I’ve just published A KELLER SAMPLER, designed to introduce the five-book Keller series to those who many have missed it, or whose experience of Keller is limited to a single book or a couple of short stories. While it’s a hefty volume, running to 85,000 words, all of its contents have appeared before, and if you’ve read them all, from HIT MAN to HIT ME, the only words that would be new to you are the introduction.
Which you might well want to read, but why should you have to pay for the privilege?
So here it is, entirely free and worth every penny:
KELLER: An Introduction
In the summer of 1989, I settled in for a month-long residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I had a book to write, and I got a prodigious amount done in a week’s time.
And then I stopped, realizing I’d gone off in the wrong direction altogether. The work I’d done was important in that it helped me find my way into the story, but I wasn’t there yet, and knew I wouldn’t be ready to write that book for a minimum of several months.
Which was fine, a writer’s life is replete with false starts, and I was confident the book and I would eventually be ready for each other. But what was I going to do with the rest of the month? VCCA was a pleasant institution in a beautiful bucolic setting, but if one wasn’t working, why be there at all?
So I decided to write some short stories.
I managed to turn out several in the time available to me, and the first or second told of a hired killer dispatched to the town of Roseburg, Oregon, to put an end to a renegade mob accountant now running a quick-print shop in the Witness Protection Program. The hit man, Keller, makes the mistake of getting to know his assigned victim, and begins to sympathize with him. He finds himself considering retirement, thinking he could move to Roseburg and buy himself a similar turn-key business. He gets a realtor to show him houses and envisions the life he might live there.
And then one morning he wakes up, comes to his senses, kills the guy, and flies home.
* * *
I called the story “Answers to Soldier,” and you won’t find it here; it’s the first chapter of the first Keller book, Hit Man.
Not that I foresaw anything of the sort back in 1989. I’d written a single short story, and my agent sent it off to Alice Turner, the brilliant fiction editor of Playboy. Alice snapped it up, and the magazine published it, and in due course it was shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Short Story.
It didn’t win.
By then I had found the handle on the book I’d been trying to write, and in due course went off to another writing colony (Ragdale, in Lake Forest, Illinois) and wrote the book. It went much better this time around, and was published as A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. It too was nominated for an Edgar award, in this case for Best Novel.
Meanwhile, however, I reread “Answers to Soldier,” and found myself thinking some more about Keller. He had an Urban Lonely Guy quality that I found engaging, and it struck me one day that he was just the sort of fellow who’d try psychotherapy sooner or later. And what would that be like, a hit man going to a shrink?
(This, I should point out, was a good many years before James Gandolfini wound up on Lorraine Bracco’s couch in The Sopranos.)
So I wrote “Keller’s Therapy,” which you’ll find here. By its end Keller had traded a shrink for an Australian cattle dog, which most people would call a step up. But how could a peripatetic hit man cope with the ownership of a dog? That led to another story, “Dogs Walked, Plants Watered,” which you won’t find here, but which followed “Answers” and “Therapy” into the pages of Playboy.
More important, it made it clear to me that what I was doing was writing a novel on the installment plan. More stories followed, and when there were ten of them William Morrow brought them out as Hit Man.
Followed in the fulness of time by Hit List, Hit Parade, Hit and Run, and Hit Me.
* * *
And what have we here?
A sampler, really, of the five-book Keller saga. “Keller’s Therapy” and “Keller on the Spot,” are from Hit Man, and first appeared in Playboy. “Keller’s Horoscope” was written for a German anthology of crime stories with an astrological theme, and subsequently appeared as an episode in Hit List. “Keller’s Adjustment” originated as a novella for Ed McBain’s stellar collection, Transgressions, before serving as an anchor episode in Hit Parade, the book that also includes “Keller the Dogkiller.”
While the first three Keller books could be described as collections of short stories, I prefer to think of them as episodic novels, as each has an overall story arc chronicling Keller’s ongoing history. They’re episodic because the nature of Keller’s occupation makes for an episodic life, but taken together they constitute a novel. (This is not the case with, say, Defender of the Innocent. It is, pure and simple, a collection of short stories. And, it should be further noted, its protagonist, the criminous lawyer Martin H. Ehrengraf, is neither pure nor simple.)
The fourth book in the series, Hit and Run, is categorically different. A single storyline carries the book from the first page to the last. I’ve chosen to give you a taste of the book here in the form of the substantial opening sequence, here entitled “Keller in Des Moines.”
Hit Me, the fifth and to date the final Keller book, is represented here by “Keller in Dallas.” And, finally, I’ve included “Keller and the Rabbits,” which closed out Hit Parade and seems a good choice to close this volume as well. It was written as the behest of my friend Rochelle O’Gorman, who wanted a short-short for her audiobook website, and I think it at once wraps things up and refreshes the palate for whatever adventures Keller might have in his future.
* * *
Keller, I’ve come to realize, is a guilty pleasure for many of his followers. A woman who came to a signing some years ago in Marin County made the point vividly. “I was sitting in my living room reading Hit List,” she said during the Q & A, “and at one point I looked up from my book and gazed off into the middle distance. And I said out loud, ‘Well, so he kills people. What’s so bad about that?’”
After reading that same book, my late mother reported to me that she felt baffled by her own reaction. “I kept worrying that something bad would happen to Keller,” she said, “and I kept reminding myself he was a murderer, so why should I care what happened to him? But I did.”
* * *
Will Keller make the move from the page to the screen?
It looks that way from time to time. Shortly after it came out in 1998, Hit Man was optioned for a theatrical feature film, and a couple of scripts were written, the final one by myself. An A-list actor was attached, and the option was extended for several years, but the picture never got made. Later another deal came together with the series optioned for TV; a pilot got written, the option was extended, and then it lapsed and that was that.
As I write these lines, Keller and all his works have been optioned for a third time, with the hope that he’ll find a home on cable TV. If he does, plans call for me to have a role in the process, as a consultant and possibly as a writer.
We’ll see. Meanwhile I’m pleased to offer you this sampler of the entire series. If it’s your first taste of Keller, I hope it leads you to Hit Man and on through the rest of the series. If you’ve already read some of the books, perhaps it will provide a pleasant refresher course.