Posts Tagged ‘Nate Heller’

Let’s Talk About Sex!

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Last time I discussed why I use clothing and setting descriptions for characterization, as well as to let the reader know how I see things. This was in response to complaints from readers who are bored by such material, and apparently have not developed an ability to skim.

The other complaint I’ve been getting lately – and not until lately, which is interesting – are the sex scenes in my books. Here are some typical Amazon complaints (turds in the punch bowl of many positive reviews) of Quarry’s Climax.

“As one might expect from the title, this is 33% story and 67% 14-year-old’s wet dream. If you’re 15, and still reading this stuff, better get checked out for some syndrome or another…”

“I’m a fan of the Nathan Heller series but this book was not written with an adult audience as it (sic) target. High school boys will love it; the rest of you, not so much.”

Several others took a similar tone.

Before we discuss, I request that you look at the cover of Quarry’s Climax and then read the back cover. Presumably this material was available to prospective buyers. Amazon includes the back cover copy, for example, on their listing.

Back already? Okay. Can anyone tell me why this cover, part of line famous for politically incorrect retro covers, would be on a book that lacked sexual content? How about the back cover, which tells prospective readers that the book is “raunchy,” and is about the publisher of a pornographic magazine who also runs a strip club? Any possibility, do you think, that the story within will have sexual content?

But there are actual reasons for the sexual content that have nothing to do with fairness-in-packaging. Like clothing and setting descriptions, sex scenes in my novels have to do with characterization, both of Quarry himself and the individual women.

For example, in The Wrong Quarry (perhaps my favorite Quarry novel), Quarry has affairs with an older woman and a young, wild one. Actually, the older woman is initially wild too, but as she and Quarry start having a, shall we say, loving relationship, their sex becomes rather conventional…married people sex, you might say. Meanwhile he is seduced by the young wild woman in a sex scene of flashing black lights and a waterbed and, well, you see the difference.

The other big factor is the story itself. When I conceive a story, it’s not out of whole cloth. I find a premise I like, think about it at length, then gradually put together an outline of sorts, which changes and grows as the novel is written. I know who did it and why, where the murder mystery is concerned, but the rest has a certain freewheeling quality. For example, in Quarry’s Climax, our “hero” has an oral sex encounter fairly early on with a stripper, which was not planned. Call it organic.

So the subject matter creates a landscape where different sorts of scenes occur. In the Nathan Heller novel, Better Dead – which has two novella-like sections – Nate encounters a beautiful female Commie in part one, and Bette Page in part two. Do you suppose that Nate gets laid at all in that novel?

But in the recently completed Do No Harm, there’s only one mild sex scene, with a recurring love interest of Nate’s, because the investigation of a brutal murder that is in part a sex crime does not lend itself to sexual shenanigans in Heller’s doings. It didn’t feel right for the tone of the book, or where Heller’s head was at. But back in Better Dead, when Bette Page gets frisky, you can bet Nate is interested.

I understand that in the Me Too era, things have gotten weird. I find it telling, and a little sad, that many of the complaints about sex in my novels clearly come from millennials and whatever the “gen” after that is called. Once upon a time, old people frowned on my smut. Now it’s smug kids who have lived very little. (I’ll pause while my son decides whether or not to edit that out.) That we’re also in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey does confuse the issue some. Are sexy books for women okay, but for men are objectionable?

Those who assume I include sex for gratuitous reasons may be partly right. As a youth, I learned from Spillane and Fleming, and they always had sex scenes sprinkled in as spice. Connery’s Bond always bedded three beauties. But what interests me most is how nobody complains about the violence. I have had not a single one of these sex complainers object to Quarry’s wholesale homicide. Heller’s, either.

Or as the Frankenstein Monster might say, “Sex baaaad, violence goooood.”

Recently working on polishing and completing the ‘50s novella “A Bullet For Satisfaction” (featured in The Last Stand, and developed from unpublished material in Mickey’s files), I edited out a sex scene. Imagine! Why? The characterization was off.

“A Bullet for Satisfaction” appears to be a collaboration between Mickey and one of his writer pals, unidentified. I doubt Mickey would have made the mistake that I had to rectify – a mistake of characterization. A beautiful woman and hero Rod Dexter go to bed (like Connery’s Bond, Rod beds several beauties in the novella), but it’s out of character for both of them.

So out it went.

I will admit to one thing. Often I have told Barb, “I’m not sure Quarry (or Heller or Hammer) and the love interest will wind up having sex in this one.” But almost always, they do. Barb’s patient smile when I raise the issue indicates she already knew the answer.

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Here are more, better pics from the recent Crusin’ gig in Wilton, Iowa, at their annual all-classes reunion.

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I am sorry to report that Super Troopers 2 is terrible. I love the Broken Lizard guys, and have liked every other movie of theirs, including of course the first Super Troopers. Barb and I were looking forward to this perhaps too much, and I will give it another try on home video release.

But the timing seemed strangely off, the jokes and situations not terribly funny (unless you’re into the comedy stylings of Rob Lowe), particularly the endlessly mined central gag of Canada being stupid or something. We spend a bunch of time with a trio of Mounties who are doggedly unfunny, even Mad TV’s Will Sasso.

Didn’t walk out, though.

I hope this doesn’t spell the end for Broken Lizard, whose members are very talented and likable. We saw them in person at Iowa City a few years ago and they were terrific, and met them after, finding them friendly and down to earth.

As for Super Troopers 2, maybe you can’t go home again. Or maybe middle-aged men acting like the young bucks of the first film just doesn’t work the same way.

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Here’s a nice interview with me on the upcoming Mike Hammer mini-series (the four issues will be collected as a graphic novel).

And Publisher’s Weekly is interested in the Hammer mini-series, too.

M.A.C.

Put Some Damn Clothes On!

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Below is an excerpt from a review of The Bloody Spur from the Western Writers of America Roundup Magazine. It’s what you’d call a mixed review, on the patronizing side, and is mostly a plot summary, which I’ve skipped. But it raises some issues I’ve been wanting to talk about.

“There’s an overdose of descriptions of setting and clothing, and characters are stereotypical. But it’s enjoyable in a conventional-Western way, and the murder mystery has some intriguing twists.”

Let me get the stereotypical charge out of the way first. Yes, the characters established in Mickey’s 1950s screenplay are stereotypical – the stranger in town who becomes sheriff, a beautiful dance hall girl, a blind rancher, a lovely tomboy, and a cantankerous coot who becomes a deputy. There’s also a local doctor. What Mickey did, and what I have continued to try to do, is make these types specific and sometimes surprising in their characterizations, and to bring a gritty, even shocking amount of Spillane-style violence to the party as well as a mystery/crime element.

I don’t mean to respond to the reviewer, just to make clear where Mickey and I are coming from.

What I want to discuss is the charge that I do too much description of setting and clothing. I have always done a good deal of that, but it’s only in recent years that the occasional reviewer (particularly the Amazon variety) has bitched about it. The same is true of the sexual element, but that doesn’t apply too much to the Caleb York novels, so I’ll save that for a future discussion.

From my point of view, too many authors send their characters running around in books stark naked, and I don’t mean in sex scenes. I view clothing as a tool of characterization. The clothing a character wears tells us who this person is, and how these characters perceive themselves, and wish to be perceived.

Setting is the same. A description of a house, interior or exterior, tells us who lives there – a bedroom, particularly, is revealing of character.

Any reader who thinks I can on too much about clothing or setting is free to skip or scan. No harm, no foul.

In an historical novel – which westerns like the Caleb York books are by definition – setting is particularly important. It is also a big part of my 20th Century-set mysteries. If I take Nate Heller to a Hooverville or a strip club, you can bet I’ll give you chapter and verse about those settings. If Heller – in a 1960s-era story, when he’s become prosperous – is something of a clothes horse, that speaks of character, of who is and what he’s become. He’s rather shallow in that regard, frankly – part of his characterization.

In a Caleb York story, if I take my hero into an apothecary or a general store, you can bet I will describe the damn thing, and in some detail. York isn’t walking into a Walgreen’s or a Safeway, after all. Part of this is taking what is a mythic western – having to do with movies and ‘50s/’60s TV, more than the reality of the west – and giving it some verisimilitude. By keeping the underpinnings real, making the setting authentic, I can get away with the melodrama.

And what I do is melodrama. Nobody uses that word anymore, at least not correctly. But much of what I have done as a writer for over forty years is present a realistic surface on which to present my somewhat over-the-top stories.

Again, feel free to skim or skip passages that bore you. Elmore Leonard, great writer that he was, pretty much left you on your own. What he did worked for him (but his “rules” of writing are worthwhile only if you want to be Elmore Leonard when you grow up, and we already have one of those).

I am well aware that I am involved in a collaborative process with the reader. It amuses me when two readers argue over whether a book is good or not, as if they shared the same experience. Obviously they didn’t. Sometimes the play or movie mounted in a reader’s mind is a big-budget, beautifully cast affair; other readers are capable only of amateur night productions.

Leonard and others may wish to cede their stories to the whims and abilities of their readers. I know to some extent that is inevitable – because no two readers will have the same experience reading fiction. But I believe in controlling the narrative to the fullest extent that I can. I consider a chief responsibility of my job is doing my job – to do the work for you, where setting and clothing are concerned and much more.

I understand and accept that I’m blessed and sometimes burdened with readers who are my inevitable collaborators. But I want them to come as close to experiencing the movie I saw in my head, and put down on paper for them, as I possibly can.

* * *

This past Saturday, Crusin’ played the first gig of the season (defined as: not winter, though we were somewhat double-crossed by April sleet and snow). We performed for the Wilton, Iowa, High School Alumni banquet, a very well-attended event that had been going since five p.m. when we went on stage around nine-thirty. We held a good share of the audience for two sets (we took no break) and debuted a lot of new material…well, old material, although a new original was included.


L to R: M.A.C., Joe McClean, Steve Kundel, Bill Anson and Brian Van Winkle.

It went well, and our old friend Joe McClean, a Wilton area boy, joined us on several numbers. Joe was the heart and soul of the great Midwestern band the XL’s, who are also in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Our new guitar player, Bill Anson, is doing a fine job, as are longtime drummer Steve Kundel and our bassist Brian Van Winkle, the “new guy” who has been with us seven years.

It felt great playing again. Loading afterward, not so much. And two days later I still am in anybody-get-the-name-of-that-truck mode.


M.A.C., Joe McClean.
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My Scarface and the Untouchable co-author, A. Brad Schwartz, has written an op-ed piece for the Washington Post that has just appeared. Though I didn’t co-write it, I did some friendly editing and the piece beautifully discusses the somewhat facile comparisons being made of Trump as Capone and Comey/Mueller as Eliot Ness.

Wild Dog is back on Arrow this year. I haven’t watched the previous year yet.

Here’s a great review by Ron Fortier of the complete version of the Road to Perdition novel published by Brash Books.

Here’s where you can get signed copies of my books, including Killing Town and The Last Stand.

Road to Perdition the film is number three on this list of the best twelve Jude Law movies.

Finally, thanks to everyone who responded to the book giveaway posted last week. The books went quickly, and my apologies to those of you who missed out. Another will follow before too very long!

M.A.C.

Days in the Life

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Normally I don’t take my work – that is, the novel in progress – along on trips. Business or pleasure or a mix, I like to do the work in my office at home. Also, I hate the smaller, flat-keyed keyboard of a laptop, so generally writing in the hotel room is a non-starter.

Occasionally there are exceptions. On the recent Florida trip, we left Iowa with two chapters remaining to be written on the new Heller, Do No Harm. The second-to-the-last chapter was the action climax, which I was still working on in my mind. It drives me crazy to have to walk away from a book at that late stage because of some event I agreed to do months and months before, never realizing when that event would fall within my writing life.

We were in Clearwater five days. Between rehearsals and performances of Encore for Murder, we were busy and most of what we did, beyond the theater, was look for good eating places and do a little shopping. Took in one movie (Proud Mary, a black version of Gloria that was a nice throwback).

Every night as I tried to go to sleep, my brain was working on that second-to-last chapter. I had outlined that chapter, and knew what needed to be done with it, but something was wrong, or at least wasn’t satisfying. Several nights into the trip, what I needed to do crystalized. And it had hold of me but good.

So the next day I wrote that second-to-the-last chapter in the hotel room, on my laptop, working all afternoon and a few hours after we got back from the opening night performance. I ran it off the next morning in the lobby’s business center and gave it to Barb to read on the plane, and proof and critique. When we got home that night, I incorporated her fixes and suggestions and did a final tweak.

That meant I was able to finish the book ahead of schedule, writing the final chapter and the bibliographic end notes on the day after we got back.

It’s no big deal to write in a hotel room. I have many writer friends (Bob Randisi especially comes to mind) who regularly write on their latest project when they are traveling. But for me it’s a rarity. And it indicates how thoroughly a book I’m writing can take hold of me.

That opened up the following week for other things. In the first few days, I proofed and tweaked the novel, and assembled the manuscript for e-mailing to my editor and my agent. On Wednesday and Thursday I did a rewrite of the other Mike Hammer radio play, The Little Death, for Zev Buffman in Clearwater. Finally Barb and I went to Galena, Illinois, for two days on a combination work-and-pleasure jaunt. The work part was researching Galena for my next novel, The Girl Most Likely (for Thomas & Mercer).

In Galena we met with the charming and very helpful Chief Lori Huntington. This was a particularly important meeting because the protagonist of the novel is the chief of police of Galena. We also drove around the area and got to the know the town a little better than on our previous visits, where we were pretty much strictly downtown shopping and eating. We even toured the historic Galena home of President Grant, the town’s most famous former citizen.

That was Friday and Saturday. On Sunday I wrote a short story, “The Big Run,” for the Strand magazine from an unproduced 1954 Mickey Spillane teleplay — part of the centenary celebration. We also went to a crime movie, Den of Thieves, which has a nice surprise ending, though it suffers from having nobody worth rooting for among either the cops or the crooks.

All in all, a productive couple of weeks.


M.A.C. and Galena police chief, Lori Huntington
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Here’s a nice Publisher’s Weekly interview with me about things Spillane, by fellow Mick fan, Michael Barson, who is a bigtime pop culture expert.

The great James Reasoner likes The Last Stand and tells you all about it here.

M.A.C.

Hey Kids! Comics!

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

The first of the four-issue serialization of Quarry’s War, the character’s first graphic novel appearance, goes on sale November 29. There are three alternate covers, designed to fleece you, er, give you an opportunity to choose the one you like best.

This link will take you to all of the covers plus a five-page preview.

The four issues will be collected as a trade paperback, though I don’t know when – sometime next year. To some degree, this project happened because of the TV show, and since Cinemax did not take Quarry past the first season, I can’t be sure there will be another graphic novel.

What this did provide me with was an opportunity to explore Quarry’s back story more thoroughly and do something about his Vietnam experiences. The first three issues are evenly divided between Vietnam and a post-Vietnam assignment from the Broker. The fourth issue kind of pulls both story lines together.

The graphic novel was, in part, a response to the Cinemax series with its Vietnam emphasis. But mostly the visual format of comics made it the perfect place to show what Quarry’s life was like overseas, as well as explore his beginnings from boot camp to the Broker first knocking on his door.

Also, his restrained response to the guy who’d been cheating with Quarry’s Joni.

* * *

I am two chapters in on Do No Harm and, while it’s a pleasure to be with Nate Heller again, brother is it hard. I kidded myself thinking this would be an “easy” Heller. The case is complex and I have a time-hopping structure that may make me (but I hope not you) dizzy.

I managed to get a little work done over Thanksgiving and the long weekend. But with Nathan, Abby and two-year-old Sam visiting, that wasn’t always easy – also, I was busy falling off my stay-away-from-sugar-and-starch diet, eating the equivalent of an entire pecan pie over a three-day period. In my defense, Barb makes the best pecan pie anywhere. Ask Nate.

Also, I am embarrassed to report that there is sad news for the rest of you: none of you have children or grandchildren as cute and smart as Sam Collins. My apologies.

* * *

A very nice Big Showdown review by that fine writer James Reasoner can be found here. Mr. Reasoner has forgotten more about writing westerns than I will ever know, so this one felt especially good.

And speaking of the late/great Quarry TV series, this blog concludes with a look at the episode I wrote.

Full confession: my work on the Quarry series was stretched out over two episodes (the next one after the one reviewed here). The other writer and I were each assigned a solo writing credit for one episode for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. I also wrote (and was paid for) an episode for season two, which of course was never filmed.

M.A.C.