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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Bill S(anborn) Ballinger (1912-1980) - also wrote as Frederic Freyer, B.X. Sanborn


American thriller writer, who specialized from the early 1950's in a multi-level kind of narration or divided narration, and mixed identities. Ballinger's best known books include The Wife of the Red-Haired Man  (1957) and The Tooth and the Naíl (1955). The latter was plagiarized by Finnish mystery writer Mauri Sariola in 1969, writing under the pseudonym Esko Laukko. Sariola paid 5,400 Finnish marks (about $1,000 nowadays, then very much more) to Ballinger, who promised to give the money to the Finnish Writers' Association. Ballinger's books have been reprinted in some thirty countries, and translated into over thirteen languages. Besides his thirty some odd novels, Ballinger wrote over 150 scripts for television and the movies.

"I consider myself, primarily, a storyteller. To me the story is the thing." (Ballinger in St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson, 1996)

Bill Sanborn Ballinger was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the son of William M. Ballinger and Ella Satia; she died in 1918. Ballinger was educated at the University of Wisconsin, receiving his B.A. in 1934. From 1934 he worked in advertising, and as a radio and television writer. In 1936 he married Geraldine Taylor - they divorced in 1946. After extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, Ballinger moved to southern California, to take advantage of the television 'boom' of the 1950s as a scriptwriter. In 1949, he married Laura Dunham; she died in 1962, and two years later he married Lucille Rambeau. 

In 1960, Ballinger received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America for his TV work, and he was the guest of honor at the Boucheron World Mystery Convention II conference in 1971 in Los Angeles. Between the years 1977 and 1979, Ballinger served as an associate professor of writing at the California State University, Nortridge. He served also as a member of the board of directors of Health and Welfare Plan and Pension Plan, and in 1978-79 President of Federal Credit Union. Ballinger died on March 23, 1980. His works of non-fiction include Lost City of Stone: The Story of Nan Madol, the "Atlantis" of the Pacific (1978) and The California Story: Credit Union's First Fifty Years (1979)

In the beginning of his career, Ballinger published hard-boiled detective fiction. The Body in the Bed (1948), his first novel, introduced the private eye Barr Breed from Chicago, a typical tough hero of the post-war fiction. However, Breed's office is not a dump, but takes up a third of a floor and has and has panelled walls. The story was more or less a variation of the Maltese Falcon. Breed's second and last adventure, The Body Beautiful (1949), takes him to a nightclub, where a chorus girl is knifed. Ballinger's first success was a nonseries book, Portrait in Smoke (1950), in which Danny April, the new owner of a collection agency, motivated by curiosity, attempts to trace a girl named Krassy Almauniski from her origins in Chicago's slums. Ballinger depicts also Krassy's rise to fame and riches by changing her identity. Finally Danny finds Krassy, falls in love with her, but she frames him guilty of murder. The books was filmed in 1956 under the title Wicked As They Come.

Ballinger soon abandoned the conventional detective formula, and concentrated on creating more innovative thrillers. The Wife of the Red-Haired Woman alternated between first-person and third-person narration. Moreover, it portrays a situation, in which the second husband is murdered by the first. At the end of the beautifully plotted story Ballinger reveals the racial background of the first-person narrator, the detective pursuing a murderer; he is black. The plot of The Tooth and the Nail revolves around false money and faking a murder. The protagonist is a magician, Luis Montana alias Lewis Mountain, who is pursuing his wife's murderer, Ballard Temple Humphries. Behind the crime there is a plan to counterfeit money. The alternating narrative tells about a murder trial, in which the identity of the accused is kept hidden from the reader. At the end, the reader learns that the avenger has faked a murder, by leaving in Humphries's cellar, in the central oven, signs of an apparent crime - a tooth and a nail along other items. Thus Lewis has successfully framed his opponent and gets his revenge. In Germany, the title of the book was rendered in 1957 as Die grosse Illusion (the grand illusion), missing much of the irony of the whole story – "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand". Also in the courtroom thriller with lesbian undertones, Not I, Said the Vixen  (1965), Ballinger used multi-leveled narration. Cyrus March is a LA lawyer, who falls in love with his seductive client, accused of shooting another woman. The text on the front cover of Fawcett Gold Medal Book says, that "Even on the witness stand, the one thing she dared not deny was her own overwhelming sensuality".

In the 1960s, Ballinger participated in the spy boom producing a new series characters, CIA operative Joaquain Hawks, a James Bond-like secret agent, who operated mainly in Southeast Asia. He is featured in a series mostly "Spy" in the title. Hawks made his entrance in the novel The Chinese Mask (1965). Ballinger depicts carefully everyday life in China, Hawks sees dreams of his ancestors, and plays a Chinese circus performer. The resourceful, strong and handsome Hawks is half Spanish and half Nez Percé Indian, a linguist and smooth killer. Hawks continued his adventures in four other books, up until The Spy in the Java Sea (1966). Interestingly, one of the minor themes of The Spy in the Jungle (1965) is religious - not ideological - tolerance. Hawks shows some knowledge of the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and Islam, and in Hanoi a Buddhist monk gives him a lecture on myths.

Ballinger's later novels include The 49 Days of Death (1969), a suspense story of reincarnation based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Corsican  (1974), published in the wake of Mario Puzo's Godfather (1969) and the resulting films, told about the growth of a Union Corse 'family' in Corsica and Marseilles, covering the three-decade span between 1943 and 1973. Bryce Patch, the chief of security at a large electronic company, was the hero of Heist Me Higher (1969).

Detective Rick McAllister: "Money's nice, but it doesn't make the world go round."
Detective Paul Sheridan: "Don't it?"

(from the film Pushover, based on the novels The Night Watch by Thomas Walsh and Rafferty by Bill S. Ballinger)

In the 1950s, Ballinger made his breakthrough as a script writer. He wrote for The Mice (with Joseph Stefano), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61), I, Spy, Cannon, M. Squad, Ironside, and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, and The Outer Limits (1963-64) - more than 150 television scripts in total. I, Spy, starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, was the first weekly network television drama to present an African American as a star. Part of the success of the series was that the stars adlibbed much of their dialogue. The first episode was set in Hong Kong, but a critic for The New York Times noted that "the setting was the real star." Ballinger's television plays included The Hero, Road Hog, Dry Run, The Day of the Bullet, Escape to Sonoita (with James A. Howard), and Deathmate. The action film Operation CIA (1965), starring the young Burt Reynolds as a CIA agent, was set in Saigon. It was one of the early movies dealing with the politics and spies of Vietnam war. In The Strangler (1963), directed by Burt Topper, a hospital laboratory technician Leo Kroll (Victor Buono) creates frenzy in Boston when he murders nurses who help his mother (Ellen Corby). When Leo tells her about the last murder, she suffers a fatal heart attack. Finally Leo's fetish for dolls betrays him to the police, and he kills himself by jumping through a window.

For further reading: Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights by Robert A. Baker, Michael T. Nietzel (1985); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976)

Selected bibliography:

  • The Body in the Bed, 1948 (Barr Breed novel)
    - Puinen enkeli (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1971)
  • Portrait in Smoke, 1950 (Barr Breed novel; GB title: The Deadlier Sex, 1958)
    - Tappava haave (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1970)
    - film: Wicked As They Come (1956), prod. Frankovich Productions, screenplay by Ken Hughes, Sigmund Miller, Robert Westerby, dir. by Ken Hughes, starring Arlene Dahl, Herbert Marshall, Phil Carey
  • The Darkening Door, 1952
  • Rafferty, 1953 (republished as The Beatiful Trap, 1955)
    film: Pushover (1954), based on the novels The Night Watch by Thomas Walsh and Rafferty by Bill S. Ballinger, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, screenplay by Roy Huggins, dir. by Richard Quine, starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Phil Carey, Dorothy Malone, E.G. Marshall
  • The Black, Black Hearse, 1955 (as Frederic Freyer, republished as The Case of the Black, Black Hearse, 1955)
  • The Tooth and the Nail, 1955 - Kynsi ja hammas (suom. Panu Pekkanen, 1960)
  • The Longest Second, 1957
    - TV film: Die längste Sekunde (1980), prod. Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), dir. by Kristian Kühn, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Christine Ostermayer, Kristina Van Eyck, Hans Korte, Heinz Meier
  • The Wife of the Red-Hairen Man, 1957
  • Beacon in the Night, 1958
  • Formula for Murder, 1958
  • The Doom-Maker, 1959 (as B.X. Sanborn; republished as The Blonde on Borrowed Time, 1960)
  • The Fourth Forever, 1963
  • The Strangler, 1964 (screenplay; dir. by Burt Topper, starring Victor Buono, David McLean, Ellen Corby. "Dramatically skillful direction by Burt Topper and a firm level of histrionic performances help The Strangler over some rough spots and keep the picture from succumbing to inconsistencies of character and contrivances of story scattered through the picture." from Variety Movie Guide 2000, ed. by Derek Elley, 2000)
  • Not I, Said the Vixen, 1965
  • The Chinese Mask, 1965 (Hawks story)
    - Psykokaasuterroristit (suom. E. Korvala, 1967)
  • The Spy in the Jungle, 1965 (Hawks story)
  • The Spy in Bangkok, 1965 (Hawks story)
    - Tappajia Bangkokissa (suom. Päivi Haukinen, 1967)
  • The Heir Hunters, 1966
  • Operation CIA, 1966 (screenplay, with Peter J. Oppenheimer; dir. Christian Nyby, starring Burt Reynolds, John Hoyt, Daniele Aubry, story by Ugo Pirro)
  • The Spy at Angor Wat, 1966 (Hawks story)
  • The Spy in the Java Sea, 1966 (Hawks story)
    - Tappojahti Jaavan merellä (suom. Tarja Lehto, 1968)
  • The Source of Fear, 1968
  • The 49 Days of Death, 1969
  • Heist Me Higher, 1969
  • The Lopsided Man, 1969
  • Triptych, 1971 (contains Portrait in Smoke, The longest Second, The Tooth and Nail)
  • The Corsican, 1974
  • The Law, 1975
  • The Ultimate Warrior, 1975
  • Lost City of Stone: The Story of Nan Madol, the "Atlantis" of the Pacific, 1978
  • The California Story: Credit Union's First Fifty Years, 1979

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