I trained to be a private eye writer, but along the way private eye fiction went out of vogue.
First let me tell you how cool my parents were. In addition to giving me a typewriter for Christmas in 1963, right before I entered high school, they allowed me to forgo getting a summer job (as all my peers were doing) if I treated writing as my job.
I was fine with that. I might have done it anyway, but my progress might have been hampered by pumping gas or sacking groceries. Every summer vacation was devoted to teaching myself to write private eye novels by writing one.
Each school year I would send my summer novel out to publishers, never revealing my age. While I was consistently rejected (understandably), no one caught on that, for instance, a kid who’d never had sex was trying to write sex scenes. I wrote a novel called The Gray Flannel Thugs, which after several rejections I heavily rewrote as Hell’s Hucksters, followed by Kiss Or Kill. Finally I wrote a novel about a spy called (sorry) Eric Flayr and I think it might have been called Come Spy With Me, the name of a recent John Sand novel Matt Clemens and I wrote together.
Anyway, the spy novel preceded my senior year in high school. This book I hand-delivered to the offices of Merit Books in Chicago, where the editor (who’d rejected my previous books) was astounded to see a seventeen-year-old standing before him. Not astounded enough to buy the book.
In 1967, still living at home, I enrolled at Muscatine Community College for the fall semester. I’d had some scholarship offers for football and for creative writing, but my rock band the Daybreakers was doing well and I wanted to stick with it.
That summer I saw a movie called Point Blank. This great film, starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman, sent me scurrying to the source material, the Parker novels by Richard Stark. I had already been reading the somewhat similar Sand novels by Ennis Willie (published, yes, by Merit Books). Where Parker was a professional thief, Sand was an ex-gangster on the run from the mob.
It’s fair to say that Don Westlake – both as Richard Stark and under his own name – was the last writer to influence me in any significant way. I instinctively knew Don was on to something – that he could write about the same breed of tough guy I enjoyed writing about, but one who operated on the wrong side of the law. Private eyes were passe, and cops were guys hitting my classmates with billy clubs at the National Democratic Convention. In this anti-Establishment era, Stark was writing “crook books,” in a tradition begun by W.R. Burnett in High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle.
Also, I’d been reading James M. Cain, who wrote about criminals as protagonists, as well as Jim Thompson and Horace McCoy. I had discovered a book called Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties edited by David Madden that treated my preferred area of writing with admirable seriousness.
I combined the Parker and Sand concepts in Mourn the Living with a character I called Cord. I worked on the novel through my sophomore year at MCC, after which two things crucial to my future life occurred: I married Barbara Jane Mull and enrolled at the University of Iowa.
The U of I was only thirty-five miles from Muscatine (it still is) and I would commute. I signed up for the undergraduate Writers Workshop course – there was only a single section – and was told I had to try out for it.
No sweat. I was already a novelist, wasn’t I? I stuck the carbon of Mourn the Living under my arm and drove to Iowa City and looked up the instructor, Richard Yates, in his office in the absurdly titled English and Philosophy Building. I had never heard of Yates and had not done my homework – if I had, I’d have known he was a serious, much respected mainstream novelist whose Revolutionary Road was something of a modern classic. Already.
Yates greeted me with a dour, hooded-eyed gaze that did not deter me – he just didn’t know who he was dealing with yet. I stood in the doorway, holding my book out like flowers I was delivering, and burbled on about how I had a novel for him to read (what other student would?) (none, by the way) and how I intended to be the next Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.
After a slow pause, Yates informed me he would look at my book, but I needed to know that the Workshop was designed for serious writers, with literary intentions and goals, and he doubted very much there’d be a place for me in his class.
I went back to Muscatine, dejected. A long road and a lot of work by a kid with a dream had been dashed. Barb was sympathetic and encouraging. What did these literary types know, anyway?
A couple of days later the phone rang and Barb answered it. She listened and covered the receiver and, astonished, said, “It’s that Richard Yates....”
I took the phone and Yates apologized to me. Said he’d read my book and it was a professional job; he would be honored to have me in class, as I was writing on a level no other applicant had approached. Then he paused and said, “You know my wife and I enjoy watching Carol Burnett and you reminded me of that.”
Not W.R. Burnett. Carol Burnett.
“And it occurred to me,” he said, “that there’s nothing wrong with being an entertainer.”
Yates was my mentor thereafter. He got me my first agent, former Gold Medal editor Knox Burger. I shelved Mourn the Living and spent the next two years writing Bait Money, the first Nolan novel. Nolan was originally Cord again, which got changed to Logan, and finally to Nolan.
When Yates told Knox Burger I was going to be the next Dashiell Hammett, the agent said, “No. The next W.R. Burnett maybe.” Yates seemed very disappointed (perhaps that it hadn’t been Carol). I was of course thrilled.
Burger also told Yates: “I’m afraid young Collins is a blacksmith in an automotive world.” He was so right. He continues to be.
I had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with Burger. As Don Westlake told me, “Knox thinks tact is something you put on the teacher’s chair.” Don was also a client and it was Burger who connected us and allowed me to start a long correspondence and friendship with this key writer.
Under Yates, I also wrote No Cure for Death, the first of five novels about Iowa mystery writer, Mallory.
Mourn the Living had taken Nolan (as Cord) into the Iowa City of the late ‘60s. I wanted to bump the mid-twentieth century tough guy up against my generation. Bait Money took it a step further, with Nolan partnering with Jon, a young comic book collector and aspiring cartoonist who was very much my point-of-view character.
Originally the book was titled First and Last Time. The idea was that the heist in the novel would be Nolan’s last and Jon’s first and last, as Jon was not really a criminally inclined character. Nolan has no last name and Jon no first name, as a tip of the hat to Richard Stark’s Parker. The novel was close to a pastiche of a Parker novel, including utilizing Stark’s trademark point-of-view structure. I knew damn well I was writing an imitation of a writer I admired, but at the same time I was offsetting that by bringing in elements of my generation and my experiences. The bank Nolan and Jon rob, for example, is closely based on the one where Barb worked at the time.
The novel’s conceit was that if you really lived the life of a Steve McQueen movie character, you’d be used up by your forties. So Nolan had to die at the end.
But Burger hated that. He said, “Robin doesn’t leave Batman to die.”
I stuck to my guns and the agent shrugged and tried to market it anyway. It was a tough time for tough guy novels – frankly, it almost always is – and seven editors turned it down. At Pyramid, number eight, the editor knocked over his coffee cup on the manuscript, and felt terrible about it, though not enough so to buy it.
In those days, you had to submit a clean typescript. I mean, clean – even white-out raised eyebrows. Submitting a carbon was unprofessional, and photocopies were not widely available.
“Since you have to retype it anyway,” Burger said, “put a better ending on it.”
I did. SPOILER ALERT: Jon rescues Nolan.
I was still at the University of Iowa Workshop, going twice a week and on the other days teaching part-time at Muscatine Community College. I disliked the work intensely. I was working one-on-one with remedial students, some of whom were functionally illiterate and I had no idea how to help them. Things would improve in the next few years, when I moved to the classroom; but at that moment I was at my lowest ebb. Frankly, I broke down in non-tough guy tears and said to Barb, “Is this what I’m going to be doing all my life? Am I not going to be a writer?”
On Christmas Eve, 1971, I received word that Bait Money had sold. When I told Don Westlake, he said, “Sometimes God acts like O. Henry and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The book sold to Curtis Books, the very next publisher it was submitted to, and the editor wanted a sequel.
I said to Don, “Once is an homage, twice is a rip-off. They want a series. What do I do?”
He told me to write it. He said the Jon character made Nolan more human than Parker and, in his view, made my concept a different animal. Over the years he would describe me as the Jayne Mansfield to his Marilyn Monroe. I would say, “More like Mamie Van Doren.”
Curtis Books also took the Mallory novel, No Cure for Death, and a sequel, The Baby Blue Rip-off. In fairly quick succession I wrote Blood Money, Fly Paper, Hush Money and Hard Cash in the Nolan series. Somewhere in there I also wrote Quarry, which was not getting any takers.
After the January 1973 publication of Bait Money and Blood Money came a long silence. Though I’d been paid, none of the books came out. After a year or two, I was told that Curtis Books had been swallowed up by Popular Library. Every now and then I was assured the books indeed would be published there. They never were.
In the meantime, Quarry sold, and I’ll talk about that next time.
And Nolan? In the early ‘80s, editor Patrick O’Connor – who had bought Nolan at Curtis Books – was now at Pinnacle. They had just lost Don Pendleton’s Executioner in a bitter custody battle rivaling any divorced parents. O’Connor bought all five Nolan novels, which I updated somewhat as they’d languished for a decade, and he wanted a new one. I provided that – Scratch Fever – and the new edition of Bait Money came out and did very well. For the first time I got royalties beyond the advance.
Then Don Pendleton threatened to sue Pinnacle because Nolan rhymed with Bolan. That is not a joke. I don’t think any two crime series could be more different than Bolan and Nolan, but the bitterness came into play and my successful series was cancelled. The final book came out with cover copy that did not include the dreaded name “Nolan.”
Nolan has gone on to two more book appearances, but that’s another story. No, two other stories.
NEXT: PART THREE: QUARRY