Bad Reviews, Christmas Movies, and Gift Cards

December 28th, 2021 by Max Allan Collins

Five readers have added their positive reviews/ratings to No Time to Spy at Amazon, pulling our average up to four stars. This is much appreciated. Never too late to join in!

The notion that I’m thin-skinned about bad reviews is one I’m hit with now and then, understandably. But my frustration with bad reviews – specifically the mean-spirited ones like the attempt to sabotage No Time to Spy – has almost entirely to do with the impact it has on sales, because sales impact whether I can make a living or not. And in this case it will determine whether Matt Clemens and I get to write the John Sand novel we’ve been planning.

As for being thin-skinned, I am to a degree. I think all people who work in the creative arts, particularly those who make their living at it, are sensitive individuals, otherwise they wouldn’t be very creative. Most of us learn to take bad reviews in our stride, although writers (the same applies to actors, cartoonists, etc.) handle bad reviews differently – some avoid reading them, others sort through looking for the thoughtful, intelligent ones, ignoring the dumb and/or cruel ones, and genuinely try to learn from constructive criticism.

One of the basic things I’ve learned about writing fiction is its collaborative nature – it’s me plus the reader. I’ve often said words to the effect of, “Sometimes I play Broadway, other times the Three Mile Island Dinner Theater.” I’m only as good as my collaborator. Also, if my collaborator – however intelligent (including those more intelligent than me, which isn’t a small group) – does not share my world view, or at least doesn’t find my world view palatable or interesting, then we are simply not a good fit. Nothing wrong with that.

But few reviewers are wise enough to simply say, “This isn’t bad on its own terms, but it’s not my cup of tea.”

I am at a stage of my career where I am not in sync with several generations. Though I am a liberal democrat, my views are not progressive enough for those who haven’t lived as long as I have. And I will not live long enough to see karma catch up with these generations, but I smile when I think about how it will.

What specifically am I talking about? Here’s one example. It’s becoming more and more common for reviewers and social commentators and even actual readers to complain about characters in novels not having the right attitudes reflective of this cultural moment. I am coming to dread the term “politically correct” (and already dread “woke”), but please take my word for it – it’s just about impossible to write an interesting narrative when everybody in it is “nice.”
Then there’s the peculiar thing I’ve noted here several times. People complain about the explicit sex scenes in my Quarry novels and about the way he describes women, based upon their physicality in terms of sexual attractiveness. These same people never comment on the fact that Quarry is a murderer. Sometimes the explicitness of the violence gets a comment, but what book did they think they were picking up? The Hard Case Crime covers should be an indication. That the “hero” is a hired killer might be another one. Yet another would be that the books all take place decades ago (with the exception of the forthcoming Quarry’s Blood).

Similarly, Nate Heller – whose adventures take place in the mid-20th Century – is criticized for his attitudes toward women and I am scolded also for the occasional explicit sex scene. Yet not once has a reader in a comment section or a reviewer in a magazine or newspaper or on a blog commented on the fact that Heller – like Mike Hammer – often flat out kills the bad guy. Sex bad, murder good?

And when was it, exactly, that I presented Quarry or Nate Heller or for that matter Mike Hammer as a role model for enlightened males?

Watch your step, everybody. It’s getting dumb out there. Be careful you don’t trip over the falling IQ points.

* * *

We had a delightful Christmas here – both Christmas Eve, when we exchange presents, and Christmas Day, with stocking presents. In both cases, Barb – who proclaims proudly that she is a bad cook – proves this to be a charade by way of preparing delicious meals on both Christmas Eve and morn.

We have been lucky throughout the Covid period to be able to interact with our son Nate, his wife Abby and our two grandchildren, Sam (6) and Lucy (3). I hope you other grandparents are bearing up under the realization that yours are not as cute and bright as ours.

But Christmas arrived much too fast, and I never got around to presenting my revised Christmas movies list here. All Barb and I watched were what have become perennials for us: both Bad Santa movies, Christmas Vacation, Office Christmas Party, the original Miracle of 34th Street and the Alistair Sim Scrooge.

The one new Christmas movie was Love Actually, which of course isn’t new at all, having been released in 2003. But we hadn’t seen it. We enjoyed it a great deal, but were struck by how practically every romantic relationship in it would be considered inappropriate today. It’s a sweet movie with a good heart, and yet I wonder when someone will attack it. Maybe they already have. Otherwise, AV and Huff Post are asleep at the switch. They better get with it – otherwise, somebody might enjoy it with a clear conscience.

* * *

If you’re like me, you probably got Amazon and or Barnes and Noble gift cards as at least part of your Christmas haul. While it’s true I cashed my Amazon cards in late on Christmas Eve, not one to allow gift cards to burn a hole in my psyche, it’s possible you haven’t used yours yet.

My top three suggestions are by me – Fancy Anders Goes to War, The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton (with Dave Thomas), and No Time To Spy (with Matthew Clemens).

E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link
Paperback: Amazon Purchase Link
Digital Audiobook: Amazon Purchase Link

E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link
Paperback: Amazon Purchase Link

E-Book: Amazon
Paperback: Amazon

If you must use your gift cards on books I didn’t write, here are a few more suggestions:

Star Struck by Leonard Maltin. Full disclosure: Leonard is a pal, but I enjoyed this book immeasurably. It focuses on (as the secondary title tells us) his “unlikely road to Hollywood,” and his encounters with very famous people are shared in an intimate, fun, behind-the-scenes fashion. The way his love for movies, and how his fanzine led to greater things…much greater…is frankly inspiring.

Behind Bars: High-Class Cocktails Inspired by Lowlife Gangsters

Behind Bars: High-Class Cocktails Inspired by Lowlife Gangsters by Shawn McManus, Vincent Pollar and Paul Sloman. This is a sort of recipe book for cocktails, but each one is attached to a famous real or fictional gangster with lovely illustrations of those gangsters by McManus. Now, I’m not a big drinker, but this resonated with me. Why? Michael Sullivan Sr (AKA O’Sullivan) of Road to Perdition fame/infamy is not only included…he’s on the cover! I am highly complimented! (Although not at all compensated.)

The Art of Pulp Fiction: An Illustrated History of Vintage Paperbacks by Ed Hulse. This is a lovely, lavishly illustrated history of paperbacks with info on artists. However…the first paperback cover of I, the Jury was not by the great Lu Kimmel, who did the next version; the original (pictured in Art of Pulp Fiction) was by Tony Varaday. And the hardcover edition did invoke Mickey Spillane’s famous last scene, just the aftermath not the build-up. But this isn’t the kind of book you read for text.

* * *

My old friend Paul Kupperberg was nice enough to include the Jake and Maggie Starr trio of comics-related mysteries on his list of comic book histories and biographies. We don’t exactly fit, but who cares? It’s nice to be noticed.

Happy 2022!


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13 Responses to “Bad Reviews, Christmas Movies, and Gift Cards”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    I suspect that many people who write the kind of revues you mention are those who have never been able to put something together that readers/listeners/viewers would find of interest. Since they can’t write a short story, play a song or recite a poem they fall back on tearing down those who make the effort.

    I am reminded of the story about the wonderful Jazz alto saxophonist Gene Quill who was confronted by a listener as he was coming off the bandstand at the end of a set.

    Listener: “You’re just copying Charlie Parker.”

    Quill [offering him the saxophone]: “OK, here, you copy Charlie Parker.”

    Happy New Year and watch out for the crazy people.

  2. Mark Lambert says:

    You reminded me of a movie review of The Blues Brothers I saw online, written by a young person: “Jake and Elwood are supposed to be the heroes of this movie, but when I see the things they do, it’s obvious they really aren’t very nice people.” HAHAHA! I laugh out loud about that every time it crosses my mind!

  3. Ed Morrissey says:

    Glad you liked Ed Hulse’s book. I submitted the Conan covers that he scanned for it (and got a nice mention in the back of the book!). Ed did a lot of work on it and I think it’s great.

    Just ordered the NO TIME TO SPY trilogy ebook. I’m a sucker for 60s spy stuff! Will review it for Amazon when I get a chance.

    Belated Happy Holidays! And a Happy New Year!

  4. David Anderson says:

    One of my New Year Resolutions: Read more Quarry!

  5. Kyle V says:

    I feel like you are trying so hard to alienate any younger audience you might have with these sorts of comments. I’m a big reader of your work. Nolan, Quarry, Ms.Tree, Road to Perdition, I love them all and my bookshelf’s MAC section is considerable. I’m on the older edge of the generations you are talking about, 39. I wouldn’t think twice about recommending your work to an adult who was into crime fiction, honestly it is these blog posts that are the most problematic. I don’t care what your characters think, as you point out at best these people are usually murders, but I do care about what you think. I read your blog to keep up with what you are writing and publishing and your usually great media suggestions. But having to wade through your outmoded thoughts on political correctness and the generational divide is boring. If I wanted to hear bad ideas about the state of the modern world from people who don’t have to live in it much longer I’d go to my in-law’s house for dinner. I suppose no one is making me read your blog. I should stop or else I’m not likely to buy another MAC book. Which sucks because I like them, but what you think and say matters to me.

  6. The casual cruelty of saying, essentially, “Well, you’ll be dead soon, so why should I listen to you?” is fairly staggering. You are correct that no one is making you read my blog. The one thing I can guarantee you is that if you live to my age, your views will be considered outmoded and worthy of contempt…that’s what I mean about the inevitablility of karma. My views on political correctness are born out of experience, as a writer who has been attacked by both the left and the right, going back many decades. I lost DICK TRACY because the right mischaracterized my contribution to true crime trading cards; I was dropped by several publishers a while back because of a throwaway remark I made that was obviously a joke that offended the delicate sensibilities of certain progressives. My views on the generational divide are not as much critical as reflecting the frustration of not being able to keep up with what’s going on in popular culture, something that is vital to my ability to make a living in it — it’s not the fault of previous generations that Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly are filled with people and things I’ve never heard of. The problem is less generational and more the fragmentation of popular culture — how, for example, can anyone in my business keep up with all the movies and TV streaming? That’s not good or bad, it just is. I would suggest that you might reflect on your opinion that someone my age is outmoded in his thinking simply because he’s been alive (apparently) too long.

  7. Kyle V says:

    You’re right. I was needlessly cruel, ageist, and hypocritical. Three things no one should be proud of being. I apologize.

  8. Thomas Zappe says:

    I reiterate my earlier post.

    Perspective is everything. Max and I, being the same age, can recall that time in our 20’s when the phrase “Don’t trust anybody over the age of 30” was in vogue.

    People unburdened with a sense of humor or understanding of it’s dance with irony seem relegated to find only offense instead of enlightenment with those tricks that time and setting play on us.

    So much kvetching, so little time to kvetchup.

  9. Thanks Kyle. Gracious of you. I write a weekly blog not because I’m anxious to foist my opinions on people, but frankly to promote my books. It’s something I have to take time away from my real work to do, but my son Nate some years ago said it was necessary to have a presence on the Net and in Social Media (I post the blog at about half a dozen Facebook sites, none politically oriented). I get into opinions about popular culture and occasional autobiographical stuff so as not to be entirely crass about self-promotion — so that these updates are more than just a list of what I have coming out. In doing this weekly, I can only talk about what’s on my mind. Nate censors me sometimes, particularly when I drift into politics. I do occasionally allow myself to be critical of the left because my politics are left of center.

  10. I will add to Mr. Zappe’s remarks — every generation thinks the older generation is out of touch, while those older generations think the younger ones don’t know what they’re talking about. Always thus. My generation had all the answers but now all we have are questions.

  11. Andrew Rausch says:

    I totally agree wit your views on good/bad characters in fiction. But I’m a writer and a creator. We have different views on things because we know as a fact that you cannot write a qualitative crime novel filled with nice characters, period. There would be no conflict. The other thing I hate is that if you have one character do or say something bad, people immediately believe that’s you. But when characters do and say good things, no one even thinks to equate that character with you. It is frustrating. How do you write only nice characters doing nice thing when the real world is nothing like that. I’m sorry, but writing is supposed to reflect real life, and real life is filled with awful people doing awful things. People also can’t seem to understand that depiction does not equal endorsement. Do viewers really believe George Lucas advocates murdering an entire planet of people? No. It’s a story. Characters are not authors; characters are characters. Man has known this for hundreds of years, but now, all of a sudden, no one seems to understand how storytelling works. It’s not political. It’s just storytelling.

  12. Andrew, I write melodrama, which exaggerates what we find in real life. My particular (peculiar?) form of melodrama has a surface of reality to make you buy the larger-than-life events I portray. I consider Quarry a kind of tragic hero or anti-hero — he was designed to be an average person (of above average intelligence, if that makes sense) who was damaged in the war that was my generation’s overall tragedy. Positive characters often don’t have the impact of negative or anyway flawed ones. I have always wanted us to recognize ourselves in Quarry. On the other hand, I don’t always know why I’ve written a character the way I have. You write essays to convey what you think. You write fiction to find out what you think. You are absolutely correct that conflict is a necessary element of fiction, and with only positive characters that limits the storyteller to characters whose problems are no fault of their own. And the Book of Job has already been written.

  13. Dan says:

    I just gave No Time to Spy a five star review. A real fun read. I hope I see a Matt Heller novel about Bobby Kennedy’s murder this year. Happy New Year Max!