Posts Tagged ‘Dick Tracy’

Murder – His and Hers, Venturing Out & Tracy One Last Time

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020
Murder - His & Hers
E-Book: Amazon Purchase Link

On September 2, Wolfpack’s new Kindle edition of Murder – His and Hers will be available at Amazon.

This collection was previously only an expensive hardcover by Five Star. This new edition will be followed soon by Too Many Tomcats, and before too very long a companion volume, Suspense – His and Hers.

These books collect short stories that Barb and I have written together as well as some written by us individually. Too Many Tomcats, which I edited, is mostly Barb’s solo stories, but all of these will be marketed as by “Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins.” Wolfpack wants to focus the books as part of their M.A.C. publishing program, so don’t think it’s my ego run (further) amok.

I am hoping that Wolfpack will eventually be publishing our the two collaborative novels, Regeneration and Bombshell, that preceded the long-running Antiques series of mysteries. Those, our first two novels together, were originally published under both our names and later, by Thomas & Mercer, as by “Barbara Allan.” We’re reverting to a joint byline for marketing purposes. All of these will soon be available in print editions (stay tuned).

We also have a collaborative short story coming out in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, though we haven’t been told in what issue yet – “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” – set at the 2019 San Diego Comic Con, which seems like a very long time ago and a different world now. (I also sold a collaborative Spillane/Collins story to EQMM – “Killer’s Alley,” which will be the first Mike Hammer story ever published in those pages; naturally, it will be in their Black Mask section. Barb and I are both thrilled to be contributers to EQMM.)

My bride and I have been writing together for a long time. The process is similar to the one Matt Clemens and I use, although I don’t sleep with Matt, a situation he and I are both fine with. One difference is that I tend to come up with the initial idea when writing with Matt. Usually Barb comes up with the initial idea. Then she and I plot the story together, she writes the rough draft, and I do the second draft. It’s the same for both short stories and novels.

Tomorrow (Monday, as I write this) I will begin work on the new Trash ‘n’ Treasures mystery novel – Antiques Carry On. Barb has completed her draft and I will start in, revising and expanding (she has given me 250 double-spaced pages and I will write 300 to 350 double-spaced pages). The only unusual factor this time is that I’ve already done my draft (from hers) of the first three chapters. That was necessary because we moved to a new publisher and needed to provide a substantial finished sample of the book to that publisher in the effort to land a contract.

We fully intend to keep going with the series, but we are at a funny (odd) juncture, which I trust is one many mystery writers with long-running series are experiencing. In plotting the next book, do we set it pre-pandemic or post-pandemic, or even during pandemic? The problem with post-pandemic, of course, is that none of us know what that will look like.

For seniors like us – and I have underlying health issues that magnify the situation – even a post-pandemic world will be tricky. Maybe it’s already occurred to you that you may have eaten at your last buffet. Or that how (or even if) you go out to the movies will be radically different.

Today, suffering from almost six months of cabin fever, we ventured tentatively out. Prior to Covid-19 we almost always took a day off every week that included going to either the nearby Quad Cities or Iowa City/Cedar Rapids for shopping, dining and sometimes a movie. We also have a nice movie theater here in Muscatine, and often took in films there – you may remember how often I did little movie reviews here back in the Good Old Days.

Since then, trips out for groceries and meds have been about it. I’ve cancelled doctor’s appointments and – although going to the local hospital for blood work – have had my consultations over the phone. We have been essentially sheltering in place since fairly early March.

But today we drove to the Quad Cities. We went through the drive-through at Portillo’s and got delicious food, which we ate in the car. We went briefly into the Davenport Books-a-Million, where masks are required and where the filled parking lot places were fairly sparse, and shopped a little and used the restroom (carefully) and drove home. An outing. An honest-to-God outing. On the way home we took the river road, which is scenic as hell and includes the quarry that Quarry was named after. We were listening to the audiobook of Quarry’s Ex read by the fabulous Stefan Rudnicki, so it was fitting.

In terms of what we used to do, it was kind of pitiful. After six months of sheltering, it was fabulous.

I don’t feel like we took any risks worse than our weekly grocery run. I know a lot of seniors get their groceries delivered, or pull up outside the supermarket for curbside service. But I rather pathetically look forward to a weekly grocery run – it’s early morning (we get up at six a.m. to make it there by seven) and it’s worth it, because the music is oldies, not country western, which you may have noticed I despise. The joy of hearing Bobby Rydell singing “Wild One” or Bobby Darin doing “Things” while I look for mini-cans of Coke Zero is difficult for me to articulate.

Meds we get going through a drive-up.

Also, I have a new appreciation for McDonald’s and Burger King.

So. What world will Barb and I write about when we do the next book about Brandy and Vivian Borne, if we’re lucky enough to get to keep going (as writers and as living breathing human beings)? How much zany laughter does a pandemic produce, anyway? I am planning to write a new Krista and Keith Larson novel – should I set it during the pandemic? Would that be interesting? Or will this be a period that no one will want to re-live? Yes, we look at movies made during the Depression, but mostly they are full of guys in tuxes and gals in ballgowns, or maybe Toby Wing wearing nothing but a great big dime.

And why is anybody still on the planet who would make a Toby Wing reference?

And yet the beat goes on.

* * *

This past week found me finishing up the second novella in the new series I’m doing for Neotext – more about that soon – and cleaning my office and dealing with copy-edited manuscripts and clearing my desk of smaller projects before I dive into Antiques Carry On.

One of those projects is writing the introduction to the 29th volume of The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy for IDW. I have written introductions to the previous 28 volumes, too.

And now, with Intro 29, I will have written about the entire run of Chester Gould’s Tracy. This volume ends immediately before my fifteen-year tenure begins. Writing about the last, less than stellar year and a half or so of Chet’s work – though that work definitely has its rewards – was a bittersweet experience. My intro gets personal, as during this period my pal Matt Masterson and I were, every six months or so, getting together with Chet at his Tribune Tower office and dining at the prestigious Tavern Club for lunch. On the first such visit, I met my future collaborator, Rick Fletcher. At the time I had no idea that I would be the second writer on this great, important comic strip.

So writing this final intro was indeed a bittersweet thing. Like this damn pandemic, it was gave me a real sense of my mortality – although once you’ve had open heart surgery, your mortality’s on your mind quite a bit, actually. Like – am I dying, or is that just gas? When I first met Chester Gould, he was 72. My age now.

I hope you Tracy fans are taking the time to read my little introductory essays, which I think are pretty good. And fans of mine who haven’t been collecting these Tracy volumes ought to start – but not with the last one. Try something from the ‘40s or early ‘50s and see just how good Chester Gould was at his peak.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother. Scroll down for it.

And here’s a Quarry’s Choice review. Again, scroll down for it. This may be my favorite Quarry novel – definitely my favorite “list” book.

M.A.C.

I Confess About Perry Mason, Plus Quarry!

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Photos: Everett Collection; Illustration: Dillen Phelps

Perry Mason is back!

What great news for mystery fans! Just think of it – the crackling courtroom scenes with their dramatic on-the-witness-stand confessions. The shrewd defense attorney willing to make the law jump through hoops to clear an innocent client. His tough P.I. associate who tracks down every lead and takes every risk. The loyal beautiful secretary who may, or may not, be having an offstage affair with her boss. The veteran police detective who this time has the goods on the lawyer’s client. The dogged D.A. who is convinced that, finally, he will definitely send Perry Mason’s client to the big house or perhaps even the chair.

And that TV cast – Raymond Burr, understated but smoldering; Barbara Hale, professional but so lovely; William Hopper, handsome and wry; Ray Collins, the Orson Welles player who made something lovable out of crusty Lt. Tragg; and William Talman, the bulldog D.A. who survived even his own marijuana conviction. Nine glorious years it ran (and 22 TV movies with Burr and Hale years later!), and it runs still, entertaining little noirs about love and business and justice.

The best ones were always based on the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, that self-taught lawyer who cut his teeth in the pulps and went on to rule the slicks and the paperback racks, outsold only by Spillane and Christie, and – like them – under-valued by critics who didn’t know great storytelling when it bit them where they sat. But even those not based on Gardner novels were entertaining, and those scripted by mystery writer Jonathan Latimer were always terrific.

And now he’s back! Perry is back on HBO and he’s not your grandfather’s Perry Mason, boy, or your father’s or your mother’s or…anybody’s.

Look, I believe in taking film and TV adaptations of fiction on their own terms. You may be aware that I am a Spillane fan, yet Kiss Me Deadly (set in L.A., not New York, and designed to make a monkey out of Mickey) is my favorite Mike Hammer movie. I find Road to Perdition in some ways an improvement on my original. I didn’t mind the Quarry series on Cinemax moving my stories from the Midwest to Memphis, and even put up with the humor being drained out of my guy – it wasn’t my version. But they caught the spirit of what I was up to. (And sent checks.) Cool.

However.

This new Perry Mason is a private eye, not a lawyer (at least not yet). He is also a blackmailer and a drunk and a divorced father and generally a depressed sad sack in a studiously rumpled trench coat and shapeless fedora, as well as a tie that we’re reminded several times has an egg stain on it. He exists in a gloomy world where his activities include taking photos of an obese man performing cunnilingus on a starlet (pumpkin pie is involved), and doesn’t that seem right out of Erle Stanley Gardner!

It’s a series that is 50% art direction, 40% cinematography and 10% actors trying not to embarrass themselves. Oh, and there’s a score that consists of random piano chords and jazz-style dirge licks. The first episode establishes that Mason gets along okay with one police detective and exchanges insults with that detective’s partner – you know, like The Maltese Falcon, if The Maltese Falcon sucked.

And who needs Raymond Burr when you have Matthew Rhys to shuffle around feeling sorry for himself, exhibiting all the charisma of a wet sock. Remember how Perry lived on his dead folks’ rundown farm? You don’t? I guess I’m a little fuzzy on that myself. I can tell you the HBO show is set during the Depression, and, brother, does it put the depress in Depression. Of course, if you like dead babies with their eyes sewn shut, you’ve come to the right place.

But there’s diversity the old Perry Mason lacked. Paul Drake (not in the first episode) is an African-American uniformed cop. Mason’s girl friend is an Hispanic airplane pilot who doesn’t seem to like him much (can’t blame her). No, she’s not Della Street – that character is a different lawyer’s secretary. That lawyer is played by John Lithgow who seems to be a man who woke up in somebody else’s dream and is just trying to fit in.

Spare me the news that this is an origin story, and that Mason will evolve into the character we know and once loved. That much evolving even Darwin couldn’t sell.

It’s enough to make me long for Monte Markham.

Do I sound irritated? Well, I feel certain this series will be every bit as popular as the David Soul-starring Casablanca show. Current efforts by a lot of smart people to get Nathan Heller and Mike Hammer on TV will be crippled by this pathetic misfire. All HBO’s Perry Mason will accomplish is to convince TV execs that traditional tough detective shows, particularly, especially, set if in period, are home box-office poison.

Excuse me. I feel the urge to put on my studiously rumpled raincoat and shapeless fedora and go for a walk in the rain. Where did I put my egg-stained tie?

* * *

Now I’d like to share with you an essay by Kieran Fisher at Film School Rejects about the Quarry TV show.

There Was More Moral Ambiguity
to Explore For Cinemax’s ‘Quarry’

The Cinemax series brought Max Allan Collins’ iconic pulpy crime institution to the screen in 2016, but viewers didn’t pay attention to its brilliance at the time.

Most people live boring and mundane lives, meaning that they’ll never become willing participants in the criminal underworld. However, if pop culture’s fascination with crime stories reveals anything, it’s that people are drawn to the dark side when it comes to the entertainment they consume. The allure of this type of storytelling is multifaceted and complex, but sometimes it’s as simple as enjoying the thrills it provides.

Crime-centric entertainment often presents a more nuanced take on criminals as well. How many movies and shows have you watched where you root for protagonists who engage in some very questionable acts? That’s because these characters aren’t always evil to the core. They sometimes have justifiable or understandable reasons for their bad behavior. Such is the nature of Quarry.

Based on Max Allan Collins’ long-running pulp novels of the same name, and created for television by Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller, Quarry revolves around Mac (Logan Marshall-Green), a marine who returns to Memphis following the Vietnam War to find that he’s been shunned by society. His wife is having an affair, he can’t find gainful employment, and the press hates him due to his involvement in a village massacre while on duty. Mac then gets into debt with a man called The Broker (Peter Mullan), which leads to him becoming a contract killer.

Needless to say, Mac is a character who can’t catch a break. He just wants a fresh start and a regular life, but he’s forced into an unlawful situation that he doesn’t want to be a part of. Furthermore, he’s haunted by the guilt of his war crimes, having caused the deaths of several innocent women and children. He joined the army to become a hero and left a villain.

One of the most compelling elements of Quarry is Mac’s struggle to figure out who he is, morally and emotionally. He’s a flawed human being who wants to be a better person, but he makes some bad decisions along the way. But his propensity for killing comes naturally. Violence and killing make sense to Mac because he’s good at both, causing him to feel conflicted.

Marshall-Green brings the character to life with aplomb, straddling a fine line between sympathetic antihero and homicidal monster. He boasts the swagger to play a convincing tough guy, but he also displays the emotional range of someone who’s struggling to cope with repressed emotions. He’s also quite charming, which makes for a very layered and well-rounded performance. His charm also makes the character likable, even though you wouldn’t want to bump into this guy on the street.

Of course, another reason why Mac is easy to root for is that his enemies are worse than him. In one episode, a man called Suggs (Kurt Yaeger) — a murderer/potential rapist with a prosthetic leg — kidnaps Mac’s wife in an effort to lure the contract killer to him. Mac’s wife doesn’t deserve his drama, though there’s an argument to be made that her husband’s to blame for all the bad that comes their way. The Broker is also pretty rotten, as he’s essentially forcing Mac to murder people.

Quarry doesn’t hold back when it comes to the violence either. One standout scene sees some poor shmuck get crushed by a car. There are also some gruesome war flashbacks that depict pure horror and brutality. That’s unsurprising considering that the showrunners also wrote some episodes of Rectify, which contains its own fair share of violent moments. And like that show, Quarry is all about that Southern Gothic neo-noir style that’s absolutely intoxicating. The South’s landscapes make for a stunning backdrop to Quarry‘s world of death and mayhem.

The Quarry novels debuted in 1976 and continue to be published to this day. In recent years, Mac’s exploits have even branched off into comic books. There’s an abundance of interesting stories to bring to the screen, and Cinemax canceling this show after eight episodes is a hard pill to swallow. Despite being a constant presence in crime fiction, Quarry screen adaptations are severely lacking.

The books are all over the place and don’t adhere to any set chronological order. However, the general story is that he takes assignments for The Broker before breaking free of his duties. Then he becomes his own man, defending targets from other hitmen (for a small fee, of course). He eventually retires, but he can’t stay out of the game. If the audiences turned up for Quarry when it mattered, it could have lasted for multiple seasons without growing stale.

The series could have taken the chronological approach. The novels haven’t always been released that way, but you can read them in a certain order for a structured approach to the character’s life story. That makes sense for television, too. Still, I love the idea of a Quarry show where seasons bounce around all different timelines.

Fans of Breaking Bad, Banshee, True Detective, and shows of that ilk will enjoy Quarry. It’s pulpier than those shows, but it boasts enough similar sensibilities and stylistic similarities to hang out with them in its own way. It’s just a shame that it never received the opportunity to make a long-lasting impression on viewers.

* * *

The great magazine True West has reviewed the new Caleb York, Hot Lead, Cold Justice, right here.

This link is to the definitive interview with me on the subject of the Dick Tracy movie novelization.

Finally, the Mike Hammer mystery, Murder, My Love, has been nominated for the Best Original Novel “Scribe” award. Here is the complete list of nominees.

M.A.C.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today….

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

I have been wanting to share this with you for ages, but couldn’t figure out how to do so – all I have is a VHS tape of it. What is it? Seduction of the Innocents’ video of “The Truth Hurts” from our CD, The Golden Age. I love this video, and how well it displays Miguel Ferrer’s charisma, and Bill Mumy’s acting. Also there for the video shoot, and perhaps glimpsed here, was Brandon Lee, who was (believe it or not) a kind of camp follower of the band – a wonderful guy.

Time passes and things happen, and along the way we meet – if we are very lucky and I have been – some remarkable people, and that includes those mentioned above, but also my bandmates Steve Leialoha and Chris Christensen. Chris in 1990 had not joined the band yet, but he released “The Golden Age” on CD on his Beat Brothers label (also the label that released the various Crusin’ CDs).

Thirty years ago? Really?

Also thirty years ago was the release of the Dick Tracy film, and it’s getting some Thirtieth Anniversary play right now.

So here is a long excerpt from an article I wrote for Lee Goldberg’s Tied In – The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing. It is the behind-the-scenes amusing and horrorifying story of my writing of the movie tie-in novelization of Dick Tracy.

I wanted to write the Dick Tracy tie-in novel because I‘d been the writer of the syndicated strip since 1977, plus I was a mystery novelist. Landing the Dick Tracy strip was my first really big career break. I got the job after trying out for it, writing a sample continuity. I got the opportunity to try out chiefly because of some mystery novels I‘d written as a kid that had a strong comics element (Bait Money and Blood Money, both 1973).

My re-boot of the strip got a lot of positive attention, and I loved the job, having been a stone Dick Tracy fanatic since childhood. Before getting the strip, I had even developed a friendship with creator Chester Gould – a rarity, because he was very private – although Chet played no role in my landing this plum assignment.

Some time in the ‘80s, I was shown a potential screenplay for Dick Tracy, shared with me by my Chicago Tribune Syndicate editor. I thought it was lousy, and told him so, and he agreed. I figured that was the end of it.

But the Dick Tracy film was a project that wouldn‘t die – Clint Eastwood was going to be the square-jawed dick for a while, which was exciting, and then finally Warren Beatty got obsessed with it, and it became a Disney project and a very big deal. I offered to do the novel version and, thanks to my credentials as the writer of the strip, got the gig. I was thrilled.

Then they sent me the screenplay – it was virtually the same lousy one I‘d read seven or eight years before! I was
shocked and dismayed. Lots of the classic characters, villains and good guys alike, some good situations…but no story. Not really.

I asked my agent what to do about it, wondering what kind of novel I could fashion from such weak material, and he said, “Just do whatever you want with it. Nobody‘s going to read it at Disney – this is just small change to them.” Did I mention that my usually very savvy agent had never sold a tie-in before? And that this was the worst advice he ever gave me?

So I wrote a novel very loosely based on the screenplay. I added more characters from the strip, provided a story, even replaced what seemed to me to be unimaginative death traps with my own better ones. It was a terrific little novel, designed by and for a Dick Tracy fan like me.

I sent it in, went on about my business, and several months later my wife Barb and I were preparing to go on a research trip to Nassau (for my Nate Heller novel Carnal Hours) when my agent called with bad news. The Disney people hadn‘t even made it through my book – got maybe a third of the way – before saying a faithful-to-the-screenplay page one rewrite was needed.

In seven days.

Dick Tracy is legendarily a movie that Warren Beatty micro-managed. Every tie-in aspect was overseen by Beatty and his top people. The novel I‘d written was inappropriate for any film. To have taken these liberties on Dick Tracy was a blundering piece of farcical arrogance on my part that makes Fawlty Towers look like a documentary.

So with a 1989-era laptop (think about it), I went to Nassau and spent 70% of my time in the hotel room salvaging what little I could from my first version. Maybe 25% of it was workable. Actually, some of my non-screenplay stuff made it in, because it didn‘t contradict anything (Vitamin Flintheart is in my novel, for instance, but not in the film, not even deleted scenes).

Barb and I were in Nassau four or five days, and I came home and wrote the rest of it, just blazing. What I came up with was pretty good. I was as happy with it as possible, considering the weak screenplay that was my source. But that, as they say, was just the beginning….

I spent many, many hours on the phone with the producer of the film, Barry Osborne (later involved in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), a gracious, intelligent man, and way too far up the food chain to be giving a lowly tie-in writer such instructions as, “The chair on page 223? It‘s green not red,” and, “You have 88 Keyes standing up from the piano too soon on page 187.” Most of the changes I was asked to make had to do with such surface things, and many substantial changes I had made in character motivation and dialogue were overlooked.

This was perhaps the most instructive thing I learned from the experience – if you follow the screenplay out the door, and do the surface of it accurately, you can slip in all kinds of substance where characterization and fleshing out of scenes are concerned.

Osborne actually liked the novel a lot, and he told me on several occasions that I had solved plot problems for them, which they had fixed by way of dialogue looping – and indeed the film has five or six lines I wrote.

Also, he asked me about a scene involving Tracy‘s girl friend Tess and her mother, where Mrs. Trueheart says a lot of negative stuff about Dick, how she is delighted that Tess and Dick have broken up and how selfish the detective is, etc. I had softened this scene, making Tess‘s mother much more positive about her potential son-in-law. The producer asked me why I‘d done that.

“Because,” I said, “Tracy joined the police force to avenge the death of Mrs. Trueheart‘s husband – Tess‘s father, who ran a deli and got shot by robbers. Mrs. Trueheart adores Dick Tracy. Every Dick Tracy fan knows that.”

And they re-shot the scene along my lines.

So I take a certain pride in knowing that Dick Tracy is a film in part based upon its own novelization. The final battle, however, reached new heights of absurdity, and involved phone calls with high-level folks at Disney. How high level? How about Jeffrey Katzenberg? The “surprise” ending of Dick Tracy is that the mysterious masked bad guy called the Blank is actually Breathless Mahoney. Sorry to ruin it for you, but, yes, Madonna did it.

This surprise seemed painfully obvious to me, the kind of shocker you can damn near figure out in the opening credits. But Beatty, Disney and all associated were convinced they had a surprise on the level of The Sixth Sense (I figured that out, too, about five minutes in). So I was instructed to remove it from the novel.

Wait a minute, you‘re saying. Remove what? The identity of the masked bad guy. The solution to the mystery. You know…who the killer is.

This surprise ending, the Disney folks told me, had to be guarded like the Coca Cola recipe or the unretouched Zapruder film. And when I pointed out that Dick Tracy was a mystery story, and that leaving the ending off a mystery story just might disappoint a few readers, this seemed of no particular import.

I did half a dozen rewrites of the ending, sneaking in hints of the Blank‘s identity, such as, “Why, look who it is under the mask…” said Tess, breathlessly. No sale. About a page was cut from the book.

I won only one small concession – that any printings after the film came out would include the full ending. Only one small print run represents the complete novel (the sixth, distributed to school book clubs).

There can be no doubt that I hold a singular honor among mystery writers – I wrote a bestselling whodunit… without revealing whodunit.

Perhaps by way of apology, the Disney people flew my wife, son, mother and father and me to the film‘s premiere at Disneyworld in Florida. They treated us great. Everybody attached to the movie treated us great, including Warren Beatty. We did a big press get-together with many of the stars. I was doing a Mumbles continuity in the Dick Tracy strip at the time, and Dustin Hoffman (who played Mumbles in the film) read me that day‘s strip from a local paper, doing Mumbles’ dialogue in character. Doesn‘t get much better than that.

Two postscripts: in our Disneyworld hotel, a coloring book on sale – an item that (it turned out) had been available to the public for several weeks – included the Breathless-is-the-Blank ending. As we say in the funnies, “Sigh….”

Also, the wonderful actress Estelle Parsons (who played Mrs. Truehart in the film) wandered into a bookstore at Disneyworld, where I was signing copies of my open-ended novel. We spoke, and she was very sweet, and I said to her, “You had to re-shoot your big scene, didn‘t you?”

She looked at me, amazed. “How did you know that?”

And I told her.

* * *

Here is a look at the Thirtieth Anniversary of Dick Tracy in which my role is dealt with somewhat.

And here, as well, my part touched on somewhat more extensively. (If this link requires you to subscribe to the Telegraph, note that a free subscription is available.)

As for the Seduction of the Innocent CD, “The Golden Age,” it’s possible Chris has a few copies left; write him at Jchris3227@aol.com. I have a few cassette copies and also Seduction’s live CD. You know where to find me.

M.A.C.

Hey Kids – Despair and Frustration!

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

I received an e-mail from a loyal reader and good friend to me and my work, who expressed the following concern: “It is probably just my imagination, but…this week’s and last week’s posts seem to have a certain edge of despair and/or frustration about them. Hope all is well.”

I didn’t answer this directly, but will answer it now. Right here.

While “an edge of despair” goes too far, “frustration” does not. This is a frustrating time for me, and for a lot of working writers. Let’s restrict this to writers in the mystery/suspense genre, because that’s the world I know. But I can tell you there are some difficulties of the moment that are impacting probably everybody but the very upper reaches of fiction publishing – the consistent big sellers, and they undoubtedly have their own woes.

Among the problems – the realities – of publishing that have just begun to show themselves in a major way is the policy of many editors and especially publishers to no longer offer multiple book contracts. For much of my career, going back to the mid-‘70s, I would be offered three-book contracts. For somebody like me – prolific and working no “day job,” and dealing with multiple publishers – that has allowed me to be able to look ahead several years and know I have work. In other words, you know you have money coming in (and something to do with your time).

I have been very, very lucky. The only really slow patch came about when, on the same day back in 1993, I had my Nate Heller contract with Bantam cancelled and my Dick Tracy comic strip contract with Tribune Media Services not picked up for the usual five-year run. I was blessed by the friendship of two great men who are no longer with us: Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, who almost smothered me in short story assignments until I could get my career up and running again. From these ashes, rose both Road to Perdition and my movie/TV tie-in career.

Other than that rough stretch, made smooth by Ed and Marty, I have always known that I have a couple of years, at least, lined up, keeping me busy and the lights on.

But publishing itself is in a rough patch. I don’t have to go into any detail with anyone reading this about the ongoing changes in the industry – the disappearance of Border’s, the restructuring of Barnes & Noble, the death of many mystery bookstores, the dominance of Amazon and other on-line stores, self-publishing, Amazon’s own publishing, e-books, etc. Some of that stuff represents new opportunities; others represent empty stores with tumbleweed blowing through.

I benefitted greatly by having the bulk of my Nate Heller backlist picked up by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, who later picked up Mallory, the “disaster” series, and two thrillers by “Barbara Allan,” Regeneration and Bombshell.

But of late, many publishers – and I think soon most publishers – are offering authors one-book contracts for new work. That is not only troubling for those of us trying to figure out if we have work/income lined up more than a year, but it also presents creative problems. Take the Antiques series, which deals with an on-going storyline in addition to the self-contained mysteries – Barb and I have regularly figured out three-novel story arcs, which have greatly impacted the books creatively.

There is no such thing as a one-book arc.

Caleb York is now getting one book at a time, and I have built an ongoing storyline into that series as well. But a reality of one-book-a-time contracts means every book has to look over its shoulder and make sure that if it turns out to be the last novel, it will provide a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Hard Case Crime has been a huge boon and boost to me, and they have published more books by me than any other author (thanks, Charles!). But, hard as it may be to believe, I’ve never had more than a one-book contract from HCC (other than when they reprinted the early Quarrys in tandem with the Cinemax series).

Nathan Heller has always benefitted from multiple book contracts – the JFK Trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby; Target Lancer; Ask Not) is one of the major achievements of the saga, in my opinion. But Better Dead and the forthcoming Do No Harm were written on one-book contracts. I am looking at a two-book RFK cycle next, but can I find a house that will guarantee me two slots on their publishing schedule?

Girl Most Likely has done very well, but until we see how Girl Can’t Help It does, I won’t know if a third book will happen. This is both nerve-racking and frustrating. The book has done well – sales have been brisk, and the reviews at Amazon average four-stars…and there have been a lot of them (over 200).

But among those reviews were weak ones from several of the trades, complaining that the book was too much of a departure from my Heller/Quarry/Hammer norm. Some readers have complained similarly, and a really nasty two-star review (“What Is This?”) has headed up the Amazon reviews of the novel from the start, and is still there, discouraging sales.

Why do I read reviews? Often I don’t. Do I take them seriously? You bet I do. Why, because I can’t take criticism like any normal human? (Maybe.) But absolutely these on-line reviewers – bloggers who are courted by publishers now – are taken seriously by the editors and publishers who decide whether or not to offer another precious one-book contract to an author. How successful that writer’s track record is seems increasingly irrelevant, unless sales have been through the roof.

If you are interested enough in my work to click onto the links I provide here weekly, you already know that most of the reviews for Girl Most Likely have been very good. Mostly excellent, actually. But publishing takes the negative reviews more to heart than the positive ones – at least that’s how it feels to me.

One problem was that Girl Most Likely debuted in the UK a month before America, and racked up a number of reviews by females who didn’t like an old male writing about a young female (and that the secondary protagonist was also an old male), as well as readers who understandably don’t like America much right now (and those two groups seem to overlap). Most of those hateful reviews were channeled into Goodreads, which set Girl Most Likely up for an initially rough ride.


Trade paperback edition with new material.

There have been other frustrations. Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and myself is one of my proudest accomplishments (though Brad deserves much of the credit). It’s a massive, 700-page work that is probably the definitive work on this important, influential aspect of American history. We received not a single nomination for any of the major mystery awards. We were not reviewed in Mystery Scene or The Strand, although the book was much praised outside the genre (we were the Chicago Public Library’s Book of the Year and won a best audio award).

This is why I put so much emphasis on the importance of on-line reviews coming from those of you who are kind enough (and smart enough) to like my work. That’s why I do the book giveaways – and one is coming soon for Killing Quarry.

Also, thanks to those of you who wrote about your willingness to receive Advance Reading Copies of my stuff for review purposes. Right now I don’t know if Do No Harm is even getting ARCs…I’ll let you know. If not, finished copies closer to publication date will be made available, in part through another giveaway.

And you collectors out there who love classic tough guy stuff, like Hard Case Crime publishes, and wish HCC and others would reprint more great old novels…swell, but how about supporting some writers who are still alive? They need your love, and royalties, much more than dead guys. So when I suggest you write reviews on-line of my books, I also want to encourage you to do the same for any writers whose books you regularly read. Remember what the great Don Westlake said: “A cult author is a writer who is seven readers short of making a living.”

So, despair? Not really. Frustration? You betcha, Red Ryder.

And there’s another aspect to this that gets even more personal. At 71, with some health problems behind me (and, like anybody my age, more undoubtedly ahead of me), I am really less concerned with making a living now and more concerned with building the M.A.C. bookshelf…with expanding my legacy. A major part of that is making sure I can keep doing Heller. I have half a dozen more in mind, and in particular want to get the RFK duo done, as I’ve set that up so thoroughly in the previous novels.

So look for a major push for Do No Harm here, to help make another Heller…more Hellers…possible.

And I want to say that I don’t mean to be critical of my publishers and editors. They are navigating a tough, fluid world, where they’ve chosen to be because (like writers) they love books. I salute Titan, Hard Case Crime, Kensington, Morrow, and Thomas & Mercer for everything they’ve done for me and, so far anyway, continue to do.

And I have books coming out from every one – in some cases more than one.

And I can’t forget Brash Books, who have brought out in beautiful editions not only the prose Perdition trilogy (including the complete Road to Perdition movie novel) but Black Hats and USS Powderkeg, previously seen under the Patrick Culhane byline. (Powderkeg restores my preferred title to Red Sky in Morning and is somewhat revised.)

So will you stop bitching, Collins? You have been so damn lucky in your career! Shut-up and thank your readers for everything.

Next week: some good news on a couple of fronts.

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Here’s a great review from Ron Fortier of the Caleb York novel, Last Stage to Hell Junction.

Urban Politico has a fun review of Seduction of the Innocent.

Here’s another of those “movies you didn’t know were based on comic books,” featuring a little something called Road to Perdition.

Scroll down for nice stuff about Ms. Tree, Killing Quarry and Mike Hammer (although the writer doesn’t realize there are two Collins-scripted Stacy Keach radio-style novels-for-audio).

M.A.C.