Posts Tagged ‘Nate Heller’

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.
* * *

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
* * *

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.

Heller – The Starting Gate

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

I have been researching the upcoming Nathan Heller novel, Do No Harm, for two months. That has consisted chiefly of reading books – ten cover to cover, reading selectively in another ten, filling a notebook with info and page numbers. With any Heller, a lot of research occurs along the way as well; but, in movie terms, I’ve completed pre-production. This past week I read eighteen contemporary articles on the Sam Sheppard murder case, and two more books. On Monday I start the novel.

The process with Heller has remained largely the same since True Detective back in the early ‘80s. I select the historical incident – usually a crime, either unsolved or controversially solved – and approach it as if I’m researching the definitive book on the subject. I never have a firm opinion on the case before research proper begins, even if I’ve read a little about it or seen movies or documentaries on the subject, just as somebody interested in famous true crimes.

The intent is to find the story in the research, as opposed to having the story firmly in mind and researching it. That’s worked out well for me with Heller – any number of times I’ve come up with theories about what probably really happened that have inspired non-fiction books (by authors who never credit me) (but I’m not bitter).

This time I changed my mind about who murdered Marilyn Sheppard, oh, a dozen times. I in part selected the case because it was a more traditional murder mystery than the political subjects of the last four Heller novels – sort of back to basics, plus giving me something that would be a little easier to do, since I was coming out of some health problems and major surgeries.

But it’s turned out to be one of the trickiest Heller novels of all. Figuring out what happened here is very tough. There is no shortage of suspects, and no shortage of existing theories. In addition, a number of the players are still alive (Sam Sheppard’s brother Stephen is 97) and those who aren’t have grown children who are, none of whom would likely be thrilled with me should I lay a murder at the feet of their deceased parents.

Additionally, the case does not lend itself to some of the usual Heller fun-and-games – like violence and sex. There are no bad guys to kill, and the sexual aspects of the murder make Heller hanky panky distasteful. Oddly enough, this comes after the preceding Heller, Better Dead, which found our hero more sexually active than usual (and that’s saying something).

But the research defines the book. The story emerges from the research and I have to be true to it. That story sometimes – this time for sure – takes its time revealing itself. I have changed the structure of the novel almost as many times as I have changed my mind about who killed Marilyn Sheppard.

For that reason, I do not attempt to write a chapter breakdown/outline (vital in a Heller) until I have completed the research phase. In a way that’s too bad, because if I could discern the shape of the book at, say, a third of the way through the research, I could limit further digging to the areas I need. As it is, I’ve taken notes on scores of things that won’t appear in the book.

That’s okay. In an historical novel, it’s all about the tip of the iceberg, and for me to portray that effectively, I need to know the shape of what’s under the water.

As I indicated, research doesn’t end when the writing begins. Each chapter requires some pre-production as I gather the materials from what I’ve already read, and then as I write it and need things I hadn’t anticipated, more research is done on the fly.

In addition to all this, I have to deal with the feeling I always have at the beginning of a Heller – I experience this, to a lesser degree, with Quarry and really any novel I write – that I may not be up to the job. Coming off health problems, that’s a little exaggerated this time. How do I do this? I ask myself. At least a little panic, a minor anxiety attack, always precedes the writing of chapter one.

I have completed the chapter breakdown/outline to my satisfaction, having wrestled the structure into submission – I have even found a bad guy for Heller to kill. I feel good about where I am, even if certain insecurities creep through.

For me, the saving grace has always been Nate Heller. Like Quarry, he has always been there when I need him. I start writing and there he is.

By the time you read this, I will know if he’s come through for me yet again.

* * *

Despite a few inaccuracies, this is a nice overview of Mike Hammer, touching on the Spillane/Collins collaborations.

Here’s an interesting Road to Perdition (film) article.

Check out this good interview with Hard Case Crime editor, Charles Ardai, flawed only in his neglecting to be mention me (again, I am not bitter). Several Quarry covers are featured, though.

Finally, here’s a lovely piece by Bev Keddy covering many of my books – much appreciate, Bev (who is a boy, he will have you know).

M.A.C.