Posts Tagged ‘Hot Lead Cold Justice’

Do No Harm, Even if the Girl Can’t Help It

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

As I write this, on March 9, 2020, it’s Mickey Spillane’s 102nd birthday – a reminder of how lucky I was to encounter his books at an impressionable age, and eventually have an unlikely friendship and collaborative association with this key figure not only in mystery/crime fiction, but popular culture, worldwide.

As you read this, if you’re one of those who catch up with these updates as they first emerge, it’s March 10, 2020, the publication date of two of my novels (by two different publishers): Do No Harm, the new Nathan Heller thriller, and Girl Can’t Help It, the second Krista Larson mystery.

If you are one of the regular readers here, you may recall that the new Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder – written by me from a Spillane synopsis – was to be published a week later. That pub date has, I’m not sorry to announce, been moved to April 7, which at least puts a purchase of that third new Collins novel on a separate paycheck for loyal readers.

Do No Harm is a novel based on a real-life mystery that has fascinated me since 1961 when I read The Sheppard Murder Case by Paul Holmes – I would have been 13. And of course the television series The Fugitive, which began in 1963, only fueled that interest. And I did love that series – David Janssen’s charismatic, melancholy performance was something new in a TV hero, with a tragic depth unusual for the day. I watched every episode, and later – during my community college years – Barb and I would watch a syndicated episode over lunch at my parents’ house.

Like a lot of TV actors, Janssen had a shrewd if limited bag of tricks. My late actor friend Michael Cornelison told me that actor Robert Lansing (star of 87th Precinct and 12 O’Clock High) had advised him – should one of several TV pilots Mike starred in get picked up – to develop a characterization that would stay consistent and require few strokes, and allow the guest actors to carry the water. I gathered the same thing from Raymond Burr, when I worked on a project with him in Denver during the Perry Mason TV-movie days – he spoke of having to sleep in his dressing room at night because of the demands of being in so many scenes of his series.

I recently watched a Blu-ray of Superdome, a TV movie starring Janssen and a strong cast of its era. The actor was just two years away from his premature death at 48, and looked much older. Reportedly a hard drinker, Janssen – in a rather wretchedly written TV movie – brought along the same tics and tricks, and yet despite the rote feel of it still conveyed a humanity and sadness little seen in TV leads of his era. Sam Sheppard died at 47.

I waited a long time before bringing my detective Nate Heller to this case, even though it had been on my true-crime short list since the ‘80s. The murder of Sam Sheppard’s wife was not an easy fit for Heller. I have always attempted to bring Nate into a case in a natural fashion – that is, to fill in for a real-life participant (a cop, reporter, insurance investigator, actual P.I.) or combination thereof, as in Blood and Thunder where in Part One Heller is a Huey Long bodyguard and in Part Two he returns to Louisiana a year later on an insurance investigation into Long’s assassination.

Figuring out how to put Heller at the crime scene in Marilyn Sheppard’s murder seemed necessary to me, dramatically, as was determining how to narratively span a case that included Sheppard’s conviction, long struggle for justice from behind bars, and ultimate re-trial. Many other wrinkles made the case a tough one for my approach, including a particularly involved number of alternate theories for what really happened. I like to develop my own theories – or I should say Heller does.

Ironically, it was the project I was working on prior to starting Do No Harm – which I had contracted to write but was still struggling with what my approach would be – that finally gave me a window onto the case. In working with A. Brad Schwartz on the non-fiction book Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher, I discovered that Eliot Ness had essentially lived next door to Sam Sheppard. Nobody had noticed this before, probably because Ness lived there in the ‘30s and Sheppard in the ‘50s. But nonetheless the coincidence struck me as irresistible – two of the most famous figures in not just Cleveland crime but American jurisprudence lived next-door.

Additionally, a latterday victim indicating the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run might have struck again in 1954 was the perfect reason for Ness to (a) call Heller back to Cleveland for consultation, and (b) to check out the crime scene of a brutal murder in Ness’s old neighborhood.

The other solution to involving Heller was Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner’s interest and involvement in the Sam Sheppard case. I had already established that Heller knew Gardner (in Carnal Hours) and had done some investigating for Gardner’s Court of Last Resort. That brought Heller into the effort to find out the truth about Sam Sheppard’s guilt or innocence in 1957, when Gardner’s activity in the case came to a head. Further, newspaper columnist/TV personality Dorothy Kilgallen – basis of Flo Kilgore, a recurring character in the Heller saga – was also a key figure in the Sheppard case.

Everything was coming together. Part Two would jump to 1966 and a role for Heller working for Sheppard’s new lawyer, F. Lee Bailey.

The novel was a challenging one, because of the jumps in time – while Book One is 1957 and Book Two is 1966, there are flashbacks within each. From a creative standpoint, however, I found that interesting and even fun, because the difference in decades – in Heller’s life and in America itself – provided a contrast I could play with.

And I have come up with a theory of my own, although oddly some reviewers (positive ones, by the way) have somehow thought I was leaving the story unresolved. I think that may possibly be because I have changed more names than usual, not wanting to cause trouble for the real people and their families who various alternative theories touch upon. I had already developed this theory when new evidence came to light, in an updated version of one my source books, that seemed to confirm my take on the case. My longtime research associate, George Hagenauer, has long said I have an almost psychic ability to suss out the truth of these crimes, and sometimes I almost agree with him.

The story behind Girl Can’t Help It is even more directly personal. Regular visitors here know of my rock ‘n’ roll connection, and that my bands The Daybreakers and Crusin’ are both in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That’s an honor that some snicker at but which I take with a genuine measure of pride. I began playing with a short-lived group in 1965 with the Daybreakers forming in ‘66 while I was still in high school. Singing lead and playing “combo organ” have been a big part of my life for a long time.

We had our brush with fame when “Psychedelic Siren” was issued by Dial, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, a single produced by Joe Tex’s producer, Buddy Killen. We had a regional hit and in subsequent years, unlikely as it might seem, that track became a part of numerous national vinyl and CD collections of ‘60s garage band rock. In more recent years the song has been covered by bands all over the place – not all of them in the USA. Several versions can found on You Tube.

Both the Daybreakers and Crusin’ opened for such acts as the the Buckinghams, the Turtles, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Grass Roots, Del Shannon, and Peter Noone, among quite a few others. In early 1968 we did a brief Midwestern tour opening for the Rascals and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap when “Psychedelic Siren” was charting at Davenport’s KSTT.

So I was on the fringes of success in that field. Also, in the ‘80s, when I briefly dropped out of playing music to focus on a particularly heavy writing load, Crusin’ became the Ones, a New Wave-oriented version of the band that mixed originals with classic rock and became a big act on the Midwestern college circuit, particularly popular in Iowa City, where their LP got lots of airplay. When we re-grouped for reunions, the band would appear as the Ones some places, and as Crusin’ others. Later versions reverted exclusively to the Crusin’ name.

What does that have to do with Girl Can’t Help It? Well, the novel begins with a New Wave act from Dubuque, Iowa, who had some national success “back in the day,” years later (when the novel opens) getting into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In a much more direct way than ever before, I am dealing with rock as a major aspect of a mystery novel. I also dig into the darker side of being in bands in those days, although I want to be clear the group in the novel is not meant to be either the Daybreakers or Crusin’ or any of its members. But as part of that world, I saw things, not all of which were pleasant, even if I didn’t experience them. And I certainly saw – and experienced – the conflicts between members in such bands.

I will be interested to see how readers react to the second Krista and Keith Larson novel. I know a few readers – let’s call them a vocal minority – don’t like finding me dealing with lead characters who are not overtly larger-than-life in the manner of Quarry, Nate Heller, Ms. Tree, Mike Hammer, or even Vivian Borne. I set out in the Krista and Keith books to do people who are more real, and to do a father-and-daughter relationship that wasn’t built on snarky sarcasm (even though I think you all know that I can do sarcasm). The larger-than-life aspect comes by way of the crimes and the killer.

I admit to being surprised that any reader would have trouble with this approach. I only know that I like this new book a lot, rather relishing the rock aspect, and intend to write at least one more Krista Larson novel.

Girl Can’t Help It has inspired a particularly good review (as well as one of Girl Most Likely) at Atomic Junkshop, including something of an overview of my work in general, a very interesting take on it. I’m gratified to see someone whose favorite series is Quarry finding Krista Larson equally compelling.

As for Do No Harm, Publisher’s Weekly has chosen it one of its books of the week (running their rave, starred review a second time).

The Tor/Forge blog honors Do No Harm with a look at the Sheppard court case and other courtroom biggies of the ‘50s.

The Stiletto Gumshoe celebrates Mickey Spillane’s 102nd birthday here.

And the great western writer James Reasoner has very nice things to say about the forthcoming Caleb York, Hot Lead, Cold Justice.

M.A.C.

Publish or Perish the Thought…

Tuesday, February 18th, 2020

Recently here, I’ve bemoaned the perils of having three books published almost simultaneously by three different publishers. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh boo hoo hoo – poor him, having all that success.”

That’s an understandable reaction. But this imperfect storm really does present me with a shaky future (as if my impending 72nd birthday didn’t make my future shaky enough). The threat is that one, or even all three, may under-perform.

Aside from this, I have noted some troubling things going on in the publishing of fiction (non-fiction, too, but my emphasis is chiefly fiction of course) that have already had a negative impact on many writers. Till now, I’ve been lucky. For a non-household name in the pop fiction field, I have had a long run. Many writers, touted as the next big thing, have fallen by the wayside while I traversed the road to Perdition with Quarry, Nate Heller, Ms. Tree, the Borne girls, and a good number of others.

Barb and I have always done a certain amount of promo ourselves. Most publishers have traditionally had a PR staff (or at least a staffer) who we could call upon for support. We assembled a list of reviewers over the years (a once proud thirty or so, now dwindled to a dozen, with the passing of so many print venues) that could be shared with PR reps, who would see that copies of the latest novel were sent out. Meanwhile, these promo folks took care of getting advance copies or finished books to the trades and often many newspapers and other publications around the country known to do reviews of mysteries.

Of my current publishers – no names will be mentioned – two still have a PR person assigned to me, and the help is much as before, and much appreciated. In the case of something special – like the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane – that help gets ramped up. In the case of several other publishers, no PR person is available to me at all.

I have been told the approach to marketing, on one of my new books, will be “holistic.” This reminds me of George Carlin when he said, “Real chocolatey goodness! Know what that means? No fucking chocolate!” An editor at that same publisher told me flat-out that – beyond sending copies of the trade publications (Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal), publicity was my responsibility, a “D.I.Y.” effort.

Much of this comes down to utilizing social media. Now, while I do this weekly update/blog here, and also post it on my two Facebook pages, I have chosen (thus far) not to use Twitter or Instagram or whatever other platform has come along since I began writing this piece. I am, after all, a man in his early seventies who has a land line. I use my cell phone to keep track of my e-mails, do simple Internet searches (“Davenport Iowa movie times”), and…what else, there’s something…oh yes, make and receive phone calls. I text rarely and with great difficulty.

I don’t use any apps. I live in Iowa. Do you really think anyone my age in Iowa knows how to use an app? Just in case you don’t get the reference, I will share (briefly) our experience at the local Democratic Caucus, when the debacle it was to become was only a twinkle in the Iowa Democratic Party’s twitching eye.

The woman running things – a volunteer, bless her heart – spent the early part of the evening reading aloud instructions in the wrong order, and laughing hysterically about how badly she was screwing things up. As things got worse, this nice woman (not being sarcastic), who was a retired school teacher, began to attempt to regain order by counting, very loud, “One..two…three…!” to the rowdy class before her.

So.

Let’s not depend on a soon-to-be-72-year-old author (from Iowa) to use apps, shall we?

Yet a number of my publishers want me to expand my social media footprint. I am supposed to write entertaining, pithy Tweets. I am supposed to provide photos of my food and pets and now and then a book of mine on Instagram. And my son Nathan and I, teeth gritted, are exploring doing some of that.

But am I crazy to think that I should be spending my time and creative energy writing my fiction?

In certain areas of fiction writing, writers are given modest advances and then essentially required (if they want another contract) to spend those advances on promotion – going to each other’s signings (how this works without flying around the country I can’t tell you), attending numerous conventions (which does require flying or in some cases driving around the country), and endlessly interacting with readers (and other writers) on social media. Not only is this time-consuming, it turns professional writers – these writers are pros by definition, since they are receiving advances and sometimes royalties – into amateurs.

Like any real professional writer, I need the bulk of my income to…how shall I put this?…live on.

This began with the romance writers and the very positive practice of writers groups. For decades I taught at a writers conference and interacted with romance writers (had several romance novels dedicated to me, which took some explaining to the novelists’ husbands and my wife) and that included their writers groups. From these groups in my area, and the support and help the writers gave each other, came any number of published novels. Obviously, the same is true all around the country.

But a downside, which in my opinion some publishers take advantage of, is the maintaining of an amateur approach by requiring those writers to sink or swim largely based upon the willingness of those writers to plow their hard-earned advances into promo.

The romance writers have taken a hit lately. Romantic Times, once a powerful newsstand magazine, has recently ceased its annual convention and its web site is shutting down, too. This seems to flow at least in part from a controversy having to do with a romance writer attacking another romance writer’s perceived racial, sexist and other biases. Sides were drawn in the controversy and attacks and apologies began to fly. Whether writers should be criticizing each other in this manner is a topic worth discussion, but I won’t get into that here.

Still, it points out that concerns related to political correctness now hover over publishing in a very real way. I recently had an editor I respect label something of mine as “dated” in its “hardboiled” approach. Now, “dated” in that context is code for two things: first, the content may not be in step with politically correct attitudes; and second, I am an old white male. It’s also worth noting that you don’t hear an editor use the term “hardboiled” in any fashion but a negative one. I never use the term myself. When an editor likes that sort of thing, it’s “noir.” You know what “hardboiled” is? It’s a dated term, in the right and proper sense of the word “dated.”

These are, as I perceive them, realities in the world of fiction writing and publishing these days. I point them out not to try to change them – we’re past that, I’m afraid – but to explain to those of you who are kind enough to like my work why I have spent so much time worrying about having three books out at the same time.

How I am doing my best to promote my work in this climate?

For some time, I have accepted very, very few “friend” requests on Facebook. This was back when I checked my “feed” frequently. But a good two years ago, I curtailed that because I was disgusted by the amount of political blather. I also couldn’t keep my mouth shut (hard as that might be to imagine) and wound up damaging longstanding, real friendships. So lately I’ve been accepting “friend” requests if I can tell that the individuals making those requests have a real interest in things I care about…non-political things. Accepting these friends is a part of trying to expand my footprint.

A few days ago Barb and I sent out two big boxes of books to, first, winners in our last book giveaway here; and, second, to reviewers, with a letter explaining that having three novels out at the same time was not my idea. Some of these reviewers I’ve never sent to before. To get Girl Can’t Help It into the hands of potentially friendly reviewers, I spent a day searching Google to locate every positive review (including mixed ones) for Girl Most Likely and offered those reviewers/bloggers a copy.

Beyond this, Nate and I will be exploring using Instagram. Maybe Twitter too, but that puts my stomach and my head in a competition over which hurts the most.

And I want to say, to any publishers or editors who might be reading this, that I understand they are struggling to stay afloat, too. These are tough times in publishing, and have been for a while.

But here’s the thing: I came to this planet to write, not to Tweet.

* * *

I know what you’re all looking for – another book with Max Allan Collins content to buy!

Well, you’re in luck, because this is a good one – the new Mystery Writers of America anthology, Deadly Anniversaries. My story, “Amazing Grace,” is based on a real incident from my childhood, which Barb suggested I use when an assignment in this thematic anthology came my way.

I think “Amazing Grace” might be my best short story. I am pleased to say that Publisher’s Weekly singled it out in their rave review, giving me lead position in a book filled with work by Grand Master mystery writers:

“Anniversaries of all kinds are the source of mayhem for the 19 stories in this entertaining all-original anthology from MWA grand masters Muller and Pronzini. Wedding anniversaries feature prominently, as in Max Allan Collins’s diverting ‘Amazing Grace, ’in which a 50th anniversary cake becomes the catalyst for murder.”

* * *

Barb and I are listening to Dan John Miller’s reading of Girl Can’t Help It in the car (he’s not in the car with us – we’re using CD’s). We’re about half-way through. He is doing his usual masterful job, making the book come alive, and making me look (sound) good.

Dan has also performed Do No Harm, meaning he’s narrated every Heller to date. We are really looking forward to that. He is fantastic.

* * *

Finally, my pal Paul Bishop (I’m tempted to say “pard”) includes the forthcoming Caleb York novel, Hot Lead, Cold Justice, on the premiere episode of his podcast (with Richard Prosch), Six-Gun Justice. These guys do a great job.

M.A.C.