Interview with Robert Edward Eckels by granddaughter Alyssa

November 2020

How did you get started writing mystery stories?

Oh, that’s a long story. My father’s ambition for me before I even started school was that I should go to Annapolis and become a naval officer. He had wanted to join the Navy in World War I, but his mother wouldn’t let him. He had me well convinced that I should become a naval officer. And that continued until I was in the third grade and I started wearing glasses. To get in the military at that time, you had to have 20/20 vision, so the idea of me becoming a naval officer had gone by the boards.

So, here I am in third grade and I don’t know what I’m going to do for a career. I decided I like to read, so I decided that I want to write books. The first story I wrote in high school at about age 15 or so. I wrote a story and sent it off to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I didn’t have a typewriter, so I wrote it longhand and sent it off and, of course, they sent it back rejected. That hurt my feelings because they sent back a subscription offer with the rejection which said to me that they really didn’t consider me a serious author.

I think the next story I sent off to any magazine was in college. I had taken an advanced rhetoric course and one of the assignments was to write a short story. They rejected it and, this time, they didn’t send me a subscription offer so I figured I had stepped up.

After I got out of the service and was waiting for the Social Security Administration to hire me, I did write some short stories. I was trying to write science fiction at that time. I sent off stories to different magazines and I got a personal, handwritten rejection from one of the magazines which was the standard, boilerplate “we don’t need this story”. I thought this was a step up that they had at least read the story and made some comments on it which encouraged me to keep at it.

When my father died, going through my things at the house in Belleville, I found some of my old stories and I couldn’t throw them away. I kept them and started thinking again about writing.

I was reading a lot of mysteries. And I was reading a mystery which had a pretty tired plot. I came up with a variation that I thought would be better. So, I wrote it up (The Man in the Revolving Door).

At the time I was thinking seriously about writing and there was a literary agent, and a reputable one, who would read your story and give you an opinion on it for $5. So I sent it off to him with $5 and got it back with a really long letter from one of his staff that said “I’m sorry, this story really has no merit, no one’s interested, no interest at all.”

However, your grandmother didn’t agree. She told me “that story is as good as anything I’ve read in a magazine.” So, I decided to send it off to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which I was still reading, mainly to show her that she was wrong.

Guess what? They bought the story. It was the first story I ever sold. First I got a letter from the magazine saying they wanted to know a little more about me before they made a decision. They called it the Department of First Stories so they wanted to make sure that I had never published a story before. So, my story showed up in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the Department of First Stories.

Well, having gotten that far, I decided I should quickly write another story and send it off to Ellery Queen to see what happened. The first story I wrote was a spy story. The second one (The Blue Lady) involved a confidence scheme that involved selling a copy of a famous painting. It was all a swindle.

I didn’t know it at the time but the editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was a sucker for con-men stories and they bought it right off the bat. In fact, the pair of con men in the story because a series.

I felt the second story was even more important than the first story because it meant I wasn’t just a flash in the pan, that I could write.

How many stories did you write before you got published?

I have no idea. Somewhere around 25 or 35. Somewhere in that range.

How did you feel when you first got published?

Very good! I don’t think we celebrated with a bottle of wine or anything but it really was a thrill that I made it. And the second one was even more important because that showed that I could continue.

How many stories did you get published?

Over the years I had about 50 short stories published. Even then, there were still a couple I wrote that really didn’t go anywhere, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Most of them were in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine some were in a sister magazine called Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and one science fiction story that was actually a pun (The Enumerators). There was a science fiction magazine that ran a monthly pun. It was a little half page story setting up the pun and then the pun and that was it.

I sent it off to them and they bought it. They paid me $50 for the pun and it was published under a pen name I used which was E.E. Roberts. Most of my stories were under Robert Edward Eckels but several, and this was at the suggestion of the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, were under a pen name of E.E. Roberts.

I do have three stories were picked up for television. Two showed up on German television. One was the second story that I wrote about the con men. And a third story was picked up in Denmark. I’ve never had any shown on TV in the US. But in Germany, the television version of the second story I wrote was rerun several times and I made more money on the final rerun of that than I made when I sold the original story.

There were also a number of stories that were published in Denmark. In fact, I had an agent working for me in Denmark. He wrote me and said he had seen one of my stories and thought there was a market for them in Denmark so I sent him copies and he sold quite a few.

I was also very popular in Japan. They had a series where they interviewed various authors and they asked the readers to nominate authors they wanted and I was one of those that Japanese readers nominated.

How did you come up with and research your stories?

Sometimes something would strike me. Sometimes, particularly in the con-men stories, I went back to old magazines and read what was being published at those times and see what I could adapt. Mainly I was looking for the gimmick because most con man games are the same – you con somebody based on their greed.

One I wrote (Manhunt – Indiana Style) was based on something that actually happened in a small town in Indiana when I worked in Southern Indiana about a wanted fugitive trying to escape up the Ohio River in a boat and the police from the little town I was in decided, uninvited, that they would stop him and arrest him. It turned into a big manhunt in the little town because the guy got to the shore first and disappeared into the distance.

Anyway, some would be based on something I might see that would spark an interest, some would be something I read and some I researched. I read the autobiography of “Yellow Kid” Weil who was a very famous con man back in the 1920s and 30s.

Do you have a favorite story that you wrote and why is it your favorite?

Yes, it’s called Bread Upon the Waters. It is a con-man story and features a character I created called Major McDonlevy. The editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine who was a mystery writer in his own right said it was the best story he had read in years and I agreed with him. Everything fit in.

Do you have a favorite character and why?

I think the two con-men, Lovell and Lang were the most successful and best known, but I liked a character called Major McDonlevy because his physical description was the same as my Captain McDonough when I was serving in the Army at Schwabisch Hall in Germany during the Korean War.

How did you write your stories without a computer?

I wrote them on legal size pads in #2 pencil. I would write them out in long hand and then I would type from that. Usually I would type a draft which your Grandmother would proofread. Then I’d send it off for submission. I’d make carbon copies using carbon paper. I never kept the handwritten first draft.

Wife Margaret: I always proofread his stories. But then he wrote one about a little boy who was kidnapped (A Little Ride in the Car). And I refused to proofread that story because I thought of our boys.

You worked for the government and wrote spy stories. Is there any truth to the rumor that you were actually a spy?

No! I was never a spy. I was never actually a con man either. This was all imaginary. And actually, a real spy would look at the spy stories and laugh. Of course, that’s true of most of the spy stories that are written today.

Interview with Robert Edward Eckels by grandson Austin

August 2021

Who originally contacted you about making a book and how did he find out about you?

The person who contacted me was a man named Brian Skupin who had been a fan of mine back when I was writing in the 60s, 70s and 80s. He came across the website and made contact.

He said he was thinking about creating a book with my stories and knew a publisher called Crippen & Landru. He said he did a Google search for anything dealing with Robert Edward Eckels and he found the website. It was only two weeks after the website went up.

How did you choose which stories to put in the book?

They were chosen by the publisher and he chose the two series stories that I had: the Lovell and Lang stories and Major McDonlevey stories. The book contains both complete series.

There’s a new story in the book called “Major McDonlevy Does the Math”, how did you come up with the idea for that new story?

I had in mind a story about the Major involving a delayed TV broadcast back in the 1980s when I was still writing, but I just couldn’t bring it together. When the idea of the book came about, the publisher asked if I had an original story and I thought of that one. And this time I did find a way to bring it together and that’s why I wrote it.

How long did it take you to write the new story?

I’d say about a week or so. My stories aren’t that long.

What is the meaning of the title “Never Trust a Partner”?

Just that. Don’t trust anybody!

Is there any special meaning to the cover?

The cover of the book was picked by the publisher and it’s a painting with some money and it was meant to refer to the Lovell and Lang stories.

Have you written any other new stories?

Since January when this all started breaking, I’ve written something like 10 or 11 new stories. I’ve sent five out for submission, one has sold to Ellery Queen’s Magazine and there are three others pending at Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s magazine.

And one rejection?

Not yet! I haven’t given up on that one. We don’t mention those.

The book is about con-men, were you ever worried that this whole book thing was a scam?

No! When they offered to pay me money, I knew it was legitimate.

What are you going to buy with all of the money you are going to make off this book?

Maybe a candy bar?