Leo Banks.tif

This local author combined a love of baseball, with a lifetime of journalistic explorations, to craft two page-turning detective novels about an ex-pitcher turned sleuth.

“If anyone asks me why I’m a writer, the only answer I have is that I was born to it,” says Leo W. Banks, sitting at a patio table of a coffeehouse, relaxed yet posed, the sharpness of a journalist complementing the casual air of an adopted son of the West.

The author of innumerable newspaper pieces, magazine articles, and the novels Double Wide and Champagne Cowboys, he may have inherited just the right genes in the ideal environment for his career, but he also has worked tirelessly at his profession.

He grew up a world away from sunny Tucson, in New England, a region of the country famous for producing iconic writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost and Stephen King.

His father was a math professor, his mother was a homemaker, and he and his three brothers had a typical childhood in Boston, consisting of school, play, and environmental exploration. “We were regular kids playing ball and riding the subway around,” he reflects. “Having a good time. Anything we wanted to do was fine with my parents.”

So there was no discouragement when he showed signs of one day becoming a scribe.

“When I was 10 years old, I wrote a book — 10 pages — about the Civil War,” he explains. “I was a Civil War fanatic, which was a very strange thing for a boy. My 10-year-old brain told me that if the book was going to have any consequence, it would have to have an introduction. I needed some learned professor to do that. So I went to my father and said, ‘Dad, can you write me an introduction?’ He was a typical WWII guy. He never said much, had a cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth. In the war, he had landed at Utah Beach, spent 11 months in combat, was wounded, and came back home and never talked about it much. So he goes into his office in our home, and I can hear the typewriter clacking. He came out, and what he wrote said, ‘This book is so good, it will be read for hundreds of years.’”

Leo chuckles about his early foray into journalism, but he acknowledges that it was only a few years later when he got a newspaper job — albeit one that required not mental skills, but a sturdy back.

“I was going to a Jesuit High School and right across the street was the Boston Globe Building. My buddy and I got jobs loading trucks for Sunday deliveries, so we’d work Fridays and Saturdays because they were delivering an early edition up to northern New England. That was when the editions were thick. Right outside the school was this very busy boulevard with a median in the middle. You were supposed to walk to an overpass, but instead, we’d just dart across like a couple of dummies. That was the first newspaper job I had.”

Not long after, while attending Boston College, he learned what it was like sitting behind the typewriter keys and rushing to meet deadlines. “I covered the basketball team for the sports section of the student newspaper. That was the first real writing of any consequence, though I did write things on my own. I put out a humor magazine that nobody knows about. I typed it up and did the whole thing myself. It was kind of along the lines of National Lampoon. If you did it today, the Justice Department would send people out to knock on your door for an investigation,” he jokes.

Though he says that his attempt to be the next great American humorist didn’t last long, the drive to write was like a finely tuned press machine. Asked if he pictured himself working for a newspaper as a career, he responds, “Yes … I couldn’t think of anything else. I had no particular ability in anything other than putting words together, and I had no interest in anything else, either. In a way, that’s a gift because a lot of people flounder around. In a way, it’s a curse because this is it, and you better like it.”

Newspaper editor/publisher Horace Greeley is often credited with the statement, “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Though literary minds are still wrestling with the exact originator of that phrase, it is a direction that many journalism students have taken, and Leo was one of them.

When he was a senior at BC, he saw a notice for student teaching jobs. “One of them was to Shiprock Boarding School in Shiprock, New Mexico,” he recalls. “A friend of mine and I decided, ‘let’s go there.’ And of course, my feet had never left pavement before. I didn’t know anything about the West. So in 1974, I wound up in New Mexico, teaching history to Navajo kids at a boarding school. When I finished my term there, I took a bus to Tucson to visit my uncle, who was a priest at St. Pius X. I saw Tucson for the first time, and it was December and 65 or 70 degrees. I thought, ‘Why would I go back to Massachusetts?’ So I applied to UA and got a master’s and then went to work for the Arizona Daily Star.”

At the Star, he was fortunate to work with some great mentors, including one of the giants of photojournalism. “First story I ever did, I went to a retirement home for a piece on a lady’s birthday party, and I was accompanied by Jack Shaeffer. I remember thinking, ‘What do I do?’ Jack knew everybody behind every door in Tucson. There was nobody he didn’t know. He says, ‘I got this, don’t worry,’ cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth. We just went in, and Jack talked to everybody and paved the way for this woman’s 100th birthday party story. I did a lot of stories with Jack.”

Leo notes that he traveled all over Southern Arizona working for the newspaper, writing about a wide variety of subjects. “A lot of it was just stuff to fill the paper. There were a lot of ads in those days, so we had plenty of space to fill,” he observes. “One that I recall … I went up to Prescott to do a piece on Ty Hardin, who was an old Western movie actor [the TV series Bronco, Spaghetti Westerns such as Acquasanta Joe]. He knew John Wayne and acted with all those big-name people.”

It was while he was at the Star, but working on a piece for Sports Illustrated, that the foundation for Double Wide was laid. “I worked for the paper from 1979 to 1985, and around ’81, I traveled to Mexico with the Juarez Indios, a Mexican baseball team,” he says. “I spent three weeks traveling with them and sold the story blind. It was an eight-page feature. The photographer was Bill Eppridge, who was a well-known Time- Life photographer. If you remember the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy right after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel, that was his photo.

“Having been with the baseball team in Mexico for three weeks, in a very story-rich environment, with the characters, scenes, and things that were happening was inspiring,” Leo continues. “I had always wanted to write a book, so I gave it a shot. At the time, it was called Tequila Sunday. I wrote it up, and had a big-time agent, and it went nowhere. Just flopped. I kept working at the Star, quit in 1985, and freelanced and did all kinds of stuff.”

But first novels, just like significant secrets, seldom stay buried forever. A few years ago, Leo was in his garage, found a hard copy of Tequila Sunday, and the metaphorical light bulb over his head went stadium level. “I read it, and thought, ‘I can do this better. I’ll fix it up.’ I did, and it became Double Wide. I get a kick out of these people who sit down and write a book in three months,” he adds with a laugh.

As you read Double Wide, it’s immediately obvious that writing for Arizona Highways and True West has given Leo a sharp eye for both terrain and lore. Take for example this passage: “Paradise Mountain loomed two miles south, an indistinct darkness against the sky. At the peak sat a town that grew up around a gold mine that hadn’t been worked since the late 1800s. The old buildings stood empty, but drug smugglers used them as a pass-through point and rest stop.”

You also can see how that long ago trip to Mexico — and Leo’s ongoing affection for baseball — informs the story and its characters. Protagonist Prospero “Whip” Starks, a former hotshot pitcher, is one part Jim Bouton (the pitcher-turned-author of Ball Four), and one part Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s most-perfect creation, a world-weary knight in tarnished armor, battling corruption in 1940s LA. And it may not be entirely coincidental that Bouton himself once appeared in a film featuring Philip Marlowe — the 1973 Robert Altman neo-noir The Long Goodbye. Since Leo is a movie buff, and aficionado of hardboiled writers such as Chandler, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, that style comes as easily to him as a split-finger fastball did to Cy Young Award winner David Cone.

As for the cop stuff in Double Wide, readers can only speculate if any of it is influenced by Leo’s son Patrick, a law enforcement officer in the Phoenix area.

In any case, they will pick up immediately that Leo doesn’t imitate anyone. Rather, his rat-a-tat style moves effortlessly between tense terseness and picturesque humor. “Two hours of sack time had made me cranky,” he writes in Double Wide. “Diaz’s cologne didn’t help. When he left, the Airstream smelled like a Holiday Inn bathroom after the maid finishes.”

The story of how Whip gets roped into a mystery involving murder and the craft of hurling a baseball in ways that seem to defy physics is compelling stuff. Locals also will appreciate all the references to Hi Corbett Field, Tucson Boulevard, Arizona Feeds, etc. that help to ensure the sense of place.

Reviews of the book have been very good, and Leo has been honored by his peers. “It won two awards from the Western Writers of America for best first novel, and best Western contemporary novel,” he remarks.

As anyone who knows baseball understands, a good pitcher who has success with a batter not being able to hit his fastball, will rear back and fire that pitch again the next time that batter comes up to the plate. For Leo, there was no question that another Whip Starks novel was in the rotation.

In 2020, Brash Books published his follow- up to Double Wide, titled Champagne Cowboys. In this one, Whip loses two friends — a wealthy couple in the Foothills — in a home invasion gone wrong. Or so it seems. Soon Whip stumbles onto another murder, and some very bad people of both genders.

Both of Leo’s novels are fast reads, and are imbued with a cinematic quality that makes you wonder if Hollywood has come knocking for the rights yet. “There have been no calls about movies, but that’s sort of a double-edged sword,” Leo acknowledges. “You get a call, and then nothing happens. Maybe that’s best. Hemingway said that you drive to the California border and toss your novel over and drive away, because it doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

While contemplating his next move, Leo has plenty to occupy his time. He enjoys watching sports — basketball in addition to the Great American Past-time. “I’ve got a black lab — Duke — that takes a lot of my time and attention. He’s the sweetest animal who ever lived. Just a wonderful creature,” he extols.

Leo and his wife Teresa — an information security specialist at UArizona — also like to get out on the open road when time and circumstances permit. “We like traveling around Arizona. I did that for Arizona Highways, and got to know every corner of the state, every canyon, every small town. I love doing it. This state is unbelievable. The big cities are all good, but when you get off into the little places it’s really magical. And some of the landscape you really can’t believe,” he enthuses.

Will any of his sojourns creep into the further adventures of Whip? “I’m working on the third one in the series,” he teases. “I also have a couple of other books in mind that are not part of the series.”

Ever the working journalist, however, he doesn’t fantasize about being the next bestselling phenomenon like Lee Child or James Patterson. “That,” he concludes, exuding the Zen of the West, “would be like walking into Circle K and buying the winning lottery ticket. It’s about the same odds.”