The work was secondary to the extraordinary life he led.
Photo: David Poller
Sometime in the early eighties Al Nussbaum reported, with a mixture of disgust and incredulity, that someone had tried to mug him on his way home the previous night.
“This clown sticks a gun in my face,” he said. “I said, ‘Get out of my way, you moron. I just got out of the joint.’”
Al pushed past him, leaving the fellow to go find a more acquiescent victim. It’s not surprising that his performance was effective; even in the retelling, his gentle voice hardened and took on an edge that brooked no argument.
And he came by it honestly. While he wasn’t fresh out of prison, it wasn’t more than ten years or so since he’d been paroled from Leavenworth after serving eight years of a 40-year sentence for bank robbery and homicide.
* * *
A good number of cops develop literary ambitions, and there was a time a few years ago when you couldn’t get arrested in this town without hearing about your new acquaintance’s novel in progress. (Now it’s screenplays, and TV pitches.)
Few of those books got past the talking stage, and fewer still got finished, and not many were published. But some of them were very good indeed, and if the list began with Joe Wambaugh, it certainly hasn’t ended there. And why should we be surprised? Law enforcement, it turns out, is great preparation for a career in crime fiction; as one cop-turned-novelist remarked, the crime part’s what you see in the streets, and the fiction’s what goes in your case reports.
You would think that a lifetime on the other side of the law would be just as likely to equip one for a second life as a mystery writer. And, to be sure, some powerful crime fiction has been written by chaps with just that sort of firsthand experience. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard is arguably the best prison novel ever written, and it wouldn’t exist but for the author’s having spent half of his first 40 years in confinement.
Writing workshops are popular in prison, and if most of the output isn’t publishable, well, that’s no less true on the outside. On either side of the walls, the writing seems to serve a substantial therapeutic function. And now and then a genuine writer does emerge, and he and we are better for it.
* * *
Al was in print and out of the joint by the time I met him in the mid-'70s, but our paths could have crossed earlier. We were both born and raised in Buffalo. He was born four years earlier than I, in 1934, and he left town early enough to get arrested in California in the late 1950s on a weapons charge. That landed him in prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he met Bobby Wilcoxson, who’d be his partner in a string of bank robberies.
Al was always a bright guy with a wide range of interests. He played in chess tournaments by mail while locked up in Ohio, and filled his jail time with correspondence courses in locksmithing, gunsmithing, and chemistry. (One wonders at the wisdom of encouraging felons to pursue these interests.) He had some other skills as well; he was a draftsman and a welder, and could both fly and service an airplane.
So he was the brains to Wilcoxson’s brawn, and they robbed a batch of banks together. Their last bank job was in Brooklyn, where Wilcoxson shot the bank guard dead.
That was the end of Al’s criminal career. And, happily, the beginning of his new life as a writer.
* * *
Al was on the lam, and went to ground in Philadelphia. (That’s how I heard it, but it may have been somewhere else.) He got a room or small apartment and took care to blend in with his surroundings.
But he didn’t have a job to go to, and he worried that this might strike his new neighbors as curious. So he looked for a cover occupation that could explain his presence or absence at all hours. A writer, he thought. I’ll pretend to be a writer.
So he went out and bought a typewriter, and now and then during the day he’d pound away at its keys—even as you and I. But that got old in a hurry, and he was resourceful enough to go out and buy himself a tape recorder. Then he made a loop tape of himself typing, and played it whenever he wanted writerly sound effects to seep through his door.
But he felt there might be more to playing a writer than just sounding like one. He needed some tips from an old hand at the game. So one evening he picked up the phone.
Al didn’t know any writers. But he’d been a reader for years, and was sufficiently impressed by one book to feel a kinship to its author. The book was The Name of the Game Is Death, by Dan J. Marlowe, and features a tough and unrepentant professional criminal named Earl Drake. Al was in a position to identify with Drake, and could tell that Marlowe had gotten the character and milieu down right.
He traced Marlowe through his publishers, and called him at home in Royal Oak, Michigan, enthusing over Marlowe’s novel and passing himself off as a wannabe writer looking for tips. There were more calls over the weeks and months, and the two men became friends—although Dan didn’t yet know Al’s real name, or that he was in fact a real-life Earl Drake high up on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
He found out after Al was arrested. That came about back home in Buffalo; Al was visiting his wife and infant daughter, and his mother-in-law ratted him out. (He was captured in the Statler Hilton parking lot after a high-speed chase, and no, I’m not making this up.) The FBI, walking back the cat to make their case, found where Al had been hiding out, checked the phone records, and discovered all these calls to some guy in Michigan. They turned up on Dan Marlowe’s doorstep wanting to know why he’d spent so much time on the phone with Al Nussbaum, and Dan didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. He’d been helping some young writer who was a big fan of his, he said. And who exactly was this fellow Nussbaum? Dan had to answer a lot of questions before they decided to leave him alone.
A little while later Al got in touch again—this time by mail. By now he’d pled guilty to seven bank robberies and the murder of the bank guard, and was serving 40 years in Leavenworth. He wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 1971. And he had some time on his hands, and was thinking of trying his hand at something new.
While he served his sentence, Al worked on short fiction. As I heard it, he sent Marlowe his manuscripts, kiting them out of prison; Marlowe wrote back with suggestions for revisions, and eventually sent one of Al’s stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
The relationship wasn’t entirely one-sided. Dan had resumed writing about Earl Drake, at Al’s suggestion and with his assistance; the expertise he was able to supply didn’t hurt a bit. (He’d come by it honestly, is what I was about to write, but on second thought...)
After a few books, Dan changed the series; Drake was still Drake, but now he was on the side of the angels, plying his bad-guy skills in the service of the federal government. Some sources indicate that this was Fawcett’s idea, that they’d taken over the Parker series (by Donald E. Westlake as Richard Stark) and figured one unrepentant heist man was enough.
Maybe this was indeed the case, but writers do have a lamentable tendency to reform their antisocial protagonists, and maybe readers want it that way; years ago I heard from a reader who informed me that he was quitting my Bernie Rhodenbarr series after the fourth book, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, because by now Bernie should have seen the error of his ways and gone straight.
More Earl Drake than Parker, Al had indeed seen the error of his ways, and was ready to reform, changing his occupation from bank robber to writer. He kept writing stories and Dan kept marketing them, and when Al became eligible for parole he went before the board with recommendations from editors who’d bought his stories as well as writers Dan had enlisted in his cause. He got out, and spent the rest of his life as a freelance writer, consorting not with fellow criminals but with writers and editors. I don’t suppose everyone would consider this a step up, but it worked for him.
* * *
But wait, as the TV pitchmen say. There’s more.
Dan Marlowe, who’s clearly one of the heroes of this story, suffered an absolutely appalling twist of fate. Probably as the result of a stroke, he fell victim in 1977 to a severe form of amnesia of the sort rarely encountered outside the world of soap opera. He forgot who he was, along with all the details of his life to date. It wasn’t an ongoing memory loss, in that he had no trouble recalling everything that took place after the stroke. But the past was erased, wiped off the board and forever unrecoverable.
He could still write, lending credence to the folks who insist that what we do isn’t really mental in the first place. But he couldn’t remember having written, and had to read all his own work as if encountering it for the first time.
Al, fresh out of prison, helped him relearn the world and his place in it. Dan had quit Michigan for California, and Al moved in with him and helped him adjust. Dan wrote a fair amount of softcore porn, much of it under pen names that were anagrams of his own, and the two men did some work in collaboration. Dan never did write more about Earl Drake after his memory loss, and I can see how that would have been daunting; it’d be like taking over a series written by somebody else. Which happens often enough, but it’s never quite the same, is it?
Dan resumed writing crime novels and published a bunch of them before his heart gave out in 1986. I haven’t read any of them, so I don’t know how they compare to his earlier work, though they’d have had to go a long way to match The Name of the Game Is Death. I had met Dan a couple of times early on, liked him a lot, and was shaken when I heard about his amnesia. He was, no question, one of the good guys.
* * *
While I never got to know Al well, I must have met him a dozen times over the years. He was active in MWA and a frequent participant in conventions and symposia, where he was always good company, ever cheerful and sociable. He dealt with his criminal past by being disarmingly open about it; his self-styled business card was a photocopy of his FBI Wanted poster.
I recall one afternoon during Edgar Week when I sat next to him in the audience of some panel discussion, the topic of which I’ve long since forgotten. One of the panelists was John Ball, best known for In the Heat of the Night, who was skilled in aviation, aikido, and rubbing people the wrong way. Ball made a baldly homophobic remark, which brought a spirited rejoinder from Sandra Scoppettone and shifted the direction of the discussion. Al remarked to me that, all things considered, he’d rather spend time with a gay person than a morose one. I chuckled politely, and he was sufficiently encouraged to raise his hand and repeat his observation to the assembly.
A couple of years later he came out, sort of. He was invited as a participant in some mystery colloquium—I wasn’t there, and can no longer recall whether it was held aboard a cruise ship or at a resort. Part of his deal was that he could bring someone to share his room, and Al brought Chris Steinbrenner, co-author of The Encyclopedia of Mystery & Detection. Neither man seems to have been morose.
* * *
If Al never achieved great success, he made enough of a living at his new trade that he was never constrained to resume his old one. He wrote a great many short stories for the crime-fiction magazines, along with some episodic TV and young adult novels.
He had a stroke toward the end of his life, walked with a cane after, and seemed frail the last time our paths crossed—at an Edgar dinner, if I remember correctly. I had the feeling that he didn’t remember who I was. The stroke may have had something to do with it, or perhaps he was simply unaccustomed to seeing me in a tie and jacket.
Al Nussbaum died in 1996, and his work didn’t outlive him by much. A short story will turn up now and then in an anthology, but otherwise his work is all out of print. And that’s probably to be expected. What’s important in this instance, it seems to me, is that the man himself be remembered. The work was secondary to the extraordinary life he led.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #117.