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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Story behind the Story
I wasn’t looking for a story behind the story when I called Hard Case Crime to ask about a 1996 copyright date I’d found lurking inside Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel. Was this fine atmospheric thriller about a Chicago cab driver a reprint? “I’m glad you called,” Charles Ardai, Hard Case publisher, told me, “because there’s quite a story behind that date.” You just never know when a Booklist feature will land in your lap.
It turns out that Clark has been a Chicago cab driver himself for nearly 30 years. He first wrote Nobody’s Angel, which was called Relita’s Angel at the time, in the early 1990s. Years of rewriting and submitting the book to numerous publishers went by without success, which led him to self-publish the novel in 1998. Then he took it one step further and sold it from his cab. “I had a copy of the book sitting up with a suction cup, so you could see it, and then a basket of copies underneath. A lot of passengers never said anything about it, but some would ask. I sold a couple hundred copies for five bucks each.”
Relita’s Angel was Clark’s first novel, but it wasn’t the first one he sold to a mainstream publisher. One night a Chicago lawyer flagged down Clark’s cab and, seeing the book on the dashboard, inquired about it. That led to further discussion, and eventually, the lawyer agreed to serve as Clark’s agent and try to sell his books (by this time, he had four finished manuscripts). The lawyer-turned-agent was able to sell one of them, a PI novel called Westerfield’s Chain, to St. Martin’s. It was published in 2002.
Meanwhile, Relita languished. The self-published version included laudatory quotes on the back, but the passages actually came from various reject letters Clark had received. He excerpted the good parts but stopped before the inevitable “however . . .” In 2000, Clark worked the BEA convention, held at McCormick Place in Chicago, in his cab. “The booksellers were pretty funny when they saw my book on the dashboard, ” Clark remembers. “Some were terrified—you could tell they were afraid I was going to try to sell it to them or try to get them to publish it. But others were great with it. One woman gets in and asks, ‘Is that your book?’ I gave it to her, and she turned it over, read the quotes, and, pointing at one of them, said, ‘That’s my husband!’ Then she said, ‘I’ll bet his next word was however. I said, ‘Exactly.’”
When Clark heard about Hard Case Crime, he thought he’d give Relita one more try. Sure enough, publisher Ardai was hooked. After another rewrite in which the mood-piece aspect of the book—imagine a jazz solo in the background as cab driver Eddie Miles cruises Chicago’s dark streets—was more effectively intertwined with the mystery plot, the book was retitled Nobody’s Angel and, finally, after nearly 20 years, is now ready for prime time. No need to sell it from his cab this time, but maybe Clark will keep a copy on the dashboard again, for old times’ sake.
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