Better Ed

May 24th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

Normally I would just provide a link, but this BETTER DEAD review from Ed Gorman’s blog is so smart and trenchant (not a word you hear much these days), I just had to share it with you here. By way of full disclosure, Ed and I are friends, but we are also genuine fans of each other’s work.

BETTER DEAD

In 1983, Max Allan Collins created a brand new sub-genre, something very few writers have ever done. In TRUE DETECTIVE, his first Nathan Heller novel, he wedded the street-wise private detective novel with the historical novel.

The advantages to this approach were enormous. The big blockbuster historical novels were all too often stagey and wooden. Heller not only brought a sense of humor to the dance, he treated the historical figures he dealt with as human beings who farted, told dirty jokes and had the kind of mundane personal problems the big blockbusters never dealt with. In other words, he brought reality to the table.

In BETTER DEAD Heller is hired by Senator Joseph McCarthy to prove that all the victims Tail Gunner Joe is pursuing are actually “Commies.” His particular interest is Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who sit in prison awaiting their execution. This is just how I imagined McCarthy, a drunken, ignorant Mick rummy bent on achieving massive power. He is assisted in this by none other than Roy Cohn, a vile and treacherous figure who just happened to be (half a decade later) one of Donald Trump’s mentors.

But Heller also signs on to help an ailing Dashiell Hammett find evidence that the Rosenbergs have been set up and are innocent.

Collins recreates the Zeitgeist of the era very well. Yes, there were a lot of Communist sympathizers back then, mostly older men and women, intellectuals often, who saw the suffering during the Depression and thought—mistakenly—that Communism was the solution. (I started college in 1962 and took a history class from an elderly professor who was still a Stalinist, despite the fact that we now knew that Uncle Joe Stalin had slaughtered millions and millions of his own people.)

But these weren’t “Communist agents,” just disillusioned intellectuals (the Coen Bros. wittily address this in their latest film “Hail Caesar”).

Collins’ sociological eye never fails. Here’s a description I’ve now read three or four times just because I enjoy it so much. Heller is in the Bohemian heart of Greenwich Village.

“The clientele this time of time of night was mostly drinking coffee, and a good number were drunk, some extravagantly so as artists and poets and musicians sang their own praises and bemoaned the shortcomings of their lessers. These were self-defined outcasts, their attire at once striking and shabby, drab and outlandish.”
Bravado writing on every single page.

Max Allan Collins not only created a new sub-genre—he is its undisputed master.

* * *

Speaking of BETTER DEAD, we are sitting at five reviews on Amazon. We sure could use some more (same for THE BIG SHOWDOWN and MURDER NEVER KNOCKS). ANTIQUES FATE is doing better at twelve reviews.

For those who have not written reviews at Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble before, you don’t have to be Anthony Boucher – just a couple of lines expressing your opinion is all that’s necessary. But more is welcome.

* * *

Here’s a movie you need to go to: THE NICE GUYS.

If you, like me, consider Shane Black’s KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) the best private eye movie of recent years, you will be a porker in excrement at this one. Set in 1977, the script co-written by Black nails the era to perfection, paving the way for outstanding art direction.

But you won’t go home whistling the sets. The plot, which has to do with the murder of a porn star, is a twisty thing where the detectives mostly stumble onto the clues, but you’ll only be amused. The dialogue has a witty, naturalistic bounce that stands apart from the story, reminiscent of my favorite TV show, ARCHER. And it’s rare that a crime film can be this funny and yet be so tough. There’s a lot of Spillane in this one, particularly by way of Russell Crowe, heavy-set and menacing and rather sweet.

Crowe and his co-star Ryan Gosling are the surprises here. I thought Gosling was an empty pretty boy until I saw him on SNL a while back and he was funnier than the cast. Here he is hilarious without shortchanging the character. I knew I liked this movie, but I loved it when Gosling found a corpse and did a tribute to Lou Costello by way of his “Hey Abbott!”-type reaction.

Warning: it contains lots of nudity and blood splattery violence, and by “warning” I mean “recommendation.”

* * *

Here’s a really nice and very smart review of MURDER NEVER KNOCKS.

Check out this terrific review of the Ms. Tree novel, DEADLY BELOVED.

Finally, you may get a kick out of this look at the Bradbury Building, home of Nate Heller’s LA office. I participate in the comments section.

M.A.C.

Heller and York Score

May 17th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

J. Kingston Pierce at the excellent Rap Sheet has given BETTER DEAD a splashy rave as this week’s Pierce’s Pick. Also, in honor of Rap Sheet’s ten-year anniversary, Jeff Pierce is giving away five copies of BETTER DEAD and five more of ASK NOT (in hardcover). Read the rave and all about the free copies right here.

Also at Jeff’s terrific second blog, KILLER COVERS, which celebrates paperback covers of the ‘40s through the ‘70s, he has paid tribute to BETTER DEAD with a selection of sexy covers featuring redheads.

My pal Bill Crider has published his own BETTER DEAD rave at one of my favorite web sites, BILL CRIDER’S POP CULTURE MAGAZINE. There’s a fun discussion in which I participate in the comments section about the unlikelihood of Nate Heller being involved in so many famous cases. Take a look.

I am pleased and honored to have THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK (now available in paperback!) nominated for Best Novel by the Western Fictioneers. This link will take you to the entire list of nominees, plus one winner – my great friend Bob Randisi, who is receiving a life achievement award.

Since we seem to be leading off with links this week, check out this excellent review from writer Ron Fortier of QUARRY’S VOTE (the McGinnis-covered Hard Case Crime edition of PRIMARY TARGET).

NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU by Matt Clemens and me is a Kindle Bargain ($1.99), reachable at a link here.

In memoriam of Darwyn Cooke’s untimely passing, and Bobby Darin’s birthday (May 14), COMICS OUGHTA BE FUN prints a condensed version of THE BOBBY DARIN STORY by Terry Beatty and me.

* * *

I think I’ve had it with superhero movies.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was long, self-consciously dark and occasionally tedious, but I didn’t hate it, with the exception of Jesse Eisenberg’s vastly misjudged Lex Luther. Superman and Batman retain their charisma, and it was fun seeing Wonder Woman in one of these movies. Otherwise fun was in short supply in this and so many of the genre.

Barb and I walked out of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. We did so well into the movie, probably a couple of hours, but an endless fight scene between the two groups of superheroes warned me that the climax of taking on the super villains was yet to come, so we finally bailed, battered but breathing. So many characters and so little impact. And I think I’m finally bored with Robert Downey Jr.’s oh-so-cool schtick as Tony Stark.

The problem with the Marvel movies is the company’s willingness to scrape the bottom of the costumed hero barrel. Even Iron Man is a second-tier guy; and while Paul Rudd is likable as Antman (and his solo movie pretty good), what pop cultural purchase does that character have? At least Superman and Batman are iconic.

But where is the fucking fun? The first AVENGERS movie had that nicely hip/jokey feel thanks to Joss Whedon, without shortchanging the action. Since then it’s been a combination of flat one-liners, over-wrought seriousness, and mind-numbing battles, plus a continuity as convoluted and corny as five years of DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Take the laughable CIVIL WAR moment when Tony Stark gets flummoxed by the thought of Pepper Potts. Yes, we are expected to remember and care about a character with a silly name who isn’t even in the movie.

When Jack Kirby created Captain America (about whom Mickey Spillane occasionally wrote), Cap was a symbol of cheerful patriotism whose Robin-type sidekick, Bucky, rode a motorcycle, all jaunty and cheerful. Now Bucky still rides a motorcycle, but he has turned into a sullen, serious half-villain, half-good-guy, sturm und drang not slam bang.

Now I’m not completely cured. I bought DEADPOOL on Blu-ray the other day because it’s been so widely praised. Haven’t watched it yet, but will. I am looking forward, guardedly, to the new X-MEN movie. But stuff like DC’s SUICIDE SQUAD leaves me cold, the preview so unpleasant and struggling to be dark, I want to upchuck my popcorn. The Joker as hero (okay, anti-hero)? So wrong. So very wrong.

My problem is that as I age, so does the popular culture, and neither of us are what we used to be. I bought AMAZING FANTASY #15 at Cohn’s Newsland, as well as SPIDERMAN #1, FANTASTIC FOUR #1, AVENGERS #1 and X-MEN #1. To me it was all about Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – from my perspective, the “new” SPIDERMAN artist is John Romita.

Say what you will about Stan Lee, he wrote fun comic books. He lightly spoofed the genre and seemed to be saying, “Yes, this stuff is inherently silly, but let’s have a good time with it.” So Peter Parker was a nerd who got picked on, and the Fantastic Four got evicted from their penthouse digs because being a superhero didn’t pay so good. And he probably cackled at his typewriter when he typed the name Pepper Potts.

Batman to me will always be cartoonist Dick Sprang’s giant props and a small cast of vivid, recurring villains, most of whom were comical (the Riddler, the Penguin, even the Joker). Wayne Boring’s Superman was never boring, but often funny, from the torturous attempts by Lois Lane to unmask Superman as Clark Kent to the bald super-villain, Lex Luthor, who always failed. And Bizarro! How much fun was that?

Are we having fun yet, at superhero movies? Or are we still suffering under the mantle of seriousness that has so choked a wonderful if inherently juvenile genre? Embrace your inner kid – don’t be ashamed of him.

M.A.C.

Better Read

May 10th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

Audiobook (Digital Download): Amazon Audible

Books are on their way to the winners in the giveaway announced a week ago. As usual, the books were spoken for in about 48 hours. Thanks to all of you for your willingness to write Amazon (and other) reviews. I encourage all of you who actually paid for BETTER DEAD, THE BIG SHOWDOWN and/or ANTIQUES FATE to post reviews, anyway. And we’re still very short on MURDER NEVER KNOCKS reviews.

Barb and I are half-way through the audio of BETTER DEAD and, as usual, Dan John Miller has done a stellar job. He really is the voice of Nathan Heller. The Forge hardcover’s great jacket (among my favorites ever) has been replaced on the audio with an evocative but rather generic private eye figure. Really, both are cool. If you like the Nate Heller books, I highly recommend the audios as read by Dan – really nice for long car trips (we made a day trip to Bowling Brook, Illinois, to visit Barb’s 93 year-old mother in a nursing home).

We’ve had two raves for BETTER DEAD in key places. Take a look:

Booklist:
Chicago private eye Nate Heller has investigated most of the last century’s headline-grabbing crimes and, thanks to Collins’ impeccable research, has always come up with believable explanations of what really happened. So it’s no surprise that Heller was in the mix in the 1950s when the Rosenbergs were executed for being Soviet spies. But we all know that Julius was guilty, and Ethel was a sort-of accomplice, so what’s left for Nate to uncover? Plenty. It starts with a superb premise that has Nate playing both ends against the middle, helping Joe McCarthy hunt for Reds in the CIA and, at the same time, working for Dashiell Hammett and a group of literary lefties trying to uncover new evidence that will exonerate the Rosenbergs. His investigation, though, leads him to another, equally juicy scandal—at least for today’s reader—involving a real-life CIA scientist, on McCarthy’s hit list, who disappears after Nate contacts him. The shocking, little-known story of what happened to Frank Olson makes a great true-crime subject, but it’s even better in the hands of fact-fiction maestro Collins.
— Bill Ott

Kirkus:
The prolific Collins (Ask Not, 2013, etc.) finds veteran gumshoe Nathan Heller in the McCarthy era, when Wisconsin’s demagogue senator looked for a Commie under every bed and his counsel Roy Cohn manipulated the Rosenbergs into the electric chair.
Read this one as two novellas, loosely connected by McCarthy’s appearance. The senator summons Heller to Washington while noted author Dashiell Hammett takes the Fifth at a Senate hearing. Later, Hammett hires Heller to conduct “an eleventh hour investigation” into the Rosenbergs’ case. McCarthy—”big off-white smile blossomed in the blue-jowled face”—wants to stick his nose in the atomic-bomb spy case, too. With that, and bringing in an interesting cast of real-life characters sure to be familiar to baby boomers, Collins offers another homage to the noir detective genre, albeit laced with post-Vietnam/Watergate knowing cynicism. Book 2 festers with nuclear-age conspiracies and the CIA running amok. Institutional paranoia has the spooks conducting LSD-25 experiments on its own people, and innocent civilians, while using the mob for a bit of wetwork. There’s a tenuous link between the two books—Heller’s hired to pry McCarthy’s file from the CIA in Book 2—but Collins generally navigates that tightrope fine, all while keeping both plots logical, the pace electric, and scenes powerful—Nate’s observation of an LSD–induced suicide is cringe-inducing. Characters real and imaginary are believably sketched, and Collins’ take on 1950s New York City, especially Greenwich Village—dancing at the Village Barn, breakfast at the Waldorf Cafeteria—is impeccable.
Veteran author Collins knows detective novels work best when there’s a rugged, flawed, self-aware sleuth, a shades-of-gray atmosphere, a righteous quest, and a bed-ready damsel, Bettie Page filling the bill here.

Okay, now it’s a small miracle that I got a rave review from Kirkus, where I have been routinely savaged (recently a review of somebody else’s book had a gratuitous “at least he isn’t as bad as Max Allan Collins” type remark. Of course, J. Kingston Pierce, who writes the Kirkus mystery/suspense blog, has said many kind things about my work. But it’s kind of stunning to get a review like this in Kirkus itself.

Last Wednesday’s Grindhouse presentation of MOMMY at Iowa City’s cool Film Scene theater was fun if sparsely attended (I blame it on finals week). I hadn’t seen the film in a while, and it nudged me again into thinking my cohort Phil Dingeldein and I should re-master the film (also MOMMY’S DAY). Both were shot on Betacam and taken to Hollywood for the FilmLook process. We could do better now, and MOMMY particularly got darkened in that effort. I hope to find some DVD/Blu-ray company that might release a double-feature disc (and a few dollars to do the new post-production work). It’s been twenty-two years since we shot MOMMY!

* * *

Finally, here’s a condescending but really very good review of my WATERWORLD novelization, of all things!

M.A.C.

Hey Kids! Free Books (2016 Edition)

May 3rd, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

Before we get to the free book section, I want to invite anyone and everyone in the Iowa City area to come to a special screening of MOMMY at the wonderful indie theater, Film Scene, this coming Wednesday (May 4) at 10:00 p.m. I will be introducing the film and maybe taking a few questions after. We’re part of Film Scene’s Grindhouse series. This is from their Facebook write-up:

Late Shift at the Grindhouse – Wednesdays get weird when Late Shift hosts Ross Meyer, Joe Derderian and Aaron Holmgren dig up low-budget b-movies, horror and gore-fests, and camp classics for your viewing pleasure. Buy your ticket and take a ride in our Time Machine! Punch in and earn a bonus! $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys and $2 small popcorn! PLUS– special custom trashy trailer reel curated by Ross with cheap swag and prize giveaways!

MOMMY
She’s pretty, she’s perfect, she’s June Cleaver with a cleaver.
“The Bad Seed grown up… chillingly good!” – Leonard Maltin

“Writer/director Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition) has crafted a fun little tribute to The Bad Seed that succeeds despite its ultra-low budget.” – Stacie Ponder, Final Girl

“What must be noted about Mommy is the amazing cast that Max Allan Collins has managed to assemble.” – Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review
Dialogue with writer/director Max AllanCollins in person.
In 1995 mystery writer Max Allan Collins created an indie thriller that scored surprising media attention and killer reviews – an “unofficial” sequel to The Bad Seed (1956) starring that classic film’s Academy Award nominated child star, Patty McCormack, grown into the menacing Mommy.
The scary black comedy also features Jason Miller (The Exorcist), Majel Barrett (Star Trek), scream queen Brinke Stevens and legendary “Mike Hammer” creator, Mickey Spillane, with an award-winning performance by 11-year-old Rachel Lemieux.
Happy Mother’s Day!
co-presented by Bijou Film Board
Free tickets for University of Iowa students. (Free U.I. student tickets will be distributed at 9:00 p.m.)

* * *
Hardcover:
E-Book: Amazon Nook Kobo

The day this update appears (May 3) is the pub date of the new Nathan Heller. As you may recall, a flurry of new M.A.C. books has just hit, so we’ve decided to do what we’ve done occasionally in the past and offer free books in return for a review at Amazon (Barnes & Noble and personal blogs are also good). We will be giving out at least five copies of BETTER DEAD, THE BIG SHOWDOWN (Caleb York) and ANTIQUES FATE. We may go up to as many as ten copies each if demand is strong.

ALL COPIES GONE, THANK YOU!!
We ask the following: e-mail us at REDACTED and make your request for a free book, listing the order of preference. IMPORTANT: include your snail-mail address. Only USA please – foreign postage (even Canada) is a killer. Act now, because within about three days, they’ll be gone.

Also, if you’ve read and liked MURDER NEVER KNOCKS, we are still very under-reviewed at Amazon. If you’ve written a review at your blog, please post it at Amazon; and if you’ve read and liked it, please take time to write a short review there.

* * *

In honor of the publication of BETTER DEAD, I thought it made sense to share with you this lovely review from the Historical Novel Society:

“Told in two novellas tied together by the unscrupulous Senator Joe McCarthy, Better Dead’s Book One finds Collins’s Nathan Heller hired by writer Dashiell Hammett to try to find anything to clear Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on the eve of their executions. Heller uncovers some discrepancies in the Rosenberg trial, including discovering the missing drop-leaf table. But even in Collins’s world, he can’t change history, and the Rosenbergs still die. In the second book, Heller is retained by McCarthy to try to pry loose any information the CIA might have on him. As Heller digs more deeply, he becomes entrenched in a labyrinthine maze of CIA spooks, LSD-25 experiments on civilians and agents alike, and an unlikely partner in a young Bettie Page.

“Collins’s writing is as electric as the Cold War atmosphere he’s set Heller into. All the characters, both real (McCarthy, Page, the Rosenbergs) and created, are authentic and believably written. There is a coarse, edgy feel to the writing that helps drive a frenetic pace to an ending that has Heller looking back at both cases with a sense of loss and wonder. In his wonderful take on the insanity of the McCarthy Red Scare and the CIA LSD-25 experiments of the 1950s, Collins weaves a fanciful story that honors history yet allows for his usual deft creative styling.”

We have a less enthusiastic but not bad review from Publisher’s Weekly:

“In trying to cover too much ground, Collins dilutes the impact of the main investigation in his 18th historical whodunit featuring PI Nate Heller (after 2013’s Ask Not). In 1953, Sam Spade–creator Dashiell Hammett hires Heller to find whatever evidence he can to secure Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are on death row for treason, a new trial. The investigator adroitly persuades U.S. senator Joe McCarthy, whose Communist witch hunt is at its height, and columnist Drew Pearson, a former McCarthy ally, to help fund his work by promising to reveal anything he finds to them as well. After learning how flimsy the government’s case was against the couple, Heller pursues some leads he gets from a visit to Julius and Ethel in Sing Sing. The truth proves to be more nuanced than any of his employers believes, and Collins again does an effective job of bringing the past to life and making a complex cause célèbre accessible. Recent disclosures about the so-called atomic spies, however, lessen the suspense.”

What both of these refer to is that BETTER DEAD is two stories, Book One and Book Two, that are linked by Senator McCarthy and general Red Scare era themes. I have known from the start that some reviewers, and perhaps readers, will complain that they are getting two short novels instead of one; but that was the best way, in my opinion, to deal with two very interesting McCarthy era cases, neither one of which could quite fill out a full 100,000 word Heller novel. I believe it works as a single novel. But if you view it as two Gold Medal paperbacks about Nate Heller, I am cool with it.

* * *

Reader Kevin Helmsberg wrote a nice e-mail that included a number of questions. I figure it makes sense to answer them here.

1) I was very glad to learn that you’ll finally be publishing Road to Perdition (the novel) as it was meant to be. In one of the early interviews (2002) you said you’d turned in 90,000 words, however in your February 2016 post you mention 70,000 words as the complete version. You pointed out it was essentially the same book as intended in 2002, apart from “some tweaking” and “very little rewriting or additional writing.” So how come there’s a 20,000 words difference?

Also, in one of your interviews, you mentioned a Road to Perdition prequel – any news?

The PERDITION novel is about 70,000 words. I was just estimating when I used 90,000 words in that and other interviews – or maybe it was just hyperbole. Still, when you cut 30,000 words from a book, and replace all the dialogue with lines from the movie, it’s not only shorter, but bad things happen. I am thrilled that Brash Books is bringing out the novel and publishing it as it was intended to be.

2) The graphic novels in the series – Road to Perdition: On the Road (i.e. Oasis, Sanctuary, Detour) and Return to Perdition – is there a slightest chance of producing the prose versions? I’m one of those people who prefer prose fiction to comic books, so would be thrilled if I could enjoy it that way. I read some of your thoughts on the subject, including your love for comic books and some of the advantages in presenting the story, but still it would be great if you considered making real books. You’re a hell of a writer and I have no doubt the final product would be a hit. To quote yourself, “It’s great that I’ve become the poster child for graphic novels… but the fact is for my career, I need to hit a mainstream audience and I won’t by going out and only selling 3000 copies.”

I think it’s doubtful – but not impossible – that I would do a novel based on ON THE ROAD and RETURN. They probably suffice in their present form. The prequel I’m considering would work in either prose or graphic novel; it might be called RETURN FROM PERDITION, as it deals with Michael O’Sullivan Sr. returning from WW 1 to work for John Looney. Whether it’s a graphic novel or prose one might depend on what publisher is interested.

I also at one time considered a story about the Two Jacks and a Queen characters from ON THE ROAD, and I would love to do another project (PERDITION-related or otherwise) with Richard Piers Rayner.

3) In one of your posts, you mentioned that “several goofs in the hardcover of Complex 90 were corrected in the paperback version.” Do you have a list of errata?

Not a long list (references are to the hardcover edition):

On page 130, third line from the bottom:
“Irene Worth” should be “Irene Carroll.”

On page 222, third line from the bottom:
“Marley” should be “Romanos.”

4) Do you have plans to publish the following as ebooks:
– the Road to Perdition series, plus Black Hats and Red Sky in Morning;
– the Quarry stories: “A Matter of Principal,” “Quarry’s Luck,” and “Guest Services”;
– the Sherlock Holmes stories in jigsaw puzzles: “The Adventure of Professor Moriarty’s Notebook,” and the other one you mention in your blog (don’t know the title)?

ROAD TO PURGATORY and ROAD TO PARADISE – along with the full-length, aforementioned movie novel, ROAD TO PERDITION – will be published by Brash Books. BLACK HATS and RED SKY IN MORNING will be published by Brash as well, under my real byline (R.I.P., Patrick Culhane). At some point the three Quarry short stories will be published in a format that includes e-book, but no plans are afoot as yet. I doubt the Holmes stories by Matt Clemens and me will be collected anywhere, but it’s possible.

Thanks, Kevin!

* * *

If you need convincing, here’s an except from BETTER DEAD at Criminal Element.

More on MOMMY at Film Scene.

Finally, here’s a lovely review of MURDER NEVER KNOCKS from J. Kingston Pierce at the Kirkus blog. I never thought I’d live to see the day I got a positive Kirkus review.

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.