The Busy Lane I Picked

February 9th, 2021 by Max Allan Collins

I’m at one of those odd junctures where, because I write so much, I am bombarded by the demands of individual books ganging up on me, as needy as bunch of starving brats.

Look, I know it’s my fault, a combination of karma and my selfish desire to do a lot of different things and, along the way, maybe earning a decent living. My inclination, as an artist (I think that’s a fair way to put it, as long as I don’t add an “e” on the end) is to do one project at a time. Concentrate on one thing.

I mostly write novels, and I write them much as I read books – one at a time. I am not one of those strange, unfathomable people who read a number of books at once – they are like drunks changing channels on a runaway remote, as far as I’m concerned. This is one of the reasons why I don’t read much fiction – because the book I’m immersed in is the book I’m writing.

And you may have noticed that I’m always writing a book.

Almost always. I do take a week or two off between books, but I do other writing then – like short stories and articles – and catch up with the things I’ve neglected, like real life.

But fiction writing is a business, or rather a hobby or an art that has to be a business if you want to avoid a real job, a goal I have pursued since I quit my job sacking groceries in 1967. And as a business, the demands of publishing don’t care that I’m writing a book, particularly a book a given publisher isn’t, you know, publishing.

What am I talking about?

I am talking about having just finished Quarry’s Blood, and my incredibly fast editor, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, read it in a couple of days and returned it with queries and minor rewrite requests, all reasonable and helpful. In the scheme of things, getting a freshly finished novel back with such immediacy is both unusual and wonderful. Everything is still fresh in my mind, and I can do the novel justice.

However. I am also dealing with the galley proofs of Antiques Carry On. Due simultaneously are the galley proofs of Live Fast, Spy Hard (John Sand #2), and the galley proofs for the short story collection, Suspense – His and Hers by Barb and me. In addition to the aforementioned Antiques Carry On galleys, our new publisher for that series quite reasonably wants a questionnaire about the book and its authors filled out, and an essay about the book written for their customers.

Galley proofs require a close read, looking for mistakes on the publisher’s end (typos) and mistakes on the author’s (continuity errors and general clean-up of writing problems, like repeating a word too many times on a page). It’s a time-consuming prospect – an Antiques book or the John Sand would take a day or two each.

Even worse is when a copy-edited manuscript comes in (the step before galley proofs), at least when a copy editor has overstepped his or her job description. This happens a lot, in my experience. Why a serial killer in one of my books hasn’t singled out copy editors for attention yet is a greater mystery than I have ever concocted.

Am I complaining? Well, of course I am, but not really. I am complaining more about my inability to do more than one thing at once. But I am improving. Right now, it’s my privilege and pleasure to be working with someone I admire and, even better, really like – Dave Thomas, SCTV star, among much else. Dave is working on the first draft of a book we’ve been working on for over a year, a project I am very proud of and am anxious to discuss here in more depth, when the time is right.

Dave, probably because of his incredible improv background, likes to run things by me and we talk and kick things around, and it’s really just great fun. I seem to have no problem stepping out of, say, Quarry’s Blood to talk about and explore the options and possibilities for our novel together in a plotting session.

But one of the things that’s become clear to me, when I’ve had such disparate projects as the Dave Thomas one, Quarry, Antiques and John Sand spinning in my brain like a noir dream sequence, is that I’ve come to understand better why I can’t expect every reader of mine to like or even understand every facet of my imagination and interests.

Some of you may recall a reader, irritated by one of my relatively rare excursions into politics, insisting that I should “pick a lane.” I responded that I am left of center in my politics, but close enough to the middle that both lanes of traffic have an equal swipe at me. I also mentioned that I feel nuance is a positive, not a negative.

I have, obviously, picked a lane in my writing – mystery/crime, but even that is really two genres, and of course horror is part of it, as the current Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales demonstrates. But it’s clear to me, at this ripe old age, that I would have been more popular and successful as a fiction writer if I had been more narrow in focus.

The thing is, I am driven not so much by genre considerations as I am by ideas. Ideas have driven every novel writing choice I’ve made. Quarry was a hitman who had to solve the murder he committed. Road to Perdition was a take on John Woo and other Asian influences my then very young son and I were taking in. Mommy was a reversal of The Bad Seed’s premise. Eliot Ness, both novel and non-fiction, was looking for the man behind the myth, and his real cases. Black Hats was old Wyatt Earp meets young Al Capone. USS Powderkeg was a way to talk about my father’s experiences with an all-black crew in the Pacific during the Second World War. Krista and Keith Larson was an American take on Nordic noir and a step away from hardboiled genre types. Ms. Tree was Velda marrying Mike Hammer and Mike getting killed on their honeymoon. Antiques was a young woman using antiquing (and amateur sleuthing) as a positive way to relate to her eccentric mother. Supreme Justice was somebody killing Supreme Court justices to change the balance of the court. John Sand is the spy that James Bond was based on. And on and on.


And the need to execute these ideas in a way that is appropriate to the material is the goal – effective storytelling, interesting to me. Fiction writers should write the novels they want to read themselves. Their first audience is themselves – and my readers are invited in, welcomed in, but don’t always share my interests and enthusiasms.

So I get it if Girl Can’t Help It doesn’t please somebody who is really into Quarry and Nolan. I wholly understand if someone into the Antiques series is horrified beyond words at my writing Mike Hammer novels.

But it is, frankly, hurtful when a reader feels betrayed by a choice I’ve made, and attacks a work that isn’t on their wave length as if I have failed them or am “phoning it in” or doing inferior work simply because it’s not to their taste.

And here in the last phase of my career – which I hope will be another twenty years, don’t get me wrong – I am interested in getting as many of the stories I want to tell fucking told. I am (as perhaps being the co-author of a series of cozy mysteries about antiquing might indicate) a collector. I am of perhaps the first generation of mystery writers who were fans first, and became writers.

So what I am doing, in 2021 and beyond, is collecting my own books. In a way, I am my own biggest fan, but also my harshest critic. A creative person needs to be an unlikely combination of self-confidence and self-doubt, and I certainly qualify.

* * *
Turning the Tied cover

Matt Clemens and I have contributed a Sherlock Holmes short story to an exciting new collection by top tie-in writers. Read about it here.

J. Kingston Pierce’s Rap Sheet is always worth reading. Some interesting news about me is buried in his latest installment.

Finally, Mike Hammer: The Night I Died graphic novel from Titan is one of seven recommended graphic novels here.


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11 Responses to “The Busy Lane I Picked”

  1. Tim Field says:

    I remember a comment at a bookstore appearance at Once Upon A Crime years ago where you and Barb described your writing life and household as “We live in a house on fire”. Is this how you would still describe it?

  2. Matt Norman says:

    Really cool that you are doing a project with Dave Thomas. Makes me think of his superlative Bob Hope impression and how much I enjoyed reading The Comedy is Finished last summer. I read Skim Deep over the holidays and look forward to the other Nolan novels that will be reissued by Hard Case Crime this year.

  3. Mark H says:

    I’m afraid that I am one of those people that didn’t particularly like either of your Krista Larson novels, and in fact my review of the first one uses the phrase “phoned it in” that you quote above. Just to be clear, however, my opinion was not based on the fact that we aren’t on the same wave length or that I prefer other characters like Quarry or Nolan. My reaction was based on the fact that I thought the books were pretty weak, and certainly not up to the quality that you have demonstrated in other books, notably the Nate Heller, quite a few of which are outstanding. The plots in the Larson books seemed simplistic and the characters not very well-developed. Based on your blog post above, you are obviously a very busy man, and it’s not surprising that you cannot maintain a high level of quality in all your work, but I don’t think a reviewer is trying to be “hurtful” when he or she points out that some of your work is, in that reviewer’s opinion, just not all that great.

  4. I enjoyed reading your update. It is quite detailed and to the point covering many things all at once. I especially take pleasure in your personal touch and your own historical perspective and notes given. In some ways you remind me of Fredrick Faust with many pen names to include Max Brand. He was a very prolific writer of a different era as you are today.

    Best wishes,

  5. Mark,

    Your assumption that because you don’t like something of mine is a reflection of my “phoning it in” or being a “busy man” who can’t maintain a “high quality” of work is as insulting as it is patronizing. You have every right to your opinions, but plenty of people like the novels you dismiss as simplistic and many have celebrated the characterizations, and find the plots sufficiently twisting and surprising, although the Larson novels are more thriller than whodunits. I resent readers who claim to be big fans and then insult and berate me and my work. If you like an author’s work generally, it makes sense either not to review books that you don’t care for by that author, or express your disappointment as just that: disappointment, or not your cup of tea. Insults are neither helpful nor necessary, and yes, are hurtful.

  6. Tim,

    Yes, the “living in a house that’s one fire” analogy still pertains. We started using it during the production of “Mommy,” where one crisis after another presented itself, as is the case with almost every movie. Working on deadline and still having to answer the demands of editors on other projects is a constant. We are at once artists and operators of a small business, and it can be harrowing. Now and then somebody writes to my “secretary” asking about conveying some request to “Mr. Collins.” I’ll let you know when I get a secretary. And it’s Barb and me who stuff and address the envelopes that the book giveaway titles go into. This is a cottage industry.

    And the cottage is burning.

  7. Todd Allen says:

    I had to stop writing for a magazine because they didn’t run the copy edits by me and the copy editor created factual errors three times in a row. I think you have your next serial killer. ;-)

  8. Thomas Zappe says:

    Has Mark H. written anything I am likely to have read?

  9. Mike Doran says:

    I just checked, and it seems that I’ve been patronizing your Mom-&-Pop store for coming up on forty years now.
    Of course, there are some brands that I enjoy more than others, but that’s only – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – NORMAL.
    You pays your money and you takes your choice.
    I see no reason not to continue to takes my choice for the foreseeable future (or even the unforeseeable future, comes to that).
    (Looking back at that last sentence, I can see why you and Barb are writers, and I don’t. ;-) )

    Frankly, I envy your ability to get as much finished and on the shelves as you do; that’s something I’ve always had trouble with, just with regular jobs.

    Now I’m looking forward to that IAMTW book – with the proviso that somewhere down the pike, it has to come out as a real live BOOK (you know, paper, ink, pages, cover, like that) – like I’m still hoping that the Penguins finally get around to the 4th Mike Hammer collection …

    Still holding out hope – and remember, where there’s Hope, there’s Crosby!
    (OK, old joke, but we’re old people …)

  10. Gerard Saylor says:

    I’ve not tuned into the blog in a while. Dropping by to say thanks for all the writing. I recently listened to the audio of MASQUERADE FOR MURDER. I was initially bummed that Keach was not doing the narration but Rudnicki did very well.

  11. I was dismayed when Stacy could no longer read the Hammer novels. Nate Heller’s voice, Dan John Miller, did KILLING TOWN and WILL TO KILL very well, however, and Stefan Rudnicki has really come on strong with his readings. As with Quarry, Stefan really shines. I have been, in recent years, blessed with very good narrators on audios. I am frustrated that Barb and I haven’t been able to listen to the last few because of the pandemic (we reserve our audios for car trips).