R.I.P Knox Burger

Knox Burger, who died on January 4 at the age of 87, wore a great many career hats throughout his life. as editor of Collier’s, he introduced Kurt Vonnegut to the world. As an editor at Dell and Fawcett Gold Medal, he published John D. McDonald, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Peter Rabe and scores of other mystery writers remembered, forgotten or neglected. And as a literary agent (for Westlake, Block, Max Allan Collins, Bill Caunitz and many more), he bolstered his name by securing a $1 million dollar deal for Martin Cruz Smith’s GORKY PARK – a very risky move since the book had already been bought and rejected by Putnam, but that didn’t stop both men from sticking to their guns, and for the payoff to be very handsome (and career-changing, for Smith.)

As long as I’ve covered and been around the world of crime fiction, there’s been an aura around Knox Burger. I wish I’d met him, but at least a majority of his papers between 1969 and 2000 are stored at New York University as part of the Knox Burger Archives. But it does feel like another door shut on an era when paperbacks were king, when it was still possible to be a relative unknown and sell hundreds of thousands, even millions of copies of books with racy covers and fast-moving tales of doomed men and women, and on publishing’s so-called glory years.

And okay, I have to admit, for years I wondered who stood in for Knox in Rona Jaffe’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, even though their time at Gold Medal didn’t actually overlap (she was gone by the mid-50s; Burger didn’t join until 1960.) But more importantly, another vital piece of crime fiction history died last week, one that is impossible to replicate.

UPDATE: Quicksilver Books’ Bob Silverstein writes in with his memories of working with Burger:

I worked with Knox Burger in the 60s as an editor at Gold Medal Books. He was a great mentor, smart, quick, witty, at times curmudgeonly, but always fun to be around. Just as he took a chance with me – fresh out of City College when publishing was mostly an Ivy League enclave – he took chances with talented new writers and nurtured many of them into literary prominence. After work, editors, authors and agents would often gather around Knox in the Algonquin lobby for drinks and good times, swapping stories and decompressing amongst friends. When I read Knox’s obituary in yesterday’s Times, tears came to my eyes as I remembered what a big-hearted person he was, and how much he had meant in my life.

Thank you, Knox – your indelible smile and hearty laugh will stay with me forever.