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

Book Give-Away, Noir Alley Clips, and a Current Interview

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021
Max Allan Collins holding up a trade paperback of Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales

This week we have fifteen copies of the beautiful Wolfpack trade paperback edition of Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales to give away. I’ve written about this book here before, but I only now have physical copies in hand.

[All copies have been claimed. Thank you for your support! New updates are posted every Tuesday at 9 Central. — Nate]

If you miss out on the giveaway, I hope you’ll order it anyway, either on Kindle or this very cool trade paperback, which is a rather massive 330-some pages. It collects virtually all of my horror short stories, including two radio plays written for Fangoria’s Dreadtime Stories.

Be forewarned (or enticed, as the case may be) that many of the stories in Reincarnal (as the title may indicate) have a strong sexual element. This has to do with many of them originally having been published in erotic horror anthologies, back in the day when such stalwarts as Marty Greenberg, Jeff Gelb and Ed Gorman were turning out wonderful “theme” anthologies of original stories.

As I said here before, horror is a strong element of my fiction – you can see it in the Mommy novels (available from Wolfpack), many of the Quarry novels (The Wrong Quarry), a number of Hellers (Angel in Black), Eliot Ness (Butcher’s Dozen) and novels by Barb and me (Regeneration). Even the recent non-fiction work, Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher (by A. Brad Schwartz and myself) qualifies as horror-tinged. The only horror tales not collected in Reincarnal can be found in the Wolfpack collections Murderlized (gathering collaborative stories by Matt Clemens and me), Blue Christmas (holiday horror and dark suspense), and Murder – His and Hers (stories by Barb and me).

While I am first and foremost a novelist, I do enjoy writing short stories and it’s long been an ambition to see collections of my shorter fiction, like Reincarnal, give those stories a certain permanence.

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If you missed my second guest shot with Eddie Muller on Noir Alley, here is the intro and the outro for Born to Kill, a great crime movie you should see (the TCM streaming service has it right now).

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Publisher’s Weekly has a great article by Lenny Picker about Hard Case Crime. I can’t share it with you, because PW requires you to subscribe for the link to go through.

I was interviewed for the PW article on HCC, and a grand total of one paragraph was used (in part) in that article. So, since that interview is very up-to-date as to what I’m up to, I’ll share it here:

What led you to have some of your books published by Hard Case Crime? In other words, what makes a Collins book a better fit for HCC?

When editor/publisher Charles Ardai began Hard Case Crime, he featured a number of reprints among the originals, from the classic likes of Erle Stanley Gardner and Lawrence Block. He approached me about reprinting the second Nolan novel, Blood Money, and I suggested he reprint both it and the first in the series, Bait Money, under one cover, which he did, as Two for the Money. Later he approached me about doing another reprint and I offered instead to write an original. It was obvious to me Charles and his partner Max Phillips had a love and feel for classic hardboiled fiction and represented a home for what I most like to write in a market not terribly conducive to that.

Another fact was the retro packaging, the covers that were not only fully illustrative in the fashion of ’50s and ’60s paperback suspense novels, but depicted beautiful femme fatales and handsome tough guys, in a fashion that had become essentially forbidden due to politically correct restraints at other publishers. HCC has a way of saying, “We’re retro, not Neanderthals. We have our tongue slightly in cheek as we celebrate a form of American mystery fiction pioneered by such greats as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.”

What makes them different from other publishers/imprints?

They go their own way and are motivated by a love for the noir genre, taking risks with new talent and respect older talent. Charles Ardai encourages me to write what I want to write. I’m at a point in my career and, frankly, at an age where being able to write what I want means more than financial considerations, an approach that can pay off better than a more market-driven, cynical one.

For example, the first original I did for HCC was a return to my Quarry series, which had become a cult favorite after its initial four-book run in the mid-’70s and a one-shot comeback ten years later. I’d always wanted to complete the series and The Last Quarry was intended to be the final book about my hitman character…the first contract killer to “star” in a book series. The Last Quarry was popular and widely well-reviewed. Charles said, “Too bad you’ve written the last book in the series.” And I said, “How about I write, The First Quarry?” Since then another dozen or so have followed. An award-winning short film I wrote led to a Quarry feature film (The Last Lullaby), and a few years ago HBO/Cinemax did a Quarry TV series.

What led you to revive Nolan last month?

Charles has been after me to do that dating back to Two for the Money. I resisted, feeling my novel Spree was the proper ending to the series. But he said he’d bring the early books back out if I did a coda to the series, which I have — the current Skim Deep. Now I’m writing a coda to The Last Quarry called Quarry’s Blood. My hitman is 68 years old in the novel, which is younger than me.

How hard was it to return to the character after so many years?

Not at all. I spent almost two years, when I was at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the late ’60s, writing that novel. My instructor was Richard Yates, the great mainstream novelist. I also studied with Walter Tevis, whose reputation is getting a boost from The Queen’s Gambit mini-series. So I spent a lot of time with Nolan and his young sidekick Jon, and then there were the other six novels and several versions of a Nolan screenplay I wrote a while back…unproduced as yet, but it got optioned. A movie is brewing now combining elements of several of the novels.

How was writing him different?

He was an old man of 48 when I conceived him at age 20. Now he’s 55 and really something of an old man, so my perspective on him has shifted.

Are there other characters that you’re planning on reviving?

I get requests to do another Mallory, but that character was based on me, which doesn’t interest me. My recent Krista Larson series I hope to keep going, and when the political world settles down, if it ever does, I might do another Reeder & Rogers novel with Matt Clemens, who I’m writing the James Bond-ish “John Sand” novels with now for Wolfpack. My wife Barb and I are continuing the long-running Antiques series we write together as Barbara Allan, with Severn now.

The biggest thing will be taking Nathan Heller to HCC. I consider the Heller novels – which as you know are traditional tough private eye novels dealing with major crimes of the Twentieth Century – my best work, my signature work. But I don’t spend all my time looking backward. I’m working on two projects for Neo-Text, one a ’40s female private eye, Fancy Anders, who solves mysteries involving an aircraft plant, a movie studio, and the Hollywood Canteen. The other is a science-fiction-tinged noir collaborating with SCTV star Dave Thomas, who was a writer/producer on Blacklist and Bones, for which I wrote a tie-in novel.

I should note that HCC has been a supporter of my work building up the legacy of my friend and mentor, Mickey Spillane. We’ve done several books at HCC, and something like fourteen Mike Hammer novels at HCC’s parent company, Titan. These all reflect my completing unfinished manuscripts from Mickey’s files, something he asked me to do shortly before his passing in 2006. Next year is the 75th anniversary of Mike Hammer, and I’ll be doing a biography of him with James Traylor for Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press. It’s people like Charles and Otto who nurture and keep the hardboiled genre alive in the face of changing times.

What would you most want article readers to know about HCC?

HCC is a boutique publisher that cares about books, readers, and authors. I am extremely grateful to them for letting pursue my work my way.

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A reader in this You Tube piece recommends five HCC titles to represent that publisher’s output, and The First Quarry is one of them!

And, finally, this fantastic review from the UK of the current Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder.

M.A.C.

Cover Story

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

I had not been given an advance look at the Noir Alley episode this weekend that had me guest-presenting with Eddie Muller the great film noir, Born to Kill (1947) from the James Gunn novel, Deadly Is the Female. During the shoot, Eddie and I had talked about both the film and the book for maybe forty minutes, and the TCM editors honed it down beautifully. I am very pleased, and if it turns up on You Tube, I’ll share it here.

God, I love it when I don’t stink up the place!

Skim Deep has been getting some lovely notices, I am pleased to say, including great Amazon reviews, and readers seem to be pleased either to see Nolan again or meet him for the first time.

But due out a week from today is the first-ever audio book of Blood Money, the second Nolan novel, read by the amazing Stefan Rudnicki. As you may know, Hard Case Crime is bringing out a new trade paperback edition of Two for the Money, collecting the first two Nolan novels – Bait Money and, again, Blood Money – on April 20.

The Edgar nominations are out, and Eliot Ness and the Butcher did not receive a Best Fact Crime nom, just as Scarface and the Untouchable did not in its year. It’s frustrating that this major work – I consider these two books joined at the hip – has not been better recognized; but I am confident that what my co-author, A. Brad Schwartz, and I accomplished will have a lasting place in true-crime literature.

Both Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales and Shoot the Moon (And More) are available in trade paperback(and of course Kindle) from Wolfpack. I talked about Reincarnal last week and spoke of my pleasure in having my short horror fiction collected in one place. I’m excited to see Shoot the Moon published as a novel and not as part of a collection. Originally it was featured in the now out-of-print Early Crimes, and the two short stories from that collection are still included, but moved to the back of the book as a bonus feature.

Shoot the Moon is a novel written fairly early in my career, but after Bait Money, Blood Money, No Cure for Death, The Baby Blue Rip-off and Quarry. So it’s not an early work in the sense of being formative or from my college days. The two short stories that serve as a bonus are, in fact, from my community college days, although one of them (“Public Servant”) was considered good enough years later to be included in a Lawrence Block-edited anthology (Opening Shots).

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Shoot the Moon is to the Donald E. Westlake comic crime novels as Bait Money is to the Richard Stark un-comic crime novels. My debt to Don Westlake, as an inspiration and mentor, is one I can never adequately repay.

Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales Cover
Shoot the Moon Cover

My son Nate encourages me to share behind-the-scenes stories and such about the writing life. So here I go….

Wolfpack is a very interesting outfit, because its publisher, Mike Bray, is something of a visionary, and its editor-in-chief Paul Bishop is a first-rate novelist himself who approaches publishing with an empathy and feel for his fellow writers.

I have been particularly pleased with the covers that have come out of Wolfpack, and yet a couple of problems turned up recently. As an example of the rampant political correctness that all creative people suffer these days, the cover of Reincarnal – which I love – was rejected for use in ads by Amazon. Fortunately, I’m told, ads for Facebook with that cover are still possible.

Apparently Reincarnal having a knife on its cover is the problem. I’ve run into this kind of thing before at several publishers, who haven’t wanted a gun on their covers. In one case, a publisher doing serial killer books – where the editor had me add a violent opening scene – did not allow guns or knives on their covers. Hey, I’m all for keeping guns off the floor of the House of Representatives and Senate – none of those people should be allowed around sharp objects – but on the covers of thrillers, horror novels and noir?

Who are we protecting with this prissy attitude, anyway?

Come Spy With Me Cover

Conversely, the wonderful cover of Come Spy With Me has taken some heat for being too classy, too subtle. And it does have a gun on it! That gun is on a beach covered in sand, which anyone whose favorite word isn’t “Duh!” will tell you was meant to make you think of the protagonist, John Sand. It’s possible we’ll eventually do a second cover for that title, when the third Sand novel, To Live and Spy in Berlin, emerges – a book Matt Clemens and I are plotting, having delivered book two, Live Fast, Spy Hard recently.

Wolfpack’s bread-and-butter has been what I used to hear called “boy books” by editors both male and female. “Boy books” are westerns, techno-thrillers, male-lead thrillers, private eye novels and noir (the latter will come as a surprise to Christa Faust and Megan Abbott). Westerns and men’s adventure-type novels, including spy stuff, do very well at Wolfpack, and while my work is at least vaguely in the “boy book” vein, I am part of the publisher’s effort to expand into new publishing realms. And I salute them for that.

“How can I help?” I hear you saying.

You can buy Reincarnal, Shoot the Moon, and Come Spy With Me for a start, and all the other titles of mine Wolfpack has been good enough to foist upon you lucky people.

At fear of kissing up (well, I’m not that afraid), I will say that Wolfpack, Hard Case Crime, Titan and the emerging Neo-Text are publishers who are allowing me to explore the genres and characters I care about, both old and new, and God bless them for it. Every one of them has invested their faith in me and my work in a way that goes well beyond the standard publishing approach of, “Well, we’ll throw one or two of your titles out there and see how they do.”

Publishers, notoriously, have laid all the blame on the writer for the lack of success of a book. We writers are where the buck stops, and you might say, “Of course you are!” But the truth is publishers are not in the book-selling business, they are in the cover-selling business. Hey, if my books aren’t packaged correctly, it’s not my effing fault.

Now, I have to cop to having loved some covers that didn’t work in the marketplace, and having hated some that did. But it’s not my job to package the books. I am busy writing them. I am hard at work making Wheaties. What athlete goes on the box isn’t my choice or my fault, which means I can’t take full credit for how many boxes of Wheaties fly off the shelves.

Publishers usually ask for a writer’s input into the covers, and then ignore that input, often for good reason. Hard Case Crime sends me the cover before I’ve even written the book, so I can work the scene into the narrative, like the old pulp writers used to – I get a perverse pleasure out of that. Thomas & Mercer gave me a lot of input into the covers, and I love the results. Those books continue to sell briskly.

But here is my dream. An editor has a series that has received glowing reviews, a series that said editor considers first-rate, though with a small but dedicated reader base, if not enough to justify publishing any more books in that series. Rather than drop that series like something icky, why not consider a re-packaging approach, and take a hard look at the marketing that has (or hasn’t) gone into it, and give that series a book or two more, with a new cover and new marketing approach, before deciding its ultimate fate?

That never happens.

Keeping Nate Heller alive through five major publishing houses, with a fifth coming, over almost fifty years is a small miracle – no, a big miracle, speaking to my own stubbornness and my only-child inability to be told “no.”

And yet. Here is Nolan back in print. Here is Quarry not only back in print but with me writing, right now, the tenth new book (Quarry’s Blood) in a series started back up again in 2006 when the damned thing had been declared dead in 1976.

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J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet, hands down the best mystery site on the web, has an edition of his entertaining column-within-a-column “Bullet Points” that has a nice paragraph about the book I’m writing now (Quarry’s Blood) and Heller.

New Horror and Dark Suspense Antho from Wolfpack

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021
Book cover for Reincarnal and Other Dark Tales
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link

In about a week, my latest Wolfpack release – Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales – will be available on Kindle, and shortly thereafter as a physical book.

When I have copies of the trade paperback, I will announce a book giveaway here. For those that haven’t noticed, this update/blog has a new post every Tuesday morning. [10 Eastern/9 Central unless I mess something up. –Nate] So check in – they go fast.

Obviously, Wolfpack has provided me with another outstanding cover. I continue to be delighted by what they come up with. I realize some of you may be overwhelmed by how much of my material Wolfpack has unleashed upon an unsuspecting world pretty much all at once. Publisher Mike Bray and editor Paul Bishop were good enough to take on virtually all of my remaining backlist, as those who come here regularly know. Nine of these books are novels, but the others are anthologies. Of those anthologies, only three (including a forthcoming one by Barb and me, Suspense – His and Hers) are new collections…new books.

Reincarnal is one of them.

It’s a special one for me, because it collects virtually all of my horror short stories. In addition, the book includes two radio plays that I wrote for Fangoria’s Dreadtime Stories: “House of Blood” and “Mercy.” I adapted a number of the yarns in the collection for Dreadtime Stories, but the two radio plays were original to the series.

While I’ve spent most of my career writing suspense and crime fiction, the horror genre has been an interest since childhood, undoubtedly having to do with watching old monster movies on TV. In Reincarnal, you meet the big three: Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, and more than one vampire.

Some of the stories are more in a “dark suspense” vein, though the majority have a supernatural element. And they have another element that may either please or not please you: this is definitely a “parental advisory” type book. Several stories were originally written for the famous Hot Blood and Shock Rock series, whose co-editor Jeff Gelb was my co-editor on Flesh and Blood. The format of those anthologies was to combine horror with an erotic element.

I mention this because – much to my surprise – in recent years some readers are offended by sexual content, and many of you are undoubtedly saying, “Boy, did they sign up with the wrong writer.” In re-reading the stories, I realized that changing times and attitudes are reflected therein, but I made no edits to bring them up to date. They were written over a thirty-year period and, like Popeye, yam what they yam.

But also in re-reading the stories I discovered that some of these dark tales are among my best work. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better story of mine than “Traces of Red,” for example. “Reincarnal,” the lead story, was much praised at the time of its original publication, and I adapted it into a screenplay. That project still rears its head now and then. “Interstate 666″ was written originally as a screenplay, and the story herein is actually a condensed version. It came very close to being made as a TV pilot (one iteration involving Rob Zombie!).

Both radio plays in the new collection were conceived in hopes of movie production and they too are not yet off the table in that regard. Those stories are collected in audio anthologies available at Amazon and elsewhere. Producer Carl Amari did a great job on them.

My interest in horror should come as no surprise to my regular readers, even though they may missed the stories collected in Reincarnal when originally published. Such novels of mine as Butcher’s Dozen, Angel in Black, and What Doesn’t Kill Her, as well as the two J.C. Harrow novels by Matt Clemens and me, are in part horror novels. So is Regeneration by Barb and me (a new edition is coming from Wolfpack).

Speaking of which, let me get back to Wolfpack. You supporting my efforts there by ordering Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales and the John Sand novel, Come Spy With Me, paves the way for me to do new novels in various series that have run their course at other publishers. When fans ask a writer, are you ever going to do another novel about such-and-such a favorite character, the true answer is: it’s not up to the authors. We need publishers who believe in us, and frankly most publishers want the next big thing, not the last modestly successful thing.

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We lost Parnell Hall recently, and the parade of hurtful losses to the mystery genre continues. The great John Lutz of Single White Female fame is gone.

outdoor portrait of author John Lutz wearing a black shirt and jacket.

This from Janet Rudolph:

John Lutz: 1939-2021.

I was lucky to know John Lutz over the years. John wrote over 50 novels of political suspense, private eye novels, urban suspense, humor, occult, caper, police procedural, espionage, historical, futuristic, amateur sleuth, thriller — just about every mystery sub-genre. He also wrote over 200 short stories and articles. John was a past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America. Among his awards were the MWA Edgar, the PWA Shamus, The Trophee 813 Award for best mystery short story collection translated into the French language, the PWA Life Achievement Award, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award. And, he was a kind, supportive, and generous man. He’ll be missed.

I knew John well, and Barb and I know his wonderful wife Barbara, too. John was a terrific writer and also displayed a dry wit second to none. For many years, John was a welcome, low-key presence at Bouchercon, one of those friends I saw almost exclusively in that manner. He was shy and modest, but that sense of humor came through, or I should say sneaked up on you.

This one hurts.

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This mind-bogglingly wonderful review of Skim Deep is at Book Reporter. Please feast your eyes upon it.

M.A.C.

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.