Posts Tagged ‘Ask Not’

Books, Wonderful Books

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Two wonderful new books by writers who should be of interest to readers of these updates are respectively about to come out and already out.


Coming soon is my son’s terrific translation of the modern Japanese classic, BATTLE ROYALE. He’s very happy right now, because – as you can see – the book had been blessed with an outstanding cover. The book itself was the basis of a very popular film, but also is the obvious inspiration for a little thing called HUNGER GAMES.

Jane Spillane’s memoir MY LIFE WITH MICKEY has been published and it’s a delight. Jane’s gift at storytelling is something that would make Mickey smile. It’s warm, funny and frank, and the design of the book – and the pictures throughout – are as charming as the memoir itself. No Spillane fan should miss this.

The links I’ve provided above are Amazon ones, but other online retailers will certainly have BATTLE ROYALE, and the MY LIFE WITH MICKEY link takes you to the only place where you can get the regionally-published book.

I’ve had some lovely comments – both here and on Facebook – about my birthday post, and several top mystery-fiction bloggers – including Bill Crider and Ed Gorman – picked it up to share with their readers. (My NAKED CITY post was similarly picked up, including by J. Kingston Pierce at the prestigious Rap Sheet.) But I’d also like to share a fun “present” I received first thing, birthday morning.

As you may remember, I was asked to change the title of the Spillane western THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK to something short and punchy. For reasons that I won’t go into (because they get us into spoiler territory), I strongly felt that we needed to stick with the original title, which was Mickey’s own. I wrote a long, impassioned e-mail to my editor that morning, making my case. Kensington is notorious for controlling their titles – for example, neither J.C. Harrow novel had the title that Matt Clemens and I had wanted. But they had a specific kind of title that was considered right for a serial killer thriller, and we went along. I got a similar vibe about westerns at Kensington’s, with a very specific approach to titles (short, punchy, with suggested violence, followed by “A Caleb York Western”).

So I made my Don Quixote type stand, fully believing I would get no where. In five minutes, both my editor Michalea Hamilton – after consulting the resident westerns guru at Kensington – wrote me back to say…they both agreed we me. THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK it would be.

That rare if small victory on the battlefields of publishing was how I started my 66th year. Which makes me think this may be a good one.

Further, my smart, lovely editor then composed and sent me this birthday greeting, which I got permission to share with you:

There once was an outstanding writer,
Whose talents shone brighter and brighter,
In the land of Spillane,
He rekindled the flame,
And brought to life York, the gunfighter!

* * *

Here’s an intelligent review of BYE BYE, BABY, generally positive, where the blogger is not particularly interested in Marilyn Monroe though she has a strong Kennedy fascination. She raises the perhaps troubling point (to me anyway) that the book may only appeal to readers who are either MM or JFK (or both) fanatics. My hope is always that the Heller books work as novels, particularly as private eye thrillers, and that you don’t need a familiarity with, or obsession for, the case at hand. I really hope I’m right and this reviewer isn’t. I liked her reviewing style, which is chatty in a way that seems easy but isn’t.

On a somewhat similar note, this UK reviewer finds all the JFK assassination fuss boring, and he doesn’t care for ASK NOT much, though likes the writing and Heller himself enough to say he’ll try another. Admittedly, ASK NOT is a rough place to start reading the Heller saga. But what troubles me most is the notion that if you’re not from the USA, this subject will be dull (if so, it’s dull with lots of murders!).

Finally, here’s a nice WRONG QUARRY review.


Eight Million (and More) Stories

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

I have begun the Spillane western, now entitled DEATH RIDES IN and labeled “a Caleb York Western.” I’m working from a screenplay Mickey wrote for John Wayne in the late ‘50s which, obviously, was never produced. There will be a background intro that will discuss Mickey and Wayne’s history together.

It feels okay so far – one chapter in – but with the exception of the MAVERICK novelization and the flashbacks in BLACK HATS, I’ve never tackled a western before. I called my long-tall-Texan pal Bill Crider for some help on a few points – he knows what he’s doing – and that helped me saddle up and ride. The script – not necessarily written for Wayne the actor, rather Wayne the producer – is very much a vehicle that you might have seen starring Audie Murphy or Randolph Scott circa ‘58. I love that, but as somebody who doesn’t read contemporary western novels, I can’t anticipate how modern readers will react. It’s very much a tough Spillane story transferred to the west, so that’s a plus.

My love for westerns comes not from novels – I’ve maybe read a dozen in my life, counting TRUE GRIT – but from movies and TV. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of old TV, sometimes with Barb, sometimes alone. We both greatly enjoyed revisiting MAVERICK, which was my favorite show of any kind in my distant youth – James Garner’s Bret Maverick influenced Nate Heller as much as any mystery-fiction PI – and Barb grew up on it, too. I’m also fond of Jack Kelly’s Bart Maverick, and the very best episodes often feature both brothers. I would argue that “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres” (maybe you saw the remake – THE STING?) is the greatest single episode of a TV series ever made.

Binge watching is something Barb and I (and Nate, when he was younger) practically invented. But it must be said that serialized series of today work better than runs of classic series of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those shows had such punishing schedules – PERRY MASON did as many as 39 hour-long episodes a year – that maintaining consistency much less high quality was damn near impossible. On the other hand, Barb and I have worked our way through PERRY MASON – inhaling each half-season DVD release in a couple of days – and it has a surprisingly small number of clinkers. Maybe half a dozen out of 271 (!). The best episodes, not surprisingly, are adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner novels. The first two seasons are mostly such adaptations, and are highly recommended.

MAVERICK doesn’t fare quite as well. The first two seasons are excellent, really as good as TV westerns of that (or really any) era get. But creator/producer Roy Huggins left at the end of season two, and James Garner was starting to have battles with some very stupid Warner Bros. executives who thought screwing their star out of money was a good plan. Season three begins well but flags at mid-point, and toward the end, even some Bret episodes are clinkers. Season four lacks Garner, and Roger Moore is brought in as a Maverick cousin, faring only so so. “The Maverick Line,” one last Garner held back from season three, does the impossible: it’s a lousy Bret/Bart episode. Jack Kelly was magical working off James Garner, but tended to do the straighter, more “serious” episodes, and when Garner left, he was shifted into Garner-style scripts. He was pretty good at comedy but wasn’t getting the level of material that Garner got in the Huggins years. So my advice would be: watch the first two seasons.

As for more contemporary fare, right now Barb and I are working our way through VERONICA MARS, and are almost done with the second season, which is very good if not up to the amazing first one. We’ll press on to the somewhat maligned third season, as we prepare for the imminent VERONICA MARS feature (I was a Kickstarter contributor). VERONICA MARS is one of the really great private eye series. The first season may be the best single season of any private eye show. Kristen Bell, as a teenage detective (the set-up is pure Nancy Drew – her father is a P.I. – but the feel is absolute FREAKS AND GEEKS) tosses off witty lines with a wry ease that Marlowe or Rockford might well envy.

Barb did not join me on my long journey through the complete NAKED CITY – 138 episodes. This is a wonderful show, with much to recommend it. Initially John McIntire is Lt. Dan Muldoon, the fatherly mentor to James Franciscus’ younger detective. They have a nice chemistry, but McIntire leaves two-thirds of the way through the first season – his landmark demise in “The Bumper” remains shocking – and Franciscus grieves his way through the remainder of the year. Replacing McIntire is Horace McMahon with his overly gruff, even unpleasant Lt. Mike Parker. When the show returns in a new one-hour format (after a year hiatus), it’s almost a surprise McMahon has been asked back. Franciscus does not return – he was a busy movie and TV actor – and Paul Burke comes in as the similar Adam Flint, his liberal, sensitive cop warming McMahon’s Parker up. The only cast member who spans all four seasons is Harry Bellaver as lovable, not-brilliant Detective Frank Arcaro.

Of course, the location shooting, capturing late ‘50s/early ‘60s New York, is the real star – the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Times Square, we’re there. The talent pool is drawn from Broadway and the Actor’s Studio, including regular Nancy Malone, very winning and naturalistic as Burke’s girl friend, Libby. The series is justly famous for early appearances by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Bruce Dern, Sandy Dennis, Alan Alda, Jessica Walter, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken and many more. Moonlighting Broadway stars like Robert Morse, Orson Bean, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Klugman and William Shatner turn up frequently as do such Hollywood legends as Mickey Rooney, Sylvia Sidney, Dennis Hopper, Roddy McDowell, Chester Morris, Steve Cochran, Claude Rains, and Burgess Meredith. Jack Warden, Carroll O’Connor, Lois Nettleton and Nehemiah Persoff make multiple appearances. Legendary acting coach Sandy Meisner has a rare on-screen role in one episode – he was Mike Cornelison’s teacher. Small world.

NAKED CITY is a child of early television – dramas like STUDIO ONE and PLAYHOUSE 90 – and is essentially an anthology series pretending to be a cop show. This can be a problem, because the cops are often shoehorned in, and sometimes the stories have little to do with crime. Some of the famous actors deliver terrible, scenery-chewing performances; many of the young actors – James Caan, Dustin Hoffman – are so in Brando’s thrall, you want to shake them until they agree to see a movie that isn’t ON THE WATERFRONT. The shadows of Tennessee Williams and William Inge loom large, turning some of the scriptwriters into pretentious windbags, burdening actors with impossible, archly poetic dialogue.

After a while, I began to see writers in the opening credits whose scripts I knew I’d abhor – in particular, Abram Ginnes, a blacklisted writer so over the top, his silly titles serve as a warning: “Stop the Parade, a Baby Is Crying,” “A Horse Has a Big Head, Let Him Worry,” “Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out with Bow and Arrow.” He’s responsible for at least a dozen episodes, and I would run screaming into the night before sitting through any of them. And almost every change-of-pace “comedy” episode is cringe-worthy.

There are several NAKED CITY “best of” collections, but unfortunately they choose episodes featuring famous cast members, with no thought to quality of writing. So why do I recommend the series?

Because when the show is good, it is really good – on that same list that includes “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” you’ll find “A Case Study of Two Savages,” in which hillbilly honeymooners Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld cut a bloody carefree swath of robbery and murder across Manhattan. Scripted by Frank Pierson – who wrote everything from DOG DAY AFTERNOON and COOL HAND LUKE and was working on MAD MEN when he died in 2012 – “Two Savages” clearly influenced Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (the historical couple is directly referenced) and Weld’s later PRETTY POISON. Rip Torn’s performance is my favorite among all the NAKED CITY’s – funny, dangerous, charismatic. Actor’s Studio “Method” at is best.

And there are plenty of other terrific episodes – Duvall in “A Hole in the City,” Klugman in “The Tragic Success of Alfred Tiloff,” Rooney in “Ooftus Gooftus.” Writers include Howard Rodman, W.R. Burnett, and Gene Roddenberry. Directors include Arthur Hiller, Paul Wendkos, and Irvin Kershner. But you must commit to the complete series, and learn which writers and actors you want to avoid as you move through.

I should mention that the series creator, Stirling Silliphant (adapting the Jules Dassin film), writes all but a few of the first season half-an-hour episodes, which is my favorite season (not a view widely held, I admit). He only scripts a few of the hour-long episodes, as he’s off to create ROUTE 66. Silliphant is a fine screenwriter (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), though he’s somewhat purple in THE NAKED CITY (its first-season incarnation included “THE”), a sin committed to some degree by almost all of the writers involved. So you have to get in that groove.

But it’s worth it. The omniscient narration by Lawrence Dobkin (credited to producer Herbert Leonard in the first season, but sounding identical) is so very memorable, often giving the series a novelistic feel. Ed McBain was clearly influenced by the Dassin film, and must have watched this series, as well – the 87th Precinct vibe is strong. The music is memorable as well – Billy May at first, later Nelson Riddle.

How interesting is NAKED CITY, for all its flaws? In the first hour-long episode, an unbilled Peter Falk is killed before the opening credits. The episode also features Eli Wallach, George Maharis, Clifton James and Godfrey Cambridge.

* * *

The first SUPREME JUSTICE advance review is in (from Ron Fortier) and it’s a rave!

ASK NOT gets a lovely write-up here.

Still more WRONG QUARRY reviews are coming in. Here are two that are less than raves – the always interesting Alpha-60 and a new one to me, Bullet Reviews. Both complain about one of my favorite things in the novel, having to do with the build-up given to one of the hitmen Quarry goes after. Go figure.


Christmas Movies

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

For my family, the Christmas holiday is wrapped up in film, not ribbon. We have our favorites that we watch every year, and they are fairly predictable.

Our top pick is MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (the original, not the terrible remake) with the Alistair Sim SCROOGE a close second. A very close third is IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (James Stewart appeared in more great movies than any other actor). I’m one of the few who saw A CHRISTMAS STORY in the theater on its original release and it’s an annual event for us – but it’s more a Jean Shepherd film than a Christmas movie, showcasing his patented bittersweet nostalgia. CHRISTMAS VACATION has found its place on our seasonal special shelf, as well, and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is always worth a look – was Judy Garland ever lovelier?

There are many other worthwhile Christmas movies out there. HOLIDAY INN is easily better than WHITE CHRISTMAS, although the latter has its charms – it’s helped keep Danny Kaye from being forgotten, for one, and my pal Miguel Ferrer’s mom is in it. The Riff Trax and MST2K versions of various horrible Christmas movies are always good for a festive laugh. BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) is an old favorite of ours, the movie Kim Novak and James Stewart made together after VERTIGO. With Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs stealing scenes left and right, it’s a precursor to BEWITCHED and might seem a better choice for Halloween, only it’s set at Christmas.

But we decided this year to try some movies that at least one of us (talking Barb and me now) hadn’t seen before. Having done so, we’d like to recommend the following relative obscurities:

THE FAMILY MAN (2000) with Nic Cage, a modern reworking of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Heartwarming and funny. Cage may be an over-the-top actor, but the man commits – he gives one thousand percent to every performance, and this time he has a wonderful movie to do it in. This is a favorite of Nate’s, whose goal in life is to own every Nic Cage movie.

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS (2004). Okay, so it’s a shameless reworking of GROUNDHOG’S DAY as a Christmas movie, but this admittedly minor TV movie is funny and rewarding – good-hearted but with a darkly comic sensibility. Steven Weber is excellent as the successful slick businessman (similar to Cage in THE FAMILY MAN) who has twelve tries to get Christmas Eve right. Molly Shannon gets her best post-SNL role.

THREE GODFATHERS (1948). This John Ford western stars John Wayne and is surprisingly gritty and even harrowing before a finale that you may find too sentimental. There’s some humor, too, and Ford’s first color film is visually beautiful. It’s dedicated to Harry Carey and “introduces” Harry Carey, Jr., who is very good, as is Pedro Armendariz (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE).

PRANCER (1989). This features an amazing naturalistic performance from child actor Rebecca Herrell. It’s a sort of smalltown/rural variation on MIRACLE ON 34th STREET. Is the reindeer the little girl helps back to health really Santa’s Prancer? Sam Elliot is uncompromising as the father who doesn’t understand his daughter, whose mother has died.

We found it a fun way to get ourselves into the Christmas swing by introducing some of these lesser known films into the mix.

* * *

THE WRONG QUARRY reviews have begun, like this great one from Ron Fortier.

Here’s another nice WRONG QUARRY review from Big Daddy.

Mike Dennis likes THE WRONG QUARRY, too.

That Woody Haut “Ten Favorite Crime Novels of 2013” piece, showcasing ASK NOT, has been picked up all over the place, notably at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

And the staff at Greenwich chooses COMPLEX 90 as best mystery, with the two runners-up ASK NOT and Bob Goldsborough’s ARCHIE MEETS NERO WOLFE. Some people have good taste!


Write for the Wrong Quarry

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
The Wrong Quarry

The new Quarry novel – THE WRONG QUARRY – will be published January 7. I have a dozen advance copies available to those among you willing to write a review for Amazon and/or other outlets (Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.).

Just write me at, and the first twelve of you – a jury of sorts – will receive copies. This is restricted to the USA only. And keep in mind that you can’t post your Amazon review till the book is out (again, Jan. 7).

[Edit: Nate here — all copies are taken. Thanks everyone for your support!]

In response to many inquiries, we do not have word yet on whether the Cinemax QUARRY pilot will be picked up. News will appear here as soon as we know.

The new Quarry novel is getting some play on the net already, as in this articleat Crime Fiction Lover.

ASK NOT is making some best of the year lists, like this one from Woody Haut.

Jon Jordan, CRIMESPREE’s guru, selected ASK NOT as one of five novels on his suggested Christmas gift guide.

And Publisher’s Weekly gave a fine review to Otto Penzler’s Christmas anthology, and singled out my “A Wreath for Marley.” This means a lot to me, considering the distinguished company (Stout, Westlake, Christie, etc.).