Frederick Nolan obituary | Thrillers

Frederick Nolan, who has died aged 91, was a novelist, historian and publisher, and a leading expert on the wild west gunslinger Billy the Kid. He wrote more than 70 books – thrillers, historical fiction, romance, westerns, mysteries and biographies – in his own name and under the noms de plume Frederick H Christian, Daniel Rockfern, Christine McGuire and Benjamin Rabier.


In the days when a swastika on a cover was a surefire way of hitting the bestseller lists, Fred had two big successes with the wartime thrillers The Oshawa Project (1974, published in the US as The Algonquin Project) and The Mittenwald Syndicate (1976) . The former, about a plot to assassinate the US general George Patton, was made into the film Brass Target (1978), which starred John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren, with George Kennedy as Patton.

John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren in the film Brass Target, 1978, based on Frederick Nolan's thriller The Oshawa Project
John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren in the film Brass Target, 1978, based on Frederick Nolan’s thriller The Oshawa Project. Photograph: Rotten Tomatoes

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 brought an end to the Lincoln County war, a long-running conflict between cowboys, ranchers and lawmen in 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), along with introductions, forewords and notes to many books on the West by other authors, won him numerous awards.

Book cover The West of Billy the Kid by Frederick Nolan

Born in Liverpool, Fred was the son of Evelyn (nee Heathcote) and George Nolan, who met as stewards on the Cunard Line and later became publicans. Fred went to Liverpool Collegiate school, and during the second world war was evacuated to Aberaeron in Ceredigion. His passion for the American west was triggered 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 of American musicals.

While working as a shipping clerk and typewriter salesman he read all he could, and became a connoisseur of Western fiction in the days when it was a flourishing literary genre. In 1954 he was the co-founder of the English Westerners’ Society, an offshoot of the US 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, having persuaded 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, despite the young Englishman never having set foot in the US, let alone Lincoln County.

In the meantime, Fred’s work with the English Westerners’ Society came to the attention of Michael Legat, managing editor at Corgi Books. Westerns were a major sector of the publishing market and Legat invited him to become a reader for Corgi. He was apologetic that they could only pay 15 shillings (75p) per title. Fred said: “I could hardly believe my ears – you could get paid for reading books? It was like being tapped on the shoulder by God.”

This led to a staff job in 1960 with Corgi, where his marketing flair quickly came to the fore, and he rose to become European sales rep. Between 1969 and 1974, when he turned to writing full time, he ran publicity for Penguin, William Collins, Fontana and Granada in London, and Ballantine Books in New York, for authors including Joseph Heller, Jacqueline Susann, Norman Mailer, Alistair MacLean, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane and Len Deighton.

Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway book cover

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 work colleagues, and more than one upright book man was surprised to find himself appearing in print as a “cold-eyed killer”.

In New York he met the agent Artie Pine, who offered to represent him. Although Fred laughed, saying “I know more publishers than you”, Artie made Fred write down what he thought he would earn as a writer in the coming year, while Artie wrote down what he thought he could get for his next book, The Mittenwald Syndicate. Artie’s figure was double Fred’s, and he achieved it – so he remained Fred’s agent until his death.

Fred was later revealed to be one of those behind “the Gee Report”, an anonymous scandal sheet that circulated in the publishing industry for several years revealing authors’ advances, agents’ commissions, publishers’ deals and personnel movements, and that played its part in shifting the trade 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 one-hour radio programs presented by Jessie Matthews and broadcast on Radio 2 in 1975, and this resulted in his also writing The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein (1978).

Fred had long wanted to write a biography of Rodgers’s earlier songwriting partner – Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway (1994) was a triumph, despite the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization stepping in to block reproduction of Hart’s lyrics. Later it emerged that Hart’s sister-in-law Dorothy had intervened – she did not appreciate Fred stating that Hart was gay, and had omitted this detail in her own biography.

In 1962 Fred married Heidi Würmli, and they lived in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, for more than 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.

Frederick William Nolan, writer and biographer, born 7 March 1931; died 15 June 2022

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