(1915-1991) Also wrote as: Philip Atlee
Under his real name or paperback pseudonym (Philip Atlee), James Atlee Phillips never found the level of success that his writing talent, imagination, experience, and exploitably colorful background warranted. Phillips is one of the great overlooked postwar genre writers. In his own day, he was regularly in print for three decades and sustained a long and popular paperback series, but never broke through to the front ranks in sales or name recognition. With all the topics long out of print and likely to stay that way, Phillips/Atlee under any name is remembered only by a corps of old paperback enthusiasts and those who memorize the small print credits of a certain Robert Mitchum moonshine movie. The resurrection of some obscure names and the elevation of many reputations from the 1940s to 1960s is due in part to latter-day enthusiasms for certain genres, atmospheres, and attitudes then in vogue—hard-boiled detective and murder stories, urban American settings, the general sordidness, pessimism, and nihilism of noir. Phillips, on the other hand, worked in areas that were every bit as popular in their time, but have not so readily tickled the zeitgeist of a later generation—colorful, sophisticated adventure fiction, exotic, authentically detailed foreign settings, and tough, inventive spy fiction that flourished in the era of James Bond mania.
Phillips had a varied and colorful background that made perfect “About the Author” copy. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a prominent family—his father was a well-known lawyer—Phillips was educated at Texas Christian University and the University of Texas. In his free time he became a pilot and self-published two topics of poetry as a teenager, then found more prosaic work as a publicist, drifting to New York for the 1939 World’s Fair, writing press releases for Billy Rose’s Aquacade, the popular synchronized-swimming show. Hoping to catch the ear of newspaper columnists Walter Winchell or Ed Sullivan, he hung out in the world of cynical publicity flacks and ruthless columnists immortalized in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. While in New York Phillips wrote his first novel, an acidic look at the Texas country club set called The Inheritors. It was said to have caused a great deal of anger back in his hometown. Phillips wrote his first mystery novel in 1942, the delightfully titled The Case of the Shivering Chorus Girls.
With a desire for adventure and an itch to see the world, Phillips took a job with an overseas airline operating between India and China. When the United States entered World War II, Phillips went into the service, spending much of his time attached to various operations in India and Southeast Asia, working with many of the fearless personnel from General Chennault’s Flying Tigers elite pilots’ squadron. After the war he became a journalist and worked for several years as the editor of the U.S. Marines’ publication Leatherneck. He moved to an expatriate colony in Mexico for a year or two, then took another airline job, having been recruited to run Amphibian Airways in Burma.
Wandering in Asia and then in the Caribbean, Tahiti, and the Canary Islands, Phillips eventually came back to writing fiction with a library’s worth of wild experiences and colorful characters to document. His first new work was an excellent mystery thriller, Suitable for Framing, about a footloose American adventurer wandering from Paris to Villefranche to Mexico City to the Mexican wilderness in a chase after a valuable painting. The opening chapter, an account of the assassination of a Mexican wrestler in the middle of a match, is especially memorable. Macmillan brought it out in hardcover and Pocket topics published the paperback with bloody, fist-flying cover art and frenetic blurb (“A fast buck brought him a murder-package of dames, derelicts . . . and DEATH!”). In 1951 Phillips published Pagoda, which drew on his experience in Burma. In 1954 he published the first of his paperback originals—a Dell First Edition—The Deadly Mermaid. A spy story about an American operative sent to Haiti to disrupt an imminent revolution, the novel beautifully evoked the lush Caribbean setting and its knowing manner sounded authentic (in addition to James’s own experiences, his brother David Atlee Phillips had become a rising star in the CIA, coordinating numerous Latin American and Caribbean operations). Anticipating Len Deighton’s anonymous agents, Phillips’s hero remains unnamed except for the fake identity he assumes at the beginning of his dangerous new mission.
In the mid-’50s Phillips worked in Hollywood. The big-shouldered, hard-drinking author hit it off with John Wayne, and for a time he was on staff with Wayne’s production company (doing some uncredited rewriting on Wayne’s anticommunist spy thriller, Big Jim McLain). While with Wayne’s company, Phillips met Robert Mitchum and the two got together to do a screenplay from a story of Mitchum’s about transporters of illegal alcohol— moonshine—in the deep South. Phillips went to North Carolina with Mitchum, cast, and crew, and rewrote the script in an Asheville hotel room, day by day, finishing some scenes only minutes before they were filmed. Thunder Road became a cult hit, playing the theaters and drive-ins of the South for decades to come.
Phillips’s abuse of various substances landed him in a veterans’ hospital. Afterward, he settled down in Arkansas, where he married for the third time and went back to writing. In 1963 he wrote a tough thriller, The Green Wound, and sold it to a paperback house, Fawcett. Perhaps deciding to give himself a new start, Phillips signed the topic with the pen name Philip Atlee. His first-person narrator was Joe Gall, a character who had various things in common with earlier heroes from Pagoda—including his name—and Mermaid. A cynical, retired CIA veteran who now—like Phillips—lives in Arkansas, and works on freelance commission, Gall is assigned, in The Green Wound, to troubleshoot a volatile racial situation in Texas. The complex and gritty adventure, with its vengeful blacks, race riots, and wealthy white racists, was controversial, not exactly escapist entertainment. But Gold Medal liked the Joe Gall character and Phillips’s tough style and encouraged him to do a series, making Gall a freelance assassin roaming the world’s trouble spots. Joe Gall reappeared in 1964—the real start of the series as such—and then once or more a year until Gall retired in 1976 in The Last Domino Contract (“Contract” became the permanent series identifier beginning with The Death Bird Contract in 1966; Gall himself came to be marketed as “The Nullifier”).
The year of Gall’s Gold Medal debut, 1963, was a significant one in the history of espionage fiction. Ian Fleming’s James Bond had been gaining in popularity after an endorsement by President Kennedy, and the release of the first Bond movie, Doctor No, signaled the beginning of a phenomenon. Gold Medal was luckily already positioned to exploit the trend with two well-established series, Edward S. aarons’s “Assignment” topics and Donald Hamilton’s adventures of Matt Helm. Aarons was pure, undemanding Pulp fun. Hamilton had his fans, but it was clearly Phillips who was best equipped to give Fleming a run for his money. Aside from being a more urbane writer, Phillips had the globe-trotting background, a continuing firsthand familiarity with exotic locations, and most crucially the knowledge of how modern American spy operations really worked (from his own experience and that of his brother David).
Many of the Gall novels were crackerjack thrillers, with the expected glamorous/exotic settings, sexy females, and plenty of action. Toward the end of the series’ run the stories got darker, perhaps as a result of market trends, as Fleming’s style became self-parody and the best-seller lists were turned over to the dark spy novelists like John Le Carre, Adam Hall, and Len Deighton. Or it might have been that Phillips himself changed his own perspective—gossip has it that he had become disenchanted with various American policies of the 1970s (The Green Wound certainly shows Phillips’s ambivalence toward the establishment). Unlike so many other action series writers, Phillips let his character develop as the years went on, giving Gall a family grown out of players from various far-flung missions, settled down with him in his unlikely headquarters in Arkansas. The series was popular and had some discerning admirers, but James Atlee Phillips/Philip Atlee never found a deserved stature, perhaps because he was an American writing in an Anglophiliac genre, and he was a paperback writer, thus overlooked by the cultural poo-bahs and the media that exalted Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and others published in hardcover. Phillips himself seems to have had no particular love for the series, seeing the topics as simple entertainments.
- Case of the Shivering Chorus Girls, The (1942);
- Deadly Mermaids, The (1954);
- Inheritors, The (1940);
- Naked Year, The (1954);
- Pagoda (1951);
- Suitable for Framing (1949)
As Philip Atlee:
- Black Venus Contract, The (1975);
- Canadian Bomber Contract, The (1971);
- Death Bird Contract, The (1966);
- Fer-de-lance Contract, The (1970);
- Green Wound, The (1963);
- Ill Wind Contract, The (1969);
- Irish Beauty Contract, The (1966);
- Judah Lion Contract, The (1972);
- Kiwi Contract, The (1972);
- Kowloon Contract, The (1974);
- Last Domino Contract, The (1976);
- Paper Pistol Contract, The (1966);
- Rockabye Contract, The (1968);
- Shankill Road Contract, The (1973);
- Silken Baroness, The (1964);
- Skeleton Coast Contract, The (1973);
- Spice Road Contract, The (1973);
- Star Ruby Contract, The (1967);
- Trembling Earth Contract, The (1969);
- Underground Cities Contract, The (1974);
- White Wolverine Contract, The (1971)