Archive for December, 2018

Christmas Movie Festival – By Popular Demand!

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018

All right, I admit this is nothing anyone asked for – it’s just a rundown on our personal post-Thanksgiving Christmas movie fest. Barb and I almost always spend the evening watching a movie (sometimes a TV show or two), and this year we determined to watch nothing but Yuletide-themed movies till Christmas itself rolled around.

So you may want to run a copy of this off to guide you for your Yuletide watching next year (or, if you are sane, you may not).

Here, pretty much in the order we watched them, are our selections. We started with bad-taste Christmas comedies, then moved to TV Xmas episodes, followed by more traditional favorites. Nothing religious. We have no intention of debasing this secular holiday with religion.

The Thing – ****. The Howard Hawks-produced 1951 film. Admittedly not a Christmas movie, but the Blu-ray just came out, and the film is set at the North Pole. We were warming up for Christmas by vicariously experiencing all that cold in the company of a fire and hot chocolate.

Bad Santa – ****. Okay, I understand this is not by any rational accounting a four-star movie. But it accomplishes something very special. It surrounds its good heart with layers and layers of darkly funny coal. Billy Bob is a favorite of mine, and Willie T. Stokes is one of his finest creations.

Bad Santa 2 – ****. All right, I realize this is even less rational. Most reviewers hated this. Hated it! Apparently they didn’t notice how hilarious it is. Billy Bob’s commitment to his character is complete, and he has Kathy Bates as his cheerfully sociopathic mother to explain a lot about Willie’s development as a human being. The now adult Brett Edward Kelly as grown kid Thurman Merman damn near steals the picture, which is even nastier than the first one but with an even better heart.

A Christmas Horror Story – ***. This has become our favorite Christmas horror movie, dealing as it does with Krampus and featuring William Shatner as a hard-drinking, smiling radio personality, linking several interwoven stories, of which the most memorable features a wonderfully bad-ass Santa. Many of those working on this were part of the Orphan Black creative team.

Office Christmas Party – ***. Almost as dark as Bad Santa at times, this features Jason Bateman (nearly rivaling his Game Night performance), playing a funny straight man to an unending array of current comic talent. It, too, turns out to have a good heart but – like the Bad Santa films – not a sentimental one.

Murdoch MysteriesOnce Upon a Murdoch Christmas and A Merry Murdoch Christmas – **. We love this series. It’s uneven, but the recurring cast is winning and often the episodes are first-rate. These two Christmas episodes are among the worst outings, however, over-the-top and even embarrassing at times. A third, more recent Christmas Murdoch is better, but the bar isn’t set high.

Poirot – “The Theft of the Royal Ruby.” ****. One of two excellent Christmas episodes of the wonderful, long-running David Suchet series, this Christie adaptation – set in that great art-deco house that turns up in multiple episodes – is the best, amusing and even exciting.

A Nero Wolfe Mystery – “A Christmas Party.” ***. The repertory cast here is even hammier than usual – most Canadian-produced series, like Murdoch, do well with the central casting but reveal a shallow bench among the Canadian day players. Still, the byplay between Timothy Hutton’s Archie and the late, great Maury Chaykin’s Wolfe is a gift that keeps on giving.

Holiday Inn – ****. A masterpiece of music and well-motivated situation comedy with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire playing off each other beautifully. Just fast-forward through the embarrassing blackface number, “Abraham.” By the way, I see blackface as a cultural thing that once was accepted – so, in that context, I can watch Eddie Cantor in his blackface scenes with little if any shame. Problem with this particular blackface number is…it’s an awful song. Irving Berlin wasn’t perfect. He didn’t think “White Christmas” was the hit in his new score (he figured “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” was the winner).

White Christmas – **. Pains me to say it, because I love Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and my late pal Miguel Ferrer’s mom, Rosemary Clooney…but this film mostly stinks. Even Bing didn’t like it. “Count Your Blessings” with Bing and Rosie is lovely, though.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas – ***. Barb and I reverted to bad-taste comedy after White Christmas – to cleanse the palate. This is very funny, with some uncomfortable moments in the Neil Patrick Harris section (funny how quickly certain things have dated in the #metoo era). Even for non-dopers like Barb and me, this stoner comedy is funny and has a nice pace, getting gradually more absurd as it goes. And represents a rare, really good use of 3-D in a 21st Century film.

Scrooged – *. I love Bill Murray. Groundhog Day, which covers similar ground, is one of my favorite movies. And I love the Christmas Carol story. But this is a forced, shrill comedy with Bill Murray trying uncharacteristically too hard. The whole movie is hysterical, but in a humorless way, and seems filled to the brim with personalities of the moment who were soon to fade away.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – ***. I love this movie, and know it by heart, but there’s no denying it’s uneven. Still, it’s gradually become a favorite among many and has eclipsed the better first film in the series, because of course Christmas is at this third entry’s heart. Julie Louis Dreyfuss’s presence reflects smart (and lucky) casting. Where Scrooged doesn’t seem to really believe its positive message, Christmas Vacation manages to celebrate family even as it lampoons it.

Meet Me in St. Louis – ****. This should not be a four-star movie. It’s almost plotless. The co-star is Tom Drake, for Pete’s sake (or is that Pete Drake for Tom’s sake – I can’t remember). But it’s beautifully directed and perfectly paced, with Judy Garland at her loveliest and most appealing. And Margaret O’Brien is magically good as the little girl who, if you really listen to her, is apparently the first Goth Girl.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 – *** (for the Shout Factory Blu-ray). Okay, I watched this by myself – not Barb’s idea of a Christmas movie. It’s really not worthy of this rating. About a third of the movie is flashbacks from the first film. But the slasher anti-hero, Billy, played by Robert Brian Wilson, is fascinating – is that a terrible performance, or a great one? I’m just not sure! All I know is it’s “Garbage day!”). And the latterday “making of” documentary (longer than the movie!) is one of the best of its kind.

A Christmas Story – ****. Now we’re into the classics. One of my top four. No matter how hard the world tries to diminish this Jean Shepherd classic – with licensed toys, mini-leg lamps, t-shirts and other crap – this movie remains the best film about childhood in 20th Century America ever made. (There’s even an abysmal stage production – aired live, so you can “re-live” the experience, when I thought you relived it by watching the original again!) I love that Darren McGavin (TV’s first Mike Hammer and the great Carl Kolchak) has become an iconic figure, thanks to his perfect performance as Ralphie’s Old Man. Barb and I first saw this with my late, beloved aunt Beth on Christmas Day on the film’s first release. Loved it then. Love it now. It influenced Road to Perdition, by the way – the adult narrator recalling his childhood. Michael O’Sullivan Jr.’s childhood did vary some from Ralphie’s, admittedly.

Scrooge – ****. The Alastair Sim 1951 version. Accept no substitutes.

Miracle on 34th Street – ****. The Edmund Gwenn version. Again, accept no substitutes. This is Hollywood mid-20th Century studio filmmaking at its finest – perfect script and direction, with even the smallest part perfectly cast (Thelma Ritter!). No major stars – John Payne, wonderful, and Maureen O’Hara, also wonderful, were B+ talent, and Edmund Gwenn a little-known character actor whose only other real claim to fame is as a scientist in Them! And yet all of ‘em will live forever, thanks to this impeccably constructed film. Shot on location, by the way, at the real Macy’s in the real New York City.

It’s a Wonderful Life – ****. We haven’t watched this yet this year. We don’t watch it every Christmas season, because it’s a rough ride, in spots. But – like Groundhog Day – you have to forgive the protagonist his flaws in order to witness his redemption. You know what Wonderful Life and the two Bad Santa films have in common? Their protagonist tries to commit suicide, saved by Christmas in the form of Clarence the angel and Merman Thurman, the…God, I’m not sure what.

Merry Christmas, everybody. See you next year.


Baby, It’s Scold Outside

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
I really can’t stay (but baby, it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go away (but baby, it’s cold outside)
This evening has been (been hoping that you’d drop in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice)
My mother will start to worry (beautiful what’s your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I’d better scurry (beautiful please don’t hurry)
But maybe just a half a drink more (put some records on while I pour)
The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)
I wish I knew how (your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell)
I ought to say, no, no, no sir (mind if I move in closer?)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (what’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?)
I really can’t stay (oh baby don’t hold out)
But baby, it’s cold outside
I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)
Your welcome has been(how lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (look out the window at this dawn)
My sister will be suspicious (gosh your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (waves upon the tropical shore)
My maiden aunts mind is vicious (gosh your lips are delicious)
But maybe just a cigarette more (never such a blizzard before)
I’ve gotta get home (but baby, you’d freeze out there)
Say lend me a coat (it’s up to your knees out there)
You’ve really been grand (I thrill when you touch my hand)
But don’t you see? (how can you do this thing to me?)
There’s bound to be talk tomorrow (think of my lifelong sorrow)
At least there will be plenty implied (if you got pneumonia and died)
I really can’t stay (get over that old out)
Baby, it’s cold
Baby, it’s cold outside

Songwriter: Frank Loesser
Baby, It’s Cold Outside lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

The controversy over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – a song four years older than my ancient ass – just rolls on, as Millennials and Generation Z (or whatever they’re called) continue their smug condemnation of anyone who wasn’t “woke” long before that word came to represent a lack of social awareness.

Here’s what a writer in USA Today said last year about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”:

“Is this the year we finally retire ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside?’ In 2017, America woke up to the systemic sexual predation that pervades every corner of society, but some of our Christmas carols are stuck in the past. In particular, the drumbeat against ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is getting too loud to ignore.”

Ah, the drumbeat. Before you know it, Frank Loesser won’t be asked to host the Oscars.

Who is Frank Loesser, you ask? Who was Frank Loesser is the more pertinent question. He was one of the great songwriters of the Broadway stage – don’t take my word for it, ask Stephen Sondheim. Guys and Dolls is still considered by many to be the perfect American musical. Among Loesser’s greater accomplishments are the witty and satirical (and tunefully presented) lyrics of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which skewered the hypocritical and often sexist “big business” workplace environment of the l950s and early 1960s. The love song “I Believe in You” was sung by the anti-hero to himself in the mirror (Merry Christmas, Robert Morse!).

Frank Loesser was cynical and defiantly New York, even when he was Hollywood’s “go to” songwriter. He is an American treasure – or he would be (some seem to insist) if only he’d held the attitudes of progressives of 2018 seventy-four years ago.

I’m not going to go into great detail to defend “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which is a sexy, clever and catchy song designed for adults – Loesser wrote it for himself and his wife to sing together at parties and it only went public when a Hollywood producer, who heard it sung at one such gathering, wanted to use it in a film (it won the Academy Award for Best Song).

songwriter Frank Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” at a party.

But let’s start with this: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not “a Christmas carol.” It’s not even a Christmas song. Of course a lot of songs from the Great American Songbook – enduring American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century – that get played as Christmas songs are just winter-theme tunes: “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow,” “Sleigh Ride.” None are “carols.”

As for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” being “rapey,” let’s examine the most notorious lyric, “Say, what’s in this drink?” That refers to, is this punch or is there alcohol in this thing? How much booze did you put in this, buster? Still, the guy may be a letch, and may even want to get laid, but the woman is presumably twenty-one, knows she’s alone in the company of a man and is in charge of her own destiny. A man wanting to have sex with a woman isn’t a crime, and if it were, the species is who would be screwed. I am fairly sure that, at some point this evening, a male will buy a female a drink or glass of wine in a bar or restaurant, in hopes it will relax her and perhaps improve his chances.

Ah, but chances for what?

Well, let’s back up. The answer to, “Say what’s in this drink?” is not “a roofie.” Please. Bill Cosby was seven years old when the song came out.

Hard as it may be to believe by people born in the late 20th century or (shudder) this century, a male could want a female to stick around so they could have some harmless fun, like kissing and maybe (shocking!) petting. Sexual intercourse was not necessarily on the menu. Forced or coerced sex certainly wasn’t. People in 1949 watching the film in which the song first appeared were not thinking, “That Ricardo Montalban is trying to rape Esther Williams!” Most didn’t think Ricardo was after sex – just feminine affection.

The serious issue here is the dangerous trend of judging yesterday by today – specifically, the attitudes of yesterday that many (including me) agree were misjudged. But there’s a corollary to “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”: those who don’t attempt to understand the context of yesterday are going to be denied the pleasures of the past…and a better understanding of it.

The current couple of generations have no monopoly on thinking prior generations were a bunch of louts. Trust me – we Baby Boomers are no prize. Once the Beatles arrived, we dismissed our parents’ culture with smug know-it-all-ness.

Important pop culture figures like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and John Wayne were ridiculed and even despised. Of course, it must be said that all three of those aided and abetted in their own ridicule as they grew older. Sinatra covered the Beatles embarrassingly (“Something in the way she moves, Jack!”), Bob Hope became a hopeless self-parody, and John Wayne made political comments that make your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving seem like a pundit.

My generation talked peace and love, sang of Aquarius and went to Woodstock. Then we aged into old people who have made war and racism popular again. When somebody (and this happens a lot) tells me Mickey Spillane was a misogynist, I say, “You’ve confused misogyny with misanthropy.” (And clearly they have never really read the books.)

We have a lot of problems in this country and in this world. I am on the liberal side of the center line, but it troubles me – and even frightens me – that seemingly so many young progressives have such a rigid, idealistic, self-righteous view of things. Kids in cages, government corruption, climate change, child abuse, real sexual predators…so many problems that make the Christmas season at once a solace we seek and a terrible ironic thing that has ceased to mean anything. Real problems, not priggish superiority over the “rapey” lyrics to a seventy-four-year-old song.

Bing Crosby sang with David Bowie about “Peace on earth.” If those two had respect for each other, and could overlook what must have seemed like flawed behavior in each other, can’t we sit by the fire and drink some egg nog?

Hey! How much rum did you put in this, Barb?


An “Antiques” Stocking Stuffer and the Walmart Big Time

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Yes, here I am with another selfless suggestion for something you might give to your loved ones or yourself at Yuletide.

Amazon Indiebound Books A Million Barnes and Noble

Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides collects, for the first time, the three e-book novellas Barb and I did over the last five years. It’s a paperback (hence a perfect stocking stuffer), and I know some collectors out there prefer hardcovers, but “Barbara Allan” is thrilled that these stories are finally gathered in a real book.

If you are one of the hold-outs who like my stuff but can’t bring yourself to cross the cozy divide, Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides is an inexpensive way to see Brandy and her mother Vivian in action. A sampler, if you will, and much tastier than those Whitman samplers some people insist upon giving you at Christmas.

I’ve discussed this before, but I still get questions about how Barb and I work together on the Antiques books, and how we stay married doing them. One aspect is that my office is on one floor and Barb’s is on another. But basically it’s this: Barb writes the first draft, and I write the final draft.

The less basic explanation is that Barb is the lead writer. Although I have more experience, and have been doing this longer, the books reflect her sensibilities and storytelling skills. We plot them together, but I stay out of the way while Barb prepares her draft. Sometimes we’ve described that as a rough draft, but really it’s not. Barb polishes each chapter thoroughly and, after at least six months of work, she gives me a perfectly readable and well-crafted novel that happens to be fifty or sixty pages shorter than what our contract requires.

My job is to further polish, and expand, and do lots of jokes. Barb has already done plenty of humor at this stage, but then I add more, with the result being that these novels are damn funny. Barb is wonderful about staying out of my way (as I’ve stayed out of hers, unless asked for input, during her creation of the initial draft). She claims to be so sick of the book at this point that she doesn’t care what I do to it.

This is not true.

She cares a lot, and will ask me why I’ve cut or changed something, and – when I tell her – will either agree or explain why (for plot or character reasons) (these are female point-of-view first-person novels) I need to restore what she originally wrote. Which I do.

The only time we’ve squabbled is when I’ve gotten crabby because I’m overworked. She will not tolerate snippiness. And I’ve been known on rare occasions (somewhat rare) (tiny bit rare) to be snippy, so there you go.

Consider Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides our Christmas gift to you, except for the part where you have to pay for it.

Kensington publishes the Antiques novels, and also the Caleb York westerns. The accompanying photo will demonstrate that these Spillane/Collins westerns have hit the big time: we are in the Muscatine, Iowa, Walmart with The Bloody Spur! In fact, the Walmart chain bought a whole bunch of copies, and you can buy your copy at your local temple to the memory of Sam Walton.

The Antiques books haven’t made it into Walmart and probably won’t – the chain is very narrow about the kind of books they buy…mostly it’s romances, romantic westerns and westerns, plus a few bestsellers. Not a cozy in sight – not even an hilarious one like Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides. How do they expect to stay in business?

Speaking of Antiques, here is a terrific review of Ho-Ho-Homicides at King River Life Magazine, which will give you a good idea of what to expect, including discussions of each novella.

Okay, now what you’re wondering is…what can I give Max Allan Collins for Christmas? I will be facetious and serious at the same time: you could write reviews (however brief) for my novels at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your own blogs and whatever site you deem appropriate. There is a real reason why you might want to consider doing this, if you want new work from me.

The books I write – Mike Hammer, Quarry, Antiques – are seldom reviewed by the mainstream (including lots of Internet reviewers). I do not have the cachet or sales punch of a Lehane or Connelly, who are always reviewed. I am largely ignored, even by people who love my work, in “Best of” lists at the end of the year. This is a bit of a head-scratcher, but it’s a reality. Even the widely, glowingly reviewed non-fiction book Scarface and the Untouchable: The Battle for Chicago isn’t turning up on such lists.

I probably write too much. That keeps work that, if other people did it, would be taken more seriously. I am not whining or complaining (well, I guess I am) but I do understand that even readers who follow my work can’t always keep up with me.

Here’s the deal. If I don’t write, publishers do not send money to my house. That’s one thing. The other is that I am 70, have had some harrowing health issues (that I seem to have either overcome or am handling well) and realize that I don’t have forever to tell my stories.

And I have a lot more stories I want to tell.

Actually, I do not work as hard as I used to. Over the years, most Heller chapters were written in a day (25 to 30 double-spaced pages). I was a boy wonder till I got old. I slowed down starting with Better Dead. In general, my work load now is ten finished pages, six days a week. (Sometimes only five days.) It’s no different than with people with a “real” job – they work five or six days a week, and nobody applauds them, or tries to talk them out of it.

As I’ve mentioned, I have friends who have done these sort of interventions to get me to retire and get Barb and me to go take a cruise with other aging couples. I would rather write. Barb and I treat ourselves well and have a great time together, and don’t feel the need for a lot of travel to do that. She is a beautiful woman and lovely company, and is the one thing in my life that is worth hating me over.

She and I are watching one Christmas movie or television episode per evening right now. I may write about this soon. But I will say this – Holiday Inn is a wonderful movie, and White Christmas sort of stinks. Maybe my son Nathan is right: Die Hard is a better Christmas movie than White Christmas.

* * *

Here six great books (available inexpensively) are recommended, and one of them is True Detective (and I’m pleased and grateful, but it’s not “Allen,” okay?).

Shots looks at upcoming Titan titles, including the new Hammer, Murder, My Love.

The Strand magazine is on the stands now, with the key Spillane “Mike Hammer” short story, “Tonight, My Love.”

We’ve linked to this review before, but this time it’s attached to the mass market paperback of The Bloody Spur, out right now.

Finally, here’s a lovely write-up on the three Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries.


Unbiased Gift-Giving (and Book Collecting) Advice

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Just when I was thinking the last update’s self-aggrandizing gift list suggestions were as far as even I could shamelessly go, along comes an Amazon sale to give me a chance to outdo myself.

Half a dozen of my Nathan Heller books are on sale all throughout the month of December at Amazon. The Kindle e-books are a mere 99 cents, and the physical books (remember those…books you can hold in your hands?) are half-price.

This includes True Crime, True Detective, The Million-Dollar Wound, Neon Mirage, Stolen Away, Angel in Black, Chicago Lightning and Triple Play. The latter two are a short story collection and a trio of short novels (the rest are novels).

You can find them right here.

Earlier I thought that all of the Heller novels prior to the recent batch at Tor Forge were included, but it’s a little more limited than that.

At any rate, if you have holes to fill in your collections, or are looking to turn others on to Nate Heller and me (and by so doing help insure more Heller books will come along in the future), this is the place to make that Christmas miracle come true.

I have other gift suggestions, too, for books I didn’t write. Sounds like the Christmas spirit, huh? Not so fast. I want now to recommend several books that originally appeared in Japanese but were translated by someone calling himself Nathan A. Collins (he claims the “A” stands for “Allan”).

Seriously, though, Nate is a wonderful writer (I said “unbiased”) and these are good books. One of them has a peculiar title – I Want to Eat Your Pancreas () – which is not a horror novel but a very good book about an unusual and oddly touching friendship. It was a bestseller in Japan, which I believe is why the American publisher did not want to change the title.

Nate also translated a thriller that was made into a rather famous anime feature – Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis () – which explores the phenomenon of young female pop stars (rather a creepy if real thing), one of whom attracts a particularly nasty stalker. Nate also translated Perfect Blue: Awaken from a Dream (), a collection of three stories by the same author on the same subject.

The most famous of Nate’s translations is Battle Royale (), which was the “inspiration” for Hunger Games, and an internationally successful film. That’s been out a while. Most current novel is Zodiac War () (Nate also translated the manga version (). This is a science-fiction/fantasy adventure, a super-hero/villain variation on Battle Royale.

* * *

Some recent things on the Net that you may wish to check out….

This is a fun discussion of movie tie-in novels, and several of mine are included.

Be sure to take in this nice appreciation of the Quarry TV series, which includes a celebration of Quarry’s creator, whose name I’m too modest to mention.

Once again Road to Perdition (the film and the graphic novel) are mentioned prominently on a list called (wait for it)“10 Obscure Comic Books That Were Turned Into Movies.”

Here is an oral history of how I created the new Robin and then DC fans rose up and killed him.

Finally, here’s a very good review of my first Quarry novel, which is called Quarry (and not The First Quarry).