Archive for the ‘Message from M.A.C.’ Category

Heart-Felt

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

I have mentioned in passing some health issues I’ve been dealing with, and perhaps I’ve even been a little coy about it. It’s not been my intention to burden my friends and readers (not mutually exclusive categories) with a boring account of what we’ve been dealing with. I say “we” because Barb has been at my side throughout, as you might imagine, but your imagination cannot do justice to just how fantastic she’s been.

I’m going to make this brief, because even if you’re concerned – and if so, thank you – you shouldn’t have to be bored with the details of somebody else’s health problems. Still, I’m a novelist, so this will most likely go into the situation in more depth than I should.

We’ve been dealing with this for a good eight months. I first got sick (somewhat ironically) when we visited the set of QUARRY in New Orleans late last May. The path has been torturous and frustrating, as it took a while to get this diagnosed, and it really shouldn’t have been. The roughest patch was a period of three weeks when I couldn’t sleep – couldn’t find a position that was comfortable enough – and for that period, I was getting maybe an hour a night.

The problem is a heart valve that needs replacing. There’s also a bypass, and before any of that can happen, I need to get one of my carotid arteries unclogged. The latter appears to be a fairly routine procedure. Open-heart surgery, however, is rather more sobering. But I have top-notch surgeons for both operations, and I feel confident I’ll be back at the old stand before too long.

This has stretched out maddeningly because when the condition was discovered, I was already in pretty bad shape. I needed to get myself back in shape, which consisted of medication and a few preliminary procedures (i.e., getting a jump start to correct an irregular heartbeat that had presented itself). For frustrating reasons (but good ones), I’ve had this surgery postponed on me something like eight times. In fact, Barb wishes I weren’t writing this, because that could happen again.

But right now the plan is for me to go in for the first of the two surgeries on Monday, January 4 (tomorrow, as I write this). And the heart surgery is set for January 5. If you are one of those loyal souls who check out this update the moment it appears each Tuesday morning, it’s likely I’ll be in the operating room as you read this.

There’s a chance – I honestly think not much of one – that my heart surgeon may postpone again, if he thinks I need more time to recover from the first procedure. If that’s the case, my son Nate will update this. He will also post updates on my status here and on Facebook in the several days following the procedures.

[Update from Nate: (Monday Jan. 4, 10 PM) Dad did have a minor complication after the first, successful procedure, and the docs are erring on the side of caution by (again) postponing the second surgery until some time next week. He is doing well and should be back home Tuesday to begin recuperating for the main event.]

You are welcome to post encouragement here and on Facebook, but I held this back so things wouldn’t get out of hand. I also accept prayers and positive thoughts and cash money.

The heart valve/bypass procedures will be followed by some rough weeks of recuperation – the first several, obviously, the most challenging. My next novel deadline isn’t till April 1 (no fooling), so I intend to take my first protracted “vacation” from writing in, well, as long as I can remember. I have been healthy as a horse my whole life (I was asked if I’d ever had surgery before, and I said, “Just my birth”) so there’s no precedent. Before you feel too sorry for me, know that I will be watching a lot of Blu-rays and reading a good number of the books that have piled up around here, and will be given even better treatment than usual by my lovely wife.

It’s possible I may get back to work sooner than the projected six weeks. I’m proud of myself that during this nasty period, I still wrote two episodic TV episodes (one of them for QUARRY) and the Mike Hammer novel, MURDER NEVER KNOCKS. And you may have already realized that I never missed one of these weekly updates.

Okay, we all know what’s important here – these weekly updates. I am going to write another three updates, in advance, dealing with forthcoming books. At that point, I am hopeful that I will be back doing this.

I am told I am “low risk.” Like anybody, I don’t hear the “low,” just the “risk.” So without getting too sentimental (or for that matter pessimistic) about it, I want to give all of you my heart-felt thanks. This has been a great career, and it will continue to be.

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My pal Ed Gorman has been kind enough to pay tribute to Quarry by reviewing two of the recent books in the series. The review of THE WRONG QUARRY is a reprint, but the QUARRY’S CHOICE write-up is brand-new and a real corker.

The first novel in the series, QUARRY, got itself onto this fun top-reissues-of-last-year list. I’m on it with one of my favorites, the late great Ted Lewis. As usual, I deplore all such lists…unless I’m on them.

Here’s a nice (if somewhat guarded) Kindle Taproom review of FATE OF THE UNION.

Now check out this even-better FATE OF THE UNION review.

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Finally, I need to mark the passing of actor Wayne Rogers, who provided one of the best classic PI performances of all time in the too-brief CITY OF ANGELS TV series (1976). That series, and the Huggins/Cannell-created character Jake Axminster, had a huge impact on Nate Heller. Rogers, despite the short run of ANGELS, made such an impact as a private eye that he wound up playing a similar recurring character on MURDER SHE WROTE. He also portrayed real-life private eye Raymond Schindler in PASSION AND PARADISE (1989), about the Massie case, which I wrote about (including Schinder) in DAMNED IN PARADISE.

M.A.C.

The Beatles For Christmas

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015
Beatles 1+

Let’s start with a subject that doesn’t seem to have much if anything to do with the heading here.

Barb and I recently bought a new car, an Equinox. But I had already signed the papers before I discovered that it did not include a CD player. I told Barb, meaning every word of it, that had I known – and learned that no CD player is available for that or any GMC model – I wouldn’t have traded our several-years-old Equinox for this shiny new one. That I would have driven the older model until either it or its CD player sputtered and died.

We do a lot of short-hop traveling – food and fun in the Chicago suburbs, visiting Nate and Abby and Sam in St. Louis, getaways to Galena IL, shopping trips to Des Moines. A good part of what makes these trips fun is listening to music or an audio book, to and from. Like a lot of you, I would imagine, I have a big collection of audio books on CD, including Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and for that matter a lot of my own stuff. The pleasure of hearing Stacy Keach read one of the Mike Hammer novels of Mickey’s and mine is a truly transcendent experience for me.

And my CD collection of music, as you might imagine, is ridiculously large.

But the automobile manufacturers have decided I don’t need a CD player anymore (just as a few years ago they decided I didn’t need a cassette player). They give not a single shit that I have a large library of CDs, or that millions of others also have similar libraries. After all, they provide ports for flash drives and input access for your smart phone and so on.

I have mentioned this to others, and not just baby boomers, and they are appalled to learn their next new car will be CD-player-less. Right now on PBS Membership drives, CD packages are being offered to participating viewers, often with a direct pitch about the joy of listening to these classic tunes in their car. Infomercials do the same. Vintage radio outfits continue to offer their product exclusively on CD, and Best Buy and other retailers continue to sell the little silver discs (albeit giving them less real estate).

Only now, if I want to listen to one of my CDs, I have to use a fairly ancient Sony Walkman that I can play through the AUX of my “infotainment center” (God help us!), which requires various wires being snaked here and there, cluttering up that shiny new car.

That I can play my phone through my radio (yes, radio, that’s what I call it) has turned out to be as close to a saving grace as I’m liable to find in this sorry situation. My son taught me to load a bunch of albums available “free” as an Amazon Prime member. Also, the purchase of some CDs at Amazon provides a free “auto-rip,” which is to say a digital version that plays on your smart phone. Wistfully, I remember a day when my phone wasn’t smarter than me….

This solution is less than ideal, because other than the “free” downloads Amazon Prime provides, and those CDs that have included digital versions, I am left with countless CDs that no longer have a home in my dashboard.

So. One of my Christmas presents (from my lovely wife) was a $100 gift card at Amazon. This I spent buying nine albums I already own so that I could download them onto my phone. Bobby Darin, the Zombies, Paul Williams, and so on. Scratching the surface (like my needle used to on vinyl) of my CD collection.

As for the Stout, Christies and even Collins books that I have on CD, I have to make use of Amazon’s Audible, which is not free…though their yearly membership gives you quite a few credits for a decent price. That same evening I spent my hundred bucks on albums I already own on CD, I used up half of my credits buying Nero Wolfe books that, yes, you guessed it, I already own. And by the way, not every Wolfe novel is available.

Wasn’t this supposed to be about the Beatles?

Well, as you may have heard or read, Beatles albums are finally downloadable on multiple platforms. Almost everything of the Beatles is “free” (I insist on the quotes) if you’re an Amazon Prime member (not free, no quotes required). So I gorged myself on Beatles. Filled my digital library with ‘em. (Make that “library.”)

I love the Beatles, at least up through and including REVOLVER. After that, it gets spotty for me, possibly because I think LSD conspired with that Indian guru to at least partially ruin the Beatles. I have a few friends – terribly confused individuals, like the otherwise sane Ed Gorman – who hate the Beatles, and prefer the Stones. (Nothing against the Stones, and for that matter I like pretty much all of the British invasion bands from clean-cut Herman’s Hermits to scruffy Them, from the power-pop Dave Clark Five to the growling Animals. And the Zombies, my lord, the Zombies….)

Here’s the thing. If you were in junior high or high school when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, and like everybody on the planet you saw those appearances, your life changed. A rock band playing their own instruments. Memorable pop tunes and smart covers. Four immediately strong personalities. Infectious humor. Lead singing and harmony that thrilled even while eschewing the slickness of what professional singing was supposed to sound like.

As for the Stones, the Beatles wrote their first hit for them (a UK one, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” if I recall correctly). They would have never made it into the culture without the benefit of the Beatles. No British group would have.

The current Beatles CD and Blu-ray release “1″ was another great Christmas present from my lovely bride, and that’s why all of its songs turned up instantly in my downloadable library at Amazon. I got the most tricked-out version, with a CD but also two Blu-rays of performances and music videos. I will admit to you that I have a sentimental streak, and it was glowing as I watched the boys grow and change, and as all those memories flooded back in. I’d been involved in music my entire life, but never would have dreamed of being in a band…until the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Do I have to say that the world changed, too, because of these four? That hair styles – my father bribed my barber to cut off my Beatle-length hair – would symbolize the generational rift even before Vietnam was a Thing? That they were at the forefront, for better or worse, of psychedelia? That they were always several steps ahead of their competition? That they quit while they were way, way ahead?

So much more could be said, but I have to mention the poignance of seeing how much Paul and John liked each other, how they laughed and interacted. They were lads. By the time they were men, it was over. One last rooftop mini-concert and out.

It was rock ‘n’ roll, yes, but it was so much more. If you were there, and didn’t notice it – or refuse now to recognize it – you don’t quite understand the second half of the Twentieth Century.

As for the Twenty-first Century, I now have to listen to the Beatles, baby, when I drive my car…listening to them, that is, on my phone.

I will have something a bit special to say here next week, but until them…Happy New Year.

M.A.C.

Tweaking (Not Drug-Related)

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015
Better Dead by Max Allan Collins

The work over the past week, and the work ahead during the week after Christmas, is a part of the career of writing that is little discussed. But it’s key to the process.

Over the period of a week, I read and corrected the galley pages of three novels of mine – THE BIG SHOWDOWN (the second Caleb York), ANTIQUES FATE (by Barb and me as “Barbara Allan”), and BETTER DEAD (the McCarthy-era Nate Heller). The latter is a long manuscript, almost the length of the previous two combined.

This stage marks the last chance for a writer to catch goofs, seek out typos and make final revisions and tweaks. Oftentimes, the production person scolds the writer in advance about making any changes. The attitude is that the book is finished and it would be too costly to make any changes that don ‘t address typos or outlandish errors. I ignore this admonition, although I keep my tweaking to a minimum and rarely rewrite unless I really have come across an outright error.

But these final tweaks are often the difference between a smooth read and a rough one. I noticed with BETTER DEAD something that happens too frequently in my work: the last few chapters can have a rushed quality, because I am gathering steam and racing toward the ending – much as a reader of an exciting novel reads faster, even skimming, to get to the end. In BETTER DEAD’s near 400 pages, I found next to nothing in the first 2/3’s, but quite a bit in the final third. These tweaks represent nuance via word choice and sometimes the elimination of repeated words.

To me this is vital part of the writing process – that final polish, and a read that occurs several months after the initial writing, which breeds better objectivity. True, I’ve had a chance to view the novel in the copy-edited form a month or so before the galley proofs arrive. But with a copy-edited manuscript, my focus goes to the changes that the copy editor has made, each of which has to be thought through – sometimes copy editors are right, like a stopped clock.

Next up are the galley proofs of MURDER NEVER KNOCKS (the Mike Hammer novel previously announced as DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU) and QUARRY IN THE BLACK. I also hope to put together a collection of the Mike Hammer short stories I’ve developed from shorter fragments in Mickey’s files; these have appeared in the STRAND, mostly. I’m talking about such a collection with Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press. I need to read my stories and determine what order they should appear in, and I’ll want to write an introduction.

For me it’s a luxury not to be working on a novel over Christmas week – as I often have – and attending to some of the less-glamorous aspects of the writing trade (well, there aren’t really any glamourous aspects to it, unless Hollywood buys something) is a good way to get something done without spoiling your own holiday season, and that of the others in your life.

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I’ve discussed the oddity of reading current reviews of early works, but nothing tops reading a write-up about MOURN THE LIVING, which was my first novel and introduced Nolan…and was written almost fifty years ago. It’s a book I would be loathe to re-read, but in some respects it’s the most important one I ever wrote, as it’s the novel that Richard Yates read that convinced him to invite me into his Writers Workshop class at the University of Iowa. So much of my career has flowed from Yates as my mentor. On the other hand, I always like reading good reviews like this one.

Of course, Hard Case Crime has been reprinting the early QUARRY novels, but late in 2016 they will be publishing a brand-new one, QUARRY IN THE BLACK. Read about it here and get a look at the fantastic cover.

One of those QUARRY HCC reprints has made a stocking stuffers list at the Geek Hard Show. Festive little write-up!

Here’s yet another one of those “best movies that you didn’t know were based on comics” lists. But ROAD TO PERDITION is treated very nicely, so check it out.

That same website – Talking Comic Books – has an interesting podcast (well over an hour) in which a number of film buffs discuss the film of ROAD TO PERDITION in a lively fashion. One oddity, at least from my POV: the guy who says ROAD TO PERDITION is his favorite movie has never bothered to read the graphic novel. In fact, for a podcast that’s part of Talking Comic Books, one might think the graphic novel would get more than one fleeting mention. But that’s all it rates. Still, there’s some fun to be had and some intelligent commentary to be heard.

Finally – Merry Christmas! Or Merry Whatever You Celebrate, as long as it doesn’t involve sacrificing a goat.

M.A.C.

Antiques Christmas

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015
Antiques St. Nicked

For those of you who follow the ANTIQUES series (a.k.a. the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries) – written by Barb and myself, as Barbara Allan – you may be interested to know that we again have a Christmas-themed novella available as an e-book.

The new one is ANTIQUES ST. NICKED, but the previous two – ANTIQUES SLAY RIDE and ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE – remain available. Right now these are not available in “real” book form, though we hope someday a collection of them might be published (nothing in the works, though).

These are, as I mentioned above, novellas – not mere short stories. As such, they are challenging to write. Our usual brainstorming session must come up not only with a mystery that involves antiques in some fashion, but also a Christmas theme. Beyond that, each story can’t resemble any of the others. And as a novella is by definition a short novel, a lot more work goes into it than a short story.

ST. NICKED has a rather serious story beneath the holiday tinsel (not to mention a dead Santa Claus), and is perhaps the scariest of any of the ANTIQUES tales. FRUITCAKE focuses on a local theatrical production in which Mother is of course involved. And SLAY RIDE centers around Christmas collectibles.

Another Christmas story, not by Barbara Allan, can be found in Otto Penzler’s generous BIG BOOK OF CHRISTMAS MYSTERIES. The “big” part of that title is well-deserved, as I am one of 59 stories (sharing space with the likes of Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and Ed McBain!). The book came out in 2013 but has already become a Christmas staple. My story – one of my favorites among my short stories – is “A Wreath for Marley.” (Some may recall that I developed a film script version called BLUE CHRISTMAS that has yet to be made.) “Marley” is a cross between (obviously) A CHRISTMAS CAROL and THE MALTESE FALCON.

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Speaking of Christmas, here’s a replay from 2014 of my list of the Best Five Christmas Movies:

1. SCROOGE (1951). Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive filming of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Faithful, scary, funny, unsentimental, sentiment-filled, flawless (except for a cameraman turning up in a mirror). Accept no substitutes, although the Albert Finney musical is pretty good.

2. MIRACLE ON 34th Street (1947). Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with lots of location shooting in New York. Edmund Gwen is the definitive, real Santa Claus; Natalie Wood gives her greatest child performance; John Payne reminds us that he should have been a major star; and Maureen O’Sullivan is a smart, strong career woman/working mother who could not be more glamorous. Admit to preferring the remake at your own risk.

3. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Heartwarming but harrowing, this film is home to one of James Stewart’s bravest performances and happens to be Frank Capra’s best film. Have you noticed it’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL from Bob Cratchit’s point of view?

4. A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). The great Jean Shepherd’s great movie that has turned, somewhat uncomfortably, into a cottage industry of leg lamps, Christmas decorations and action figures. Shepherd’s first-person narration has the snap and humor of Raymond Chandler, and the mix of cynicism and warmth is uniquely his. Plus, it’s a Christmas movie with Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in it.

5. CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) continues to grow in reputation, possibly surpassing the original film. Somehow the John Hughes-scripted third VACATION go-round manages to uncover every Christmas horror possible when families get together and Daddy tries too hard. It’s rare that a comedy can get go this broad, this over the top, and still maintain a sense that we’re watching a documentary about everything than can go wrong at Christmas.

This year I have no new Christmas movie finds to recommend (with one exception – stay tuned). A BILL MURRAY CHRISTMAS, essentially a movie (not a Christmas special as advertised), reunites him with director Sofia Coppola, whose LOST IN TRANSLATION helped send Murray into many a depressed middle-ager roles. Though it has occasional rewards, the film is glum and sad, and Murray sings many, many songs and wears out the gag of his over-the-top, off-pitch lounge singer. Basically, A BILL MURRAY CHRISTMAS is about a bunch of people stranded in a bar, doing karaoke, during a snowstorm. My son Nate – whose favorite movie is GROUNDHOG DAY (which is high on my list as well) – did not make it through this one. Proof positive that Murray, for all his protestations, was much, much better served by the late great Harold Ramis than by Coppola and even Wes Anderson.

You may recall, on my recent year-end movie wrap-up, that I listed THE NIGHT BEFORE as a film Barb and I walked out of. I suppose it’s possible that it redeemed itself in later reels, but I doubt it – like the MURRAY CHRISTMAS, this seems to be largely about people going from bar to bar and singing karaoke and drinking. Add in drug-taking, which leads to very unfunny sub-Cheech-and-Chong stuff, and it’s like being forced to drag yourself along with the worst friends in your life as they work very hard to have fun, and don’t. I am a Seth Rogen fan going back to FREAKS AND GEEKS – hell, I even like THE GREEN HORNET – but this is an embarrassing Yuletide misstep.

My one new recommendation, for those with a sick sense of humor: A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY. This is a wonderful anthology film (though the stories are intercut, not one at a time) with William Shatner as an increasingly inebriated disc jockey who serves as part Jean Shepherd, part Crypt Keeper. This Canadian indie, from some of the ORPHAN BLACK creative team, is superior to the much bigger-budgeted (but not terrible) KRAMPUS. Krampus, the anti-Santa, is a major player in HORROR STORY, by the way.

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Here’s a write-up about THE LAST LULLABY and the news that it’s currently streaming on Hulu.

The great Bookgasm site has posted this joint review of QUARRY and QUARRY’S LIST.

Finally, here’s a brief but nice review of SUPREME JUSTICE from the same conservative reviewer who enjoyed FATE OF THE UNION (though we have to wade through the whole Glocks-don’t-have-safeties controversy.)

M.A.C.