Our Audie Murphy Film Festival

May 29th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

Killing Town, the “lost” first Mike Hammer novel, is now available on audio read by the great Dan John Miller. Read about it here. If you support this audio (and the previous Journalstone Mike Hammer release, The Will to Kill), more will follow!

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I am writing this week’s update on Memorial Day Weekend. It seems like a good time to say a few things about Audie Murphy.

First, let me share with you a part of my prep for writing the Caleb York novels for Kensington (under the Spillane & Collins byline) – essentially, how I get into the mood.

I am about to start the new Caleb, Last Stage to Hell Junction. Whenever I do a York novel, Barb and I have an appropriate western film festival, watching an “oater” each evening. For the first novel, The Legend of Caleb York (from Mickey’s screenplay, which started it all), we watched John Wayne westerns, as Mickey had written the screenplay for Wayne’s Batjac productions, though it had never been produced. My favorites, predictably, are The Searchers, Red River and Rio Bravo.

For The Big Showdown, we watched Randolph Scott, including all of his outstanding Budd Boetticher-directed westerns. For The Bloody Spur, our nightly western was a Joel McRae. And I have been gathering Audie Murphy’s westerns (and his other films) for several years now, with an eye on the festival Barb and I are beginning now.

Audie Murphy, of course, is celebrated as the most decorated American combat soldier of World War II. He received every military combat award, including the Medal of Honor, having – at age 19 – held off by himself an entire company of German soldiers for an hour, then (while wounded) leading a successful counterattack.

Murphy was a Texas boy from sharecropper stock who learned his skills with a rifle by putting food on the table for his six brothers and four sisters, after their father left their mother, who died when Audie was a teen. Murphy lied about his age to get into the U.S. Army, not long after Pearl Harbor (the Marines and Navy having turned him down).

After the war, making the cover of LIFE Magazine for his courageous service, he was taken under the wing of the great James Cagney. From the late forties until his tragic young death in 1971, Murphy was a movie star. Aside from a few A-pictures (like The Red Badge of Courage and The Unforgiven, both directed by John Huston), and several contemporary offerings, Murphy specialized in westerns, as well as a western TV series, Whispering Smith.

But his biggest success was starring as himself (a role he reluctantly accepted) in the film version of his autobiographical war account, To Hell and Back. He was a skilled horseman and a successful songwriter, his work recorded by such stars as Dean Martin, Harry Nillson, Eddy Arnold and Jimmy Dean, among many others. And, not surprisingly, he suffered from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He slept with a .45 automatic under his pillow.

Stopped for speeding, Murphy pulled over and, when the officer noticed the .45 on the seat next to the easily recognizable Audie, the cop smiled and said he was a big fan and wanted an autograph. Murphy provided it. Accosted by a gangster at a horserace, Murphy stared him down and said, “I killed sixty of you bums in Sicily – one more won’t make a difference.” The thug moved on. Many a brawny challenger who figured he’d pick a fight with Murphy was quickly and brutally dispatched by the five-foot-five war hero turned movie star.

Or so go the stories. More easily verified is Murphy’s refusal to do ads for cigarettes or liquor, not wanting to set a bad example for young people. He died in a small plane crash.

My character, Quarry, was in part inspired by Murphy. David Morell told me Rambo had the same source. And Robert Stack said his Ness portrayl was inspired by Murphy.

Around Memorial Day, and all year frankly, Audie’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery is among the most visited. He is probably remembered more for his incredible valor as a teenaged war hero than for his movie career, and while that’s understandable, I’m here to tell you he was a fine actor.

In his day – and still today – his ability to star in a film is perceived as a sort of “talking dog” thing – the dog doesn’t haven’t to say anything impressive to qualify for that distinction. My feeling is the studios (chiefly Universal) often felt they had to pair Murphy with a strong character actor – Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, Barry Sullivan – to carry him.

But anyone at all savvy about film and film-acting can look at Murphy in almost any of his pictures and see how his instinctive, charismatic under-playing seems modern and real while many of the actors around him appear to be shouting and hamming it up. He is present in every scene, quietly reacting, watching, then delivering lines naturally and effectively.

And in scenes of violence, just who this baby-faced boy/man is always comes to the fore. He’s a killer. Real deal. Not a murderer, but a soldier who unflinchingly does what he has to. But he’s not one note: he can be boyish, he can be scary, he can be romantic, he can be funny, he can be tough as hell – as much as I like Randolph Scott (and that’s a lot), Murphy has far more colors to his palette.

We’ve been watching him for a week or so now, and not all of the movies are good – toward the mid-1960s (particularly when he’s not working at Universal), his films are programmers, bottom-bill fodder for drive-ins. But he made some fine westerns, too, and worked with such great genre directors as Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher and Jack Arnold.

My favorite, the latter director’s work, is No Name on the Bullet. Murphy is an assassin who comes to a small western town, quietly checks in at the hotel and minds his own business – only his business is killing someone while he’s in town…but who. Everyone in the community seems to have a secret worth killing for. It’s a very Quarry-like role. The quiet killer side of him is in evidence – the film is thoughtful, a sort of High Noon turned inside out, and Murphy is great. Just great.

In collecting Murphy’s films, I’ve had to order DVDs and Blu-rays from all over the world. A few are available here (including No Name on the Bullet), and there’s a nice boxed set from Turner Classic Movies – check it out.

Oddly, Murphy is considered a major star in Germany. Think about that – our decorated hero is revered by the losers, and patronized and even ignored by the winners. This is much odder than Jerry Lewis being lionized in France (though the French are right about Lewis, and they like Murphy, too, for that matter).

Salute this Texas sharecropper’s son, while Memorial Day is still in the air, won’t you? For his service to his country, by all means. But track down some of his movies. He was a real movie star, and – unlikely as it seems – a fine actor.

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The forthcoming Scarface and the Untouchable is one of the ten summer books Chicago Magazine recommends.

Here’s a fine review of Killing Town.

Check out this advance look at the first issue of the Hammer four-issue comic book mini-series.

The Quarry TV series gets some love here.

Finally, here is a wonderful review of Antiques Wanted by a reviewer who really gets what Barb and I are up to.

M.A.C.

White Man’s Burdon

May 22nd, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

This past Saturday evening, Barb and I headed to Riverside, Iowa (future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk) to the casino resort there for a concert by Eric Burdon and the Animals.

The Riverside Casino and Golf Resort is a great venue that brings in major acts (within half an hour of our home!) and some of them, like this one (and the Happy Together Tour a while back), are top stars of the Baby Boomers’ youth. For example, they have Micky Dolenz and Paul Lindsay coming up on September 29. Crusin’ has appeared on the Riverside Casino’s smaller stage three times, and it’s always a thrill to get to entertain there.

The house for Burdon was packed and enthusiastic…also old. So is Burdon, at 73 a kind of wonderful train wreck, a grizzled, gifted survivor of the British Invasion. He’s a small but formidable man, and the only real Animal on stage – he’s surrounded by kids, relatively speaking, who mostly serve him well. Despite a cold that he apologized for, as it gave his voice even more gravel, he performed well, enthusiastically and long – an hour and a half, no break – giving the crowd most of his hits, the only really major omission being “It’s My Life.”

My only complaint is the current Animals line-up – the bass needs more definition, and the keyboards more balls. I wanted to rush the stage, yelling, “Let a man in!”, when the keyboard guy played piano all through “We Gotta Get Outa This Place.” His piano keyboard is a Nord, and a Nord is one of my two keyboards and a fine instrument…but right behind him was a Hammond B-3!

The Animals’ sound, in its first and most popular incarnation, was driven by organ – either Vox or Hammond, with Alan Price its famous keyboard player. Not bringing that Hammond into full, robust play was a blunder.

Okay, I realize I’m seeing that through my end of the telescope, and I don’t want to indicate the evening in Eric Burdon’s legendary presence wasn’t a wonderful thing, a real privilege. Burdon is the kind of dedicated singer who can bring brand-new passion to a song he’s sung literally hundreds and hundreds of times, every time.

Burdon is as much as anyone – and I include Mick Jagger – responsible for bringing the blues to white America (and the UK), exposing my generation to the joys and rewards of the African-American musical experience, sending us to Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, among many others. Is there a more unlikely smash hit single of the sixties than “House of the Rising Sun”?

Here’s a cool interview with Burdon done just before the Riverside appearance.

And now, because absolutely no one asked for it, here is my list of my 10 Most Influential Albums of the Sixties. These are the actual albums I listened to most, as opposed to my assembling something reflecting what I should be listing, i.e., black artists, female artists, and not just white boys (mostly British). But it was the British Invasion that sent me down a path that would have me still playing rock ‘n’ roll at 70 (thankfully not for a fulltime living).

1. Rubber Soul – the Beatles. 1965 (December). This list could be nothing but Beatles, as their albums and singles were what I listened to most. Rubber Soul is where the group blossoms into something even more special. I am in a minority, but I like least The White Album and everything that follows.

2. Along Comes the Association – The Association. 1966. Still, perhaps, their finest hour, with the possible exception of the follow-up, Renaissance. Includes “Enter the Young,” “Along Comes Mary,” “Cherish” and more. Barb and I saw them perform more often than other band of the era, the greatest vocal group that was also a fine rock band.

3. The Zombies – the Zombies. 1965. Their wonderful early material is here in this American release, including my two favorite singles of the ‘60s, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” Colin Blunstone’s breathy, heart-felt singing melds with Rod Argent’s great, inspiring (to me) piano and organ – this is pure pop bliss.

4. Them Again – Them. 1966 (January). My favorite Van Morrison material almost all dates to his days fronting Them. This second album made not much of a splash in the USA, but it’s great, with “Could You, Would You,” “Call My Name” and “I Can Only Give You Everything” outstanding.

5. Animal Tracks – The Animals. 1965. Their third album (a U.S. mongrel), it features “We Gotta Get Outa This Place,” which was Muscatine High School’s senior class of ‘66 song. As a listener caught up in the pop of the Beatles, the jolt of r & b from Eric Burdon (and also Van Morrison with Them) was the start of an education.

6. It Ain’t Me Babe – the Turtles. Before “Happy Together,” the Turtles were a folk-rock band with an edge, the Byrds but not precious. This album has not only the title track but a pre-Sinatra, rocking “It Was a Very Good Year,” P.F. Sloan’s “Let Me Be,” and some nice Dylan covers. Opening for Flo and Eddie (twice) was a real career highlight for this weathered garage band rocker.

7. Midnight Ride – Paul Revere and the Raiders. 1967. This was the last album that the Raiders – a great bar band from the Pacific Northwest – actually played on, with the famous Wrecking Crew taking over after, so the group could tour and tour and tour. This was their Rubber Soul, with such great tracks as “Kicks,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Louie Go Home” (a sequel to “Louie Louie,” their version have been hijacked by another local band).

8. Eighteen Yellow Roses – Bobby Darin. 1963. My obsession with Bobby Darin was not entirely blotted out by the British Invasion. This album has Darin’s hit title track and a bunch of covers, including “On Broadway” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” Not a major album, but I listened to it a lot. Ditto his later (1968) Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, a singer-songwriter effort of personal folk rock and protest material in his Bob Darin phase. My band played “Long Line Rider.”

9. Younger Than Yesterday– The Byrds. 1967. Such an influential band. I recall playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” at a frat party in Iowa City around ‘68 and the frat brothers having us play it over and over and over. Guitarist Bruce Peters of the Daybreakers had a 12-string Rickenbacker to give it the real McGuinn flavor. That track isn’t on this album, which is the “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” LP, with such wonderful songs/performances as “Have You Seen Her Face” and “My Back Pages.” This was our late bass player Chuck Bunn’s favorite album.

10. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys. 1966. The great American answer to the question posed by the British Invasion: which of you stateside losers can compete with us? Well, these guys. It’s possibly the best, most beautiful rock album ever written, produced and performed.

Looking at this list – which is in no particular order – I realize how much of it centers around 1966, and just before and just after. Subjectively, it suggests that the music that appeared as I came of age – if 17 or 18 is coming of age – happened to be some of the best popular music ever…or was it just the stuff (objectively speaking) that was out when I was a junior and senior in high school?

Let me mention, too, that if this list continued further, the albums from my college years – everything from the frankly poppy Monkees to the likes of Vanilla Fudge, Cream and Deep Purple – would be on it.

So. Now that you’ve read it…aren’t you glad you didn’t ask?

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Barb and I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 2. We had discovered the first DP (so speak) movie on home video, and found it a hoot, if dark. This one isn’t quite as dark, and is even more joke-laden than the previous. There are smart people I know (like Terry Beatty) who hated the first Deadpool and are unlikely to try the second (and probably shouldn’t). But I enjoy the way the Deadpool films send up the super-hero genre while celebrating it – that it points out and revels in the absurdities of the genre (particularly the movie version of superhero comics) and still manages to be a terrific superhero movie. Deadpool 2, for all its smart-ass nastiness, even has a good heart.

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Here’s a fun, quirky review of Quarry’s Climax. I think the reviewer doesn’t quite get Quarry’s view of women (or humanity, actually), but he likes the book, which is what matters. Quarry has contempt for the entire human race, including himself, but he isn’t a dick about it.

And a nice Quarry write-up is here, in this look at post-Vietnam crime novels.

M.A.C.

Merry X-Mas?

May 15th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

Some of our loyal readers may recall that Barb and I did three e-book novellas over the past several years, all with a Christmas theme, none available as anything but e-books.

That will change soon. I am, this very week, working on the galley proofs of Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicide (by Barbara Allan, of course), collecting those three e-books into an actual book…a mass market paperback only (no hardcover).

We’re very pleased that this book is happening. The novella form works well for Brandy and Vivian Borne, and we like all three stories. If you’ve never read an Antiques novel, this one will make a good sampler – but it won’t be out till Christmas season, of course.

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Batman: Elseworlds #3 includes Scar of the Bat, my Batman/Eliot Ness graphic novel, drawn by the great Eduardo Barreto. It comes out mid-June. Info here.

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We had the fun of having Nathan, Abby and our grandson, Sam, for Mother’s Day, dining at the lavish new Merrill Hotel in Muscatine. Sam likes to visit because “Grandpa has the best cartoons,” a wise observation for a nearly three-year-old. His favorite is “A Froggy Evening,” reflecting the great taste that has been passed down through the miracle of DNA. He also laughs at his own jokes – gee, I don’t know where he gets that.

Nate finished his latest Japanese-to-English project – the book is excellent and is some of Nate’s best work. We’ll announce it when it reaches publication.

With no nepotism in the mix, Nate’s publisher for the book is Tor, current home of Nate Heller.

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Barb and I went to Rampage, which is the very definition of a movie that we did not walk out of, though we strongly considered it. The Rock, I mean Dewayne Johnson, is very good at action tinged with humor. But the script is mostly an embarrassment – the bad guys build a homing device for the monsters they created…on top of their own building in downtown Chicago! – and some of the performances are downright painful.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is given a star entrance – I guess he’s on Walking Dead, which I don’t watch – and he’s frankly terrible, making an awful character, well, awfuler. He plays a CIA type agent with corny cowboy dialogue and a pearl-handled .45 side-draw on his belt, which has a big cowboy buckle. One of the biggest disappointments of Rampage was that his character did not die (the possibility of seeing that was an inducement not to walk out).

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One of the few reviews Killing Town has received is from Book Reporter, and it’s a nice one.

A brief but good Killing Town review can be seen here.

And another from the New York Review of Books.

M.A.C.

A Rotten Tomato for Rotten Tomatoes

May 8th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

NEWS FLASH: McFarland, who published Mickey Spillane on Screen, is having a big sale. If you avoided this book because of its high price, you can get it for 25% off now, by using the code POPCULTURE25 – that puts it at $26.25, a price that is actually not insane!

Celebrate Mickey Spillane’s birthday with the best critical work ever written about him!

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Barb and I completed and shipped Antiques Ravin’ a few days ago. It’s always an intense ride, as she spends many months on her draft and then I spend a month or so expanding and revising, with her closely supervising. My job is largely to polish and expand, dialogue particularly, plus I add a lot of jokes (and there are always plenty before I start my work, which is why the books are very funny) (no modesty about that at all).

I believe we are at a dozen books in the series. That makes the Trash ‘n’ Treasures books one of my biggest successes in publishing, and I owe it all to Barb.

We sent out five copies of the recently published Antiques Wanted to the first five of you to request a copy, as part of our latest book giveaway.

If you’re won a copy of this (or of Killing Town, The Last Stand or The Bloody Spur), do please post Amazon (and other) reviews. The Last Stand has received a lot of attention, but perhaps because of that, Killing Town has gone almost unnoticed by the professional reviewing community. Judging by the positive response of readers so far – and the historic significance of Killing Town as the first Mike Hammer novel – the critical shrug to the book’s existence is frustrating and a little sad.

Speaking of critics….

As some of you may recall, I gave up my role as Mystery Scene’s film reviewer after I made a film myself and found out how fricking hard it is. Making even a bad film is an extremely tough endeavor for all concerned. The collaborative nature of the process, as well as the financial burdens and responsibilities, means that any time a good film happens, it does just that: it happens, almost in spite of itself. A good film, let alone a great one, is something of a miracle.

So for a long time I resisted the urge to write bad reviews of films. And nothing is easier than writing a bad review, particularly in the age of snark. I still refuse opportunities to write reviews of books by other mystery writers for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is conflict of interest.

I remember once when Tony Hillerman wrote a negative review in a major publication of one of the early Heller novels, how much it hurt to be attacked from above like that, how unkind and lacking in grace it was, coming not only from a writer much more successful than me, but from someone who I’d played poker with and with whom I’d socialized in a friendly way.

But, if you follow this update at all, you know that I have given in to my not better angels and written the occasional bad review of a movie. I have in particular reported when Barb and I have walked out. Because we go to the movies, on average, once a week – an effort to get out of the house where we both do our work – we have gotten into the habit of deciding at least in part about what we will see based on Rotten Tomatoes, where professional critics have their reviews averaged into a fresh or unfresh rating.

This habit has proved about as helpful as getting hooked on opioids.

Two cases in point.

The Blumhouse horror film, Truth or Dare, has a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – decidedly unfresh. Stuck in the nearby Quad Cities, while Barb dealt with a Social Security problem her 93-year-old mother was having, I took in that film, just to kill time. While Barb has warmed to horror films some, I still have to go by myself at times, if one doesn’t appeal to her. I went to Truth or Dare.

Which was scary and well-directed, nicely acted, well-written, and everything a horror film of its kind should be. Somewhat similar to the Final Destination films, but stressing characterization in a far deeper fashion, Truth or Dare is creepy, involving fun. But it’s a horror film, and isn’t politically correct like Get Out (also Blumhouse, incidentally), so the critics don’t like it. None of them seem to understand that what a genre film, or any film, must do its work on its own terms.

Okay. So I Feel Pretty (I really do!). Barb and I both like Amy Schumer; loved her TV series, enjoyed Trainwreck, though we skipped Statched because Goldie Hawn’s plastic surgery was too disturbing.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the trailer of I Feel Pretty didn’t grab us, though we probably would have gone had we not read so many bad reviews of it. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 34% – definitely not fresh.

Then we heard Bill Maher talk about the film, and specifically the critical reaction to it, on Real Time. Now a lot of liberals dislike Maher, and a lot of conservatives dislike him, too. Which probably speaks well for him. I don’t always agree with him, but I don’t have to always agree with people to be interested in what they have to say.

Here is what Bill said about I Feel Pretty:

I do agree with everything he said here, particularly nailing movie critics (book critics, take heed) for taking a filmmaker to task for not making the movie that said critic would have made. This is precisely what Gene Siskel used to do. He always beat up on movies that weren’t done the way he would have (this from a guy whose favorite film was Saturday Night Fever). I hope Siskel is in Purgatory right now, where he is not allowed to move on until he makes a movie as good as Plan Nine From Outer Space (good luck).

Anyway, Barb and I went to I Feel Pretty and it was very good. Funny as hell, with Schumer’s performance particularly strong (Michelle Williams is remarkable, too). Its message about self-esteem (including the pitfalls of too much of it) is clear and positive, without shortchanging the laughs. A perfect Sunday afternoon matinee movie.

Rotten Tomatoes, you deserve a basket of them tossed at you, one at a sloppy time.

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Here are this year’s International Association of Media and Tie-in Writers “Scribe” Award nominations (and I’m pleased to be among them):

Short Story:
“Banana Republic” by Jonathan Maberry
“Ganbatte” by Keith DeCandido
“Murderers’ Row” by John Jackson Miller
“Pacing Place” by Bob Mayer
“Rear Guard” by Sarah Stegall
“Storm Blood” by Peter Wacks and David Boop

Adapted Speculative and General:
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by James Goss
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter by Tim Waggoner
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets by Christie Golden
Kong Skull Island by Tim Lebbon

Original Speculative:
The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase by Greg Cox
Solar Singularity by Peter J. Wacks, Guy Anthony Demarco, and Josh Voight
Halo: Legacy of Onyx by Matt Forbeck
Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad by Christie Golden
Star Trek Discovery: Desperate Hours by David Mack
Supernatural: The Usual Sacrifices by Yvonne Navarro

Original General:
Don Pendleton’s The Executioner Fatal Prescription by Michael A. Black
The Will to Kill by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet A Jesse Stone Novel by Reed Farrel Coleman

YA Original:
Star Wars Adventures in Wild Space – The Cold by Cavan Scott
Warriors Three: Godhood’s End by Keith R. A. DeCandido
X-Files Origins: Devil’s Advocate by Jonathan Maberry

Audio:
Doctor Who: Across the Darkened City by David Bartlett
Doctor Who: Cold Vengeance by Matt Fitton
Warhammer 40,000: Agent of the Throne, Blood and Lies by John French
Torchwood: Cascade by Scott Handcock
Torchwood: The Dying Room by Lizzie Hopley

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Here’s one of the few Killing Town reviews so far. It’s from Ron Fortier and it’s a beauty.

A nice mention of Antiques Wanted can be found in this fun blog.

This is a quirky but positive review of the audio of Murder Never Knocks, which the reviewer calls Murder Never Knows (which does indicate a certain lack of regard to detail).

Take a look at this fun review of The Last Stand (with kind words about “A Bullet for Satisfaction”).

Finally, here’s a nifty write-up about Spillane, with an emphasis on the novel The Girl Hunters, from top-flight tough-guy writer, Wayne Dundee. I hope Wayne is following the posthumous Hammer novels, and is aware that Complex 90 is really more of a sequel to The Girl Hunters than even The Snake.

M.A.C.

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