Posts Tagged ‘Antiques Fruitcake’

The Five Great Christmas Movies

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

The image this week is our Christmas card to you – originally sent by my parents some time in the early ‘50s.

I’ve talked about Christmas movies here before, and last year I emphasized the fun of looking at some of the more obscure but good Christmas movies, like BELL, BOOK & CANDLE and THE FAMILY MAN.

But there are only five great Christmas movies. This is not a topic for debate. This is strictly factual. You are welcome to disagree and comments to that effect are welcome, but they will be viewed with Christmas charity as amusing, misguided and somewhat sad opinions in the vein of the earth being flat and 6000 years old.

Here are the five great Christmas movies, in this year’s order (it shifts annually).

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? (View at your own risk: Capra’s last film, A POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, just barely a Christmas movie, recently released on blu-ray and DVD. Longer than an evening with your least favorite relatives.)

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.

You don’t have to agree with this list. I am perfectly happy with you putting the films in some other order, as long as the first three films I’ve listed remain in the first three. I think I’m being remarkably flexible.

There are two Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movies that have gained blu-ray release and in one case a limited theatrical showing. The latter is a 1945 dog called CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (paired in theaters by TCM with a mediocre 1938 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL – a stocking full of coal of a double feature). But the sleeper, and a small masterpiece, is REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), written by Preston Sturges and co-starring Stanwyck’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY lead, the wonderful Fred MacMurray.

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Both MIKE HAMMER full-cast audio novels (starring Stacy Keach) get reviewed, here and here. The reviewer really likes THE LITTLE DEATH.

Nice mention of SUPREME JUSTICE here.

Here’s a delightful look at ANTIQUES CON from a theatrical point of view.

Finally, Merry Christmas! Remember, you can get in the Christmas spirit (or anyway the Xmas spirit) with ANTIQUES SLAY RIDE and ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE on e-book, and “A Wreath for Marley” in THE BIG BOOK OF CHRISTMAS MYSTERIES.


Barbara Allan: How it Works

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Antiques Fruitcake

No question comes my way more frequently than, “How do you and your wife Barb collaborate on the ANTIQUES books?” Well, actually, I’m more often asked, “Has anybody told you that you look like Elton John?” But not much.

As I spent last week working on a Barbara Allan project, this seems as good a time as any to answer the first question. (As for the second question, there’s no answering it that will make it go away.)

As part of our most recent contract with Kensington Publishing, Barb and I agreed to write three novellas in the ANTIQUES series in addition to three full-length novels. The idea was to write novellas that could be e-books in an effort to attract new readers, and to prime readers for the next book in the series.

Further, each novella was to be Christmas-themed. This set the stage for possibly collecting the novellas, maybe with a new one, in book form at some point. Looking at the writing of one of these novellas should provide a study in microcosm of the collaborative writing process used by Barb and me on the novels themselves.

The work began several months ago with a series of conversations, fairly casual, about what the basic story would be, and what the title might be. Titles are tricky on these Christmas novellas. Coming up with something clever, like HO HO HOMICIDE or CHRISTMAS STALKING isn’t that tricky (although lots of possibilities have been used, including those); but in our case we have to include ANTIQUES in the title. Something like ANTIQUES CHRISTMAS STALKING has about as much music as a trombone falling down the stairs.

The first of the novellas was ANTIQUES SLAY RIDE and the second (which will be e-published a week from today) is ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE. We considered ANTIQUES MISTLETOE TAG, but that damn “Antiques” made it clumsy. So – we gave up and moved on to figuring out the story.

As is our habit, we kicked around ideas over lunch at various restaurants. Barb suggested something to do with a street-corner Santa Claus getting killed for his donation bag. But that had no “antiques” aspect, so I suggested somebody had put a valuable old coin in the bag, possibly by mistake. Then came the notion that our Santa was not Salvation Army variety, but a good-hearted local person raising money for some good cause. And the valuable-coin donation was on purpose.

From there came both a more detailed plot – with the same kind of back-and-forth brainstorming that Matt Clemens and I engage in – and a possible title. ANTIQUES SECRET SANTA. Finally I came up with ANTIQUES ST. NICKED, which became the title (unless Kensington hates it).

About five weeks ago, we finalized the chapter breakdown (over lunch, of course). When the Hollywood pitch trip came along, Barb went with me and worked on the ANTIQUES story in our hotel room while I was off on meetings. She got her draft of the first of five chapters written.

Back home, she continued at a rate of one chapter a week. In the meantime, I was doing two drafts of that TV script I’ve mentioned as well as several smaller writing jobs I agreed to do in weak moments. A week ago, she turned over her five-chapter, 69-page draft to me.

Monday through/including Thursday, last week, I did a chapter a day, revising, expanding, tightening, tweaking. Along the way I would have plot and character questions for Barb, which she would answer, or that she and I would discuss and work out. End of day she’d read my draft, mark it up, and I would enter her changes and corrections, either then or the first thing next work day.

Friday was beautiful, so we said, “Screw it,” and had one of our typical getaway days, going to the Amana Colonies and then Cedar Rapids for food and shopping. Saturday I did the final of five chapters, and on Sunday we both read the manuscript, first Barb, then me, each making notes and corrections.

Reading any long manuscript that you’ve written a chapter at a time, without doing much referring back as you go, means you’re likely to encounter plot and continuity problems, and that happened here. One thing that happened was that several things in our plot and on a “CHARACTERS/SUSPECT” sheet that Barb had prepared for me had not made it into the manuscript. We wrote them in. By late afternoon Sunday, the manuscript was finished – now 84 pages.

We may not turn it in for a while – that will be our editor’s call – because we did this story way early, in part because Barb needs to get cracking on the next ANTIQUES novel, but mostly because the deadline for the second Caleb York novel (also for Kensington) is the same day as for this novella. A “yikes” would not be inappropriate here.

It’s hard for a writer to know, right after finishing something, if it’s worth a damn. Barb is still just shrugging, shaking her head and making faces about this one. I feel more confident that we have just the right mix of our typical format with our characters presented well, a tricky little mystery, Christmas theme, serious subject matter handled delicately, and lots of laughs.

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Here’s a very good, flattering essay about my work that morphs into a Chicago crime piece. I do wonder if the writer knows that much of what he goes on to discuss was dealt with in my novels ROAD TO PURGATORY and ROAD TO PARADISE.

Here’s a great little piece (with mentions of yours truly) on one of my favorite paperback writers of the ‘60s, Ennis Willie. (I’ll be talking about him and several other under-appreciated writers on a Bouchercon panel.)

Finally, check out this generous write-up, having to do with my writing a brief advance review of a book on Milton Caniff and his STEVE CANYON character Miss Mizzou.


Notes From a Stuffed-Up Author

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I spent much of last week fighting a cold and researching/writing an introduction for a forthcoming Hermes Press collection of the pre-Disney ZORRO comic books from Dell. The centerpiece is a trio of issues drawn by Everett Raymond Kinstler, who would go on to be our nation’s premiere portrait artist, with subjects ranging from John Wayne to various Presidents. The other comic books (seven in all) are good as well, but I really had to dig in on the net and among Zorro fans to find out who the artists and writers were. Much guesswork involved. I am a big fan of Zorro as originally created by pulp writer Johnson McCulley, and my intro in part decries the paucity of McCulley Zorro stories in print.

Also, we received good reviews from agent and editor on ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE, so that one is largely put to bed (it’s an e-book novella). Barb is back to her draft of ANTIQUES SWAP, and I am headed into the Spillane western, THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK. There will be a subtitle for the latter but I haven’t come up with it. I’ve been told to leave out the sex and hit the violence hard, even down to the title. So RAVAGING THE DANCE HALL GALS is out. I’m considering SHOOT-OUT AT SIROCCO.

I also worked on several more passes on a HELLER TV pitch. I’ve done seven so far. Hollywood is all about rewriting. I remember so vividly when I handed in draft umpteen on THE EXPERT to director Bill Lustig and he immediately said, “Thanks! Now, on the next draft I want to concentrate on – ” I interrupted to say that I wouldn’t take any more notes till he’d read the draft I just handed him.

Barb and I are listening to Dan John Miller’s audio rendering of THE WRONG QUARRY. This is Dan’s first Quarry novel, having done all of the Hellers. He has once again nailed it.

Speaking of THE WRONG QUARRY, here’s another nifty review.

COMPLEX 90 made the top five best book covers of 2013 at the Rap Sheet.

Here’s a nice review of the Hammer short story (available from Mysterious Bookshop as a mini-book), “It’s in the Book.”

Finally, here’s a very smart review of the film of ROAD TO PERDITION. Nice to see this great film really making its mark over the years.


Writer’s Work is Never Done

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

When a writer finishes a novel and sends it in to a waiting editor/publisher, a feeling of relief is greater than any sense of accomplishment. What all of us forget, however, is that sending in the “finished” book is only the beginning.

First, there comes an editorial letter, often asking for revisions, followed by a line-edited manuscript, then a copy-edited manuscript and finally galley proofs. For a prolific writer like me, all of these turn up unexpectedly, often at terrible times, and always with a note to get the manuscript or galleys back in something like three days.

Editors don’t care if you’re on deadline with some other book, usually (though not always) for some other publisher. Every editor (rightly) considers the book of yours that is theirs to be the only book.

I also have the problem of not wanting to do any revisions that aren’t absolutely necessary – i.e., a plot point that I haven’t dealt with, or sentences and/or paragraphs that have proved confusing. I rarely agree to elaborate rewrites. Hardly ever. I also am notorious for becoming furious with copy editors. Not all copy editors: just those who have appointed themselves collaborators. About one in three times at bat, I encounter one of these creatures intent upon “improving” my work.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. The only shit fit that Mickey Spillane ever threw in front of me was in response to a copy-edited version of one of his novels. The fury of Mike Hammer at his kill-craziest was unleashed.

But it is the collision of books that can make a writer dizzy.

Last week, after completing QUARRY’S CHOICE, I was immediately thrust into dealing with the galley proofs of the very different SUPREME JUSTICE. Now, because Hard Case editor Charles Ardai is lightning fast, I am already facing the copy-edited manuscript of CHOICE!, before the literary paint is dry. I am grateful and impressed with Charles’ speed, but fear I lack enough distance from the book to effectively work with the copy-edit so soon.

Much of what a professional fiction writer does is little-known or even unknown by readers.

Ahead in the immediate week or two ahead are finishing a TV pitch for a potential Nate Heller TV series, which will require me re-reading STOLEN AWAY and much of TRUE DETECTIVE, taking notes as I go; writing my draft of a “Barbara Allan” Christmas novella called ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE, not due for a while but necessary to deal with now, because of scheduling issues; and getting ready to write a western novel based on an unproduced Mickey Spillane screenplay. The latter prep will include spending many hours with that screenplay, looking at western reference books, and reading some ‘50s western novels by the likes of Jonas Ward and Harry Whittington, to help get the right flavor.

Not complaining, mind you. This beats my other paying jobs (sacking groceries, bussing tables) by some distance.

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Eliot Ness
Eliot Ness

Be sure to check out the Huffington Post piece on Eliot Ness that Brad Schwartz and I put together to defend the Untouchable from attacks from Jonathan Eig (Get Capone) and others, in reaction to the proposal that a new ATF building be named for him.

My pal and collaborator Matt Clemens visited the Twin Cities recently to read one of our short stories at Noir at the Bar.

Speaking of Matt, here’s a great review of WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER, which – like SUPREME JUSTICE – is a book Matt contributed mightily to.

Check out this very good article on cozy mysteries dealing with antiques. Barbara Allan gets some very nice attention here.

Still haven’t picked up THE WRONG QUARRY? Here’s an excerpt.

Here’s a great WRONG QUARRY review, demonstrating that members of my favorite sex (hint: not male) can relate to Quarry just fine.

And finally a review of QUARRY – the first book in the series. How odd and oddly sweet to see a novel that I began writing in 1972 at the U of Iowa Writers Workshop getting reviewed in 2014.