Along came an Angel
The boom in westerns got even bigger in the 1970s and for the first time in a very long time, American publishers began looking seriously at the work of the Piccadilly cowboys, myself among them. As a result I was commissioned by Pinnacle Books in New York and Sphere in London to write a new series, this time featuring a hero who had more in common with James Bond than Wyatt Earp. His name was Frank Angel and he was different for another reason: his name was that of a real Presidential investigator, Frank Warner Angel (1845-1906) , who was a troubleshooter for the Attorney-General of the United States. He was sent to New Mexico in 1878 by the Department of Justice to investigate the murder of English rancher and businessman John H. Tunstall and a gaggle of politicians, one of whom was the Governor of New Mexico, Samuel B. Axtell. No prizes, then, for guessing where the idea came from.
The first book in the series--Find Angel--was published in 1974
and was followed by another eight titles over the next three years.
Below you see them in their original American livery,
and further down the page,
in their spiffing new digital dress:
They weren't, they aren't Great Literature, of course.
No Piccadilly cowboy ever expected to be compared
with the great American western writers who were around then --
Jack Schaefer, Ernest Haycox, Dorothy M. Johnson, Elmore Leonard, Luke Short,
Alan LeMay, Paul Horgan, Will Henry, Wayne D. Overholser
and half a hundred others.
But we tried as hard as we could to emulate them,
in the process sometimes going so far as to create what the French call hommage.
And now, the best part of half a century after their original appearance,
the 'Angel' series is cutting a fresh trail:
are published as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing,
as also is
the 'Sudden' series,
the first of which,
SUDDEN STRIKES BACK
jumped on publication
to #1 in Amazon's "100 Best Westerns" list!
(To purchase digital copies,
go to Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk,
and type in Frederick H. Christian)
Back in the day, as they say now, I was having more than a little fun.
After a two-year stint in Switzerland in charge of European sales for Bantam and Corgi Books,
I left Corgi to become a part of the "new" marketing revolution at Penguin Books
(Alan Aldridge, "marketing," and all that -- does anyone even remember it?).
A year or two later I joined the mighty bestseller-machine known as William Collins & Sons,
(where I front-ran the launch of the first posthumous Ernest Hemingway novel, Islands in the Stream)
then moved on to become marketing, publicity and advertising director for
Lord Sidney Bernstein's up-and-coming Granada Publishing --
seven (!!!!!) imprints, four hardcover, three paperback,
launch Paladin Books with the since much-copied headline
"Open your mind."
In 1970 I crossed the Atlantic (for the first time)
to work in New York for Ballantine Books,
run then by its founder, Ian Ballantine,
who I once described--I think accurately -- as
"infuriating, brilliant, unpredictable, impish, dogmatic, stubborn and irrepressible."
(see what I mean?)
As things turned out, this was to be my last "real" job,
but I loved every minute of it.
What a wonderful adventure those ten years in publishing were!
And what a privilege and an education it all was:
to meet, to get to know, to work with
some of the best-selling writers of that time,
Joseph Heller (Catch-22),
Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls),
James A. Michener (Hawaii),
Leon Uris (Exodus),
Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch),
Henri Charriere (Papillon),
Alistair MacLean (Where Eagles Dare),
William Goldman (Boys and Girls Together),
Len Deighton (An Expensive Place to Die),
not to mention
Norman Mailer, James Jones, Calder Willingham, Robert B. Parker,
Stephen King, Agatha Christie,
Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain, real name Sal Lombardino),
to name(-drop) but a few.
Knowing I would never ever be able to repay
those wonderful writers
(and their publishers)
for what they had taught me, so as a sort of hommage,
I used the names of a few of them in the plots of the 'Sudden' and 'Angel' series.
Thus, careful reader, you can if you wish make the insider-joke connection
between the names Cullane and Collins, Blantine and Ballantine,
the town of Daranga
and its anagram publishing house,
or a frontier outpost called Fort Allen Lane.
By the time they had found their way into print, however,
I was off, as John Milton put it, to fresh woods and pastures new --
or anyway, different ones.
Fame at last!
Around this time, as well as -- simultaneously --
turning out Westerns while working flat out in London and New York publishing,
I got the chance to have one of those once-in-a-lifetime,
bring-it-on adventures in publishing that were possible then.
A friend of mine, Michael Meller, put together an idea
which incorporated an
offer that I, anyway, couldn't refuse
Michael's (brilliant, brave and close to foolhardy) proposal
was that together we should
finance, create, write and distribute
a tell-all "insider" newsletter
that would demolish all the old publishing shibboleths
(real numbers, real names, the truth about how many copies a book sold,
the size of the advance paid for a potential bestseller,
what was happening in New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt,
an off-the-wall, irreverent Private Eye for the publishing business
that (for reasons I cannot now remember)
we called The Gee Report.
Its launch was carefully synchronised
to coincide with and fill the vacuum created by a postal strike
that meant no book trade publications
(there were about half a dozen of them)
could reach their readers.
Here now is the first page of the very first issue,
dated 12 March 1971
(by the way, I was still working at Granada at the time!)
Elegant it may not have been, but The Gee Report worked.
In fact, there were a number of publishers
(one of which was my employer)
who would cheerfully have hanged us on the nearest street lamp
had they known who we were!
Fortunately, we'd concealed our identities pretty well,
and it was quite a while before we revealed them.
By the time we did, The Gee Report had become
the most-read must-read book trade journal in the business,
and when in 1974 we inaugurated the UK's first reliable bestseller list,
we actually began to make a little money.
We kept the whole thing going for five years,
by which time both of us had been overtaken by life --
Michael in a new incarnation as a literary agent
and I, to my own amazement, what I had always, always wanted to be --
a bestselling author.
The secret of how to become a bestselling author.
(1) You get a call from a publisher.
(2) Your agent meets one at a party who's heard about you,
and who invites him to have you submit some ideas.
You do, and (if) he likes them,
a contract is signed and you set to work.
What you write doesn't matter, only how good it is.
If it's good enough, you're in with a chance at bestseller-dom.
That's all there is to it -- or should say,
that's all there was to it back in that long-ago day.
The times they have a-changed. And then some.
In my case, the publisher who called was
Weidenfeld & Nicolson's editorial chief, Robin Denniston,
formerly of Hodder & Stoughton,
where he had taken that fuddy-duddy imprint into the big time.
He was trying to do the same thing now
with W&Ns subsidiary imprint Arthur Barker,
and told me he was thinking about
a new line of crime stories and thrillers
that would go head-to-head with Collins's Crime Club series
and ... was I interested in writing some?
Was I interested? What did I have to do?
He asked me to submit six or eight ideas and I said I would.
I remember one of my ideas was a bonkbuster
set in the run-up to and staging of the Monte Carlo rally
but that never got off the synopsis page.
What Robin liked was my proposition:
I would write a series of thrillers,
one à la Frederick (Day of the Jackal) Forsyth,
one in the Alistair (Where Eagles Dare) MacLean style,
one Ed (87th Precinct) McBain-type whodunnit set in 1880s New York,
and a fourth àiming in the direction of Mario (The Godfather) Puzo.
From all of which you will see
I was not suffering from
any lack of either chutzpa or self-confidence!
Without ado, Mr. Denniston offered me a contract
eight full length novels inside one calendar year
(eight, if you please!)
with an advance payment, if I remember it correctly,
of £400 (about $1000 then) per book
with the then-usual one-third down payment,
second on acceptance and a third on publication.
Well-known fact: publishers know more ways of not paying you upfront
than any other business in the world.
Undaunted, I began writing a thriller
set at the end of World War Two
which posited the propostion that the automobile accident
in which US General George S. Patton died in 1945
was in fact a political assassination.
To ensure it was treated as fiction, not history,
I renamed the central figure General Campion
(campione is Italian for pattern, geddit?).
And the result was:
It got some really good reviews, which was nice,
but by the time it came out I was too busy to notice --
because over the course of the next four months or so,
I had thought up, written, and delivered (on time)
a further three beauties ...
By and large, however, nothing fantastic happened.
A bundle of rather fine reviews, good sales and a rosy glow
(although my Godfather-ish Kill Petrosino!
became the only one of all my novels that never made it into paperback)
but other than that, the earth didn't move much
(the first two had been sold to William Morrow in New York,
as well as paperback rights on both sides of the Atlantic,
and there were a couple of nicely chunky European deals)
I had an idea for a really "big" book,
like The Oshawa Project based on true facts,
and set at the end of World War Two,
but I needed to do a lot of research
and take a good deal longer than six weeks writing it.
So I asked Robin Denniston to let me off the contractual hook.
While it was true I had four more books to write under the terms of my contract,
he could not but admit that the first four had more than paid off the advance,
so on condition that he would get first look at the new project,
Robin agreed to terminate the contract.
At which point I went to New York, and while there,
visited literary agent Arthur Pine,
who was a big admirer of The Gee Report,
to which he contributed regular releases on his to-die-for properties.
My favourite Artie Pine story (and it's true).
Arthur Pine was a former New York press agent turned literary agent,
specialising (then) in "celebrity" books
by his old pals in Hollywood's Jewish mafia --
Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle.
As I said, Artie--as everyone knew him--was a big fan of The Gee Report
unblushingly sent us releases on properties he was handling.
We ran them as "This week's Artie Pine plug."
It didn't seem to do them any harm.
So in the summer of 1974, I called in to see Artie
at his less-than-palatial headquarters
(above a liquor store at 1780 Broadway).
He asked me how my books were doing and I told him
I was researching a big new thriller
set at the end of World War Two.
"Sounds good," Artie said, then went straight for the jugular:
"Why don't you let me handle it for you?"
I laughed. "Hell, Artie," I said, "I know more publishers than you do,"
(which was true).
"Sure," he replied, "but you're not as tough a negotiator as I am,"
(which was also true).
It all ended up with him making me an offer I could hardly refuse --
a bet, really.
I would write down (but not show him)
what I thought I would earn as a writer in the coming year,
and he would write down (but not show me)
what he thought he could get for the book I had in mind.
If he got a deal and his figure was less than mine, all bets were off.
If it was more, he would become my agent.
After agreeing that, we put the two pieces of paper in a sealed envelope
and he told me to go write an outline for the new thriller
and get it back to him as soon as I could.
Somewhat mystified, but intrigued, I went back down to the Royalton Hotel
(this was long before they turned it into the designer's-dream Xanadu it is today)
borrowed a typewriter, and over the next few days
hammered together a proposal
for a thriller
that would become The Mittenwald Syndicate.
I dropped it in at 1780 Broadway and Artie told me
he'd give me a call as soon as he had anything to report.
A few days later he told me to come up to the office,
where the envelope was lying on his desk.
"Open it up," he told me, and I did.
The figure on his piece of paper was roughly twice mine.
I clearly remember my reaction. "You're kidding!" I said.
"No, I'm not," Artie replied.
"That's how much William Morrow is paying for your book."
And that's how Artie Pine became my agent and,
over the next quarter of a century,
one of the best friends I ever had.
The Mittenwald Syndicate
grew out of this entry in the 1975 Guinness Book of Records,
drawn to my attention by my son, Christian.
"The greatest robbery on record
was that of the German Reichsbank (National Bank) reserves
by a combine of U. S. military personnel and Germans.
Gold bars, 728 in number, valued at $9,878,400.00,
were removed from a cache on Klausenkopf mountainside,
near Einsiedel, Bavaria, on June 7, 1945,
together with six sacks containing $404,840 in dollar bills
and 400 [English] pound notes (possibly forged) from a garden in Oberaer."
My researches took me from Washington DC, to Berlin, Munich
and up into the mountains around Garmisch-Partenkirchen
and Mittenwald, an area that at the time of the robbery was under the control of
a Military Governor, prime suspect in the Reichsbank robbery.
I dug and dug and dug, and discovered that even more
phenomenal sums had been involved than Guinness knew:
more gold bars, huge amounts of foreign currency,
precious stones and untold amounts in US dollars --
and to this day no one has satisfactorily solved the mystery of
who pulled off the heist and what happened to it all.
The hiding place of the gold itself had been on a hill (not a mountain)
above the Walchensee, east of Garmisch and north of Mittenwald.
And here on the right is that hill,
as it was when I first photographed it in 1975.
As someone or other has probably said,
you need three things to be a bestselling author.
The first is a bit of talent,
the second is a good idea,
and third is a shedload of luck.
I don't know about the first two,
but I was having more than my share of the last,
and enjoying every minute of it.
As you will see if you turn the page ...