Archive for June, 2021

Crusin’ Celebrates the 4th on the 3rd!

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

On Saturday, July 3, from 7 PM till 10 PM, Crusin’ – my classic rock band (‘60s and ‘70s and a few originals) – will be appearing at Proof Social, a really terrific wine bar at 208 W 2nd St in Muscatine, Iowa. We will be performing on the patio – the same area where we gave concerts for Muscatine’s Second Sunday series for a number of years. We will move inside in case of rain.

Crusin’ 2019 – M.A.C., Steve Kundel, Bill Anson, Brian Van Winkle

How this came to pass is a story in itself. For a number of years, Crusin’ has performed for the Missipi Brew in Muscatine on the Fourth, and we were booked for this year, as usual – an outdoor concert leading up to the fireworks. But at something of the last minute, the Brew decided not to open on the Fourth, for various reasons including staffing issues.

Crusin’ only plays a few gigs in our “season,” which is summer through early fall. I only booked three appearances this year, and the Brew was one of them. So this was a big disappointment. But when I mentioned to Proof Social owner/manager Chance Kleist that our July 4th date had fallen through, he immediately booked us for Saturday the 3rd.

Proof Social is a superior venue and I hope folks in Muscatine and in Eastern Iowa generally will come down (or up, as the case may be) (sideways, too) and see us.

For those who don’t know much about us, click on MUSIC here at We need to update the article a little, but other than that it will give you the right idea. We are (fairly) recent inductees into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and are about as pure an example of the garage band approach and ethic as you’ll find. Both guitarist Bill Anson and I have been playing in area rock bands since the mid-1960s, although until about four years ago we’d never been in the same group.

Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction concert: M.A.C., Kundle, Anson, Van Winkle

If you follow these update/blogs you’ll remember that our beloved bass player Brian Van Winkle passed away not long ago. Now we have Bill Anson’s son Scott on bass. Scott and his dad have been appearing together as a duo and trio (with Anson brother Dave, a fine guitarist in his own right) for years. Scott also traveled with Crusin’ for the past several years and ran sound.

The July 3rd date is sort of Scott’s first gig with us. I say “sort of” because he filled in at our previous appearance – the last one before the Covid break – at a private function when Brian couldn’t make it. Scott is a terrific bass player, even though at the last rehearsal I had to explain to him that the Zombies recorded “She’s Not There” before Santana. And here I thought Bill had raised him right….

This may be as good a time as any to reflect on why a 73-year-old man is still playing rock ‘n’ roll, especially when – unlike Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney – he still has to haul his own shit.

I had thought this year would likely be my last performing, but Covid put Crusin’ on an unexpected fourteen-month hiatus. The plan had been to record a farewell CD over the winter and promote it and play originals off it this year. But though we’d started rehearsing the originals, and even playing some of them out in 2019, those plans hit the shoals, and not the Muscle ones.

So we won’t be recording until our current performing season is over, which means next year could be the year we go out with our CD.

All of this depends on how things go – am I still having fun, and am I physically up to it. If I had someone to haul my stuff and set up my keyboards (a somewhat complicated process), where all I had to do was walk out on stage and sing and play…sure. Glad to do that till I drop.

But the reality is hauling, setting up, tearing down, is the price we pay for our thrills. When I’m asked what we charge, I reply that we play for free, but it will cost you to have us, yes, haul, set up, and tear down.

Not complaining. It’s just a real physical toll, and kind of always has been…but at my age, it’s a bigger consideration.

However…and I’ve said this here before…what a lucky sod I’ve been and am. Arguably, there’s been little growth. After all, when I was thirteen I loved “tough guy” mystery fiction and rock ‘n’ roll. By seventeen I was actively pursuing both as potential professions. By twenty-two I was making a living (of sorts) doing both.

And still am.

I may be repeating myself telling the following story, but that’s a privilege (and unavoidable aspect) of age. At my 50th high school reunion, a very good friend of mine – who I hadn’t seen in years – took me aside for a kind of intervention. He was and is a bright, funny, fun human being who I as a young man wished I could be like. In some ways, I still do. But he spent his career as an attorney working for a bank – he made good, maybe great money, and had a rewarding interest in swimming (he’d been a star athlete) as a sideline that gave a richness to his life.

He was worried that I was still working, and working so hard. He had retired to the golf course and vacations and cruises. And here I was, still Crusin’. I had difficulty explaining that I am blessed at having been able to pursue my passions while earning a living at them. That I got paid, essentially, for doing my two hobbies – telling stories and playing music. He just couldn’t quite grasp it.

Now only for a brief span – in college and again in the mid-‘70s – did I earn money as a musician in any meaningful way. Mostly it’s been a hobby that alternately pays for itself and provides pocket money. But writing has been a real profession. I’ve done well and worked hard doing it, but I know…trust me, I know…that I have been very, very lucky.

I even think I’ve been lucky not to hit it big with, say, Nolan or Quarry right out of the gate in my career. To stay in business, I had to do different things, create a lot of different series, write work-for-hire like movie novels and TV tie-in novels. I had to write comics and non-fiction and short stories and film scripts and trading cards and collaborate with other talented writers (like Barbara Collins, for instance) and…well, that all made me a better writer and widened my sphere of experience. I can envy a Robert B. Parker for hitting a home run at the beginning of his career, but I wouldn’t trade my cultish success for his name-brand success because I like having had the opportunity to do so many things.

And I owe it to luck.

And to readers.

So thank you. If you’re in the Muscatine, Iowa, area on July 3rd, stop by.


Did Somebody Say “Wish”?

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021
“Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

It’s odd, I think, how hard the death of someone you never met can hit you. If you’re into sports, an athlete’s passing; a movie fan, an actor…think of the impact James Dean’s automobile crash had on many of his generation. I remember how stunned I was when I heard Marilyn Monroe had died – it didn’t seem real. And the memory is vivid – I remember being behind the wheel of my car and even the specific intersection I was moving through in my home town when it came on the news. I heard about Bobby Darin over a car radio and had to pull over and get a grip. Belushi’s death came over my car radio, too, but that rated mostly a knowing sigh and shake of the head and a “Shit.”

Some are inevitable. Well, all death is inevitable, it’s the major thing we all have in common; that and birth.

John Paragon is someone I never met. I am pleased to have spent time, both in person and on the phone, with Paul Reubens and am brazen enough to consider him a friend. If you follow these updates, you may recall that Christmas is not officially Christmas for this household until (a) I’ve seen the original Miracle on 34th Street and the Alastair Sim Scrooge, and (b) the Collins family gets its Christmas card from Paul with another of a seemingly endless supply of Yuletide-themed images of Pee-Wee Herman.

I got on the Pee Wee Herman bandwagon early. The HBO special of the adult-oriented The Pee-Wee Herman Show captivated me as few things have in a life frequently captivated. Barb loved Pee-Wee, too. Terry Beatty, with whom I was collaborating on many things at the time, was similarly in the Pee-Wee thrall.

When I put Pee-Wee in the Dick Tracy comic strip (a cameo appearance but significant), the character wasn’t even a cult favorite yet…it was just beginning. But when Paul called me on the phone, I was thrilled to hear from him (and maybe relieved I wasn’t being sued). He said we should get together next time I was in Los Angeles. As it happened, San Diego Comic Con was coming up, and as Barb wasn’t going with me that year (she was expecting Nathan Collins’ arrival), Terry filled in and we drove to LA where we were welcomed into Paul’s home.

I’ve told this before, but I can’t resist repeating it. The Pee-Wee Herman suit was on a hangar and Paul was looking it over, because he had a gig the next night. I asked, “How many of these do you have?” And Paul, in that dry manner that is so un-Pee Wee but absolutely Paul, said, “Sometimes Pee-Wee doesn’t smell so good up close.”

Barb and I saw several live performances of Paul as Pee-Wee, in both New York and Chicago and perhaps elsewhere (it was a while ago). But he always welcomed us backstage and had time to chat. Our phone conversations were about the movie that Warner Bros was exploring making with him, and I am complimented that he ran some things by me. I don’t recall whether I offered or he asked, but I ended up sending him some movies on video tape that I thought might be helpful – these included Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill (I am perhaps the only person on the planet who would assemble that double feature).

How many times Barb and I watched the HBO Pee-Wee Herman Show – again, his live stage show with the Groundlings – I can’t even hazard a guess. We showed it to friends and relatives like Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors, and I bet we made a higher percentage of converts. The point I am drifting toward is how deeply that original version of Pee-Wee got into the collective bloodstream of our family. And as our son grew up, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse began its wonderfully subversive kid’s show run, Nathan shared our enthusiasm – the first movie he and I saw together in a theater was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. (I have already shared the film with my grandson Sam, as well as many Playhouse episodes.) But did he have to play with all my Pee-Wee toys and make them uncollectible? (Sam, too.)

Over the years I met and chatted with Edie McClurg (Hermit Hattie in the original Groundlings stage show) and Cassandra Peterson, who is of course Elvira. I’ve met and talked to probably at least half a dozen other Groundlings, but I never got a chance to meet John Paragon.

Jambi the Genie with text: Long Live Jambi

Paragon was – as his obits point out – Jambi the genie in the original cast of the Groundlings show, and on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and in the Broadway revised revival of that original show, just a few years ago. He appeared (not as Jambi) in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016). His writing credits were extensive, including eight episodes of the Playhouse (he also directed seven episodes).

I think it’s fair to say that of the original Groundlings collaborators, John Paragon was the one whose contribution to the world of Pee-Wee Herman was the most significant. His collaborations with Paul extended well past Pee-Wee, including Paragon of Comedy, a one-hour Showtime special in 1983. He was Elvira’s right-hand man, co-writing with Cassandra Peterson both Elvira feature films and writing (and appearing) on 13 Nights of Elvira.

He was a movie director, as well, and had a recurring role on Seinfeld (“Cedric”). I am not doing him justice, either. But the obits all focus on Jambi. Okay, fine. I’ll be the Road to Perdition guy in mine. I get that. But while on the one hand it’s not fair to make it just Jambi who died, I have to admit Jambi was a very special creation. He was at once something mystical to amaze kids and yet he also slipped in the sly double entendres that helped make Pee-Wee’s world big enough for kids of all ages.

And that smile. That wasn’t just Jambi’s smile – it was John Paragon’s smile, too. He radiated a sweetness that brought a warmth to the Playhouse – I mean, Pee-Wee’s kind of a brat, if a glorious brat. But it’s Jambi who gently nudges him toward sharing a wish with somebody who needs it more.

Meka Leka Hi Meka Hiney Ho indeed.


Wow! Another Book Giveaway! You Gotta Be Kidding Me!

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021
Double Down cover
Trade Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon Google Play Nook Kobo Books A Million iTunes

I hear from a lot of readers that they have trouble keeping up with my output. Well, sometimes I have trouble, too – Double Down, the second of the Nolan reprint series from Hard Case Crime (two novels to a book), came out June 8! So, better late than never, ten copies are available in exchange for the promise of a review at Amazon and/or other outlets, including blogs. As usual, if you hate the book you are absolved of your obligation.

Write me at USA only. You must include your full snail-mail address (including name with address to make it easy on me copying it) even if you’ve won books before in these giveaways.

Let’s discuss my rate of output. For one thing, Double Down is two books I wrote decades ago, so you can’t hold that against me. And I don’t mean to sound morbid here, but you may have noticed I’m not as young as I used to be, which means I have an increasingly finite amount of time ahead of me to get my stories told. Yes, this is about making a living, but right now it’s more about getting the work done. And when I’m dead, my output will significantly decrease, and you will have plenty of time to catch up.

To Live and Spy in Berlin by Matt Clemens and me – the third John Sand novel – will be out July 14, but you can order it now. We think the cover is splendid. Will there be more John Sand books? That’s up to you. We have left something of an incredible effing cliffhanger that needs resolving, so it’s on your conscience not ours if sales don’t justify that resolution.

It’s frustrating to hear how many people assume these novels are spoofs (without reading them, of course), though it may be our fault for the tongue-in-cheek titles (Come Spy With Me; Live Fast, Spy Hard). And I provided the tagline, “A Marriage License to Kill.” But we are in the very hardboiled tradition of the original Bond novels and the first four Sean Connery films. Matt and I feel the third John Sand is the best of the bunch.

I have just completed – sent the manuscript to Wolfpack editor Paul Bishop minutes before beginning this update – a novel called The Menace by Mickey Spillane and me. It’s a horror novel based on an unproduced Spillane screenplay. I am hopeful it will do well enough to justify a novel version of another unproduced screenplay of Mickey’s, The Green Woman. If that happens, it will mean all three unproduced screenplays in the Spillane files will have become novels (the first was The Saga of Cali York, which became The Legend of Caleb York).

To Live and Spy in Berlin cover
E-Book: Amazon

In the pleasant wake of being named a recipient of the Faust, the Grand Master award from the International Association of Media and Tie-in Writers, I had an interesting revelation about writing novelizations of film scripts. I think I already knew this instinctively, but with The Menace I realized that my approach to turning the script into a novel was very much the same as a director turning a script into a film.

The Menace will likely not be out from Wolfpack till 2022, since I wrote it as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Mike Hammer’s first appearance in I, the Jury (1947). So I’ll be talking about it more, later.

The nice response the Nolan reprints have been getting brings to mind how Nolan – and frankly my professional life as a writer – began. Specifically, it was with the film Point Blank, based on Richard’s Stark’s novel The Hunter and directed by John Boorman. Stark, of course, was Donald E. Westlake, but it would be a while before I knew that.

This was 1967 and it seemed like one film after another was hitting me hard, and changing many ideas I had about storytelling. Looking back, I’d have to say ‘67 was the best year the movies ever had, or it sure seemed that way when every weekend one or more of the following might happen: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, You Only Live Twice, The Producers, Bedazzled, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The President’s Analyst. Not to mention (well, hell, let’s mention them) The Dirty Dozen, Tati’s Playtime, In the Heat of the Night, Coolhand Luke, Billion Dollar Brain, Hour of the Gun and Elvis in Clambake. Well, maybe not Elvis in Clambake….

Point Blank, as a modern, hard-edged, nearly surrealistic crime film, hit me harder than any (with the possible exception of Bonnie and Clyde). Barb and I saw it at a drive-in. I was still living at my parents’ house and remember vividly going out after dropping Barb off her at her parent’s place and buying Point Blank at an all-night supermarket. I remembered having seen the book there, reprinted by Gold Medal (title-changing The Hunter to Point Blank) as part of a reprint program of the Richard Stark “Parker” novels with covers by Robert McGinnis.

I’d already been reading and loving the Ennis Willie “Sand” novels, which had a similar premise, and within days I had started writing Mourn the Living, the first Nolan novel (although his name initially was Cord).

What I got from the film Point Blank was the modern gloss that could be put on the tough guy novels born of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s that had so consumed me as a young reader. What I got from Richard Stark’s Point Blank (and the other Parker novels) was a third-person approach that taught me strict point of view and interesting ways to shift time.

Without that film (and the book the film led me to) I would not be the writer I am today. I was so entrenched in Spillane technique – which was tied to the 1950s – that it was vital that John Boorman and Richard Stark drag me into the present.

Which, of course, was 1967.

And what ultimately separated me from Richard Stark was my young age and the world I was living in – soon I would be married and going to the University of Iowa on the Iowa City campus, in a world of hippies and rock ‘n’ roll that entered a bemused Nolan’s world immediately, and made me not just a throwback but somebody writing about his new world in an old established way.

I am always fascinated and impressed and even a little overwhelmed by things like this. Like what? Like buying a paperback of Point Blank with a Robert McGinnis cover, and a couple years later creating Quarry, the child Richard Stark and Mickey Spillane bore that came from my loins (ouch!), a character who would appear in two centuries in books of mine with Robert McGinnis covers.

I am a lucky bastard.

Not rich, not quite famous, but damn lucky.

* * *

Speaking of Double Down and Nolan, here is a review/essay from Book Reporter that is so good I might written it myself…or maybe held a gun to the reviewer’s head as encouragement.

The terrific Borg site writes up the best books of the decade, and names Mike Hammer as Best Retro Novel Series (New/Ongoing). The brief write-up is glowing and wonderful.

Finally, here’s another short but fun reaction to Double Down and Nolan.


You Like Me, You Really Like Me!…Right?

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021
Do No Harm

In the writing game, you never know when – or even if – honors will come your way. I’ve been lucky, and I mark the first big non-Dick Tracy career breakthrough for me as winning the Best Novel “Shamus” from the Private Eye Writers of America for True Detective in 1984. That put me, and Nate Heller, on the map.

A second Heller win (Stolen Away), and numerous Heller nominations over the years, culminated with the PWA honoring the series itself with the Hammer Award for its contribution to the genre. Then, for the last several Heller novels, it’s been quiet…too quiet.

Now, I am thrilled to say, the most current Nathan Heller novel, Do No Harm, has been nominated for the Best Novel “Shamus” by the PWA.

I spent several decades of my writing life supplementing my Heller and other novels with tie-in writing, doing novelizations of movies and original novels of popular TV series, the latter often with Matthew V. Clemens (we’re doing our John Sand series together at Wolfpack currently). One of the frustrations about writing media tie-in novels had always been the lack of respect and attention they got, quite apart from their quality (or for that matter lack of it).

My fellow tie-in writer Lee Goldberg – an actual TV screenwriter in addition to author of novels tied-in with shows where he’d contributed scripts, Monk and Diagnosis: Murder among them – had been thinking about starting an organization like the MWA and PWA for tie-in writers. I was having the same thought at the same time, and both of us had a particular goal of having annual awards, including a grand master award.

We threw in together and founded the International Association of Media and Tie-in Writers in 2006, and created the Scribe Awards for various categories, with the Faust as a grand master award. Faust refers not only to the Faustian bargain tie-in writers agree to with the owners of the properties, but also to Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand, a prolific writer whose creations included Destry (of Destry Rides Again fame) and Dr. Kildare (for which he wrote his own novelizations).

Lee and I stepped down from leadership a few years ago, but the organization – now led by multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning suspense author Jonathan Maberry – is still going strong.

On the heels of the Shamus nomination, I received a second, rather overwhelming honor from the IAMTW, and have been chosen this year’s Faust winner – my third lifetime achievement award (preceded by the Eye from the PWA and the Grand Master Edgar from MWA), which is either an incredible honor bestowed upon me by my peers, or an indication that they think I’ve lived long enough.

Maybe both.

At any rate, I am shocked and pleased by this honor. The previous Faust winners include some of the best writers in the business (not just the tie-in business). I was further honored by a Best Novel “Scribe” nomination for the newest Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder.

All of these honors are wonderful, but the greatest honor of all is being married to Barbara Collins for 53 years. We’ve been together 55 – starting to go together at Muscatine Community College in 1966 – and getting married on June 1, 1968.

For our most ambitious post-lockdown day trip, Barb and I went to a favorite spot of ours, Galena, Illinois, to celebrate our anniversary. The accompanying picture is of us at Vinny Vanucchi’s, our favorite Galena restaurant. We shopped and just enjoyed a lovely day, but also stopped by the police department to see Chief Lori Huntington.

Lori is retiring after nine years in that position, and almost thirty years in Galena law enforcement. She was my consultant on both The Girl Most Likely and The Girl Can’t Help It. I could lie and say she was the inspiration for Chief Krista Larson in those novels, but I had conceived of that character before discovering that Galena indeed had a female chief of police.

But knowing Lori, and talking to her at length over the writing of the two novels, meant she had a huge impact on how the character was shaped, as well as keeping me honest about law enforcement in her little town – a tourist center that can see a million visitors, easily, in a year. She has generously agreed to let me stay in touch should I get around to writing a third Krista and Keith Larson novel, which I hope to do.

* * *

Barb and I finally finished listening to – thanks to the Galena drive – the audio book of Do No Harm. What a terrific job Dan John Miller did! He especially nails famous defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey (who passed away recently).

You may recall my continued praise for one of my favorite movies, Anatomy of a Murder. There’s a terrific write-up about the film at AV Club here.

Kristen Lopez has a wonderful podcast called Ticklish Business on which I guested. We discussed the 1964 version of The Killers. I think you’ll enjoy this. Kristen and her equally young female cohorts Drea Clark and Samantha Ellis talk pop culture in a way that gives me hope for the future (there’s an emphasis on classic film).

Here’s a wonderfully insightful review of the paperback of Mike Hammer in Kiss Her Goodbye (with my original uncensored ending)

A “great Tom Hanks gangster movie just hit Netflix” – wonder what it is?

Here’s a terrific review of Two for the Money, the HCC two-fer of Bait Money and Blood Money.