Posts Tagged ‘Jack and Maggie Starr’

Bad Reviews, Christmas Movies, and Gift Cards

Tuesday, December 28th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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


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

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

E-Book: Amazon
Paperback: Amazon

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

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

Behind Bars: High-Class Cocktails Inspired by Lowlife Gangsters

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

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

* * *

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

Happy 2022!

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.

* * *

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.

An “Antiques” Stocking Stuffer and the Walmart Big Time

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Yes, here I am with another selfless suggestion for something you might give to your loved ones or yourself at Yuletide.


Amazon Indiebound Books A Million Barnes and Noble

Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides collects, for the first time, the three e-book novellas Barb and I did over the last five years. It’s a paperback (hence a perfect stocking stuffer), and I know some collectors out there prefer hardcovers, but “Barbara Allan” is thrilled that these stories are finally gathered in a real book.

If you are one of the hold-outs who like my stuff but can’t bring yourself to cross the cozy divide, Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides is an inexpensive way to see Brandy and her mother Vivian in action. A sampler, if you will, and much tastier than those Whitman samplers some people insist upon giving you at Christmas.

I’ve discussed this before, but I still get questions about how Barb and I work together on the Antiques books, and how we stay married doing them. One aspect is that my office is on one floor and Barb’s is on another. But basically it’s this: Barb writes the first draft, and I write the final draft.

The less basic explanation is that Barb is the lead writer. Although I have more experience, and have been doing this longer, the books reflect her sensibilities and storytelling skills. We plot them together, but I stay out of the way while Barb prepares her draft. Sometimes we’ve described that as a rough draft, but really it’s not. Barb polishes each chapter thoroughly and, after at least six months of work, she gives me a perfectly readable and well-crafted novel that happens to be fifty or sixty pages shorter than what our contract requires.

My job is to further polish, and expand, and do lots of jokes. Barb has already done plenty of humor at this stage, but then I add more, with the result being that these novels are damn funny. Barb is wonderful about staying out of my way (as I’ve stayed out of hers, unless asked for input, during her creation of the initial draft). She claims to be so sick of the book at this point that she doesn’t care what I do to it.

This is not true.

She cares a lot, and will ask me why I’ve cut or changed something, and – when I tell her – will either agree or explain why (for plot or character reasons) (these are female point-of-view first-person novels) I need to restore what she originally wrote. Which I do.

The only time we’ve squabbled is when I’ve gotten crabby because I’m overworked. She will not tolerate snippiness. And I’ve been known on rare occasions (somewhat rare) (tiny bit rare) to be snippy, so there you go.

Consider Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides our Christmas gift to you, except for the part where you have to pay for it.

Kensington publishes the Antiques novels, and also the Caleb York westerns. The accompanying photo will demonstrate that these Spillane/Collins westerns have hit the big time: we are in the Muscatine, Iowa, Walmart with The Bloody Spur! In fact, the Walmart chain bought a whole bunch of copies, and you can buy your copy at your local temple to the memory of Sam Walton.

The Antiques books haven’t made it into Walmart and probably won’t – the chain is very narrow about the kind of books they buy…mostly it’s romances, romantic westerns and westerns, plus a few bestsellers. Not a cozy in sight – not even an hilarious one like Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicides. How do they expect to stay in business?

Speaking of Antiques, here is a terrific review of Ho-Ho-Homicides at King River Life Magazine, which will give you a good idea of what to expect, including discussions of each novella.

Okay, now what you’re wondering is…what can I give Max Allan Collins for Christmas? I will be facetious and serious at the same time: you could write reviews (however brief) for my novels at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your own blogs and whatever site you deem appropriate. There is a real reason why you might want to consider doing this, if you want new work from me.

The books I write – Mike Hammer, Quarry, Antiques – are seldom reviewed by the mainstream (including lots of Internet reviewers). I do not have the cachet or sales punch of a Lehane or Connelly, who are always reviewed. I am largely ignored, even by people who love my work, in “Best of” lists at the end of the year. This is a bit of a head-scratcher, but it’s a reality. Even the widely, glowingly reviewed non-fiction book Scarface and the Untouchable: The Battle for Chicago isn’t turning up on such lists.

I probably write too much. That keeps work that, if other people did it, would be taken more seriously. I am not whining or complaining (well, I guess I am) but I do understand that even readers who follow my work can’t always keep up with me.

Here’s the deal. If I don’t write, publishers do not send money to my house. That’s one thing. The other is that I am 70, have had some harrowing health issues (that I seem to have either overcome or am handling well) and realize that I don’t have forever to tell my stories.

And I have a lot more stories I want to tell.

Actually, I do not work as hard as I used to. Over the years, most Heller chapters were written in a day (25 to 30 double-spaced pages). I was a boy wonder till I got old. I slowed down starting with Better Dead. In general, my work load now is ten finished pages, six days a week. (Sometimes only five days.) It’s no different than with people with a “real” job – they work five or six days a week, and nobody applauds them, or tries to talk them out of it.

As I’ve mentioned, I have friends who have done these sort of interventions to get me to retire and get Barb and me to go take a cruise with other aging couples. I would rather write. Barb and I treat ourselves well and have a great time together, and don’t feel the need for a lot of travel to do that. She is a beautiful woman and lovely company, and is the one thing in my life that is worth hating me over.

She and I are watching one Christmas movie or television episode per evening right now. I may write about this soon. But I will say this – Holiday Inn is a wonderful movie, and White Christmas sort of stinks. Maybe my son Nathan is right: Die Hard is a better Christmas movie than White Christmas.

* * *

Here six great books (available inexpensively) are recommended, and one of them is True Detective (and I’m pleased and grateful, but it’s not “Allen,” okay?).

Shots looks at upcoming Titan titles, including the new Hammer, Murder, My Love.

The Strand magazine is on the stands now, with the key Spillane “Mike Hammer” short story, “Tonight, My Love.”

We’ve linked to this review before, but this time it’s attached to the mass market paperback of The Bloody Spur, out right now.

Finally, here’s a lovely write-up on the three Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries.

M.A.C.

Bye, Hef

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

The recent death of Jerry Lewis is a reminder that for Baby Boomers like me, our own mortality is continually underscored by the passing of the great media figures who shaped us.

Just as Jerry Lewis had a big impact on what I think is funny, Hugh Hefner – who recently passed away at 91 – was hugely important in my life. My uncle Richard had Playboys in his basement proto-man cave that I saw when I was as young as ten or eleven, learning well before puberty that I liked seeing pictures of beautiful naked women. When I was in junior high, my father received a Christmas present of a subscription to Playboy as a gag gift in a bridge club “Secret Santa” exchange. He had no interest in the magazine and soon forgot about the subscription, because I always got to the mailbox first.

I loved the magazine. I loved everything about it, including, yes, the articles. And the fiction, and the book and movie and record reviews. There was a sophistication an Iowa kid could only dream of. As a comics fan, I was bowled over by the incredible cartoons, not just their raciness but their artistry. And the incredibly beautiful photography of the centerfolds (this is circa 1964 – 1966) defined for me what a woman should look like. I should say “could look like,” because even then I knew this was an airbrushed fantasy. Still, I knew the names of every Playmate from the ‘60s through the mid-‘70s – the beautiful woman I married was completely unthreatened by the Playboy fantasy, and the magazines never had to be hidden around our home.

I came of age in the pre-hippie ‘60s. It was a world of the Rat Pack and sick humor and Beatniks and Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the early Beatles. I still prefer the early Beatles – you can have most of the White Album. But then the ‘70s came along, and magazines that were more frank about sex in prose and in photography – Penthouse, Hustler – began to make inroads for Hefner’s fabulous brainchild. (I write about this in the forthcoming Quarry’s Climax.)

Hefner was important in loosening up the sexual mores of this (and other) nations. For good or ill, he fired some of the first real volleys in the Sexual Revolution (the most important after Kinsey). But the later ‘60s and every decade that followed were problematic for him. He struggled with feminism and self-consciously wrote progressive essays that were very smart but pretty boring. He never found a way to square the circle of a woman having sexual freedom and full human rights. The female as sex object had been defined long before he came along, and he obviously made his fortune and fame expanding and redefining that image. But it limited him and made him seen a hypocrite.

I make no apologies for considering Playboy in its prime (and even for many years after) a great publication. Until the recent revamping (since abandoned) with nudity banished, a new issue always gave me a bit of a thrill reminiscent of getting to the mailbox before my parents noticed I had snagged Dad’s copy of Playboy. For many decades I subscribed, and I looked forward to no magazine more.

For the articles. And so much more.

I always felt Hef was a kind of nerd. He was a work-a-holic who loved publishing and awkwardly took on the sophisticated sybarite persona his magazine dictated. Oh, I realize he really did become a sophisticated sybarite, but when he appeared on TV, particularly on Playboy After Dark, he seemed so awkward and ill at ease.

Somehow that was his charm. It conveyed the possibility to nerds in Iowa and elsewhere that an Illinois nerd could be the man who lived in a mansion filled with beautiful models, movie stars, intellectuals, top nightclub talent, world-class chefs and a never-ending party. I much prefer the quiet life I’ve led with one beautiful woman, but fantasy is still fun to think about.

As some of you know, Hefner was Nate Heller’s friend and there are scenes at the Chicago Playboy mansion in the JFK Trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer and Ask Not). So Nate tips his fedora to his old friend, while I just say, “Goodbye, Hef.”

* * *

Here’s a nice article on the Nolan series, marred a bit by the erroneous inclusion of the first name “Frank.”

Bookgasm has a nice review of the Bibliomysteries collection that includes the Hammer story “It’s in the Book.”

Gravetapping has a fine review of my pal Steve Mertz’s new novel.

Finally, here’s a brief review of Strip for Murder.

M.A.C.