Though he’s best known today as an Edgar Award-winning writer of hard-boiled crime stories, Larry Alan Morse has worn a lot of hats over the years. Growing up in Los Angeles—the city whose initials he shares—he got two degrees in English Lit and worked a variety of jobs. He moved to Toronto in the 1960s, where, among other things, he worked as an administrator at the University of Toronto and had a brief turn in educational television—though readers of some of his more graphic novels might be scandalized to hear it.
He made his literary debut with the 1979 publication of The Flesh Eaters, a tale of horror and brutal crime, chronicling the real-life story of the Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his clan. He’s also written books on cult cinema from the ‘80s. His best-known tales, however, are crime novels, including two starring the L.A. detective Sam Hunter, who “makes Dirty Harry look like Mother Theresa,” according to the New York Daily News.
His 1981 follow-up to The Flesh Eaters was The Old Dick, a story of an aging private eye who comes out of retirement for one last job. It earned Morse an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. Morse hasn’t limited his literary activities to merely writing books, either—or has he? In 1984, Morse discovered an unpublished manuscript by Runa Fairleigh, and helped usher An Old-Fashioned Mystery into print. Unless, of course, you believe the naysayers who claim that L. A. Morse actually is Runa Fairleigh, and, as such, is the author of the work himself. The truth or otherwise of such claims will simply have to remain another mystery…
Besides writing, Morse has worked as a sculptor for many years. He also enjoys bird-watching, having checked more than 1,500 different species off his list. Honestly, such an eccentric character seems like he could have come out of, well, an L. A. Morse novel. And speaking of those novels, if you want to get a taste of the author’s equally-eccentric oeuvre, we have just the books for you!
The Flesh Eaters
In his literary debut, Morse put paid to any idea that his books would ever be for the squeamish. According to his own biography, he wanted his first novel to be “something delicate and sensitive and artistic,” so naturally he focused his subject matter on the infamous cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, who haunted the Scottish moors in the 1500s. The result is a book that “operates in that unwholesome arena of dead-eyed depiction of graphic, taboo-obliterating violence with not a whiff of concern for taste or restraint,” according to the blog Too Much Horror Fiction. “As you’ll see,” the blogger continues, “this is an altogether good thing.” The Flesh Eaters made a splash, but for his later books, Morse stuck with crime but moved further from horror, trading the Scottish moors for the mean streets of L.A.
The Old Dick
With only his second novel, Morse made a name for himself by reinventing the hardboiled private detective—a feat for which he won an Edgar Award. Meet Jake Spanner, a retired private eye who comes back for one last job. A job that has a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar ransom at stake, and a lot of bad guys between him and home. The work will take him from Sunset Boulevard to the Hollywood Hills, and may prove to be his last job for reasons other than his own advancing age. Originally released in 1981, The Old Dick was adapted into a 1989 TV movie starring Robert Mitchum as the aging gumshoe, where it was re-named Jake Spanner, Private Eye.
Related: What Is Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction?
The Big Enchilada
Originally published in 1982, The Big Enchilada introduced readers to Sam Hunter, the only one of Morse’s returning characters. On the blog Glorious Trash, Sam Hunter is described as, “Mike Hammer lampooned to an absurd degree […] a loudmouthed, arrogant, violent steamroller of a private eye.” Never one to shy away from either excess or satire—see that Runa Fairleigh book—Morse’s Sam Hunter divided critics, “most of whom complained about the utter excess of it all, others who figured out it was all a parody” (Glorious Trash).
Related: How Old Was Your Favorite Mystery Author When They Published Their First Book?
Parody or no, The Big Enchilada follows Hunter into a world of pimps, pushers, and porn as he careens across the L.A. nightlife, trying to find answers at the ends of his fists—or the barrel of a gun. There’s an heiress involved, of course, and a porn star, as well as the Black Knight club, where heroin, pornography, and more are traded under cover of darkness. And Sam Hunter is there to bust it all wide open.
Returning to the tough and dirty world of Sam Hunter for the only follow-up novel of his career, Morse once more follows the steamroller of a detective as he tries to protect a porno mag called Sleaze from a fanatical cult that’s out to vanquish sin by whatever means necessary. Of course, things are never that simple for a hardboiled (and hard-headed) private dick like Hunter, and before all is said and done, he’ll have to deal with a corpse down Mexico way, some X-rated videos, and plenty of folks who would like to see his blood. It’s another crass, brash, bold story of violence and venality from a proven master of both.
An Old-Fashioned Mystery
Then there’s that pesky Runa Fairleigh book. Whether Morse really is Fairleigh or that’s just jealous gossip, the fact remains that An Old-Fashioned Mystery has been as divisive as it is bold since its initial release. Which is no surprise, given that it skewers the conventions of the cozy mystery genre pretty mercilessly. As Morse himself puts it in his introduction, “This book might well have been titled The Last Mystery, since it is most definitely the mystery to end all mysteries.” That’s a tall order—does it live up to the hype? We guess that’s a mystery you’ll have to solve for yourself…