Frederick Nolan, who died at the age of 91, was a novelist, historian and publisher, and a leading expert on the Old West gunman Billy the Kid. He has written more than 70 books – thrillers, historical fiction, romances, westerns, mysteries and biographies – in his own name and under the pen names Frederick H Christian, Daniel Rockfern, Christine McGuire and Benjamin Rabier.
Back when a swastika on a blanket was a surefire way to hit bestseller lists, Fred had two big hits with the war thrillers The Oshawa Project (1974, released in the US as of The Algonquin Project) and The Mittenwald Syndicate (1976). . The first, about a plot to assassinate US General George Patton, was made into the film Brass Target (1978), which starred John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren, with George Kennedy as Patton.
Fred had been interested in the American Old West since childhood and was fascinated by Billy the Kid (aka William H Bonney, born Henry McCarty), the notorious outlaw whose death ended the Lincoln County War, a long-running conflict between cowboys, ranchers and lawmen in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870s.
His books on the subject, including The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History (1992); Bad Blood: The Life and Times of the Horrell Brothers (1994); The West of Billy the Kid (1998) and The Billy the Kid Reader (2007), as well as introductions, forewords and notes to numerous books on the west by other authors, have won him numerous awards. .
Born in Liverpool, Fred was the son of Evelyn (née Heathcote) and George Nolan, who met as stewards on the Cunard Line and later became publicans. Fred went to Liverpool Collegiate, and during World War II was evacuated to Aberaeron in Ceredigion. His passion for the American West was sparked at his local library in Liverpool, where he read his way through the shelves, and at the Grand Cinema in Smithdown Road, he acquired a love for American musicals.
While working as a shipping clerk and typewriter salesman, he read everything he could and became a connoisseur of Western fiction at the time when it was a thriving literary genre. In 1954 he co-founded the English Westerners’ Society, an offshoot of the American Society formed by those interested in the ways of the Old West.
All the while, Fred was working on a book about John Tunstall, a rancher and merchant involved in the Lincoln County War, after persuading Tunstall’s family to let him work from their papers and letters. The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall (1965) was published by the University of New Mexico Press, although the young Englishman never set foot in the United States, let alone the county of Lincoln.
Meanwhile, Fred’s work with the English Westerners’ Society caught the eye of Michael Legat, editor at Corgi Books. Westerns were a major sector of the publishing market, and Legat invited him to become a reader for Corgi. He apologized for only being able to pay 15 shillings (75p) per title. Fred said: “I could hardly believe my ears – you could get paid to read books? It was like being tapped on the shoulder by God.
This led to a clerkship in 1960 with Corgi, where his marketing flair quickly took hold, and he became a European sales representative. Between 1969 and 1974, when he turned to writing full time, he ran advertising for Penguin, William Collins, Fontana and Granada in London, and Ballantine Books in New York, for authors such as Joseph Heller, Jacqueline Susann, Norman Mailer, Alistair MacLean, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane and Len Deighton.
Meanwhile, he was churning out Western novels, at least 25 in eight years. For his books in the Sudden series, he named the characters after his publishing colleagues, and more than one book-man of integrity was surprised to find himself in the print media as a “cold-eyed killer.” .
In New York, he meets agent Artie Pine, who offers to represent him. Although Fred laughed as he said “I know more editors than you do”, Artie had Fred write what he thought he would gain as a writer in the coming year, while Artie wrote what he thought he could get for his next book, The Mittenwald. Union. Artie’s figure was double Fred’s, and he achieved that – so he remained Fred’s agent until his death.
Fred was later revealed to be one of the authors of the “Gee Report”, an anonymous scandal sheet that circulated in the publishing industry for several years revealing author advances, agent commissions, publishers’ contracts and staff movements, and who played their part. to take the craft from a profession to a business.
His love of American musicals being well known, the BBC commissioned Fred to write The Richard Rodgers Story, a series of six hour-long radio programs presented by Jessie Matthews and broadcast on Radio 2 in 1975, which also brought him to write The Richard Rodgers Story. Sound of Their Music: The Rodgers & Hammerstein Story (1978).
Fred had long wanted to write a biography of Rodgers’ former writing partner – Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway (1994) was a triumph, despite the intervention of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization to block reproduction of the lyrics of Hart. Later it emerged that Hart’s sister-in-law, Dorothy, had intervened – she resented Fred’s statement that Hart was gay and had omitted this detail from her own biography.
In 1962 Fred married Heidi Würmli and they lived in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, for over 50 years. He is survived by Heidi and their children, Janice, Laura and André, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. His son Christian died in 2003.