Gary Reilly: Prolific novelist's debut published year after his death

Once upon a time there was a Denver cabbie who wrote novels about a Denver cabbie who writes novels. Brendan Murphy, better known as Murph, tosses his manuscripts into a steamer trunk, with no expectation that they'll ever be read. But his creator, Gary Reilly, never abandoned his dream of becoming a published author. And this week, a year after Reilly's death from cancer at 61, the dream is coming true with the launch of The Asphalt Warrior, the first of ten comic novels chronicling Murph's mile-high adventures.

Reilly worked part-time driving cabs around Denver for years. But his true passion was writing. Over the course of decades, he proceeded with great discipline -- and, apparently, a fair degree of secrecy -- to write novel after novel, yet made few attempts to market them. But now two of his friends, following a request made in his will, have forged ahead with plans to publish all of the Murph novels starting with the first one, which gets a sendoff at the downtown Tattered Cover Tuesday evening.

"Gary lived and breathed fiction," says mystery writer (and former Denver Post reporter) Mark Stevens. "We started trading manuscripts a few years ago, him helping me more than I was helping him. I encouraged him to try to get out a bit more, but he knew very well he was just one of a million writers trying to get latched on somewhere."

Stevens and former Post cartoonist Mike Keefe, who met Reilly decades ago, formed Running Meter Press with the specific aim of publishing Reilly's tales of Murph, a shy, lazy cabbie who keeps getting reluctantly mixed up in the lives and intrigues of his fares. The company now has an imprint and distribution deal with Boulder's Big Earth Publishing. Stevens says the second Murph title, Ticket to Hollywood, will be out in another six months.

Reilly, who served as an MP in Vietnam, also wrote in several other genres, from fantasy to thrillers -- more than twenty novels in all. "We might even slide out some of his other books," Stevens says. "He wrote two of the finest Vietnam novels I've ever read, some psychological noir, some fantasy and sci fi."

Born in Kansas, Reilly majored in English at Colorado State University and took graduate courses in creative writing at the University of Colorado at Denver. "He was an absolutely wonderful writer," recalls one of his instructors, Joe Nigg, the author of several acclaimed books on mythical creatures. "He was also the only writer I know who didn't try to sell anything."

A story Reilly wrote in one of Nigg's classes, "The Biography Man," was featured in the 1979-80 Pushcart Prize anthology. Nigg describes it as "a Mark Twain kind of thing about a con man on the frontier." But Reilly seemed to lose interest in publication after that. Although Nigg remained a close friend with Reilly for years, his former student never talked to him about the cab novels.

"He was very funny and very social, but at the same time very reclusive and very private," Nigg says. "He cared about the writing, not the rest of it. His commitment to the art is really rare. I find him extraordinary -- and funny as hell."

Stevens says Reilly would occasionally send out a query to a publisher, complete with self-addressed envelope, but was disinclined to "network" his way to solid relationships with agents or editors. "He just didn't quite make the turn to the mayhem we have in the publishing world today," he says.

Reilly haunted Denver bookstores, studied Patricia Highsmith and hardboiled novels from the likes of David Goodis and James M. Cain, and once wrote a monograph on the vagaries of plot. As far as story is concerned, The Asphalt Warrior is an exceedingly mild yarn; not much happens, other than the reader getting acquainted with a wise-cracking, self-deprecating slacker who's not as dumb as he appears. The book ends with Murph starting a new writing project, "believing with all my heart that the final manuscript would never stand the slightest chance of ever being published."

Tomorrow night Denver auditor Dennis Gallagher, another Reilly admirer, will read from the novel, and Keefe and Stevens will share other tales about the author. It all gets underway June 5 at Tattered Cover Lodo, 1628 16th Street, at 7:30 pm.

More from our News archive: "Carbondale treehouse featured in Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter book."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast