Archive for the ‘Message from M.A.C.’ Category

Long-Form TV, Bait Money, Paul Newman and More

Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Skim Deep should be available by now, the coda to the Nolan series that I’ve written at the urging of Charles Ardai, the guru of Hard Case Crime. It is, as you may know if you’re a regular visitor here, a book in a series I began back in college with my novel Bait Money. That book has been reprinted with its sequel Blood Money as Two for the Money by Hard Case Crime, originally as the first book of mine HCC did, but with an uncharacteristically weak cover, though a new edition from them is coming soon.

Cover of the Skyboat audiobook edition of Bait Money
Audible: Amazon Purchase Link

An audio book – the first ever – of Bait Money is available now, read by the incredible Stefan Rudnicki.

I’m going to touch on Bait Money again, but first…

Over the holidays I found myself bingeing (usually in four-episode stints) on long-form TV. I have begun to think that long-form television is the new great storytelling art form, more satisfying than most movies and novels. When some unifying artistic force (person or persons) has an overriding vision to control and deploy, the long-form’s depth of character and ability to span time and events can give it appeal, impact and power.

Post-Christmas, I indulged in three true-crime mini-series, all of which made compelling viewing – Manhunt: Unabomber and its follow-up, Manhunt: Deadly Games; and Waco, which leaves Netflix (home of all three) in less than two weeks. I probably liked Deadly Games best, because it opened up the Richard Jewell case more completely than the Clint Eastwood-directed film was able to, and featured a fine performance by Arliss Howard as a crusty ATF bomb expert. Cameron Britton and Jack Huston (as the falsely accused Jewell and real Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph respectively) also were excellent. In Waco, Michael Shannon as the chief negotiator Gary Noesner is typically strong, but Taylor Kitsch’s turn as cult leader David Koresh is a shattering, out-of-left-field career best for the star of TV’s Friday Night Lights and the bewilderingly underrated film John Carter – he makes Koresh human and charismatic without minimizing his madness. No small feat.

All three series, however, share a common problem. They are accurate as to the core true-crime material, but play very fast and loose with fictitious material that surrounds it.

Waco places the Branch Davidian siege’s real-life negotiator at Ruby Ridge, which is not true, and goes out of its way to make the Waco cultists seem reasonable and the FBI unreasonable, when it’s fairly clear that both sides were culpable in the tragedy.

Deadly Games – faithful to the Jewell story – adds a car chase and a bunch of risible material about backwoods redneck militia guys helping track Rudolph and even being led by a young, bossy black female FBI agent; also it has the bomber murdering several people in the woods, which never happened.

The male Unabomber profiler is provided with a love-interest female profiler based on the profiler’s (second) wife, who he hadn’t met yet when the events really happened. In an even more questionable liberty, the profiler – who was largely responsible for identifying the bomber – is placed in a Silence of the Lambs relationship with the perp, sharing numerous scenes, when in fact they never met.

I have to deal with this kind of thing in the Nate Heller novels all the time – balancing the needs of the story against what really happened. It’s not easy to stay true to history without being ruled by it, which is why I employ time compression and composite characters, for example. But TV “true crime” has no compunctions about steam-rolling history.

That may be why, in part, the best long-form mini-series I watched (Barb skipped the others, but watched this one with me) is the wholly fictional The Queen’s Gambit. It’s basically a reworking of The Hustler with chess traded for pool, which is perhaps not surprising because Queen’s Gambit is taken from a novel by Walter Tevis, the author of The Hustler (on which the famous Paul Newman film was based).

Several things make the mini-series work, despite chess being something not every rube knows how to play, and that includes this Iowa rube (Barb, of course, can play chess, though does not claim mastery). The story itself works extremely well – we follow a chess-prodigy orphan girl (taught the game by the orphanage janitor) into her early teens she’s adopted by a couple who live in world out of a Douglas Sirk movie, if that movie were written by Tennessee Williams. The teen evolves into an adult as she climbs to the top of the chess world, one match at a time. The 1950s and 1960s are accurately if acidly depicted, with stellar art direction and a cunning soundtrack of popular music.

But what sells it – beyond the screenwriters and directors making chess games as compelling as any competitive sport, even for a checkers guy like me – is the stunning performance of Anya Taylor-Joy, strikingly beautiful and brilliantly understated in her role, equally convincing as a sheltered teen and worldly young woman, and the various stages between. She also credibly portrays the chess star’s descent into pills and alcohol abuse.

This gave Queen’s Gambit a special resonance to me, and here’s where Bait Money comes back in.

At the University of Iowa, from 1968 to 1970, at the Writers Workshop, I studied with the great mainstream novelist, Richard Yates. I’ve told numerous times the story of how Yates overcame his prejudice against crime/mystery fiction to recognize me as a serious-minded young writer already working at a professional level. Along the way, he became perhaps the key mentor of my writing life.

I would have been content to take all of my classes with Yates, but the program insisted on students experiencing a wider range of instructors. At the Workshop, all of the teachers were respected published authors, which was great, but problematic for a budding mystery writer in the late 1960s. To put things in context, at one point Donald E. Westlake applied for a position – well into his glorious career – and was turned down. Yup, it was a snobby, literary place. Things loosened up some, but when I was there, I was – but for Richard Yates – largely alone on my path.

I was anxious to get through the process and get on with my writing career – even though I hadn’t sold anything yet – and took summer sessions to speed things along. One summer instructor was George Cain, an African American author whose novel about drug addiction, Blueschild Baby, was highly regarded. One day he asked the entirely white class to name their favorite black authors, and the names offered up were predictable (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright). Mine were Chester Himes and Willard Motley.

Cain was astonished by these choices, almost offended, and put them both down – Himes didn’t know a thing about the real Harlem, he said, and Motley didn’t count, because he wrote about white people, which made him a sellout. At the time, I didn’t know that Himes had based his Harlem on Cleveland’s Roaring Third Precinct; so I couldn’t defend him, except to say he was a great writer. As for Motley, I said the author was probably just trying to write for a mainstream audience in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the white characters in Knock on Any Door and Let Me No Man Write My Epitaph tackling the same kind of social problems facing African Americans.

Tragically, the talented Cain – who never wrote another book – died of drug addiction himself.

I had several instructors, good ones (Cain included), who were patient with me, despite my insistence on writing crime fiction. Then, in the summer of 1970, I had the opportunity to study with Walter Tevis. I was thrilled. Overjoyed. He was the author of one of my favorite novels! The Hustler was definitely in the hardboiled school, and what a great movie had been made out of it! Obviously Tevis would not share the prejudices toward me and my work that I had sometimes suffered at the Workshop.

And he didn’t. He was a very nice man. As a teacher, he seemed a little lost, and certainly preoccupied. He was, clearly, an alcoholic. He had the sleepy, rumpled manner and bleary eyes that went with it. Often he spoke of his Hollywood experiences and I frankly don’t remember anything else about his classroom approach. Of course, we were young writers in a workshop format and the classes were primarily critique sessions, students talking about each other’s work, the instructor a kind of referee.

Black and white photograph of Walter Tevis holding a lit cigarette.
Walter Tevis. Photo credit: E. Martin Jessee/Lexington Herald-Leader

I don’t remember what fiction I submitted that summer. I know that I had completed Bait Money, and that I was continuing my private sessions with Richard Yates, who had helped me get an agent. I was probably working on No Cure for Death. Anyway – I have no memory of how Tevis reacted to any of the student manuscripts we discussed in class.

I recall vividly him speaking of being approached by a Hollywood producer to write a book or film script about poker that would mirror The Hustler. He turned the opportunity down, but said the project became The Cincinnati Kid, about which he was dismissive and resentful. I managed not to tell him that The Cincinnati Kid was a terrific movie, and the book it was based on by Richard Jessup was another favorite of mine. And that I thought he’d made a big mistake not writing a poker version of The Hustler. But now and then I know when to shut up.

Another vivid memory is Tevis being late to class by a good fifteen minutes – we almost walked out, as a group, in his absence – because he’d been on the telephone talking about a movie deal. Someone was thinking about making a film of his novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, he said.

Now, at that time he’d only written two novels. And he admitted to us that he was having trouble writing fiction at all. In fact – and I thought this was very sad at the time, and a little irritating – he put a chapter of a science-fiction book he was trying to write in front of the class, as one of that week’s manuscripts. He wanted to know what we thought about his work-in-progress. I thought we were there so he could tell us what he thought about ours.

Nonetheless, I had bonded somewhat with him, because I’d told him I was a fan, and he was astounded that I had a copy of The Man Who Fell to Earth in its original edition – a Gold Medal paperback – and that I knew The Hustler began as a Playboy short story. We worked out a trade where he gave me a signed copy of a reprint edition of Man Who Fell (from Lancer Books, a minor league company of the day), as he was short copies. I made the trade. Later I found another Gold Medal edition.

The big thing about the summer session was a one-on-one with the instructor. I believe it was a half hour, and I’d been looking forward to it. I had given Tevis the Bait Money manuscript the first day and that’s what we would be discussing. My session with him was toward the end of the summer session – it’s the last time I saw him.

He said, with my manuscript in hand, “I read the first page of your book, and I read the last page. That’s all I needed to read. You’re going to sell it.”

He handed it to me. And that was the session.

Now he may have read more than that, but at the time I was quietly furious. I was driving eighty miles round trip to attend those classes; I was paying good money to attend. And he reads two pages? Hell, in his class, I’d read a whole chapter of his damn science-fiction novel!

On the other hand, he was a pro, and a writer whose work I admired, and he’d looked at my stuff and said I was going to get published – basically, “Don’t worry about it. It’s going to happen.” And, on Christmas eve 1971, it did happen – that’s when the letter came from my agent.

And I do think he may actually have read my whole book. Because his inscription on my signed copy of The Man Who Fell to Earth was: “To Allan – with great hopes for his good book. Walter, July 1970.”

So I had mixed feelings about Walter Tevis. I thought he was a nice, melancholy man with a drinking problem. I always bought his books, including three more science-fiction titles, the first of which didn’t appear till almost a decade later (Mockingbird). Alcoholics Anonymous had been a factor in an early ‘80s comeback, when in a period of about five years he wrote four of his six published novels.

I bought and read the last of these – his unexpected Hustler sequel, The Color of Money, and loved it. Read it in two sittings. I wrote him a letter telling him so, and reminiscing about my experiences as his student, going over much of what I’ve written here, being frank but also appreciative.

I had a stamp on the envelope and the letter was waiting to be mailed when a newspaper told me that Walter Tevis had died. Lung cancer. He’d struggled with a heart condition as well.

My instructor’s novel, The Queen’s Gambit, is – like so many novels by so many of us – a disguised memoir, chess champ Beth Harmon enjoying early success, succumbing to substance abuse, overcoming it, and making a stellar comeback.

As with Skim Deep to Bait Money, there’s a coda to my Walter Tevis story.

Whenever I meet someone famous, I endeavor to find some way I can connect with that person, as a person. With Tom Hanks, at the Chicago Road to Perdition after party, I talked to him about his directorial debut, That Thing You Do, and my having been in a combo much like the one in his film, opening for ‘60s era bands and so on. He lit up. We connected, however briefly.

I took a similar tack meeting Paul Newman at the New York Perdition premiere after party. I should say that of the famous people I’ve met, he was the most intimidating, with the most impenetrable wall up – not unpleasant or nasty in any way, but…he just seemed like a door that had been knocked on too often.

So I mentioned that I studied at the Writers Workshop with the author of The Hustler.

“We threw the whole book out,” Newman said. “Nothing made it into the film. We didn’t use anything.”

Now, I knew this not to be true. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation. So I was flustered. I said something like, “Well, I liked them both very much.”

We spoke a little bit longer, but I was really thrown. Was he sending me a coded message about how unimportant the source writer (me) was to a film like Road to Perdition? Nonetheless, I told him how honored I was to be part of a project of his, and that seemed to please him. We shook hands.

Much later I figured it out. Or anyway I think I did. Newman also starred in The Color of Money (1986), supposedly based on the Tevis sequel to The Hustler. And in that case, the novel really was thrown out, because the Tevis book had a lot to do with the return of Minnesota Fats.

The film version substituted a young pool player, portrayed by Tom Cruise, and the word in the Hollywood trades was that Newman didn’t like working with Jackie Gleason (nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats), and wouldn’t do the sequel with him in it. And Gleason was too associated with the role to recast, so a new story was written to go with the title of the Tevis book.

The press said Newman claimed he wanted Gleason in as a cameo, and Gleason said he passed after reading scripts that included small scenes with the character that he didn’t feel added to the story. On the other hand, Tevis apparently wrote a faithful adaptation of his book that included Fats as a key player in several senses of the word. The Tevis script was rejected.

In any event, I didn’t care for the film of The Color of Money. It seemed to pander after a young audience via Tom Cruise, and was not one of director Martin Scorcese’s best pictures, and is little talked of today. If you can find the novel, give that a read – it’s very good.

But I have to wonder about that book – did Newman even read the first and last page?

* * *

Here’s a lovely Skim Deep review by Ron Fortier.

Somebody has just discovered the Quarry TV show and likes it.

I made Today’s Word! [I had trouble getting a good link to this (for the time being, it should be the first result at the link above), but I think the newspaper got this from this page at Wordsmith, with some good comments too. — Nate]

Finally, that great podcast Paperback Warrior considers Killing Quarry one of the best ten books the co-host read in 2020.

M.A.C.

Short Takes – Books and Movies

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020
Book cover of Shoot the Moon by Max Allan Collins
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link
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Wolfpack has announced the January 6 publication of Shoot the Moon in a reorganization of the collection Early Crimes. This new version is the novel Shoot the Moon with a “bonus feature” of short stories at the back of the book. Shoot the Moon was my attempt to do a Westlake-like humorous suspense novel. It can be ordered as either an e-book or a physical book.

Also announced by Wolfpack is Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales (with a January 27 pub date). Right now it can only be ordered as an e-book, but a physical book is coming. This collects virtually all of my horror stories to date.

Blue Christmas & Other Holiday Homicides is already available from Wolfpack in both e-book and physical book form. It’s a collection of holiday-themed stories by me, including the title tale, which is my favorite among my short fiction.

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Barb and I revisited two of the Christmas movies I recommended last time.

It Happened One Christmas is the re-imagining of It’s a Wonderful Life with a female protagonist (Marlo Thomas). I love this little movie almost as much as the original, but the truth is that It’s a Wonderful Life is a film masterpiece and It Happened One Christmas is a TV movie. A very good one with a remarkable cast, but a TV movie.

When it first appeared, It Happened One Christmas benefitted from It’s a Wonderful Life having dropped out of sight. But not long after the remake aired, the public domain showings of It’s a Wonderful Life began on PBS stations and revitalized interest in the original film. Despite the gender role reversal, the films are much the same, right down to the dialogue. This will be problematic for many meeting the remake for the first time.

It’s too bad, and I’m glad I saw the remake first, because it didn’t hurt my appreciation of the original at all. But the Marlo Thomas version is, in my opinion, still worthwhile with its strong cast including Wayne Rogers, Orson Welles, Christopher Guest, Cloris Leachman, Archie Hahn, Doris Martin, Richard Dysart, and Barney Martin. And for me a special resonance is the cinematography by Conrad Hall, who won an Academy Award for Road to Perdition.

Twelve Days of Christmas Eve held up very well on what must be my fourth or fifth visit. While it’s rather shamelessly a Ground Hog’s Day variant, it does so in a clever manner and star Steven Weber is excellent, as is Molly Shannon. If you ever try this, stick with it for a while, because it seems at first like just another TV movie, but becomes something very special as it goes along.

* * *

Barb and I were excited about being able to see at home the new Wonder Woman movie (apparently called WW 84 – and I haven’t even seen WW 83 yet!), springing for the new HBO Max streaming service to do so. And guess what? WW 84 is one of the worst superhero movies I’ve ever seen. What did Barb think? She walked out – and we live here!

Where to start? The opening on Amazon Island (or whatever it’s called) is fine. But once we get to 1984, one problem after another presents itself. Let’s get this out of the way: nothing wrong with Gal Gadot, whose super-power seems to be emerging from this crock unscathed. If you are a man, this is not a movie you want to be in, unless you are Chris Pine or a homeless black guy, as every other adult male is a lout at best and a potential rapist at worst.

Chris Pine doesn’t fare that well himself, actually. He comes back from the Great War dead to be wide-eyed and astonished by such marvels as escalators (introduced around 1900) and a subway (introduced around 1890). He tries on a lot of groovy ‘80s clothes, which (as any 1910s guy would do) he finds really cool, particularly the man purse. By the way, in this movie where men are reprehensible, Diana Prince (SPOILER ALERT: Wonder Woman) allows an unknowing male to become the receptacle for her dead boy friend’s persona and almost immediately has sex with him.

What can you say about a film whose super-villain is a blithering jackass? Really, just another weak man who happens to be an a-hole? Or about a script whose theme is wishes coming true but at a cost…a cost that never defines its boundaries (i.e., some people immediately lose whatever they gave up to get their wish, but – so that she can participate in fight scenes – Wonder Woman only very gradually loses her powers).

Then there’s Kristen Wiig, who plays her role as a supposed nebbish girl like an SNL character, then unbelievably becomes a mostly CGI bad girl (the Cheetah, a recurring Wonder Woman villain, but never named in the film). What Kristen gave up for her wish was her…niceness.

This is a super-hero movie that made me want to reconsider Green Lantern. How could the first Wonder Woman film be so good, and this one so wretched? Same director. Different result.

Still from Wonder Woman 1984, captioned: That's just a trash can.
* * *

While I haven’t dug into it yet, the Taschen coffee table tome, The History of EC Comics, was my “big gift” from Barb this year. I love these books but they are difficult to deal with. A hernia is no way to start the New Year. But what a thing of beauty this baby is.

My son Nate gave me two books in Marc Cushman’s These Are the Voyages series of big, long, in-depth tomes about Star Trek. I have mentioned here that Barb and I were trek fans before the dreaded term trekkie was even coined. We attended one of the first Star Trek conventions, and watched the episodes in syndication over and over. I bought the comic books and James Blish paperbacks. We went to dinner theater plays in Chicago starring (separately) William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I got to know Walter Koenig, at first by mail (we traded Big Little Books) and then in person. (Later I would cast Majel Barrett Roddenberry in Mommy.) We went to Gene Roddenberry’s embarrassing film Pretty Maids All in a Row in the theater, and we stood in the cold for hours to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which remains one of my favorite films, for which I have no apology).

These books chronicle everything. The first three are about each original season, but now I’m reading book four, which is about the years leading up to the animated series. Cushman’s tomes are well-written and ridiculously thorough – how ridiculously thorough? How about reviews quoted at length from those dinner theater appearances I mentioned earlier? Or tons of the bad reviews Pretty Girls All in a Row got? Or what TV shows the secondary cast members appeared in between the series and the movies?

So you have to be something of a lunatic where Star Trek is concerned – the real Star Trek, that is – to want anything to do with these three-inch-thick books. And I qualify.

Thank you, son.

* * *

As a sidebar to the WW 84 review above, let me say that after recently adding movie channels to our cable and streaming channels to our Roku, I am underwhelmed and overwhelmed at the same time. “Over” because there is so much of it. “Under” because so little of it appeals to me.

Much of the new product seems so politically correct and painfully diverse to make me consider voting Republican (we all have our weak moments). “Free” content on most of the streaming services is commercial-ridden. But now and then I stumble onto something good.

In 2015, Colin Hanks (whose father, I understand, appeared in a very good gangster film) directed a documentary about Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. It’s an extremely well-made film in which Russ Solomon, the creator of the record-store chain, is interviewed at length; so are many of the original employees, who rose to high levels within the company, and such music luminaries as Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.

I loved Tower Records. Any time I was in a big city, I tracked Tower Records down. Each store was the same but different, reflecting the individual management and its employees. Those red letters on yellow thrill me to this day. I bought CD’s there. And books. And magazines. And laser discs. And DVDs.

In Chicago. In Los Angeles on Sunset. In New York in the Village. In Honolulu. In London. In Las Vegas. These stores were a pop culture paradise, and they still exist only in Japan, and in my memory.

I hate streaming. I hate e-books (except for the income they generate for me, of course). I am Old School. Physical Media. Physical Media. Physical Media.

Nice job, Mr. Hanks. Cool work on Fargo, too.

* * *

Among the oddball, quirky Blu-ray labels I support is Vinegar Syndrome. You should check them out. On their Black Friday sale, I bought Forgotten Gialli Volume 2 and a box set of The Beastmaster. The packaging is incredible and the bonus content mindboggling. They do intersperse “classic” porn titles between the horror and giallo and s-f titles, so take care. Some of their media gets pretty physical.

* * *

I will see you next year. By then, I will be working on Quarry’s Blood. Skim Deep was a coda to the Nolan series, and this one will be a coda to the Quarry series.

Shall we endeavor for 2021 not to suck quite so thoroughly as 2020? On the other hand, the thing I’m looking forward to about next year is getting a vaccine shot or two.

* * *

Here’s a nice recommendation for Skim Deep.

M.A.C.

Santa Thought I Was Special

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

This great new edition of Blue Christmas is out now! Look at this wonderful Wolfpack cover!

Blue Christmas Cover
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link
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* * *

As I write this, Christmas is five days away, although we always celebrated – and still do, largely – on Christmas Eve.

My father, Max A. Collins, Sr., was a talented man. He was for about a decade probably the most celebrated instructor of high school choral music in the state of Iowa. His students won every prize imaginable, and he put on the first high school musicals in the country of Oklahoma and Carousel, getting state-wide press. He also put on a musical written by Keith Larson, an early writing mentor of mine whose name I’ve given to one of the two main characters in the Krista and Keith Larson series (The Girl Most Likely and The Girl Can’t Help It). Dad left teaching to improve life for his family with a much bigger paycheck as the personnel man at HON Industries (later Human Resources Director).

More important to him, I venture to say, was the male chorus he directed for fifty years, the Muscatine Elks Chanters. In the 1950s, his group competed in the national championship for Elks male choruses. They competed against New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and choruses from every major city you can imagine. They won three years in a row, in fact, and were named permanent national champions with the contest shut down when nobody wanted to compete against them – “They’re ringers!” “He must be using professionals!” No, it was just men from the community, all walks of life (as they say), blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and druggists, and whoever he had in his chorus, it always sounded the same. He could produce a unique sound from any chorus. He and the Chanters were once featured on the national TV show, People Are Funny (the funny thing they did was wear Bermuda shorts while performing) (hey, it was the ‘50s).

Perhaps I should mention that, right out of college, Dad turned down the opportunity to go professional with an opera company and instead took that teaching job in Iowa where he and my mother raised me. By the way, my late uncle Mahlon was the premiere high-school band director in Iowa in the ‘50s. The Collins brothers were legendary in those circles.

Dad served in the Pacific and his experiences were the basis of my book USS Powderkeg (I added the murders).

My mother was a housewife, as we described it then (and as I suppose Donald Trump still does). She was very active in charities, worked with Dad on the Chanters, and played a whole lot of bridge. She was also about the most attentive mother an only child ever had.

My best childhood memories are of the ‘50s. That was when my mom read to me at night, starting with (God love her) Tarzan. She introduced me to Dick Tracy comic books when I was six. What a gal! She took me to countless movies. She is definitely where I got my love for film and books.

My father was unusual in that he went to college on a split scholarship – music and sports. At Simpson College, he sang, played trumpet, played baseball and basketball and football. For years he was disappointed in me because I did not share his interest in sports. So I got involved in football in junior high. I had a growth spurt and, along with the face mask I wore to protect my glasses, that allowed me to take revenge upon many of the boys who had picked on me when I was a scrawny bookworm with specs. Anyway, I did well enough in high school to get a few football scholarship offers – I knew enough not to take them, because I knew how hard they hit in college – but that bonded Dad and me better.

Both my parents were incredibly supportive of my writing, and of my rock bands. The Daybreakers rehearsed in my parents’ basement for probably three years past my leaving home to marry Barb.

In high school, when all of my friends had summer jobs sacking groceries or pumping gas or building silos, I was told I could stay home and pursue my efforts to become a writer, if I treated it as a job, and worked at it every day. They believed in me. They even kept my allowance ($6.50) going in those summer months, including the $1.50 meal ticket money I was no longer giving Muscatine High School for the privilege of serving me mystery meat, supposed potatoes, and inedible vegetables.

The Collins family playing piano with a small Christmas tree in the background

But this is about Christmas, or anyway starting now it is. I was always informed by me parents that I was spoiled. I accepted this as fact until I grew older and realized that I wasn’t spoiled at all, but I’d had their love and support, which is better. When I was in grade school getting a ten-cent a week allowance (enough for a comic book till they went to twelve-cents), I didn’t feel spoiled. I didn’t in junior high either, when they raised my stipend to a buck (fifty cents of which was meal ticket).

Granted, my Christmases were special, even more special than most kids. For one thing, in a move that no doubt has given me undeserved confidence over my life, they hired a local Santa Claus to come by the house on Christmas Eve with his bag of gifts to see me personally. I was pledged not to tell any other kids that I was getting this special treatment – they might feel bad.

As a kid, I got gifts running to books and a few toys. No model trains, which was fine, because my friend Tom Hufford had a huge Lionel layout if I was ever in the mood, which frankly I rarely was. Once I became a Dick Tracy fanatic I got a lot of Tracy stuff, including several squad cars, and I scored a Robbie the Robot toy that I would love to have today. Also one of those stuffed monkeys with the red butt. The rest is a blur, although I remember my dad spending hours putting together a metal fort that cut him up like a gang fight.

Okay, here’s the thing about Santa coming early. Turns out I wasn’t that special. My father, in addition to teaching and later being an office-furniture executive, directed the church choir – Baptist, then Methodist (it was a paying gig). He had to be part of the midnight service, which I believe started at 11 p.m. (just another of the mysteries of world religion). We always had Christmas with both sets of grandparents – usually my dad’s folks first in Grand Junction, Iowa, and a couple days later a late Christmas with my mom’s folks in Indianola, Iowa.

The gifts from grandparents were so unmemorable I don’t remember any one of them, although my Grandpa Ray always gave me (not just on Christmas) two dollars, which was a fortune. It was also another indication that I was special, because my cousins Kris and Kathy only got a buck a piece (I was sworn to secrecy even as I was starting to learn life was unfair).

Anyway, I figured out – probably twenty years later – that Santa came on the 24th because we were traveling on the 25th. Getting my toys Christmas Eve actually was cruel and unusual punishment, because I was never allowed to bring any of them along.

But things changed in junior high and high school. Dad didn’t have a long Christmas break (as he’d had as a high school teacher) so the trips to the grandparents over the holidays were less frequent.

I got a lot of cool stuff, including a generic gun belt with a cap pistol (the Fanner 50 by Matel was out of reach, too expensive). One year I got This Is Darin, the new Bobby Darin LP – I still have it. Mom made sure I always got a box of cherry chocolates. The big prize was a typewriter, the best present they ever gave me. It was a very expensive gift for one thing, but mainly it said they believed in me. That they thought I really was a budding writer, from the very beginning.

If you’re going to “spoil” a kid, that’s not a bad way to do it.

Max Allan Collins Jr., Age 4-and-a-half, seated in a rocking chair and reading a book titled
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I am pleased to say Borg.com has named Masquerade for Murder one of the best books of the year – specifically Best Retro Read. Skip down and read all about it.

Here’s some Davenport history about the Col Ballroom where the Daybreakers and I get a nice mention. I feature the Col (now unfortunately closed) in The Girl Can’t Help It.

Road to Perdition (the film) gets some love here.

Indiewire thinks Nate Heller deserves to be on TV – you know, so do I!

The great J. Kingston Pierce pays tribute to my late friend Parnell Hall, thusly:

“Another loss for mystery fiction: Parnell Hall, a California-born former private detective and actor turned novelist, passed away on December 15 at age 76. He was best known for penning separate series about an ambulance-chasing New York City private investigator Stanley Hastings (Detective, A Fool for a Client) and ‘Puzzle Lady’ Cora Felton (Lights! Cameras! Puzzles!). In her obituary, Janet Rudolph remembers Hall as a “funny, supportive, musical, generous, and all around good guy. … Everyone loved him.” His most recent novel, Chasing Jack, was released by Brash Books in September. The Gumshoe Site says Hall died of COVID-19.”

I knew Parnell mostly through Bouchercons, but he was one of the sweetest, funniest and flat-out nicest writers I was ever lucky enough to meet. We played a lot of cards together, losing fairly consistently to others. Parnell was also a hell of a writer; and a gifted musician. He appears in my documentary Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane. As the Mick would say, Goodbye, buddy.

M.A.C.

Special Christmas Movie Edition

Tuesday, December 15th, 2020

It’s officially Christmas – the card from Pee-Wee Herman has arrived at the Collins household! It’s the one at the center of the Pee-Wee wreath.

For those of you who need a reminder, here are the five great Christmas movies:

1. Scrooge (1951). Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive filming of A Christmas Carol.

2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with Edmund Gwen the definitive, real Santa Claus, Natalie Wood in her greatest child performance, John Payne reminding us he should have been a major star, and Maureen O’Hara as a smart, strong career woman/working mother who could not be more glamorous.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Heartwarming but harrowing, this film is home to one of James Stewart’s bravest performances and happens to be Frank Capra’s best film. (I thanked him for it in the Green Room at Good Morning America in 1981 – promoting the Dick Tracy comic strip.)

4. A Christmas Story (1983), Jean Shepherd’s unlikely claim to fame, and a Christmas movie with Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in it. Now if the PBS specials about Ralphie and his family would only emerge on legal home video!

5. Christmas Vacation (1989) uncovers every Christmas horror possible when families get together and Daddy tries too hard. This holds up very well and has unexpectedly eclipsed the original film.

But Christmas movies, particularly since Hallmark decided to own the “sort of” genre, are so cluttering the airwaves and cable channels and streaming services, you folks need some help navigating choppy waters. So here is a stocking filled with worthwhile examples (some of this derives from a previous post).

Bad Santa (2003). This dark comedy has a warm heart, but you have to wade through a whole lot of black humor to get there. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful, but here’s a special salute to the late John Ritter (who apparently died during the production) for the funniest moments in a side-splitting film. It’s become a Christmas classic at our house, and the very underrated sequel, Bad Santa 2 (2016), is perhaps even funnier with Kathy Bates almost stealing the picture playing Billy Bob Thorton’s mother, who deserves more coal than anybody in either picture.

Holiday Inn (1942) is easily better than White Christmas, although the latter has its charms – it’s helped keep Danny Kaye from being forgotten, for one, and my pal Miguel Ferrer’s mom is in it. The original has better songs and is funnier and ultimately more heart-warming.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) is an old favorite of ours, the the movie Kim Novak and James Stewart made together after Vertigo. With Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs stealing scenes left and right, it’s a precursor to Bewitched and might seem a better choice for Halloween, only it’s set at Christmas. I love the George Dunning score (he did some of the best scores for the original Star Trek TV series).

The Family Man (2000) with Nic Cage, a modern reworking of It’s a Wonderful Life, heartwarming and funny. Cage may be an over-the-top actor, but the man commits – he gives one thousand percent to every performance, and this time he has a wonderful movie to do it in. This is a favorite of my son Nate’s, whose goals in life include seeing every Nic Cage movie.

The Twelve Days of Christmas (2004). Okay, so it’s a shameless reworking of Groundhog’s Day as a Christmas movie, but this admittedly minor TV flick is funny and rewarding – good-hearted but with a darkly comic sensibility. Steven Weber is excellent as the successful slick businessman (similar to Cage in The Family Man) who has twelve tries to get Christmas Eve right. Molly Shannon gets her best post-SNL role.

Three Godfathers (1948). This John Ford western stars John Wayne and is surprisingly gritty and even harrowing before a finale that you may find too sentimental. There’s some humor, too, and Ford’s first color film is visually beautiful. It’s dedicated to Harry Carey and “introduces” Harry Carey, Jr., who is very good, as is Pedro Armendariz.

Prancer (1989). This features an amazingly naturalistic performance from child actor Rebecca Herrell. It’s a sort of smalltown/rural variation on Miracle on 34th Street. Is the reindeer the little girl helps back to health really Santa’s Prancer? Sam Elliot is uncompromising as the father who doesn’t understand his daughter, whose mother has died.

Remember the Night (1940) is probably second best (after Double Indemnity) of the films Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurray made together. It’s written by Preston Sturges – should I really have to say anything more? – and makes its humanistic points with sentiment, not sentimentality. It’s really a gem worth looking for.

I, the Jury (1953). Let’s all wait for the eventual 3-D Blu-ray release, shall we? But this much underrated first Mike Hammer movie is set at Christmas and plays off of that fact throughout, with Christmas cards and carols the connective tissue between scenes. I continue to feel Biff Elliott was much underrated, and the cast is filled with wonderful character actors. The great John Alton shot it.

A Christmas Horror Story (2015) features William Shatner, excellent as the comic glue (a disc jockey) holding together inter-related stories about Krampus and Christmas. There are almost as many horror movies about Christmas as there are Christmas movies, but this is one of the best. It was put together by many of the Orphan Black people.

Office Christmas Party (2016) is a raunchy comedy whose preview in the theater (remember those?) turned me off. Somehow I wound up seeing it on Blu-ray and it’s very funny and eventually betrays a good heart. The great cast includes Jason Bateman and Kate McKinnon.

Scrooge (1970) is the second-best Christmas Carol movie. Albert Finney is wonderful as Ebenezer in this musical version, with the Leslie Briccuse score perhaps the one most like his work with Anthony Newley, who did not contribute to this score but who played in the much-seen British stage version (which came after the film).

Arthur Christmas (2012) is a CGI cartoon that rivals the best of Pixar, and its script is witty and smart. A British production, the voices include James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent. The neglected son of Santa rises to the occasion when a child’s toy isn’t delivered despite a state-of-the-art technologically advanced system of his favored brother’s. I see a lot of these computer animated movies, as a grandfather to a five year-old boy, and many of them make me want to scream. This one is beautifully crafted to work for kids and adults.

Also, don’t forget It Happened One Christmas (1977), which I wrote about here last year.

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Skyboat Media has posted a wonderful write-up about Nolan and his upcoming return in Skim Deep. It should be available now on both audio and in trade paperback (Hard Case Crime).

Speaking of Skyboat, here’s a great review of their terrific audio of the Mike Hammer novel, Masquerade for Murder, read so beautifully by Stefan Rudnicki.

Here’s an extremely frustrating review. Overall, it’s excellent and borders on a rave. But it concludes by saying the reader is unlikely to read another Nate Heller novel because of objecting to Heller as a character on apparent grounds of political correctness. Next week I’ll say God bless us, everyone. This week, make it: God save us.

M.A.C.