by Don Herron
This article was written for the program book for Left Coast Crime 12: Slugs and Roses, held March 21-24 2002 in Portland, Oregon — Dennis came in as Publisher Guest of Honor while I made the scene as Fan Guest of Honor, courtesy the Hammett tour and acting as chairman of the first of the modern Bouchercons in San Francisco in 1982, the one with Robert B. Parker as Guest of Honor. But in the printed program the way Dennis talks was omitted, for reasons of space or political correctness or whatever, who knows? Consequently, the uncensored article which follows is also known under the title “The Taw.”
Among the flamboyant characters I have encountered in my day, I put Dennis McMillan — alias D.R. McNuttlemeister, F.R.S., Publisher-Manqué & Aspiring Mendicant — a.k.a. D. B. Bug, Esq., Publicatus Mendicatum Rex — very near the top. For reference, I have met everyone from Police Chiefs to Porn Queens and many a grand eccentric. Hey, I was almost beheaded (by accident, it would have been an accident) by a blade whipped from his sword cane by the pulp great E. Hoffmann Price. For that reason alone I put Ed Price just a notch or two higher on my list than I place Dennis, who only poisoned me (another accident, no doubt).
Dennis’ legend, all solidly based in fact, rolls out before him like a dust storm off the desert. Do you remember back when he was publishing his first set of books — McMillan: Opus One? About every eight months he moved from one side of the country to another. No one has ever understood that. You collect this impressive series of books, including reprints of extremely rare Arthur W. Upfield and limited first editions of Charles Willeford and the crown jewels of the run, nearly twenty volumes in the Fredric Brown in the Pulps set. Are they all issued from New York? No. Are they all issued from the same place? No. You’ve got San Francisco and Miami Beach. Missoula, Montana. Volcano, Hawaii. Maybe one or two places no one has ever heard of. . . .
Wandering about, his stories and thus his legend spread across the country. The time the two guys each had a gun to either side of his head. Stopping with booksellers in LA, his scrofulous old dog knocks up their dog. So many outrageous — or, as Dennis would say, rude — tales. I guess my favorite is when he was back in his native turf, Wichita, before he set out to conquer the world. Both he and another guy were in hot pursuit of this one woman, bent on marriage. Dennis lost, and headed off on his existential quest, which continues to this day. His rival married the woman, but filed for divorce about a week later after she tried to run him down with her car.
For over fifteen years I thought Dennis was the only person in the world who talks like he does, kind of this bizarre drawl. Nowww, Donnnnnn — that’s the way it repeats in my mind. Finally, I met a childhood pal of his and was stopped in my tracks. “Hey! You talk just like Dennis! What the hell is this?!” “Ohhhh,” he explained. “The wayyyy we talkkk. It’s calleddd the Tawwww.” The Taw. Dennis tells me that some folk in Wichita also refer to it as “the Do-Dah.” The Do-Dah. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Before you hear the voice, though, you’ll probably spot the garb. Dennis is like the High King of the Hipster Nation. Spends more time seeking out vintage clothing than he does looking for rare books. He’s turned me on to sources for never-before-worn shoes from the 1940s, and bought me a snazzy jacket to apologize for poisoning me. I remember one time, we were sitting in a diner in Orange County and the waitress stopped and said, “Hey, man. I dig your clothes!” “Well,” Dennis exclaimed, “I should hope so!” It can be kind of startling. Last fall I was on the phone doing an interview with James Crumley, when he said that Dennis was just then pulling into the driveway, bearing deluxe copies from his edition of The Final Country. Crumley reported that Dennis was getting out of the car. Crumley stopped talking. Finally he said, “Look at that. . . . He’s dressed just like a little Kewpie Doll!”
And then there are the gigantic old cars. I’d never heard of the Packard Society of America before Dennis showed up in San Francisco, as I drove him around looking for parts so he could get his machine running again. The classic image: We were in Miami, and had liberated Donald Westlake from the local publicist for a few hours. It was almost time for Westlake to get back for a function and Dennis piled him into some monstrous Cadillac, longer than a bus. The starter didn’t turn. Dennis jumped from behind the wheel, lifted the massive hood and started fiddling around with stuff. Westlake looked over at the rest of us where we were waiting as backup in a real car, grinned, leaned out the window and began writing on the dust on the door, H-E-L-P, I A-M B-E-I-N-G H-E-L-D. . . .
I can say I have been on the Dennis-as-publisher scene from Upfield’s The House of Cain in 1983. One thousand copies. Man, did we ever try to talk him out of doing that many copies of a first book. No luck. Excellent as it is, that book dogged Dennis, boxes moved back and forth across the world. I remember shipping Dennis several boxes he’d left behind of his second title, the off-trail, non-noir The Brazilian Guitar — now incredibly rare and very costly, sought by collectors trying to complete their McMillan shelves. I could retire if I’d kept a box of those, I guess. Even The House of Cain, which Dennis says, “I couldn’t sell for $30 up to a few years ago,” lately has been priced at $650 a copy by some dealers.
Between his first set of books from 1983-1991 and the current McMillan: Opus Two, which began in 1995, Dennis went off into the clothing market with his own brand of Hawaiian and Western shirts. The Fredric Brown set was done, Willeford had died, Crumley wasn’t writing much. Dennis didn’t know “if I could sell enough books to actually make a living, without the underpinning of something like the Fredric Brown series that I could rely on, whilst sprinkling other gems in amongst those tomes, as I discovered them or as they were written.” So he got into shirts and almost lost his, arriving in China (yes, China) just as the manufacturer was about to sell his entire inventory to someone else who had just shown up, liked the product, and offered a nickel more per item. A difference of mere dollars, and Dennis could have been wiped out.
Today, among other titles, Dennis is releasing deluxe editions of Crumley (back in the saddle and riding like the wind), George P. Pelecanos and Michael Connelly — books which sell out before they are even printed. No doubt the highpoint of the new series of books has to be his 1996 edition of Kent Anderson’s Night Dogs, a novel that had been rejected by everybody. Dennis followed his instinct (and his books are hotly collectable because of this instinct) and published it. His run sold out in about a week and the bigtime publishers back in New York got into a bidding war to bring out a trade hardcover.
I’d say Dennis has definitive tastes for the fiction he calls rude. You know, a flat stretch of highway. The lonely diner rank with the smell of rancid vinyl. Tongue scorched by bad coffee. A .38 cool against the skin under your belt. Nowhere to go. Not a thing to lose. We all get that feeling, right? No publisher on earth is better than Dennis at scratching that itch.