The Sergeant by Dennis Murphy is an example of a book with many cross-over book collecting components.
The book was published by Viking in 1958. It became a bestseller. Murphy also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation and went on to work as a screenwriter for 30 years.
The book is a psychological drama set in a post-World War II army camp in France in which a veteran sergeant and a French girl vie for the soul of a young draftee.
So why is the book collectible? It is his first book. It was the source for the film that followed. It won the Joseph Henry Jackson gold medal for a first novel in progress in 1957 and the Commonwealth Club’s medal for the best work of fiction by a California writer in 1958.
And then there is Murphy’s connection to Hunter S. Thompson, John Steinbeck, and Wallace Stegner.
Let’s back up a bit. Murphy was born in Salinas in 1925. There is another, slightly more famous writer who was also born in Salinas. That would be Steinbeck, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his The Grapes of Wrath who went on to become a Nobel laureate. The Steinbeck family and the Murphy family were friends. In fact, Murphy’s grandfather was the physician who delivered Steinbeck. Murphy became friends with Hunter S. Thompson, known later for his Gonzo journalism, well before anyone knew who Hunter S. Thompson was.
Murphy went on to college at Stanford University, the same school attended by Steinbeck. He was a student in the creative writing program run by Stegner. In fact, the rear dust jacket panel of The Sergeant carries a blurb by Stegner in which he describes the book as “…a novel with a strange, almost a hypnotic, intensity….The tension never slackens. In its kind, it is close to masterly….It indicates a talent that is serious, devoted, and under quite extraordinary control.”
Steinbeck also penned a blurb about the book which is printed on the front panel of the dust jacket. Steinbeck calls it a remarkable book with “none of the faults of a young first novelist….Most impressive is his ability to put believable people on paper and then to relate them in scenes which happen. There is a great deal of truth and beauty in this book.”
In 1985 San Jose State University published a letter from Steinbeck to Murphy titled Your Only Weapon Is Your Work, one of 500 numbered copies issued in wrappers that was used as a fund-raiser.
Murphy completed a second novel, The Lions of Big Sur, shortly before his death in 2005.