Heller – The Starting Gate

November 21st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I have been researching the upcoming Nathan Heller novel, Do No Harm, for two months. That has consisted chiefly of reading books – ten cover to cover, reading selectively in another ten, filling a notebook with info and page numbers. With any Heller, a lot of research occurs along the way as well; but, in movie terms, I’ve completed pre-production. This past week I read eighteen contemporary articles on the Sam Sheppard murder case, and two more books. On Monday I start the novel.

The process with Heller has remained largely the same since True Detective back in the early ‘80s. I select the historical incident – usually a crime, either unsolved or controversially solved – and approach it as if I’m researching the definitive book on the subject. I never have a firm opinion on the case before research proper begins, even if I’ve read a little about it or seen movies or documentaries on the subject, just as somebody interested in famous true crimes.

The intent is to find the story in the research, as opposed to having the story firmly in mind and researching it. That’s worked out well for me with Heller – any number of times I’ve come up with theories about what probably really happened that have inspired non-fiction books (by authors who never credit me) (but I’m not bitter).

This time I changed my mind about who murdered Marilyn Sheppard, oh, a dozen times. I in part selected the case because it was a more traditional murder mystery than the political subjects of the last four Heller novels – sort of back to basics, plus giving me something that would be a little easier to do, since I was coming out of some health problems and major surgeries.

But it’s turned out to be one of the trickiest Heller novels of all. Figuring out what happened here is very tough. There is no shortage of suspects, and no shortage of existing theories. In addition, a number of the players are still alive (Sam Sheppard’s brother Stephen is 97) and those who aren’t have grown children who are, none of whom would likely be thrilled with me should I lay a murder at the feet of their deceased parents.

Additionally, the case does not lend itself to some of the usual Heller fun-and-games – like violence and sex. There are no bad guys to kill, and the sexual aspects of the murder make Heller hanky panky distasteful. Oddly enough, this comes after the preceding Heller, Better Dead, which found our hero more sexually active than usual (and that’s saying something).

But the research defines the book. The story emerges from the research and I have to be true to it. That story sometimes – this time for sure – takes its time revealing itself. I have changed the structure of the novel almost as many times as I have changed my mind about who killed Marilyn Sheppard.

For that reason, I do not attempt to write a chapter breakdown/outline (vital in a Heller) until I have completed the research phase. In a way that’s too bad, because if I could discern the shape of the book at, say, a third of the way through the research, I could limit further digging to the areas I need. As it is, I’ve taken notes on scores of things that won’t appear in the book.

That’s okay. In an historical novel, it’s all about the tip of the iceberg, and for me to portray that effectively, I need to know the shape of what’s under the water.

As I indicated, research doesn’t end when the writing begins. Each chapter requires some pre-production as I gather the materials from what I’ve already read, and then as I write it and need things I hadn’t anticipated, more research is done on the fly.

In addition to all this, I have to deal with the feeling I always have at the beginning of a Heller – I experience this, to a lesser degree, with Quarry and really any novel I write – that I may not be up to the job. Coming off health problems, that’s a little exaggerated this time. How do I do this? I ask myself. At least a little panic, a minor anxiety attack, always precedes the writing of chapter one.

I have completed the chapter breakdown/outline to my satisfaction, having wrestled the structure into submission – I have even found a bad guy for Heller to kill. I feel good about where I am, even if certain insecurities creep through.

For me, the saving grace has always been Nate Heller. Like Quarry, he has always been there when I need him. I start writing and there he is.

By the time you read this, I will know if he’s come through for me yet again.

* * *

Despite a few inaccuracies, this is a nice overview of Mike Hammer, touching on the Spillane/Collins collaborations.

Here’s an interesting Road to Perdition (film) article.

Check out this good interview with Hard Case Crime editor, Charles Ardai, flawed only in his neglecting to be mention me (again, I am not bitter). Several Quarry covers are featured, though.

Finally, here’s a lovely piece by Bev Keddy covering many of my books – much appreciate, Bev (who is a boy, he will have you know).

M.A.C.

On Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin and Al Capp

November 14th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I’m on a Bobby Darin group on Facebook, where several people have talked about throwing away their DVDs and CD soundtracks of Kevin Spacey’s 2004 Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.

I get it. While I am at times queasy over the witch hunt feel of today – whose career will be ruined tomorrow? – seeing the creepy Roy Moore defend himself by attacking his attackers (the women accusing him, the Washington Post, Democrats in general, the media at large) reminds me that a verdict in a courtroom isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a legitimate verdict can come from the courtroom of public opinion, if the allegations have been vetted by journalists with the credentials of those at the Post. When the number of allegations grows to critical mass, as with Cosby and Spacey, that verdict has the ring of truth.

I can only say that Kevin Spacey – whose love for Bobby Darin’s work was deeply felt – was very kind to my wife, son and me when he performed his Darin tribute concert at the House of Blues in Chicago in December 2004.

Beyond the Sea

Spacey and I had a connection through Sam Mendes, who directed both American Beauty and Road to Perdition. When Barb, Nate and I went to the House of Blues, I brought along a signed copy of Road to Purgatory to send backstage to Spacey. I had ordered tickets for the event the day they went on sale, but when we arrived, we found most of the main floor was reserved for some special party. We were sent high up to nosebleed seats. The atmosphere created by Hell’s Angel type bouncers/ushers was decidedly unfriendly.

When I went downstairs to try to convince someone with the House of Blues to send the book backstage, I was treated harshly (I will never return to that venue). By bribing one, I finally got the book accepted, having the strong feeling it would be tossed in the trash as soon as I was out of sight. Upstairs, we crowded around a tiny table with a bunch of strangers and my family studied me with the cold-eyed “What have you gotten us into this time, you incompetent fool?” expression that I know so well.

Then, over the intercom, I was called to come downstairs to the front of the club. I went down and was told that Mr. Spacey wanted to meet us after the show – there was a scheduled meet-and-greet – and that we were to be given special seating. Chairs were set up for us (by some of the same crabby biker types who had treated us so badly) right in front of the sound board, dead center, best seats in the house.

Spacey came on and did a fine show. Afterward, he greeted us warmly and he and I talked Bobby Darin for about five minutes. He was friendly and articulate and I thanked him especially for making me look good in front of my family (something that rarely happens).

Which brings me to the today’s topic, as Bob and Doug McKenzie would say: Is the work of an artist suddenly invalid because bad conduct is revealed? And is there any coming back from a scandal like this and the behavior it represents?

I’m really just asking. With someone like Cosby, I think the body of work is so large and so at odds with his actual wrongdoing that it’s hard to imagine sitting down now with one of his comedy albums or TV shows. I love the movie Hickey and Boggs but haven’t watched it since Cosby’s fall from grace. I can’t imagine I’ll ever look at my complete DVD set of I, Spy again.

On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Al Capp and Li’l Abner. I have said numerous times that it’s not only my favorite comic strip, but in my opinion the greatest of all comic strips. It had everything – sharp satire, slapstick humor, adventure, suspense, great art, and…beautiful girls.

Capp’s women were outrageously sexy, and a hidden sexual content – the frequent use of the number 69, phallic mushrooms clustered around trees with vagina-like knotholes, the positioning of Shmoos also with phallic intent – was enough to encourage Capp’s former boss, Ham Fisher, to try to get his ex-assistant thrown out of newspapers by going around showing editors examples of supposed pornography smuggled into Abner. Unfortunately, Fisher doctored the examples to make them look worse, and got kicked out of the National Cartoonists Society for it, which led to Joe Palooka’s daddy committing suicide. (See my novel, Strip for Murder, for more.)

Late in his life, when longtime liberal Capp had suddenly gone right wing (as some old rich white guys do), he became a sexual predator. On college campuses, where he gave lectures, he would arrange to meet with coeds and came onto them; he did the same for young actresses who were supposedly interviewing for parts in various Abner TV series. No reports of rape, but plenty of obnoxious behavior, which eventually was exposed (shall we say) in the press. Capp didn’t kill himself, like his old boss, but he killed his strip and died a few years later.

Still, I love Li’l Abner. I have a number of Capp originals framed and on my wall. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to banish his lifetime of brilliant work to the scrap heap of history because he was, in his later years, a dirty old man? Also, am I supposed to be surprised Al Capp liked sexy young women?

Do we think Frank Sinatra would have held up to this kind of scrutiny? How about rock ‘n’ roll stars? Does anyone really want to turn over the rock that is Mick Jagger, much less Keith Richards? Did those lads from Liverpool have their way with some underage groupies? Would you be shocked if they did? Shine the spotlight on rock ‘n’ roll and it’ll be the sexual apocalypse.

The Millennials did not live through the Sexual Revolution, which created a climate of carnal activity for a generation who’d been brought up innocently in the fifties. Beaver was the last name of a kid named Cleaver; then suddenly it wasn’t. I don’t excuse the behavior of any of my generation, but I’m not sure we should have to sit for a jury of kids who didn’t live through it. Free Love and feminism were brewing at the same time, and brother was it a strange brew.

During those years, when things were loosening up sexually, homophobia went on unabated. Closeted gays lived an outlaw life style by definition. Like a lot of straight guys, I had gay men come onto me – the first time freaked me out. Later I realized that they were as uneasy and even more afraid than I was. Roy Moore still wants gays thrown in jail or worse. Might someone like Kevin Spacey or George Takei make a mistake, a misjudgment, a misreading of another male, living as they did in a world of shadows? How harshly should we judge gay men and women who grew up in the second half of the Twentieth Century?

Not excusing anything. I certainly abhor what these famous men, straight and gay, have been getting away with, almost always operating from a position of power. But I wonder – is there any chance for redemption for somebody like Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K.? Can they come back from this? Should they? Can I watch Baby Driver with a clear conscience, or ever revisit House of Cards? Spacey’s scenes are being cut and re-shot for the soon-to-be-released All the Money in the World – should his entire cinematic legacy be similarly snipped away? Must I forget the kindness he showed me and my family?

Can I listen to Frank Sinatra without thinking about Sam Giancana?

I really am wondering.

But I do know plenty of great art has come from terrible people. It’s a subject I’ve been wrestling with, and discussing, for years – long before the daily exposure of this star or that one as a sexual predator.

* * *

The new Murder on the Orient Express isn’t bad. It’s quite sumptuous looking, and is faithful enough to the Christie source material to receive an approving nod from me. True, some action scenes – including questionable heroics from Hercule Poirot – seem like pandering to an audience dumber than anybody who would likely go to a movie called Murder on the Orient Express. But it’s a good, old-fashioned (in a positive way) movie. It’s just not as good as the 1974 original – actually, not even close.

Refresh your memory and look up the cast of the ‘74 version, and see names like Connery, Bacall, Guielgud, Widmark, Redgrave, Finney and on and on. Such giants no longer walk the earth – well, a few still do. This Murder is committed by a cast about half of whom are names – Cruz, Depp, Gad, Dafoe, Jacobi – but hardly the superstars of old. Depp, for example, is quite good…until you compare his performance to Richard Widmark’s. In ‘74, Albert Finney made an oddly cartoonish Poirot (though it worked), while director/star Kenneth Branagh has to compete with David Suchet’s definitive Poirot. In fairness, this one is better than Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express, a rare misfire for that wonderful series.

Barb and I also took in Thor Ragnarok, which is very funny while retaining the expected spectacle and superhero heroics. Marvel seems to have learned a lot from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of Fate of the Union.

And check out this look at Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane.

M.A.C.

Road to Paradise Just Published

November 7th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

The new Brash Books edition of Road to Paradise is out, and if you’re a fan of the trilogy – particularly if you’ve never read my complete version of the Road to Perdition movie novel – I hope you’ll support me and Brash in this fine effort, and buy all three. Brash did a lovely job packaging the books, which look very nice on a shelf together.

Some readers seem flummoxed by the O’Sullivan saga. It starts as a graphic novel (Road to Perdition), becomes a movie of that novel generating a novelization of the screenplay (with me doing a novel based on a screenplay based on my graphic novel), followed by a sort of prequel graphic novel (Road to Perdition 2: On the Road) published in three parts and then collected, with two prose sequels (Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise) and a final graphic novel (Return to Perdition) rounding things out.

Even I’m confused.

How did all that happen? Well, when the movie came along I did not want to see a novelization written by anyone but me. Since at the time I was doing a lot of movie and TV tie-in work, I felt it would be an embarrassment to have someone else do it. I did not predict that my novel would be butchered (and that I would have to do the butchering myself), nor did I predict that many years later a publisher would come along (Brash) to navigate the rocky waters of freeing up novelization rights to a big-budget Hollywood film so that my full version could finally be published.

The weekend Road to Perdition opened and was a hit, I rolled into action (or that is, my agent rolled into action). I was ready with the idea to do the two prose sequels, knowing that my artist – the wonderful Richard Piers Rayner – could not produce graphic novel sequels in a timely enough fashion to take advantage of the moment. But I also knew there was an appetite from publishers for more Road to Perdition in comics form, and indeed both Marvel and DC came looking. Richard was enlisted for the covers (that sort of fell through, an editorial decision I did not control) and several other terrific artists came on board to get Road to Perdition 2 out there quickly.

The coda to the series, Return to Perdition, with my longtime collaborator Terry Beatty coming on board, would have been a prose novel if the publishers of Purgatory and Paradise has been interested – they weren’t, but DC was. So we ended as we began, as a graphic novel.

I do view the graphic novel material as one thing – three graphic novels – and the novels as something else – a prose trilogy. That they fit together is more a bonus than a necessity. The prose trilogy works fine on its own.

That torturous tale – as dull a one as I have ever told – ultimately adds up to my gratitude to Brash Books for bringing the prose trilogy out in a lovely, uniform editions, with special thanks for rescuing the Perdition prose novel from tie-in oblivion.

Road to Paradise was an especially difficult one to put together, making me flex narrative muscles – characterization depths – that I hadn’t before or since. I think of it as a kind of deadpan tragedy, with some blood-spattered redemption by journey’s end.

Again, you won’t be sorry if you add these to your Max Allan Collins shelf (something each and every American should have!).

* * *

The question I am most often asked – well, the question I’m most often asked is, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Elton John?” – but the next-most-asked-question is, “What do you read?”

I’ve often said that I read little contemporary fiction, and almost no crime or mystery fiction beyond the people I learned from – Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Cain, Thompson, Stout, Christie, Gardner, etc. What I do read is non-fiction. Right now I am plowing thorough sixteen books related to the Sam Sheppard case for the Heller I’m about to write.

But I find time, here and there – in doctor’s offices and on the can or in the tub (not a pretty thought, but a reality) to read a good deal of non-fiction. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed of late.

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter is one of the best books that Bear Manor Media has published. Bear Manor Media puts out pop culture titles no one else would, and are to be commended for it, although only a handful display real excellence, like A Maverick Life: The Jack Kelly Story by Linda Alexander, The Matchless Gene Rayburn by Adam Nedeff, and Sandra Grabman’s forthcoming Petrocelli: San Remo Justice, for which I wrote the introduction.

Though Mr. Novak was my favorite TV series during my high school days, it had slipped from my memory somewhat due to the lack of a second-run life of reruns (but for a brief time on TNT). Possibly because it ran only two seasons (although racking up 60 episodes), Mr. Novak never got into syndication. A few years ago I bought a few gray market DVDs with Novak episodes, and found it as compelling now as I had in high school.

The 1963 – 1965 series was a sideways imitation of the then very popular Dr. Kildare, with Richard Chamberlin’s young doctor and Raymond Massey’s wise mentor setting the pattern for James Francisus as idealistic English teacher John Novak and Dean Jagger as the principal who helped him along. The series was generally very well written by (among others) producer/creator E. Jack Neuman, John D.F. Black and Meyer Dolinksy, directed by such luminaries as Richard Donner, Paul Wendkos, and Ida Lupino, with many top actors, including young ones like Beau Bridges, Kim Darby, Terri Garr and in particular Walter Koenig, starring in three episodes (once as a Russian exchange student!), just one of many future Star Trek talents who turn up in front of and behind the camera. The series was earnest, usually intelligent and explored many topics of the day, a surprising number of which still pertain.

Author Harter has gathered every scrap of information about the show imaginable, and the book’s major fault is its cut-and-paste nature, as many articles (including PR flackery) appear in wholesale fashion. But he makes up for it by more contemporary interview excerpts from many actors and creative personnel from the series, for which he provides a smart, lively episode guide. And pictures. Wonderful, wonderful pictures.

I am in particular a fan of Franciscus, who had a fine career and almost broke through as a major film star. But Novak was his signature role, and his dedication to it and the series he helmed came through strong in his performances, which still have a modern, Method-ish feel, despite his hunky good looks. Jagger is predictably excellent, but health concerns and apparently some creative issues – not the least of which was the second season’s impending cancellation – found him exiting early, with an equally compelling Burgess Meredith stepping in as a somewhat unpopular teacher elevated to the principal position.

Harter, for all his love for the series and diligence in telling its story, misses a few steps. He does not mention that Franciscus had a resemblance to John F. Kennedy (he would later play him in the film The Greek Tycoon) that led to a special episode about the death of a teacher. Nor did he notice the in-jokey, unbilled appearance in one episode by Suzanne Pleshette, Franciscus’ co-star in the film Youngblood Hawke (from the Herman Wouk novel).

A DVD release of the first (and superior season) is on the horizon from Warner Archives.

Other books I’ve enjoyed of late include Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero by Nancy Schoenberger, a well-done combination of dual biography and critical film study; You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era by James Bawden and Ron Miller, an interesting follow-up to their Conversations with Classic Film Stars; and From Holmes to Sherlock: the Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon by Mattias Bostrom, a fascinating treatment of Doyle’s creation of Holmes and the way in which it became such a popular culture juggernaut, sometimes in spite of Doyle’s descendants.

* * *

Here’s a fun write-up on the best five Logan Marshall-Green bad-ass performances (guess what the top pick is).

Here’s info about the magazine Back Issue #101, devoted to rock ‘n’ roll in comics, featuring a nice article on my band, Seduction of the Innocent.

This terrific look at Quarry concentrates on the most recent novel and the very first one. Don’t miss this.

M.A.C.

Two Dracula Flicks and a Great Rip-Off

October 31st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Barb and I continued our Halloween season nightly horror film fest with a pair of Dracula movies, both of which I’d seen on their initial release and neither of which had made much of an impression on me. What a difference a few years makes.

First up was Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Stylish to a fault, flirting with incoherence, this Dracula shows what happens when a director goes with the hot talent of the moment. Gary Oldman – who was his era’s Johnny Depp for maybe fifteen minutes – is a singularly unappealing Dracula whose sexual appeal for his female victims is a bigger mystery than the thinking behind Anthony Hopkins’ ridiculously over-the-top Van Helsing. Other momentary stars help bring the lavish production down to dull earth – Winona Ryder, a very lost Keanu Reeves – despite some fun touches, in particular shadows that have a life of their own. With different casting, and a sharper script (this one is by James V. Hart, whose others “credits” include Hook and Sahara), this might have, well, flown.

When Barb complained that Dracula should be a handsome leading man type – not a quirky self-indulgent nebbish – I dug out Dracula starring Frank Langella. John Badham is hardly my favorite director – he was responsible for Saturday Night Fever, after all – but he does a very respectable job that, all these years later, comes across as the Masterpiece Theater version of Dracula.

Langella’s surprise Broadway triumph as the count, in Edward Gorey-designed play, ran for 900-some performances between October 1977 and January 1980. The actor fought to keep Dracula a romantic anti-hero in the film version, eschewing blood-shot eyes and fangs, and his lady love/slash victim, portrayed by Kate Nelligan, similarly sold the gothic romance at this version’s (stake-through-the) heart.

The film apparently suffered due to the recent release and success of the spoof Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, but it plays very well now. Coppola’s casting of the moment is defeated by Badham’s transfer of the Langella Broadway performance, Nelligan’s full-blooded heroine, and a supporting cast showcasing those crazy kids, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. A wonderful John Williams score is another big plus, and the script is in part by W.D. Richter, whose cultish credits include the likes of Buckaroo Banzai and Late for Dinner (which he directed but did not write).

The Blu-ray (and the previously released laser disc) are a revision of the theatrical version, with Badham desaturating the color to near black-and-white, to recall both the Gorey stage version and the original 1931 film, while the theatrical release had a kind of golden glow forced upon the director.

Anyway, decades later my opinion of the Coppola film worsened and that of the Badham film got elevated.

Happy Death Day

As Barb and I near the end of our horror festival, we took in the current theatrical release Happy Death Day, which is a slasher film/mystery variation of Groundhog Day. This is an example of why paying some attention to Rotten Tomatoes can pay off. I had seen the preview of Happy Death Day and contemptuously dismissed it as a rip-off. I was looking forward to both Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney from an early Cohen Brothers script with a top cast) and the nordic noir, The Snowman. The critical response to both was dismissal – Suburbicon rates 26% fresh and Snowman a staggering 8% fresh. Meanwhile, Happy Death Day rates 69% fresh with a lot of positive reviews.

Our only other possibilities were the well-reviewed downers Thank You for Your Service and Only the Brave. We were in the mood for neither, plus there was something Trump era-ish about both, and anyway Happy Death Day worked as part of our Halloween-month film festival.

And Happy Death Day is terrific. It is indeed a rip-off of Groundhog Day (which it cheekily admits right on screen in its second-to-last sequence) but it’s clever, witty and brings in some nice new twists to the stuck-day concept. Further, lead Jessica Rothe is appealing even when she’s playing the early, somewhat unpleasant version of her character (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Rothe must learn to be a better person as the day repeats – but she must also solve her own murder).

* * *

I am deep in the research for the upcoming Heller, which is about the Sam Sheppard murder case. I find the material disturbing in the same tough-to-get-to-sleep fashion of the research for Butcher’s Dozen and certain of the CSI and Criminal Minds novels.

I am also wrestling with the nature of the case, which does not lend itself to certain elements that Nathan Heller books always contain – specifically, sex and action. This feels much more Perry Mason, and I haven’t decided whether to just go with it or to find ways to make the book more typically Heller.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out what happened in this controversial case. Hint: it wasn’t the One-armed Man.

* * *

I may have provided this link before, but check out this nice “mini-interview” at Rumpus.

The actor who plays Wild Dog weighs in on the new costume controversy, which Terry Beatty sparked without wanting to. For the record, I think the costume sucks.

Finally, here’s a lovely review of the Mike Hammer short story collection, A Long Time Dead, from that great writer, Bill Crider.

M.A.C.

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