It was 2015. I was a year removed from publishing “The .9 mm Solution”, my second contemporary crime novel. I was looking for something to write. After all, a writer shouldn’t have that kind of down time. I remember throwing out some ideas to the Facebook world with some possibilities. The result was I started working on Ark City Confidential. This was to be my first attempt at historical crime fiction. It was inspired solely by Larry Hammer.
Larry was my wife’s uncle and a long time resident of Arkansas City, Kansas, along with his partner in crime, Dixie McGuire, who owned and operates Daisy Mae’s Cafe. This is small town Kansas at its best: streets with old buildings; a laid-back atmosphere; and a restaurant as a social center where everyone who knows everyone gathers. And the food is phenomenal.
But what got me on this writing track were Larry’s stories about the town in its old days. There were references to underground tunnels, a community once referred to as “Little Chicago”, and a mysterious figure known only as the Grandfather on the Hill, supposedly the main power behind all crime and corruption. Well, if this wasn’t enough for a work of fiction I didn’t know what was.
I recall a visit that summer, starting out with me going to the Ark City library, and then a stop at the cafe before a meeting with a shady pawn shop owner who was old enough to have a few tales that could be partially told. Finally, we visited the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum where the proprietor was kind enough to give me several books on the history of the town.
And so I wrote a book. I was satisfied with my efforts. Until I pitched it at the OWFI conference in 2016 and was told that series novels were really big. So, on the two plus hour ride home in May 2016, I worked out the ideas for two more stories. Secrets of the Righteous was published in 2018 and Lost in the Plains in 2019. All of this started because of tall tales of a small Kansas town told to me by my wife’s uncle.
Larry Hammer passed away suddenly last night. He was 76. He leaves behind family and friends. I can never forget him nor repay the debt of inspiration that turned my writing in a new and exciting direction, even though he didn’t think as much of his efforts as I did. Larry and Dixie appeared in the three previous books as themselves, the fix-it-all guy who was friends with everyone and the owner of Daisy Mae’s Cafe.
In the draft of the last chapter of the last book, there is this passage:
Right around dinnertime, Larry Hammer came around and sat right across from me in the booth. As he had done so many times before, there was no need for an invitation.
“What’s up, boss?” he asked casually. The man was in his mid seventies but looking fit as a fiddle, ready to go back to work for anyone who might have asked but happy to stay “retired” if he had a mind to.
As I told him of the plans Sally and I had, he leaned forward with keen interest. Dixie finally joined us, picking up the threads of the conversation.
“Can’t say as I blame you,” Larry finally responded. “I’ve been looking for a way out for a long time.”
“Says who?” Dixie chimed in, slapping Larry’s shoulder. “You’ll wind up dropping dead in one of these booths someday.”
“With your cooking I have no doubt.”
It was that kind of camaraderie I was going to miss. These two had been the kindest to me of all the folks I ever met and made me feel like one of the family. I doubted there was any place in Los Angeles that served a better meatloaf.
Sadly, that is exactly what happened. Larry was a tall character in real life and will remain one as long as these books are in print. I can think of no better tribute.