Second Chances

June 22nd, 2010 by Max Allan Collins

When I was a teenager in the thrall of Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer, I spent many hours searching (mostly in used bookstores) for Spillane imitators who might satisfy my thirst. Few came anywhere near. One, however, hit the ball out of the park, and he worked for a small outfit in Chicago with the books packaged like softcore porn. Even then the books were hard to find. Now they are impossible.

Sand's Game
Ennis Willie’s novels – particularly the ones about ex-mobster Sand, on the run from his former bosses – were an enormous influence on my development as a writer. I encountered Sand before the similar mono-named Parker, and my character Nolan derives as much from the former as the latter. Willie, though a shameless Spillane imitator, did not write in the first-person and did not write about P.I.s – which gave him his own unique voice and place. He wrote a handful of books in the mid ‘60s wrapping up by the end of the decade, then disappearing. Guys like Steve Mertz, Lynn Myers and Ed Gorman and I tried to track him down, wondering if “Ennis Willie” was a penname or maybe a black writer (there was an African American poet named Willie Ennis).

Willie was one of my heroes, right in there with Spillane and Richard Stark, and the other day something happened so surrealistic, it rivaled my meeting Mickey. A collection of Sand novels and stories, signed to me by Ennis Willie, arrived in the mail. Knocked me out.

Okay, it wasn’t a surprise. I was involved in the collection, though the editors were Mertz and Myers; I did an introduction. Willie, thanks to the internet, had turned up, somehow getting wind of the many discussions (decades worth!) on the subject of who-the-hell-he-was. He wrote Gorman saying, “Well, I’m him. Ennie Willie.” And included his driver’s license photo!

Anyway, the book from Ramble House is getting some attention. You can order it here in various editions. If you like Mickey Spillane, Richard Stark and/or M.A.C., you will not be sorry.

And Bill Crider wrote about it here.

One of my characters, influenced by Willie’s Sand, is a guy called Quarry. My pal Leonard Maltin did a terrific, high-profile write-up on THE FIRST QUARRY that just blew me away. Check it out.

I’ll be appearing at the Iowa City Book Festival on Saturday July 17 with Nicholas Meyer. I was told they’ll be screening THE LAST LULLABY, but I don’t see it on the schedule yet. At any rate, I am anxious to meet Nick Meyer, who was a student at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop a few years ahead of me; he’s a writer and filmmaker I admire very much.

The fun funky site Davy Crockett’s Alamack posted a nice piece on the first of the two volumes of MIKE HAMMER comic strips I edited back in the ‘80s. I’m hoping we can get a single volume collection out there one of these days (though I am still missing one Sunday).

Second City Class of '79 Reunion
Jim Belushi, Mary Gross, Tim Kazurinksy at Second City 1978.

Barb and I spent several days in Chicago (over her birthday, which is June 18), kicking it off by seeing the Class of ‘79 Reunion benefit show at Second City on June 17. That we were able to get tickets to this big-deal event was thanks to my pal Tim Kazurinsky. Appearing with the always hilarious Tim were Nancy McCabe-Kelly, Bruce Jarchow, Danny Breen, Bernadette Birkett and (at the piano) the legendary Fred Kaz. Oh, and some guy named George Wendt.

This is the Second City company that Barb and I followed religiously in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Among other talents from that era (not in attendance) were my friend Larry Coven (who appears in MOMMY’S DAY and REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET), Mary Gross, Lance Kinsey, and Jim Belushi (whose son Robert was a guest star at the reunion show, a talented, charismatic addition to that famous clan). Breen and Jarchow are particular favorites of mine (and reminded me why with their genius turns), and they were very nice chatting with us afterward. Also – and this is a big deal to Barb and me – we got to meet and talk with Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of both Second City and SCTV.

Here’s a nice write-up about the show.

Barb said it was a pretty good birthday. Pretty, pretty good (as Larry David would say).



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7 Responses to “Second Chances”

  1. dan luft says:

    When I first began reading older (to me) books, I bought up anything that was mentioned in essays by Ed Gorman and Bill Crider which ended up being a lot of early 90s Black Lizard and Blue Murder books. Then, once I got internet, I began to buy originals editions that weren’t so easy to find (I got my complete run of Nolans before the prices really began to climb). But never once, and I’ve rechecked my old resources that turned me onto this stuff, have I ever heard anyone mention Ennis Willie until last week. I’m really looking forward to getting this book.

    Also, I always thought Tim Kazurinsky was the most overlooked SNL cast member; if only for his bravery in “I Married a Monkey,” or when he played “The Iguana.”

  2. I wrote about Ennis Willie and Sand in Bill Pronzini’s 1001 MIDNIGHTS. A lot of the Willie enthusiasm was expressed in conversation at Bouchercons by the likes of Crider, Mertz and Collins.

    Kazurinksy is great, a wonderful comic talent. And a fine screenwriter.

  3. That cover art is awful. A catastrophe of clashing typefaces and an absurd montage of noir cliches.

    Too many small presses/e-book houses have painfully bad art direction.

    I don’t know why they don’t hire me. I’m cheap.

  4. Chris, I believe Willie himself did the cover — he has a successful printing business down south. I found the cover a little cluttered myself, but the cover copy is appropriate for the material, and it looks much better in the flesh. Plus, there’s an effective use of the babe pointing the gun — like those old Jesus paintings, she and the gun stare at you from all angles. (And I’ve heard a number of people say they really like the cover. )

    It’s true a lot of the small presses have dismal art direction, but that’s only because they don’t have any art budget. I inquired about the art budget for a company I’m doing some business for and the answer was $25 per cover. I doubt you’re that cheap.

  5. At my current income level… I can be that cheap, providing that there are minimum revisions.

    For example, I knocked this out in about 30 minutes:

    Just saying.

  6. That’s a fine cover and I hope some publishers knock on your door. I wouldn’t hesitate to!

    But do keep in mind that there’s more to it than just the front cover — back cover, spine, and in the case of SAND’S GAME, a variant hardcover version with a dustjacket.

    Also, I do believe Ennis Willie designed this cover himself and I defer to him. I just got the signed hardcover from him and it’s a handsome book.

  7. I am well aware of what goes into designing a book — I’ve been doing this kind of work for 20 years. I don’t claim to be anything more than professionally competent, but I find that most small press and e-book outfits don’t even mange that.

    Frankly — I’ll work for free (and a couple of comps) on many projects (especially in this genre) simply because as a fan AND professional, it personally pains me to see good writing presented in a shoddy package. Maybe that seems like I’m selling myself and talents (such as they are) short, but I think of it as a public service or beautification program. Crime/myster/noir books should look as good as they read, as far as I’m concerned, and I believe that so strongly that I’m willing to help.

    Small-publishers really hurt themselves when they don’t put proper resources into or devalue the art direction. Even online, a good cover image can mean a world of difference in how the material’s worth is perceived. Whether publishers – or authors – want to accept it, many, if not most, people *do* judge a book by its cover — and when a talented, experienced, professional author has a book out with the same kind of amateur clip-art/Photoshop jumble as one self-published by a, well, let’s say, “unprofessional” author — how does a potential customer who’s not already a fan know what’s worth typing in their credit card number for?

    Anyway — if you or anyone else — wants to talk with me about a design gig, you know where to find me.