The recent announcement that publisher Dynamite Entertainment will, firstly, reissue Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s Shaft novels and, secondly, produce new novels and comic books featuring his black New York City private detective, came as a most pleasant surprise. The books have been out of print since the late 1970s in both the United States and the UK. Only Germany has kept the seven Shaft novels in circulation, with Pendragon re-publishing the series between 2002 and 2008.
Dynamite’s decision was also confirmation of a view I have held for a long time, and indeed have promoted in The Rap Sheet previously--that there is still an interest in and a market for this culturally iconic character. Whilst the image of Richard Roundtree dressed in a leather coat, strutting through the streets of Manhattan to Isaac Hayes’ funky score is most people’s image of John Shaft, his genesis was on the written page. Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series is in need of re-discovery and re-appraisal.
Over the last two years I have been preparing a book, provisionally titled The Complete Guide to Shaft--a history and analysis of the series in print and on screen. The aim of this work is to introduce the character and, in particular, Tidyman’s books to a new audience, as well as furnish longtime Shaft fans with new details about the series.
I started by re-reading all the novels, which I bought during the 1970s and still possess in their original UK Corgi paperback editions. I then undertook extensive research, initially online, to compile as much information and history as I could. This research also suggested a suspicion in some quarters that a number of the Shaft books had been ghost-written, and the name Robert Turner came up from a couple of sources. That initial research, however, proved sketchy and inconclusive.
It was earlier this year that I made a breakthrough when I discovered Ernest Tidyman’s papers had been stored in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. On approaching the Center I learned there was a vast amount of material covering Tidyman’s professional career, with the inventory containing 180 boxes of items: correspondence, financial records, and manuscripts. There then came a problem of logistics. Being based in the UK, I was unable to travel to the Center to undertake the research personally, so I obtained an inventory breakdown and hired a proxy researcher to work with me on honing the material down to what I needed. Over a period of two to three months, we identified the elements specifically relating to the Shaft series. I obtained copies of key pieces, such as Tidyman’s original character outline and handwritten notes.
Also during this period, I managed to enter into an e-mail correspondence with Alan Rinzler, who was publisher Macmillan’s mystery department editor in the late 1960s and commissioned Shaft (1970), the series’ initial installment. Alan was able to provide me with insight into the genesis of that first book.
These two new sources, therefore, gave me much of the detail I needed to fill in the gaps and finally answer many of the outstanding questions concerning the creation of the John Shaft character and the writing of the seven Shaft novels.
* * *It was in late 1968 or early 1969 that Rinzler touted the idea for a black detective hero to literary agent Ron Hobbs. Rinzler had been involved in the changing social culture of that era, initially through his work fundraising and ghost-writing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in New York in 1964. He also worked for Simon & Schuster at the time, editing, promoting, and publishing works that highlighted the plight of black America--including Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), which detailed the struggles of growing up in Harlem. These books helped inspire the equal-rights movement for African Americans.
Hobbs was the only African-American literary agent in New York City, and Rinzler figured he could come up with the necessary writer to fulfill his brief. Hobbs, however, suggested a white writer by the name of Ernest Ralph Tidyman, who had only recently set up as a freelance writer, after previously enjoying a long career in newspaper journalism in Cleveland and Manhattan.
Tidyman was keen, too, to tap into the social mood of the time. His first novel, Flower Power (1968), was the tale of a runaway teenage girl who joins a hippie camp and is introduced to sex and drugs. It didn’t sell well, and despite his having contributed articles to magazines and written a non-fiction book (1968’s The Anzio Death Trap) about a controversial Allied assault in Italy during World War II, Tidyman was close to being broke when the opportunity to take Rinzler’s commission was presented to him.
Hobbs arranged a meeting between Rinzler and Tidyman. Rinzler was initially reluctant, but he allowed Tidyman to work up some sample chapters of the prospective novel. Tidyman duly obliged, and whilst Rinzler was impressed with the writing, he felt the story was too soft. He suggested a show of violence to emphasize the hero’s no-nonsense approach to solving problems. Following up on Rinzler’s suggestion, Tidyman re-wrote those early pages to include the fight in which the detective hero ends up throwing a hood out of his office window. Rinzler was pleased with the re-write, and offered Tidyman a $10,000 advance to complete the book.
Thus was John Shaft born.
Tidyman finished his draft and synopsis for Shaft on July 3, 1969. Keen right away to promote his property to filmmakers, he circulated galley copies of his novel. One interested reader was producer Phil D’Antoni, who was impressed by Tidyman’s use of dialogue and his knowledge of New York. D’Antoni thereafter recommended Tidyman to director William Friedkin as somebody who could adapt Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book of the same name into the film The French Connection (1971). Later, Shaft was picked up by MGM’s new head, Jim Aubrey, who--due to his studio’s financial difficulties--was looking to produce lower-budget movies, and Shaft seemed a perfect fit for his new vision. A deal to turn the novel into a big-screen picture was signed in April 1970.
The novel version of Shaft was first published by Macmillan in the United States on April 27, 1970. (A UK hardcover edition, from Michael Joseph, followed on June 24, 1971.) It was well-received, and Gordon Parks was hired by MGM to direct the movie adaptation. Tidyman formed Shaft Productions, with initial producers Roger Lewis and Stirling Silliphant acting as equal partners. However, production responsibilities were later passed to Joel Freeman, after Lewis moved to Warner Bros. Richard Roundtree beat out 200 other potential John Shafts to grab the title role, with which he would forever be associated. The resulting 1971 film, Shaft, became a smash hit across the world and was a major inspiration for the so-called blaxploitation movies of the early to mid-1970s. A deal was executed between Tidyman and MGM for options to adapt future Shaft novels.
Tidyman had already written a screenplay for a sequel, which MGM initially accepted on May 28, 1971, before the movie Shaft even reached theaters. The story was based on an article Tidyman had read in 1968 about the mysterious deaths of three diamond merchants. He folded that idea into a larger plot concerning an Israeli fugitive and his formula for the production of synthetic gems.
Meanwhile, after rejecting a screenplay proposal from B.B. Johnson, the writer behind the Superspade novels (Death of a Blue-Eyed Soul Brother, Black Is Beautiful, etc.), Tidyman’s partners at Shaft Productions had developed their own story for the sequel, which found Shaft having an adventure in the Caribbean. With the approval of MGM, Roger Lewis developed a screenplay entitled The Big Bamboo, and Lewis and Silliphant sought Tidyman’s approval to proceed. Tidyman, however, had commenced work on adapting his original sequel proposal into a follow-up novel--Shaft Among the Jews. Tidyman did not like, and subsequently rejected Lewis’ screenplay, and he would eventually submit a new original story himself in which Shaft seeks out the killer of an old friend whilst infringing on a gangland turf war for the control of Queens. It was developed between October and December 1971 under the name Gang Bang, but was later retitled Shaft’s Big Score!
The original crew from Shaft, including director Gordon Parks, returned to commence filming Shaft’s Big Score! in January 1972. Tidyman set about writing the novelization, which was scheduled to be published in May 1972, a month ahead of the film’s proposed release date. A disagreement over royalties with both MGM and his partners in Shaft Productions, though, resulted in the book’s publication being postponed, and Tidyman threatened to withdraw the novel altogether. After some prickly negotiations, an agreement was finally reached and the book was published on August 7, 1972, in paperback--the hardback publication of Shaft Among the Jews having preceded it on June 29.
The second film was also a box-office hit and it seemed the franchise had a strong future. Like the James Bond films of the 1960s, Shaft had also inspired many imitators. However, Tidyman’s disagreement over the royalties for the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! led to a cooling of his relationship with his partners. Lewis and Silliphant were left to continue work on Shaft’s big-screen adventures, the third of which--Shaft in Africa--went into development in late 1972.
Tidyman, meanwhile, was keen to maximize the future earnings potential from his creation by adding to the series of Shaft books and hoping MGM would take up options to film those new stories. Also during this period, he attempted to launch a daily Shaft comic strip. Test panels had been drawn by Don Rico, who had worked for Marvel Comics, and were circulated to the big newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, but they failed to attract interest.
* * *The success of the films Shaft and The French Connection--for the latter of which Tidyman received an Academy Award (as well as an Edgar Allan Poe Award)--significantly increased demands for his time and encouraged him to branch out further into other film writing and production. He set up Ernest Tidyman Productions and began to spread his time across a number of developing projects. The increasing workload encouraged Tidyman to hire writers to help out--particularly with continuing the Shaft book series.
Tennessee Williams presents Ernest Tidyman with the 1971 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The French Connection.
Tidyman had sketched out story ideas for three further Shaft books, which he wanted to produce in quick succession so they would fall within the timeframe of MGM’s options agreement. He recruited two writers to help: Robert Turner, a vastly experienced author of pulpish fiction (The Girl in the Cop’s Pocket, etc.) and a contributor
Robert Turner took up the first book, based on an outline Tidyman had written for a work titled The Gang’s All Here, Shaft. Turner developed Tidyman’s story, which centered on the planned heist of half-a-million dollars in laundered Mafia funds from a hotel that was hosting a gay convention. The resultant Shaft Has a Ball was completed in August 1972, having been heavily edited by Tidyman, and was published in paperback on April 2, 1973. Turner then moved on to compose Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974).
In September 1972, Rock had started to develop a book Tidyman called Shaft’s Last Goodbye. Tidyman had initially intended to end the series at that point, but once he’d conceded to involve other writers in his work he abandoned the idea. This latest story saw Shaft in action in a location outside New York City for the first time, in this instance London, where Tidyman and Rock had both lived for a time. The idea of shifting locations mirrored what Lewis and Silliphant had done with their third film, Shaft in Africa, directed by John Guillermin and released in the summer of 1973.
The plot of Shaft’s Last Goodbye centered on a kidnapping aimed at preventing Senator Creighton Stovall (who had also appeared in Shaft Has a Ball) from becoming the first black vice president of the United States. Shaft is hired to bodyguard Stovall’s young sons, who are moved to London in order to reduce the risk of their being snatched. Rock completed his writing on December 22, 1972, and Tidyman finished his editing on January 29, 1973. The book wound up being retitled Goodbye, Mr. Shaft as a nod toward James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), acknowledging that the Stovall boys had attended an English public school during their stay in Great Britain.
Meanwhile, in August 1972, Turner had also commenced working on Shaft’s Carnival of Killers. This time Shaft would go to Jamaica in an attempt to discover who is responsible for a plot to assassinate that country’s prime minister. The story was rooted in a non-Shaft screenplay Tidyman had originally written in 1971 entitled A Carnival of Killers, featuring a private eye named Francis Clifford. John Shaft effectively replaced Clifford as the tale’s lead. Turner struggled, though, with the work due to illness, and deadlines were missed. The final manuscript, delivered in March 1973, was rather subpar and required heavy editing by Tidyman before publisher Bantam accepted it for American release.
Goodbye, Mr. Shaft reached U.S. bookstores on December 28, 1973, whilst Shaft’s Carnival of Killers, with its relatively short page-count, followed in paperback nearly a year later, in September 1974.
Around this time Tidyman had become disenchanted with the treatment of his creation on screen. Shaft in Africa had received his blessing, if not his approval. The film did not match the success of its predecessors, though, and in 1973 John Shaft made a move to television, instead, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role in Shaft, a series of seven watered-down movies for CBS-TV. At least that short-lived Tuesday-night drama returned Shaft to his New York City roots. But Tidyman had by then become tired of his creation and resolved to kill him off in the last book of the series, appropriately titled The Last Shaft.
(Right) The final page of 1975’s The Last Shaft. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Phillip Rock started converting Tidyman’s outline into a full novel in October 1973. The plot finds P.I. Shaft avenging the murder of his friend Captain Vic Anderozzi, who had arrested the Mafia’s bookkeeper and was looking to turn that man and his account ledgers over to the district attorney. Rock finished his manuscript on January 11, 1974, and Tidyman his edit on January 22. Shaft was killed off in a random mugging in a coda to the book that had no link to the story itself, providing a disappointing conclusion to the series. Bantam passed on publication in the States, but the book was later released in hardcover in the UK on March 27, 1975, with a paperback publication two years later.
* * *Despite a couple of attempts to restart the Shaft movie franchise--first by Tidyman himself in 1979, after the expiration of his deal with MGM, and later (in 1985) by the author’s widow, Chris Clark-Tidyman--it wasn’t until director John Singleton’s Shaft, in 2000, that the character was finally reintroduced to the public. That film found Roundtree’s role being reduced to little more than a cameo, while the focus was on Shaft’s “nephew” played by Samuel L. Jackson. Disagreements between director, producer, and star meant any potential franchise relaunch was doomed.
Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft books are a product of a time when men’s adventure novels and film novelizations dominated the paperback racks. The first three books, written solely by Tidyman, had a distinctive hard-edge, wit, and style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane and, to some extent, Raymond Chandler. Those were the strongest entries in the series. The later books still carried Tidyman’s house style, due to his heavy editorial input and story outlines, but they suffered from a more formulaic approach to the writing and plotting, as well as an increasing level of absurdity. Throughout, though, Tidyman heavily protected his detective creation, and despite the tough exterior presented by John Shaft, the character remained real as a result of his fallibility. He is a hero of his time but also a hero who can transcend time, in the same way Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe can, due to his iconic status.
The books remain eminently readable and well worth revisiting. I hope their reappearance under the Dynamite banner, along with a new series of adventures, will reignite interest in the literary version of John Shaft. He has been absent for too long.
READ MORE: “Beyond Shaft: Black Private Eyes in Fiction,” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).