works. There’s an incredible wealth of information on the site. What made you decide to do so much research?

RSB: Because it is just so much fun! I am privileged to work in a world-class library. Although the library does not hold all of Dodge’s books, it does have nearly every journal or magazine that Dodge ever appeared in and nearly every magazine or newspaper that carried a book review of Dodge’s works. The library also provides access to a multitude of sources of biographical information, and continues to provide me with new information all of the time. Most recently, I discovered, via census data, the addresses of the buildings where Dodge lived in Berkeley as a young boy. I knew he had been born and spent his childhood years in Berkeley, but I had no idea where he lived. I found two different residences for him in Berkeley, along with an address in Pasadena where he moved with his mother after his father’s death. Coincidentally, one of the Berkeley addresses is an apartment building right next door to my daughter’s orthodontist’s office.

LC: Have you read everything David Dodge has had published, and is The Long Escape your favorite Dodge book? You’ve said it was the first Dodge book you read, and has a special place in your heart, but do you think it’s his best work?

RSB: I have to confess that I have not read absolutely everything. I’m pretty sure that I’ve collected everything (in photocopy, if not in the original), but I have not yet read all of the travel articles that he wrote for Holiday magazine and other travel publications. I’ve certainly read all of his fiction, most of it multiple times. As for my favorite book, that is a difficult question to answer. Yes, The Long Escape is special because it was the first one, and it certainly does hold up well under numerous readings. But, I think my favorite of his novels is Carambola, published in 1961, which has all of the elements that Dodge perfected: an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, hair-raising suspense, and exotic locations (in this case, Cannes, Barcelona, and the Pyrenees). Ironically, this book was probably Dodge’s biggest financial failure. It has never been reprinted in the U.S. and has never appeared in a paperback edition of any kind.

LC: It seems to me that you’re the ideal person to write the David Dodge biography. Has there ever been a biography written about David Dodge and have you ever considered writing one?

RSB: There is no complete biography of David Dodge, and yes, I have considered writing one. But, I think that what I really want to write is a bio-bibliography. Since bibliography is where I started with this whole thing, it makes the most sense to me. David Dodge’s life is really reflected in his writing. Certainly, his travel books are incredibly personal—Kendal said she met people throughout her whole life who expected her to be the precocious five-year old with pigtails that her father wrote so charmingly about in his books—but you can trace Dodge’s life through his fiction, as well. Dodge was an inveterate traveler. He was fond of saying that while most writers traveled in order to gather material to write about, he wrote books in order to fund further travel. So, I’d like to write an examination of his books and relate them to his life and travels, and also provide detailed bibliographical descriptions of each edition of the books. I’ve even got a title in mind: “The Poor Man’s Guide to David Dodge.” Now, I just have to write it.

The Dodge family at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, May 1945.

LC: In April of this year you met with Kendal Dodge Butler’s daughter, Kendal. How did the meeting go? What did you find among the Dodge papers this time?

RSB: Yes, I was honored to be welcomed into the home of Kendal Reynoso Lukrich and her family. (Kendal was born in Mexico and nicknamed “Kendalita” in order to distinguish her from her mother. So, for purposes of clarity, I will adopt her nickname here, as well.) When Kendal Butler died in 2007, Kendalita went to Mexico and closed up her mother’s house, bringing everything back with her to the U.S. The papers contain extensive correspondence from both David Dodge and his wife, Elva, to their daughter and others. Most of this correspondence is from 1971 to 1974, but there are also some earlier letters. These letters give me a much clearer picture of Dodge at the end of his life. I knew many of the facts of David and Elva’s last years, but this correspondence fills in a lot of details. Some of those details are small—for example, I found documentation showing that the exact date of Dodge’s death was August 8, 1974. Previously, I had only known the month and year; none of the official sources that I had located, like the Social Security Death Index, gave the exact day. I was also able to confirm some things that I had only surmised, such as Elva’s importance to David’s writing process—he claimed that she was the only living person who could read his handwriting and especially relied on their shared memories for his travel writing. Other information was completely new to me. I’ll give you three examples.

1) David Dodge had a contract with a publisher to write a book he was planning to call either “The Poor Man’s Guide to Retirement in Mexico” or “How Green Was My Grandfather.” As Elva’s health deteriorated, however, it became clear that he was not going to be able to fulfill the contract. The Dodges’ best friends in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico were the science fiction writer Mack Reynolds and his wife Jeannette. David and Mack considered the possibility of Reynolds taking over the material and finishing the book (Reynolds also was a travel writer). Unfortunately, that collaboration never came about and Dodge eventually returned his advance to the publisher and cancelled the contract.

2) The 1972 edition of Fodor’s Mexico guidebook included an introduction by David Dodge. Among the papers that I discovered this time out is a large correspondence file about this introduction. It is obvious from the letters that there was some miscommunication between Dodge and Eugene Fodor about the editorial process, but Dodge was very unhappy with the published version of this introduction. He felt that the editors had omitted information he considered very important for tourists and had included things that he did not write (and vehemently disagreed with). Fodor offered to let him rewrite the introduction, as long as it remained the same overall length, and the file includes some revised drafts. Fodor’s Mexico guidebooks carried this introduction through at least 1988; now I need to go look at the published versions and see if the changes were actually made.

3) For several years in the 1980s, a film option was held on Dodge’s first novel Death and Taxes by a young, relatively unknown screenwriter and director. The amount of money involved was negligible, but the director was obviously very interested in the project. Finally, the option was dropped and nothing more ever came of it. The director, however, went on to much bigger and better things; he is now an Academy Award-winning Hollywood A-lister. We’ll never know what could have been …

Kendalita has agreed to place her grandfather’s papers in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. David Dodge’s first series character (and the one most closely modeled on Dodge, himself), accountant-turned-amateur-sleuth James “Whit” Whitney, was a “Cal man” and I’ve long had the impression that Dodge, who was a high school dropout, always wished that he could have attended his hometown university. Now, finally, he’s been admitted.

About the Author

Randal S. Brandt is a librarian at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the creator of two critically-acclaimed websites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and A David Dodge Companion, chronicling the life and works of mystery writer David Dodge (1910-1974).

About the Interviewer

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle. Website: nicholaslitchfield.com