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Ross H. Spencer

February 3, 2013

Ross H Spencer Dada[1]If someone asked you to name your favorite writer of detective novels, I’d bet my house (if I owned one) that you’d never say, “Ross H. Spencer.” I’d also bet that you probably never heard of him.

I got to know Ross a little when I was a reporter for The Chronicle Newspapers, based in St. Charles, Ill. He lived nearby and had just published his first novel, “The DADA Caper.” He was 57. I arranged to interview him about it over lunch. When I got to the restaurant he was already there, sitting in a booth, smoking English Oval cigarettes and drinking bourbon on the rocks.

Ross looked like a hard-boiled mystery writer, the type of guy who would include a lot of blood and gore and guts in his novels. But I knew from reading “The DADA Caper” beforehand that “hard-boiled” fiction was not his style. Satire was. He was a master at parodying crime fiction using such characters as Chance Purdue and Lucy Lockington. A blurb on his first novel reads: She walked into my office. She had legs that began at her throat.

He told me he taught himself how to write by reading a book about writing, whose name escapes me. He said the book emphasized that the best writers used simple setentences. Ross decided to take that advice to the extreme. Here are the first five paragraphs from “The DADA Caper”:

Kellis J. Ammson of the Ammson Private Detective Agency stared at me with bulging gray eyes.

They were incredulous eyes underlined by dark half-moons.

They were the eyes of a man who had just spent a night in a haunted house.

Kellis J. Ammson said oh dear great flaming sweet and merciful eternal flaming Lord Savior Jesus flaming Christ Al-flaming-mighty.

I didn’t say anything.

The entire novel is written that way, as wells as the others in his Chance Purdue series: “The Reggis Arms Caper,” “The Stranger City Caper,” “The Abu Wahab Caper,” and “The Radish River Caper.”

They were all paperback originals published by Avon, and it wasn’t until Ross wrote “Echoes of Zero,” his first hardcover published by St. Martin’s Press, that he abandoned his unique prose style for conventional paragraphs and punctuation. But he never lost his satiric touch.

I kept in touch with him for a while, and then he moved from the Chicago area back to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. He died in 1998.

The bio notes on the dust jackets of novels are usually pompous testimonials that the author himself has written about his fellowships, awards, accolades, great reviews by the critics. No so Ross. His bio on the jacket of “Echoes of Zero” mentions he was born in Youngstown, lived in Chicago, fought in World War II and the Korean War and was awarded a Bronze Star. That’s the height of his bragging. The bio ends: According to Mr. Spencer, his hobbies include playing the guitar (atrociously) and drinking beer (expertly).

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