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Lost novel a final gift from science fiction great Roger Zelazny

Tom Jackson • Mar 23, 2010 at 6:26 PM

When he died in 1995 at age 58 while battling cancer, Cleveland native Roger Zelazny was one of the most famous and well-loved science fiction writers in the world.

During the 1990s, novelist Jane Lindskold completed two novels that Zelazny left unfinished after his death, “Donnerjack” and “Lord Demon.”

And that seemed to be that.

Zelazny’s fans could only wonder what he would have produced if he’d lived.

Then, in February 2009, the mystery and noir paperback house Hard Case Crime issued “The Dead Man’s Brother,” by Roger Zelazny. The cover, which showed a machete-wielding hero protecting a woman, proclaimed “First Publication Anywhere.”

Zelazny fans who pick up the book will recognize the author they loved.

“It’s damned good,” said Kirby McCauley, the late author’s literary agent. “Believe me, that was the happy surprise.”

Here is the inside story of how a novel Zelazny completed in 1971 was finally published, more than 13 years after his death. His forgotten novel was rescued from old papers that sat inside a warehouse for many years.

The manuscript in the box

Born in Euclid, Zelazny lived in the Cleveland area and in Baltimore before settling in Santa Fe, N.M. He won a stack of awards for science fiction novels such as “Lord of Light.” Readers particularly loved his “Amber” series of 10 fantasy novels. His initial stories in the 1960’s caused a sensation among science fiction fans. His first novel, “... And Call Me Conrad,” reprinted later as “This Immortal,” won a Hugo Award, the genre’s biggest honor, in a tie with Frank Herbert’s classic “Dune.”

For most of his career, Zelazny was represented by a literary agent in New York City, Kirby McCauley. McCauley and his sister, Kay McCauley, still run the Pimlico Agency.

About two years ago, Kay McCauley was working on papers in Pimlico’s storage area in a New York City warehouse, making digital copies for Internet storage. She came across a cardboard box marked, “Save, no submissions at this time at Roger’s request.”

Inside was a manuscript. There was no title page, but “The Dead Man’s Brother” was written on every page.

“She sent the manuscript over for me to look at it,” Kirby McCauley said.

The McCauleys thought at first it might be a different version of an already-published Zelazny book.

But when Kirby McCauley began reading the book, he soon learned otherwise.

“I was excited and happy, just as a reader,” Kirby McCauley said. “It’s just amazing that it laid there all these years.”

The book wasn’t a fragment or otherwise obviously incomplete.

“When I read it, I said, ‘Oh my God. Why didn’t we try and sell it earlier?’,” McCauley said.

The author was particularly hot commercially at the time and was busy writing science fiction and fantasy novels for which he had received large advances.

Kirby McCauley said he remembers discussing a mystery novel with Zelazny. The busy author told him to put it aside, that he would deal with it later.

“He intended to have it published and come back to it,” he said.

Zelazny never returned to the book. It was still waiting for attention when Zelazny died in 1995 in New Mexico, of kidney failure secondary to colorectal cancer.

Much new information about Zelazny’s literary career is just now coming to light, with the launch of a six-volume set of Zelazny’s collected stories.

The first two volumes have just been published by the New England Science Fiction Association, which operates a small press publishing house. The editors plan to publish all of Zelazny’s short stories and poetry, and also are including many articles based upon research into Zelazny’s career.

Dr. Christopher Kovacs, one of NESFA’s editors, has written an article about Zelazny, " ‘... And Call Me Roger’: The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 3,” to be published when Volume 3 of the collected stories is issued in July.

Kovacs, who based his article on Zelazny’s literary correspondence and on interviews with the writer, says Zelazny began “The Dead Man’s Brother” in early 1970 and finished it in June 1971. He worked at it at the same time he worked on one of his science fiction novels, “Today We Choose Faces.”

A successful author encounters rejection

The “Dead Man’s Brother” represented one of Zelazny’s few serious attempts to break into mainstream fiction.

The book was written under a three-book contract for Berkley, but a new editor at the publishing house cancelled it because the company’s mystery novels weren’t doing well and asked for science fiction novels instead. Zelazny’s then-agent, Henry Morrison, circulated “The Dead Man’s Brother” to various New York publishing companies for two years. All of them rejected it, telling Morrison that Zelazny was unknown to mystery readers and that the middle section was slow and wordy, Kovacs wrote.

Kovacs also notes that the book has a fantasy element and that Zelazny described it both as a mystery and a thriller.

“And this may underlie one of the reasons why it didn’t sell well back then: It doesn’t fall easily into a particular genre,” Kovacs told the Register.

When Zelazny left Morrison in 1979, the manuscript and other files went to Kirby McCauley, Kovacs wrote.

The novel’s hero is a former art smuggler named Ovid Wiley who has gone straight and become a professional art dealer. After Wiley’s former partner turns up dead in Wiley’s studio, the CIA embroils Wiley into a scheme to recover a large sum of money stolen from the Vatican. Adventures with assassins, CIA agents and corrupt police officers ensue in Rome and the jungles of Brazil.

The passage of time has dated sections of the book. As he flies to Rome, Wiley sits in his airplane seat and smokes a cigarette as he looks down at the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

McCauley wanted to find a well-respected publisher to put out “The Dead Man’s Brother.” Trent Zelazny, the author’s son, suggested Hard Case Crime.

“What convinced me that it would be right for Hard Case Crime was that it drew me in as soon as I started reading and kept me turning the pages right up to the brilliant last line — that’s the sort of compelling storytelling we look for in our books,” said Charles Ardai, the founder and owner of Hard Case Crime. “Plus, it tells a suspenseful, cynical, dark story, very much in the noir tradition.”

Ardai said the book did not require major editing.

“Part of Roger Zelazny’s gift as a writer was his exquisitely-crafted prose, and that was as true of this novel as any of the others he wrote around the same time,” Ardai said.

“We trimmed a few sentences in scenes where the pacing felt a bit too leisurely for a thriller or where a subplot was set up that Roger never got back to later, and we added a word here or there for clarity, but very little was needed.”

A dark story of murder’s happy ending

Despite Zelazny’s failed efforts to publish the book, reviews have been good.

Publisher’s Weekly called it a “fantastic and compelling hard-boiled mystery.”

The reviewer wrote, “The twists and turns come at breakneck pace, and vintage details add unexpected charm.”

Prominent novelist Neil Gaiman blogged about the book.

“I am reading this book really slowly. A chapter a month,” Gaiman wrote. “Because when it’s done, there won’t be any classic period Zelazny novels I haven’t read ... And from what I have read so far, it is classic wonderful Roger Zelazny all the way.”

Are there any other major works by Zelazny, waiting to be discovered?

Probably not, Kirby McCauley says.

“It is kind of like the last of the line,” he said. “I’m virtually certain there are no other novels like this that are going to pop out.”

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