Steinbeck’s Fictional Swamp Monster

I read an article by Heather Murphy in the New York Times recently about a lost manuscript of John Steinbeck’s. I’m never surprised to find out that famous authors have written other works, but this one piqued my interest because I think of Steinbeck as a very literary writer who explores deep themes in his work. Yet this newly discovered manuscript was a “lighthearted detective novel featuring a werewolf.”

Professor Gavin Jones unearthed it when he was researching a book he was writing about the author.

Steinbeck wrote “Murder at Full Moon” in nine days in 1930, and it includes illustrations by Steinbeck himself.

Jones was surprised by how good it was. The sleuths are a cub reporter and an eccentric candidate for sheriff who investigate the killing of a dog which kicks off a bunch more murders of people, all under a full moon, “near a spooky dismal marsh.” They begin to think the killer is some sort of swamp monster. “The investigators apply a theory of crime detection built on reading bad murder mysteries.” Jones said it gives the novel a postmodern, ironic feel.

I would LOVE to read that!

Unfortunately, the agency that handles Steinbeck’s work won’t publish it because even though he held on to the manuscript until he died in 1968, he never chose to release it himself, and they want to honor that.

But … he held on to the manuscript until he died in 1968. He could have destroyed it at any time, yet he didn’t. That makes me think he believed there was something noteworthy about it.

Jones and a few other scholars think it should be published because it has merit. He says, “It’s a lost piece of California noir. I think he was inventing something here.”

So, I’m torn.

I completely understand an author who achieves fame for classics like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row,” and “Of Mice and Men” might not want to dilute his brand during the height of his career by publishing what sounds like a delightfully goofy—but apparently well-written—genre mystery.

But on the other hand, he’s been dead for a long time. His place in the literary world is sealed. One lighthearted romp into the mystery genre would never dislodge him from that pedestal.

Steinbeck himself said he was a mere ten rejections away from quitting the business altogether around the time he wrote this. I’m glad he stuck it out, but I’d sure love to read about the fictional swamp monster of Steinbeck’s imagination.

What do you think? Should famous authors’ wishes about their unpublished manuscripts be vigilantly adhered to long after their deaths? Or is there inherent literary value in their unpublished works?

42 thoughts on “Steinbeck’s Fictional Swamp Monster

  1. I’m with you, Becky! As a lifelong Steinbeck fan, I would LOVE to read his foray into mystery! Besides, the story sounds fabulous no matter who wrote it.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I cannot imagine Steinbeck as a genre mystery writer. Nope, just can’t.

    I dunno. I’m kinda torn as well. He didn’t publish it, so he didn’t want to (at least not yet), but as you say, he also hung on to it. I’m glad it’s not my decision.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yeah, me too. But I sure hope they come to the *right* decision! I wonder what’s their response to the “but he could have destroyed it at any time but didn’t” argument.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. I agree! I would love to read his mystery! I don’t think showing another side to his writing is a bad thing at all. It is no different than an actor who has only played serious dramatic roles, suddenly making a comedy and doing it well. It would show his versatility.
    Carol

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Carol, that is such a good point! Some of my favorite comedians can bring me to tears in their serious roles. Kevin Hart, Robin Williams, and Ricky Gervais spring to mind.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. I’m on the fence. I’d love to read it but if Steinbeck never published it, he was conflicted. Then again, nothing will reflect his legacy. I think the publishers are skittish because of the bad press Harper Lee’s
    Publishers got for publishing a book after she was gone that tarnished her legacy. But this is different. He has a body of work that can’t be questioned. So… yes!

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I’m with you, Ellen. The Harper Lee thing was so unfortunate, but this is a story totally out of Steinbeck’s usual work and not connected to any of his historic characters. I’d buy a copy. It sounds like a hoot!

      Liked by 4 people

    2. I almost brought up the Harper Lee thing, but this seems so far removed from that. First, the guy who read Steinbeck’s story said it was good, but Harper Lee’s “undiscovered treasure” was simply a poorly-written first draft of what became TKAM. But I’d think a publisher could absolutely justify it if the public clamors for it. They could do it very reluctantly and then, if it backfires, they can say, “Toldya so!”

      Liked by 2 people

    3. I have a couple of old manuscripts that I swear, if anyone pulls a Harper Lee after I’m dead, I will come back and haunt them mercilessly. 😛

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I have mentioned before that Steinbeck was a friend of my husband’s family (his late great-uncle Bob was Steinbeck’s college roommate). Bob told us that he and Steinbeck once sat down with a bottle of whiskey and drank it while they burned a great stack of Steinbeck’s very bad unfinished work, including a couple of plays.

    Having said that, it’s worth knowing that Steinbeck did write lighter-hearted works, including a version of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. His humor was delightful.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Sharon, I think your insights are significant. Steinbeck and late Great-Uncle Bob burned a stack of what Himself thought were unworthy works, but they didn’t singe the swamp monster. Seems that the manuscript still intrigued him. Maybe the next round of gate keepers can be persuaded to let it be published.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. Sharon, I LOVE that story! I can absolutely picture it, too, because I’ve done the same. Not with whiskey, and not with Steinbeck’s writing, and not with Uncle Bob, but yanno, exactly the same. Now it makes me wonder who is really making the decision to withhold the manuscript. Maybe it’s someone who hasn’t even talked to any of Steinbeck’s relatives or confidants. Maybe you should make a call …..

      Liked by 3 people

      1. We learned about it when I read in a Steinbeck bio that John had sent an unfinished play to Bob (a letter was reproduced) to work on. Bob was still alive, so we rang him up to ask about it. In his beautiful, oratorical voice, he told us that yes, he remembered it … and that the play was so bad that it could not be salvaged. Thus, the two decided to get together for a bonfire.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I read Northanger Abbey straight in college, lol. I was stunned, I tell ya, to find out Jane was messing with us. Maybe I should have paid more attention in English 101.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Maybe his agent/editor told him he would dilute his brand by publishing it, and he was trying to outlive said agent/editor. Alas, I guess that did not happen. But the other question is, why not just use a pseudo? Even if his identity was eventually revealed, at worst it’d make for great publicity (because no publicity is bad publicity, right? Or is it?). Maybe Great Uncle Bob should have pubbed it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I can certainly see an agent and editor admonishing Steinbeck not to put it out there during his heyday, but yeah … pseudo it! If everyone loves it then they can say, “Toldya so!” And if everyone hates it then they can say, “Toldya so!” Of course, that ship seems to have sailed now.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. Becky, these are such great questions!

    First off, I would love to read this Steinbeck mystery. I especially like that part about using bad murder mysteries as tools for investigation. I’m kind of on the fence because I think we should honor authors’ wishes. On the other hand, like Lisa said, what if this was due to branding and editor/agent desires? Then it doesn’t really go against his wants, but it’s more a matter of timing and should be pubbed.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I love Steinbeck, and I’d love to read this book. I think the Steinbeck estate is being a little too careful and short-sighted. A book like this could bring a lot of people to his work and shine a new light on him, as Louisa May Alcott’s rediscovered sensational work did for her a few years ago. Fingers crossed that we’ll get to see the swamp monster (with illustrations!) someday.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree, Elizabeth. Since his estate isn’t going away any time soon, though, maybe there’s still time to get it out there. And I bet the illustrations are a delight!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Becky, thanks for the post! I’d never heard of this manuscript by Steinbeck — how cool! I’m dying to read his werewolf/detective story now! Maybe we should petition his publisher and/or estate.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Some chick named Becky Clark. Quite the comedian. She’d probably need a lot of time in the costume dept and make-up chair. I’ve heard she’s quite fond of overalls. Not really swamp clothes.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. What a fascinating story and thought-provoking question! I’d looooooooove to read it, but I dread the idea of violating his wishes (if it was, in fact, his wish to keep the manuscript private). I’m just glad I don’t have to make that call!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point, Kathy. I wonder what they’re basing these decisions on. Was there something he actually put in writing or said, or are they using just the fact that he didn’t submit it for publication?

      Like

  11. As a reader, I’m conflicted. As someone who likes to write, I’m conflicted. All I know is I just hate pseudos. If I read your work- I want to know what else you have out there. I don’t have time to play name that author. I just want to read your stuff. I wish publishers would just leave well enough alone. If you begin as ABC please don’t change to QRS.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm. If it’s a good story does it really matter if you know who wrote it? I get that if you like an author you want to read everything they write, but if one slipped through, I bet the sun would still come up the next day. And with this one, I bet you’d know pretty fast it was a “pre-Steinbeck” because of all the hoopla!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure what happened to my first reply, but what I said was that the sun would probably rise if I missed a book a favorite author wrote, but I’d be sad and need cookies.

        Liked by 1 person

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