A little more than a month after I posted the following KILLING CASTRO afterthought, I found this remarkable review on the website pornokitsch.com.
In February or March of 1961, my then–wife and I were living in a spacious apartment in a luxury building with Central Park across the street and a slum on our other three sides. She was more than slightly pregnant, and I was too young to worry much about the upcoming obligations of fatherhood. I was writing, and selling what I wrote, and there was nothing wrong with that.
One day my agent, Henry Morrison, came to me with an assignment. Charles Heckelmann, an editor at Monarch Books, itself a second–rate paperback house, had a book he wanted written. The title was to be Fidel Castro Assassinated, and that pretty much tells you what he had in mind, but that didn’t keep him from spelling it out. “A group of Americans go to Cuba,” he said, “and their mission is to assassinate Castro, and they do. They pull it off.”
Now he might have gotten the idea from The Day of the Jackal, but that would have required more in the way of precognition than Charlie could bring to the table, as Frederick Forsyth’s novel wouldn’t appear for another ten years. Matter of fact, I believe I know where he got the idea, and the question of precognition, or more specifically the lack thereof, is very much a part of it.
He got the idea the same place he got the one for a quickie biography of Elizabeth Taylor.
Now I was never offered that job, but my good friend Donald Westlake was. And Don took it on, and did a creditable job of sifting clippings and pasting together something that made Heckelmann happy, and it was in due course published: Elizabeth Taylor: A Fascinating Story of America’s Most Talented Actress and the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, by John B. Allan. Don never used that pen name before or since, nor did he write any other biographies of actresses. And I don’t know that Monarch published any other actress bios, either.
So why did they want this one? Because Ms. Taylor had been ill a lot at the time, and Heckelmann figured there was a good chance she was dying, and if she kicked off, well, he wanted to have a book on the stands before the body was cold.
Get the picture? Fidel Castro was neither America’s most talented actress or the world’s most beautiful woman, but he was very much in the news, and there were rumors—well–founded, it would turn out—that some important and well–placed persons were plotting his assassination. Well, by golly, if someone was going to kill Castro, why shouldn’t Monarch make a buck on the deal?
I suppose it was worth a gamble. I got $1500 for the book, and I think Don got about the same for the Taylor opus, and it’s not as though either book required its subject’s death in order to sell a few copies. And if either longshot had come in, well, Heckelmann would have looked like a genius. A ghoulish genius, but a genius all the same.
Ah well. Last I looked, Fidel and Liz were both still alive. [That was true when I wrote this piece. She’s left us since then, but Fidel’s still got a pulse.] Charlie, on the other hand, died a while back.
It was a challenge, writing the book. I didn’t know a whole lot about Cuba, and I was limited to what I could find out at the library, because a $1500 advance wasn’t going to send me to Havana to do on–the–ground research. And Heckelmann wanted the book in a hell of a hurry. God knows what he’d heard. . .
I wrote it quickly enough, and I happen to know that I finished it on March 29, 1961. How do I remember? Well, if I’d forgotten, the dedication would remind me:
This is for AMY JO, who was born yesterday…
If I didn’t learn all that much about Cuba, I did learn a little about writing—specifically, about writing action scenes, something with which I’d had little experience. And I guess the book came off okay. Here’s what a very generous Amazon reviewer had to say when Hard Case Crime published the book:
Hard Case Crime has done it again, bringing us a 1961 pseudonymous thriller from Lawrence Block. Killing Castro focuses on one member of a ragtag ensemble cast who have accepted a commission to kill Fidel Castro. They begin in Tampa, make their separate ways to Havana and . . . well . . . don’t think that later history guarantees that Fidel will make it through the final reel.
The narrative is taut, the language pulpy, the plotting perfect. Drenched in booze, cigarette and cigar smoke, beans and rice and sex, the story moves to its satisfying conclusion. Along the way there are interspersed accounts of Fidel’s rise to and abuse of power. And give Block special points for his knowledge of Cuba in general, Havana in particular.
The book underscores Block’s persistent and longstanding talent for this sort of writing. He does it now and he could do it then. And no, hitman Turner in this book is not the prototype for Block’s current hitman, John Keller. He’s his own man and he’s got some dangerous partners. Fidel, watch your back.
I got another very generous review around the same time from an old friend of mine, long active in leftist circles. “You had the right slant on Cuba all along,” she wrote. I did? Well, even a blind sow finds an acorn once in a while.
I’ve written a whole lot of books under a whole lot of names, and there are readers out there who’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into rooting out this pseudonymous work of mine. I’ve been credited—if that’s the word—with a good many books I had no connection with, but I can think of only two books that no one knew were mine.
Fidel Castro Assassinated! was one of them. The pen name—Henry Morrison’s selection—was Lee Duncan. Heckelmann may or may not have thought that was the author’s real name, but it was the only name he had, and he slapped it on the book and that was that.
Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime came up with the new title, Killing Castro, and I think it’s a great improvement. And now, as this fifty–year–old tale bounces around cyberspace as an eBook, I can only sit back and wish it well. And hope you enjoyed it.