Posts Tagged ‘Better Dead’

Better Dead

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016
Better Dead

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The first Nathan Heller novel in three years, BETTER DEAD takes a step back in time from the JFK Trilogy (BYE BYE, BABY; TARGET LANCER; ASK NOT) to deal with the events of the Red Scare-era 1950s.

This book has been coming for a long time. It’s one of the projects that got set aside when it came time for Heller to make a comeback after about a decade away. To get Heller back out there, I proposed the Kennedy trio, a good bet for a sale because of the high-profile nature of the material; a trilogy with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy was appealing. But it meant skipping several things I had planned to do, including a Robert Kennedy/Jimmy Hoffa book that I hope eventually to get around to.

With BETTER DEAD, the tricky thing is that I have two cases for Nate to deal with. Neither seemed right for a single book, but together – with the shared era and a number of common characters beyond Heller himself – the whole just might exceed the sum of its parts.

Joe McCarthy is one of the characters – and factors – that joins the two stories: the Rosenberg “atom spies” case, and the Frank Olson murder. The latter has to do with the Army scientist who was dosed with LSD at a CIA retreat, which had unfortunate results.

Heller is working on the East Coast exclusively this time around – he’s just opened a branch office in the Empire State Building – which puts him right in the heart of Mike Hammer’s world circa 1953. Heller has always had things in common with Hammer, but this time – in this setting – those commonalities come out more prominently. In fact, as the guy completing the Hammer stories from Spillane’s files, I several times questioned whether I’d slipped out of Heller territory and into Hammer. And is that a bad thing? Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

On the other hand, Heller’s victories can never be as complete as Hammer’s.

Others in the cast include Bettie Page, Dashiell Hammett, Roy Cohn, Bobby Kennedy, and Sidney Gottlieb (the CIA’s Dr. Feelbad).

It’s a wild one. Watch for it May 3rd.

– – –

Check out this cool QUARRY’S LIST review.

MURDER NEVER KNOCKS is a Pierce’s Pick this week!

Here’s a nice review of QUARRY’S DEAL.

And here’s a somewhat late-in-the-game review of DEAD STREET.


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.

* * *

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.


Pre-Bouchercon Edition

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Next week I’ll have a report from Bouchercon for you. For now, I have a few random thoughts to share.

The last few work days have been consumed by going over the copy-edited THE BIG SHOWDOWN (the second Caleb York). As I’ve made clear here, I despise copy editors (except for those who follow these updates). This one has taken a light touch but still is comma happy. Copy editors need to know that there’s a difference between “hard cold eyes” and “hard, cold eyes” and that an author chooses between them for effect, Chicago Manual of Style be damned (I don’t own a copy).

The copy-edited manuscript of BETTER DEAD arrived today and Barb won’t even let me open the fat, forbidding-looking package until we get back from Bouchercon. She knows that just thumbing through to see what the copy editor did will send me into a frenzy worthy of Hitchcock.

Copy editors, of course, serve a valuable purpose, particularly in the area of continuity – like a character who starts out blond and becomes brown-haired, or a cousin who mysteriously transforms into a brother. I also appreciate any copy editor who alerts me to word repetition and/or phrases that don’t seem to track. But I like these pointed out for my revision, not revised for me.

They are very young, most of these copy editors, and I am not. Therefore I have to explain to the copy editor of THE BIG SHOWDOWN the meaning and derivation of “grew like Topsy,” although Google could have easily done the trick.

I ran into this kind of thing as early as the mid-‘80s when I had to explain who or what “Jack Armstong, All-American Boy” was to some precious young thing.

I trust some day, probably too soon, some copy editor will query an author about the meaning and derivation of the phrase “road to perdition.”

* * *

Last year around this time, I wrote a scathing review of the season opener for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I seriously doubted that – after following the show since its inception, through thick and sometimes very thin – I would keep watching. As it turned out, I did, and the season wasn’t bad and sometimes was wonderful.

This year’s season opener was excellent, and was stolen by a comedy newcomer named Hillary Clinton. Even host(ess?) Miley Cyrus did well in sketches, her Disney sitcom training coming through – she is definitely at ease in front of the camera. She was also the musical guest, wearing Emperor’s-New-Clothes outfits that could not distract us from noticing that her voice resembles that of an octogenarian smoker somewhere in Florida rasping out, “Bingo!”

One of the sketches was about Taylor Swift’s “squad,” which I guess is celebrities (or in my parlance, “celebrities”) who are summoned to come up out of the audience to wander about the stage while she sings. I know who Taylor Swift is, I know what she looks like, and I’m sure I’ve heard some of her songs…but I couldn’t connect her to any of them if my life depended on it.

As it happens, the Taylor Swift “squad” phenomenon is the subject of a piece in this week’s ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. I’ve talked here before about how, once or twice a year, some national magazine suddenly makes me realize how out of touch I am – usually it’s ROLLING STONE. EW wins out this time.

Here are some of the “celebrities” in Taylor Swift’s squad: The Weekend (a human being called “The Weekend,” due next week on SNL), Andreja Pejic, Fatty Wap (a human being called…), Rachel Platten, Gigi Hadid, OMI (a human being…), Lily Aldridge, and Walk the Moon (a human…?).

In fairness, I had heard of a few squad members: Ellen DeGeneres, Nick Jonas, Matt LeBlanc and Mick Jagger. Watch for them on HOLLYWOOD SQUARES 2021.

The SNL sketch was a take-off on zombie movies, cleverly suggesting that eventually everyone on the planet would be invited on stage at a Taylor Swift concert. But let’s stay with EW for a while.

Most of the movie and TV stuff I could track. The music section is always rough on me, because I used to pride myself on following the music scene and now I can’t recognize the “oldies” on Sirius XM. The last new band I got excited about is Weezer, introduced to me by my son Nate when he was in high school. Nate is in his early thirties. Once your kids are out of high school and out of the house, you will likely cease to be in touch with contemporary pop music except the occasional big deal like Lady Gaga (who is already an “oldie,” I believe).

Even more depressing is EW’s “10 Great Fall Thrillers.” You may be aware that this is my field – books, suspense, etc. I had heard of exactly one of the ten authors (Lee Child). Now you might remind me that I read almost no contemporary fiction, making this largely my fault, and you would be right. But usually I have a sense of the successful writers in my line of endeavor. And this strikes me as one area where I can’t just sit back and let the world pass me by.

But before I either sit back or sit up, let me bitch about the dreadful visuals in EW. Not long ago they went to an orgy of small print, mixed fonts, floating sidebars and arbitrary color. It now looks like a really wretched web site. And, by the way – there’s nothing an aging baby boomer likes more than trying to read tiny black type on a purple background.

* * *

Our pal Mike Doran made a very funny comment about old rockers emerging on PBS fund-raisers “looking like John Houseman.” In fairness to old rockers, I should point out that Flo and Eddie always looked like John Houseman. So did most of the Grateful Dead. On the other hand, Creed Bratton of “The Office” was once a long-haired cutie-pie when he was in the Grass Roots.

Also, the Happy Together concert featured some very well-preserved rockers – Mark Lindsay looked great (at least from the cheap seats) and he’s in his early seventies, and the Cowsills (some of whom were kids back in the day) had a youthful vibe. Both the Vanilla Fudge and the Zombies, who I saw in recent years, were vital-looking and eternally youthful.

But, yeah, Mike – there are a ton of John (Rock and Roll!) Housemans out there….

* * *

Here’s a nice review of A KILLING IN COMICS. The Jack and Maggie Starr series is getting a nice lift from the Dover reprints.

Check out this piece on how to build suspense in fiction – I’m quoted.

Finally, here’s a short, sweet review of QUARRY’S CHOICE.


Note from the Bunker

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As I’ve indicated in an earlier update, I am really up against it in the first half of this year. With only about a week’s break after finishing BETTER DEAD (the new Heller), during which a lot of other business was conducted, I got right on the next Quarry novel, QUARRY IN THE BLACK. I am about a third-of-the-way in, writing one chapter a day, final draft. I took one day a week off, generally.

I don’t mind working hard, and I feel my novels – particularly those in first person – benefit from the intensity and speed of the process. Right now two of my collaborators, my lovely bride Barb and my good buddy Matt Clemens, are preparing their rough drafts of the next ANTIQUES and Reeder & Rogers novels. They make my life and my job much easier, and the resulting novels will be better than I could have made them on my own.

But the writing may mean for some scattered and occasionally, well, grouchy updates. This report from the bunker includes a few stray thoughts.

First, few comments have come in about my favorite and least favorite movies of 2014 list. Probably I was too belligerent in presentation. Whenever you sense that in one of these updates, you’ll know the writing is rubbing up against me hard, trying to make a pearl.


Second, I have now seen both BIRDMAN and FOXCATCHER. Both are very good (Barb agrees) and I was especially impressed by BIRDMAN, which is the rare film that is as driven by dialogue as it is visuals; the cast is outstanding, especially Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, who is spoofing himself to some degree. BIRDMAN would have gone on my Favorite lists.

FOXCATCHER suffers from a sluggish pace and some poor narrative choices, but it is nonetheless worthwhile with excellent performances from Steve Carrell, Tatum Channing and Mark Ruffalo. It would not be on my favorites list.

Keaton is now my Best Actor “Oscar” pick.

By the way, I never watch the Academy Awards. I find the show dull and embarrassing, and many of the movies being honored do not interest me. Is this like a sports fan skipping the SuperBowl? I wonder. In any case, we always watch a movie instead.

Third, a good number of readers misunderstood my rant about getting hit on for free advice. I was specifically talking about my home town and people who don’t really have an interest in me or my work, other than sucking information out of me at a social occasion. On the other hand, with very rare exceptions, I can’t give blurbs anymore because I don’t have time to read the books. Too much research to plow through, and when I’m writing a book, I tend not to read fiction.

I am pleased to report that QUARRY’S CHOICE is racking up some great reviews. Here’s one.

And it’s a thrill to get reviewed at Bookgasm; here’s their QUARRY’S CHOICE rave.