“The Ultimate Career Killer” (by John Gregory Betancourt)

Writer John Gregory Betancourt has an especially demanding day job: Hes the publisher of Wildside Press. Among Wildsides many fine recent releases is The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, an anthology of Ellery Queen pastiches and parodies, edited by Josh Pachter and Dale C. Andrews (available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book formats). Bringing back or keeping alive the work of past authors in the fields of mystery and science fiction has become a mission for John and his press. He is himself an award-winning author of both mystery and science fiction and will be known to many readers of this blog as a past winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, cosponsored by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack. John has very little time for writing these days, however, and this post about his work at Wildside reveals why.—Janet Hutchings

When Janet Hutchings asked me to be a guest blogger and write about Wildside Press (following a conversation at our dealer’s table at the Malice Domestic mystery convention), she wanted me to talk a bit about what we are doing with the estates of mystery writers. I think the background subject—what happens to authors’ works after their passing—is the place to begin.

Most authors are not best sellers with legions of fans who keep their work in print for generations. For every Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Rex Stout, there is a Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora—a counterpart who immediately vanishes into the mists of obscurity the moment they stop writing. A well-known literary agent in the science fiction field put it, “Nothing kills a career like death.” Too true. For authors who specialized in short stories (or mostly short stories) and published in ephemeral places such as magazines or anthologies, their fate is pretty much sealed: gone and forgotten. Despite long and distinguished careers, the most these authors’ estates can hope for now is the occasional anthology reprint.

If the anthologist can find them.

Believe it or not, the largest barrier to any old author being reprinted is often finding his or her heirs. I tracked down one mystery author’s family, who promptly referred me to an agent—who had died 15 years before. (His agency had gone out of business without them realizing it.) Another author’s son argued that he didn’t have the rights to anything, since nothing about writing had been mentioned in his mother’s will. (Definitely wrong: Copyright inheres in the creator. Unless the rights to a given work are specifically signed away, copyrights—like any other property—are inherited.) One Western author died childless and intestate, and none of his seven nephews or nieces wanted to take the responsibility of claiming the estate and accepting money. (At least they did discuss it among themselves. Not worth their time, I guess. I moved on; so did they—and this particular author will remain in publishing limbo until his work enters the public domain, somewhere around the year 2055.)

Let’s assume the best-case scenario. A hobbyist author of 100 mystery short stories died in 1990, and his daughter is still alive. She knows all about his work, has a website online that mentions him prominently, and she has paperwork to prove she is sole heir and owner, so she is confident in her position. She has been available to sign reprint contracts for decades. She goes to mystery conventions. She’s easy to find and familiar enough with publishing contracts that she feels comfortable signing them without a lawyer or agent.

Unfortunately, the anthology reprint market had pretty much disappeared by the year 2000. Television and movies? Highly unlikely. New collections by authors who are (essentially) unknown today? Impossible from any major publishing company. So this daughter has effectively held the rights to 100 short stories with one reprint sale in the last fifteen years.

Enter Wildside Press and the burgeoning e-book market. In 2011, I put together a 99-cent reprint anthology of science-fiction stories called The Science Fiction MEGAPACK. It consisted of twenty-five short science-fiction stories, mostly public-domain works written in the 1950s and 1960s, plus a few modern stories from estates I had inherited. (A pair of authors appreciated my sometimes decades-long interest in their work and careers enough to leave me their copyrights when they died, since they had no immediate family.) To date, The Science Fiction MEGAPACK® has sold more than a million copies. I trademarked the MEGAPACK® name in 2013 and began publishing more reprint volumes—a lot more—and not just science fiction, but mysteries, romance, Westerns, pulp fiction, etc.

Most volumes in the MEGAPACK® series contain between fifteen and forty short stories. Wildside Press is, I believe, one of the largest publishers of old short stories in the world right now—I haven’t bothered to count the number, but it’s certainly over 6,000 stories and probably closer to 7,000, spread over about 400 collections.

When our e-book sales dropped as a dozen other e-book publishers copied the MEGAPACK® publishing strategy and flooded the market, I began looking for cost-effective ways to replace or supplement the public-domain content we had been using with unique (to us), in-copyright material. I asked friends who are writers for old stories to reprint. I tracked down the authors of stories I remembered reading years ago and purchased reprint rights. But it still wasn’t enough. (Remember, the MEGAPACK® line uses thousands of stories, not dozens.)

I had to broaden my search. In the mystery field, the best sources of mystery short stories have always been Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, so their back issues seemed the place to start when I wanted a lot of mysteries. I began going through indexes, looking for authors and stories I recognized.

What a treasure trove those old magazines turned out to be! So many great, forgotten authors. So many series characters (who often only appeared only in the magazines).

Unfortunately, with my very slender budget (about $10 per story), spending hours tracking down estates and offering a tiny fee to reprint one story at a time by Aunt Clarissa or Grandpa Joe wasn’t going to be cost-effective. Instead, I began adding up the number of short stories and novels an author had published, then purchasing exclusive reprint rights to all of them. It seemed like a winning strategy for everyone: I could offer larger payments while getting access to a huge quantity of high-quality fiction. Some authors whose families I tracked down, such as Talmage Powell, had published upwards of 500 short stories. Writers learned to write fast in the days of the pulps.

But then something happened along the way: I became a fan of many of these old writers. Instead of putting everything into MEGAPACK® anthologies, I began looking for the best way to resurrect these authors’ works for the largest possible audience. Sometimes it’s single-author collections from Wildside Press. Sometimes it’s from other publishers. Every time I put a new book together, I stop and ask myself, “What’s the best way to present this particular author to new readers?”

Remember the three names I mentioned at the start (Jacob Hay, James Holding, and Fletcher Flora)? I purchased their copyrights from their families. (Talmage Powell’s, too, for that matter. He was another great who is now sadly forgotten.)

Jacob Hay was an excellent writer who published a handful of mainstream novels, plus forty-nine short stories—fifteen of them mysteries in EQMM, but spread over a fourteen-year period (1962-1976). He published most of his stories, many mystery or suspense, in big-budget magazines like The Saturday Evening Post (twenty-five there alone!), Playboy, Argosy, and Colliers. He didn’t have a series character, and he published so infrequently in any given market that he made no lasting impression on readers, despite consistently high-quality work. I have been sprinkling his stories into themed e-book anthologies. There doesn’t seem to be a specific hook to use to market his work—or if there is, I haven’t found it yet.

In addition to a dozen children’s books, James Holding published 207 short stories, primarily in EQMM and AHMM. He loved series characters, and it turns out long-time magazine readers still remember some of them quite favorably . . . the Photographer, the Library Fuzz, and most especially the “Leroy King” series of Ellery Queen tribute stories. I was fortunate enough to secure a reprint collection of his complete “Leroy King” series (The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories) with Crippen & Landru (publisher Doug Greene was also a big “Leroy King” fan) as part of their “Lost Classics” series, and I persuaded Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine, to run the first story as a classic reprint. I even wrote a new “Leroy King” story, “The Jamaican Ice Mystery,” for the Malice Domestic convention book. I’m planning e-book collections of James Holding’s other series characters to publish myself—and continuing to sprinkle nonseries stories into other e-book anthologies. I’m delighted to say Holding is well off to a mini-revival!

Fletcher Flora was a staple in mysteries magazines from the early 1950s until his death in 1968. He published about 130 mystery stories and twenty novels (three pseudonymously under the “Ellery Queen” byline, plus he completed Stuart Palmer’s final Hildegarde Withers novel after Palmer’s death). Some of his novels are trashy pulp fiction; others are traditional mysteries. We licensed his mystery novels to Prologue Books (now Simon & Schuster) as part of their classic crime e-book program, and have been releasing Fletcher Flora MEGAPACK®s containing the others. Eventually we will have everything he wrote in print again. Not bad, for a forgotten author!

Sometimes families have an emotional attachment to the work and don’t want to sell the rights to everythings, but still want to have stories by their famous relative available in print. I often offer to manage these literary estates, bringing as much as possible back into print and sharing the revenues. It doesn’t always make financial sense, but I really enjoy it—and I’ve made a lot of new friends this way. I hear regularly from author Richard Deming’s granddaughter, who sold her home and is now traveling the American highways with her husband in an RV, working on a documentary movie on RV life to be called RV Nomads. I’ve helped the family of science-fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. recover $30,000 in royalties from an agent who had licensed editions of his books without telling (or paying) them. Now I’m writing a sequel to Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” (filmed by John Carpenter as The Thing) while helping them with stuff like game and movie licensing. Campbell’s grandson just sent me one of the “Who Goes There?” medallions a gaming company sent him.

Cool stuff, all.

For more information on Wildside Press, check out wildsidepress.com.

For more info on John Betancourt, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gregory_Betancourt

You can contact John through the Wildside Press website.

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Posted in Anthologies, Books, Characters, Guest, History, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Daneel Olivaw & Me” (by Jan Grape)

When I and my colleagues at the Dell Mystery Magazines, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow, were interviewed on the blog SleuthSayers back in June, a corresponding invitation went out to members of SleuthSayers to blog for this site. Award-winning author Jan Grape is one of those who accepted the invitation. A native of the hill country of Texas, Jan is an Anthony Award winner for best short story and has produced over fifty short stories and three novels, the latter featuring Austin, Texas policewoman Zoe Barrow. Many know Jan as an active member of the mystery community.  She has coedited both nonfiction and fiction anthologies, including Murder Past, Murder Present, and Murder Here, Murder There (with coeditor R. Barri Flowers), and she’s a founding member of the HOT chapter of Sisters in Crime in Austin. This post takes us back to the beginning of Jan’s love affair with mystery fiction (and science fiction!). It focuses on an important writer for EQMM, Isaac Asimov, whose Black Widower stories appeared in EQMM from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.—Janet Hutchings

Jan Grape and Isaac Asimov at the Edgar Awards in NYC, April 1988. (Photo courtesy of Jan Grape.)

Maybe my love for and fascination with robots began because I was a bit of a nerd. I took classes in art and “expression” (public speaking with emotion). I was a romantic. I was also thirteen years old.

My parents were divorced, so I lived with my mother and stepdad in Post, Texas, about forty miles from the “big city” of Lubbock. My father and stepmother lived in Fort Worth. When I visited Fort Worth during the summer, I entertained myself with television and books while they were at work. My dad liked reading mysteries, mostly private-eye stories, so he first handed me books by Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Once I had finished those he gave me science fiction by Isaac Asimov. I’ve always thought that I read The Naked Sun first, but after checking it out and learning that it wasn’t published until 1956, I’m now thinking that the first Asimov book I read was The Caves of Steel, which was the first book in the Robot Series. My memories of that story are nonexistent. The second book in the Robot Series, The Naked Sun, is the book I strongly remember, primarily because of the robot, Daneel Olivaw.

Asimov decided to combine mystery and sci fi, a play-fair novel in his mind. He wrote The Caves of Steel, which was a huge success. The premise of the second book, The Naked Sun, involves a New York City detective named Elijah Baley and a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, who travel to a planet called Solaria to solve a murder. The setting is a sparsely populated planet with something like only twenty thousand people. There are around fifty other planets occupied by the very few people who are adventurous and strong enough to make a go of it on barely inhabitable planets. Robots are needed to help the humans make the planet livable. The people on Solaria have many robots that cook, clean, provide security, and tend to practically every need of the humans. In fact, the Solarians depend so much on the robots that they seldom see each other in person. They view each other with devices called “Viewers,” and, more often than not, they encounter a holographic image rather than a real person.

Most of the robots are worker robots that look like many of our robots today. Daneel was the only robot that had been created to look and sound human. The professor who created Daneel was the only roboticist to have developed the positronic brain. Daneel looked so much like a human that other robots thought he was a man. His skin tone was perfect. Each hair on his head was placed just so. Elijah Bailey could almost feel a friendship akin to love, until he remembered Daneel was a robot, not a man.

So, on Solaria, a wealthy man turns up bludgeoned to death. There can be no suspects other than his wife, Gladia, who is rarely in his presence (Solarians can barely stand to touch each other), or one of the robots.

In the story, all robots are made to follow the Three Laws of Robotics. First Law: A robot may not harm or cause harm to a human being. Second Law: A robot must obey a human’s orders. Third Law: A robot must protect itself, as long as it does not violate the First or Second Laws. To my thirteen-year-old heart, this sounded like the perfect situation! A handsome robot that would wait on me hand and foot and protect me at all costs? What nerdy, teenage, romantic girl would NOT fall in love with that?

Asimov didn’t write gory mysteries. In fact, he thought the blood and guts should be offstage, and that’s how he wrote his books. He wrote mainly in the classic style—or the Agatha Christie style. He enjoyed writing a puzzle story, and his favorite mystery was one in which the reader could figure out the solution if they paid attention to the clues. Asimov’s mysteries were of the puzzler-type in what were known as The Black Widower series. In these, a group of intellectuals would meet at a men’s club for dinner. Usually, one member would bring a guest who, after dinner, would present a problem that the others would try to solve. Each of the very educated gentlemen would try to present a solution to the puzzle. However, Henry, the club waiter, was invariably the one to come up with the solution. It was pretty much the same with the Union Club stories that Asimov wrote. A small group would sit around, and someone would present a problem. One of the older gentlemen, Griswold, sitting half asleep with his drink in his hand, would suddenly awaken and solve the puzzle.

Asimov could write these stories in his sleep, because they were pretty much the same each time: a bit of a puzzle, and then one person speaks up to do what the reader has been trying to do for thirty minutes.

To me, Mr. Asimov’s science fiction was his strong point and, probably, the rest of the world agrees. I think he absorbed scientific and mathematical things going on around him and then tried the writer’s idea of “Imagine that . . .” or “What if . . . ?” His imagination traveled light-years away. He himself said in his autobiography that he wrote every day. He never even took time off for any holiday.

Asimov was born in Russia, but his parents came to America when he was three. After a series of menial sales jobs, his father bought a candy store and his parents spent all of their time working it. His parents never learned to read or write or even speak English very well, just enough to get by. His father had been educated in Russia, but his mother had not. Asimov’s parents never taught him Russian. They would speak to each other in Russian when they didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. I’m surprised he never taught himself!

He began going to the library when he was nine years old, and he read everything from Shakespeare to Dickens to The Iliad to Greek mythology. He read the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, but Christianity never took hold in his mind. (His family was Jewish, but they never practiced Judaism.) He called himself a “humanist.” As a writer he also wrote nonfiction about understanding the Bible and other great literature, and just about any subject you could think of, including some children’s stories.

Given his penchant for science and mathematics, it was natural for Asimov to imagine a future world with robots and other technology such as moving sidewalks that operated at different speeds to move twenty billion people around NYC, like he describes in his 1953 book The Caves of Steel. He imagined worlds where people “viewed” each other rather than existed in each other’s actual presence. I have to say, it reminds me of our world today, with people interacting via texts, photos, and Skype. We also have many robots in our present-day world, although for the most part they don’t yet resemble humans. So far, our robots are used for things like bomb detection, search and rescue, or assembly-line work.

For all of my thirteen-year-old longings for a dreamy robot boyfriend who would drive me around in his fancy robocar and make me one of the coolest girls in junior high school, Mr. Asimov’s books were without romance. Quite understandable, I suppose. Most popular fiction of the mystery and sci-fi genre in the 1950s was geared towards men. The books my father had that I was reading were certainly devoid of romance. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer had a lovely secretary, and although he might have lusted after a dame, it was for sex only. Dashiell Hammett was in the same milieu. Dames were either gangster molls and evil, secretaries and helpless, or somewhat undesirable—like Gardner’s Bertha Cool, who was smart but overweight and a woman who never thought of herself as sexy or lovable. When Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, detective Elijah Baley’s wife and son were almost an afterthought, although Baley did have a strong desire for his son to migrate to another planet, since Earth would not be able to sustain enough food or room for the growing population.

Male writers in the 20s, 30s, and even into the 50s had grown up in a time when romance and sex weren’t discussed in polite company. I’m sure Asimov’s Russian parents were too busy trying to make a living running their candy store to have a moment to think about love and romance.

However, Asimov threw a new element into the mix. Lovely Gladia, the woman accused of killing her husband, does not want even to shake hands with the Earthman, Baley. She, as well as all Solarians, knows that all Earthlings are thoroughly sanitized on the spaceship during the trip to their planet, but Solarians have a constant fear and horror of contracting diseases from Earth. One does begin to get the idea that Gladia is somewhat fascinated by Elijah and he is equally fascinated by her. However, the closest brush with romance that they experience is when Gladia removes her latex glove to touch gently Elijah’s face before he leaves Solaria to go back to Earth.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years, to Asimov finally writing the third book in the Robot Series. In The Robots of Dawn, Elijah and Daneel are sent to Planet Aurora, to solve a case of roboticide. The main suspect is the gifted roboticist who had developed the positronic brain and is the only person who has the motive, means, and opportunity to kill the robot. The roboticist even admits that he is the prime suspect, but emphatically denies that he did it. However, the lovely Gladia is now residing on Aurora, almost totally ignored because Aurorans don’t care for Solarians, and she is ultimately accused of the murder of Jander. Jander is the second humaniform robot with a positronic brain and had looked and acted as human as Daneel.

Asimov finally gets to Gladia’s secret love life in this third book. The robot that has been killed had been Gladia’s lover! And, in her mind, Jander was her husband in every way. This, of course, excited my thirteen-year-old self! Yes, the robot lover! (I’m not sure I had consciously thought of the robot as a sexual partner, but perhaps my subconscious did.) Finally, Gladia has sex with Elijah Baley. She leads and he follows. What man wouldn’t?

This, from Mr. Isaac Asimov? WOW!

Posted in Books, Characters, Classic Mystery, Genre, Guest, History, Novels, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Research on Research” (by Edwin Hill)

Edwin Hill debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in this year’s January/February issue. Now his first novel, Little Comfort, is hot off the press (released by Kensington August 28). The author has found time to write a second book in the series Little Comfort begins and has a third under way—all while serving as vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. A Boston resident, Edwin has some of the world’s best libraries available for research for his novels; he talks about the challenges modern technology presents to librarians and researchers in this post.—Janet Hutchings

I’m hard at work on a proposal for a third book in my Hester Thursby series, which means I’m thinking about research. Not research for the story—that will come later, after I’ve made it through a draft or two and have figured out what I actually need to know—but research about research, especially now, in 2018 (or 2020, when the book actually publishes). How do we find and engage in information today, and how has that changed in the last decade?

The central character in the series is Hester Thursby, a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library, who uses her research skills to find missing people. When I started writing this series in the dark ages of 2010, we were in another era of information, when Wikipedia was still relatively new, we hadn’t quite realized the dangers of big data, and some of us still weren’t attached to our phones twenty-four hours a day. Back then, I was inspired to create Hester by an actual visit to a library where I engaged with a research librarian about something I couldn’t solve on my own (alas, that conundrum is lost in my memory). Nowadays, it seems that information is at our fingertips all of the time, sometimes seemingly too much information.

Even as I drafted the first novel (it took me four years to write the first book in the series, Little Comfort, and then another two years to sell it, and another two years for the book to be published. See my other post for more on that), challenges developed. I had to adapt both the story and the way Hester solves problems for her clients. With each year that went by, more information became available. And by now, in 2018, anyone who truly wants to disappear really must work for it!

But I still like the challenge of writing about information, both for me as a storyteller and for Hester as an investigator. And as I speak to more librarians, I learn that these challenges mirror many of the changes that have happened in library science in the past twenty-five years: More information may be readily available, but navigating that information and evaluating its qualities remain valuable skills. One of the librarians I spoke to in the course of my investigation, Victoria Gilbert, happens also to be a mystery writer. She emphasized the need to ask questions as we wade through the vast amounts of information that hit us on a daily basis, and to build the skills we need to pick what’s right, what helps further our argument, what helps us make a point. It’s not unlike being faced with the many volumes held in a large library, one like Widener, and having to figure out which passages among many millions to cite, it’s just that the information now comes from many, many more sources.

So for this book I want to explore what that assault of information feels like on a daily basis. What are our known unknowns and our unknown unknowns, and how do we begin the process of finding those answers? What happens when the discovery takes us down the wrong path? What questions can that open up, and what missing people can be at the end of that journey? And what possible new developments in information science could there be in the next twenty-four months?

And, most importantly, how does that journey lead to murder?

Posted in Books, Editing, Fiction, Guest, History, research, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mickey Spillane at 100” (by Max Allan Collins)

Thirteen years ago, when the centenary of Ellery Queen was celebrated with a symposium and exhibition at Columbia University, we were amazed at the outpouring of love and interest from fans and readers, since there had not been a new Ellery Queen novel in more than thirty years. This year the mystery world commemorates the centenary of the man author Max Allan Collins calls “the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century,” Mickey Spillane. Spillane’s many fans have not had to go without new fiction from their icon in the years since his death in the way that Ellery Queen fans have, however, and that’s thanks to Max Allan Collins, who has completed many unfinished Spillane manuscripts, including two that were held for this special centenary year. In addition to the year’s important book releases, which Max discusses in this post, Titan Comics has marked the occasion by releasing a new comics series starring P.I. Mike Hammer, Spillane’s most famous—and influential—creation. Mickey Spillane was never published in EQMM during his lifetime, but in the years since Max Allan Collins began to complete his many unfinished works, EQMM has had the pleasure of publishing him (with cowriter Max Allan Collins) twice, once about a decade ago, and now, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, in our current issue, September/October 2018. Max Allan Collins is also known to EQMM readers for his solo works for the magazine. He is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a Shamus Award winner, an author whose work has inspired productions for both the big and small screens, and, currently, the coauthor with his wife Barbara Collins of the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy mystery series. I’d like to urge all readers to take the occasional of the Spillane centenary to delve into the new Spillane fiction coming out this year.—Janet Hutchings

In July of 2006, the last major mystery writer of the twentieth century left the building. Only a handful of writers in the genre—Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, among them—achieved such superstar status.

Spillane’s position, however, is unique—reviled by many mainstream critics, despised and envied by a number of his contemporaries in the very field he revitalized, the creator of Mike Hammer had an impact not just on mystery and suspense fiction but popular culture in general.

The success of the reprint editions of his startlingly violent and sexy novels jump-started the paperback original, and his redefinition of the action hero as a tough guy who mercilessly executed villains and who slept with beautiful, willing women remains influential (Sin City is Frank Miller’s homage).

When Spillane published I, the Jury in 1947, he introduced in Mike Hammer, the most famous of all fictional private eyes. Hammer swears vengeance over the corpse of an army buddy who lost an arm in the Pacific, saving the detective’s life. No matter who the villain turns out to be, Hammer will not just find him, but execute him—even if it’s a her.

Revenge was a constant theme in Mike Hammer’s world—Vengeance Is Mine! among his titles—with the detective rarely taking a paying client. Getting even was the motivation for this detective.

This was something entirely new in mystery fiction, and Spillane quickly became the most popular—and controversial—mystery writer of the mid twentieth century. In addition to creating an eye-for-an-eye hero, the writer brought a new level of sex and violence to the genre. He was called a fascist by left-leaning critics and a libertine by right-leaning ones. In between were millions of readers who turned Spillane’s first six Hammer novels into the bestselling private eye novels of all time.

The controversial Hammer has been the subject of a radio show, comic strip, and several television series, starring Darren McGavin in the 1950s and Stacy Keach in the eighties and nineties. Numerous gritty movies have been made from Spillane novels, notably director Robert Aldrich’s seminal film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

As success raged around him, Mickey Spillane proved himself a showman and a marketing genius; he became as famous as his creation, appearing on book jackets with gun in hand and fedora on head. His image became synonymous with Hammer’s, more so even than any of the actors who portrayed the private eye, including McGavin and Keach.

For eighteen years, well past the peak of his publishing success, Spillane appeared as himself/Hammer in the wildly successful Miller Lite commercials, alongside his “doll” (Lee Meredith of Producers fame) and overshadowing countless former pro athletes.

Alone among mystery writers, he appeared as his own famous detective, in The Girl Hunters (1963). Critics at the time viewed his performance as Hammer favorably, and today many viewers of the quirky, made-in-England film still do. Virtually an amateur, Spillane is in nearly every frame, his natural charisma and wry humor holding him in good stead beside the professional likes of Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne of the 1940s Fox movie series) and Shirley Eaton (“golden girl” of Goldfinger).

The Girl Hunters wasn’t Spillane’s first feature film—it wasn’t even his first leading role in one. In 1954, John Wayne hired Spillane to star with Pat O’Brien and lion tamer Clyde Beatty in Ring of Fear, a film he coscripted without credit, receiving a white Jaguar as a gift from producer Wayne.

Mike Hammer paved the way for James Bond and every tough action P.I., cop, lone avenger, and government agent who followed, from Shaft to Billy Jack, from Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. The latest Hammer-style heroes include an unlikely one—the vengeance-driven young woman of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy—as well as a more obvious descendent, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

In the final week of his life, Mike Hammer’s creator said to his wife Jane, “When I’m gone, there’ll be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max. He’ll know what to do.”

Mickey had already called me, a week before, asking me to finish the Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, if he was unable to.

I had been Mickey’s fan since the early sixties, when as an adolescent I’d discovered his fever-dream prose. I was led there by the Darren McGavin TV series (“Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” 1958-1960). The late fifties and early sixties saw a wave of private eye TV shows, with the Hammer imitation “Peter Gunn” leading the pack, its creator Blake Edwards having written and directed a failed “Hammer” pilot film.

I became a fanatic about Spillane, whose noir poetry mingled with a level of sex and violence unavailable in other mysteries of the day, exploding my thirteen-year-old skull into fragments as if by Hammer’s .45 automatic. Within a year I was writing Spillane-style stories and sending them (unsuccessfully) in the mail to publishers, none of whom seemed to be looking for teenaged mystery writers.

Because I’d written articles defending and praising Spillane, I was invited to be the liaison between him and the 1981 Bouchercon (the major mystery fan convention, named for New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who was among the first wave of Spillane’s attackers). Held in Milwaukee, the con was tying into that city’s beer persona by having Spillane, then starring in the very clever TV commercials for Miller Lite, as a guest of honor.

I had written Mickey perhaps one hundred fan letters, but the only one he answered was in 1973, when I sent him my first published novel (Bait Money), and he welcomed me to the professional community of writers. So when I was introduced to Mickey, he said, “Oh, I know Max! We’ve been corresponding for years.” And I said, “That’s right, Mickey—one hundred letters from me, one letter from you.”

And we became fast friends.

This led to me visiting him, from time to time, in his Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, home. I was there when he met Jane Rogers, who would become his wife (well, he’d first known her when she was a little kid before she moved away). He accepted when I asked him to be my son Nathan’s godfather. We collaborated on numerous projects together, including anthologies, an early 1990s comic book series (MIKE DANGER, a science-fiction private eye), and a biographical documentary (Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, 1999, featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray of the great noir, Kiss Me Deadly).

On my visits to South Carolina, we would talk writing. He had many friends in that part of the world, but no writer friends. He liked to talk shop. Deep into the night, he would share with me his plans for various Mike Hammer novels, often acting out the wild endings that were his trademark. On one visit, he sent two 100-page-plus unfinished Hammer manuscripts home with me for safekeeping, as if prescient about Hurricane Hugo, which would soon destroy his home.

Why Mickey left behind so many unfinished works—particularly since his prose was so valuable commercially—cannot be answered simply. Part of it had to do with his religious conversion to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at least twice disenfranchised him due to the level of sex and violence in his work. In other words, Mickey Spillane’s church told him to quit writing like Mickey Spillane. They did not, however, ask him to quit tithing.

But there were other factors. Mickey often had more than one novel going—he would get “stuck” on one, and turn to another. Also, he loved doing beginnings and endings—and no one in the genre was ever better at either—but sometimes got bored in the middle. His favorite form was the 20,000-word novelette, and he spent almost a decade at the height of his fame writing them for low-end men’s magazines that paid him a pittance. His fertile imagination sometimes worked against him—he’d get a new idea, and set aside a manuscript to pursue it.

On my visits to his Murrells Inlet home, late at night, we would repair to his third-floor office—he had two others on the now-rebuilt property—and we would talk writing. In particular, he would regale me with ideas he had for future Mike Hammer novels. The subdued lighting invoked both the beachfront campfires where young lifeguard Frank Morrison Spillane would “scare hell out” of his friends with spooky stories, but that lighting also had an appropriately noir flavor.

After all, we were talking Mike Hammer.

It was in that office, during one bull session, that he shared with me the endings for King of the Weeds, The Big Bang and Kiss Her Goodbye—novels in progress that I would have been astonished to learn would eventually be completed by me . . . including putting Mickey’s mesmerizing endings into prose.

On one such occasion, he withdrew from somewhere—like Bugs Bunny summoning a carrot or a machine gun—a browning, crumble-edged, fairly lengthy manuscript. It ran about thirty dense single-spaced pages, the equivalent of sixty-some double-spaced pages. I began reading.

“You wrote this a long time ago,” I said.

He had pulled up a chair, turned it backward and sat, studying me, wearing a devilish, little-kid smile that threatened to turn to laughter at any moment. He nodded.

I kept reading. “This is good.”

Soft chuckle. “I know.” That laugh-threatening smile.

“Is this what I think it is?”

A sly nod. The smile continued.

For half an hour, he sat enjoying me enjoy what was clearly an early appearance of Mike Hammer. But it was different from anything else about Hammer I’d read—he was even more of a lone wolf. Velda wasn’t his secretary yet. He was doing an undercover job in a small corrupt town. Some of the flavor of the famous early non-Hammer, The Long Wait, permeated the ancient pages.

“This is terrific,” I said, when I’d breathlessly raced through the chapters. “Where does it go from here?”

He shrugged, collected the pages, stowed them somewhere, and we moved onto other subjects.

A month or so before his passing in the summer of 2006, Mickey had sent me The Last Stand. As it happened, what would be Mickey’s last completed novel was not a typical work—for one thing, it was a modern-day Western that didn’t feature Hammer at all.

We spoke on the phone and I told him what a kick I’d gotten out of it. He was happy with the book—happy to have finished it, under the circumstances of his failing health, but overall pleased, though he told me of a few things he’d like to touch up “if he had the time.” He then turned his attention to his final Hammer novel-in-progress, The Goliath Bone, calling me days before his death and asking me to complete it for him, if necessary.

Around this time, he also told his wife Jane that there would be a “treasure hunt” after he was gone, and to “give everything to Max—he’ll know what to do.” Jane reminded him that I was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and Mickey said he understood—I would not be bound to leave out things that might displease his church.

My wife Barb (with whom I write the Antiques mystery series) and I joined Jane in the treasure hunt that took us to all three of Mickey’s offices in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The files were extensive, as I’ve indicated. We sat in the Spillane dining room with a feast of manuscripts before us, each of us combing through our stacks of pages, occasionally one of us crying out, “Here’s a Hammer!”

Unlike Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner—his contemporaries—Mickey did not write scores of novels about his famous character. There are around one-hundred Perry Mason novels, but Mickey published only thirteen Mike Hammer novels. This made the half-dozen significant Hammer manuscripts—again, usually in the 100-page range—such an exhilarating find.

One particularly brittle, discolored manuscript in the treasure hunt Jane, Barb, and I conducted (beautiful women are always around when Mike Hammer is involved) stirred my memory. Mickey had shown this one to me! It had been special to him. This represented the beginnings of Mike Hammer.

The Last Stand was a rare unpublished complete work. After much thought, and some input from Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai, I decided to put it aside. My immediate priority was to get the unpublished Mike Hammer material out there as well as the two other substantial unfinished crime novels, Dead Street and The Consummata, both in the familiar Spillane first-person style.

The Last Stand represents the culmination of the final phase of Mickey’s writing life, in which he was more interested in adventure than mystery—although from the beginning, Spillane heroes had been two-fisted adventurers, and all of his work contains elements of mystery and crime fiction. His two published books for preadolescents—The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979) and The Ship That Never Was (1982)reflect that bent toward adventure and his love of the sea. His final published novel, Something’s Down There (2003), similarly reflects his enthusiasm for boating and deep-sea fishing, with Mike Hammer replaced by the evocatively (and similarly) named Mako Hooker.

Mickey’s final novel provides a coda to his larger body of work, and is at once atypical and typical. His hero, Joe Gillian (named for satellite writer, Joe Gill) is a tough, confident man, very much in the tradition of Hammer, Tiger Mann, and other Spillane protagonists. His story, however, is told in the third person, where the Hammer canon (and the vast majority of the writer’s fiction) is in vivid first person. Here the prose is spare but occasionally poetic, and dialogue drives the narrative.

In The Last Stand, Spillane returns to his recurring themes of male friendship and male/female companionship. It is easy (as someone once said) to see Hammer’s friend Pat Chambers in Gillian’s friend Pete, and Hammer’s life partner Velda in the lovely Running Fox. The bad rap Spillane gets as a supposed misogynist overlooks the obvious: The women in his fiction are usually strong, powerful and smart, every bit the hero’s equal.

That Joe Gillian bonds easily with the Indians of an unspecified “rez” is no surprise, either, as Mike Hammer’s friends were often among the outsiders of society. Nor is the modern-day Western aspect of the novel inconsistent with Mickey’s view of Mike Hammer as an urban gunslinger. The Mick’s interest in Westerns is also evident in the unproduced screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne, which has led to the posthumous novel, The Legend of Caleb York (Kensington Books, 2015) and several sequels.

Also present, not surprisingly, is the dominant theme of Spillane’s fiction—vengeance. But in The Last Stand, it’s the brute called One Arms who craves revenge, not hero Gillian, who is a man of a certain age at peace with himself, looking neither for trouble nor riches, though the love of a good woman does hold appeal. Crime-fighting and mystery seem almost to have to seek Gillian out, though seek him out they do.

Gillian’s very masculine but nonaggressive view on life reflects Spillane in his final years. The Hammer of Black Alley (1996) is definitely a laid-back version of the character, which pleases readers who have followed Hammer’s journey over the decades, but can confuse those who only know the hate-filled young investigator. Like Black Alley, The Last Stand is a barely concealed rumination on coming to terms with aging.

Not long after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Mickey and I sat one evening in the makeshift Tiki Bar he’d built in his backyard. Mickey spoke of his anger at those who had looted his home in the aftermath of the storm. I saw in his eyes the burning rage of Mike Hammer and he held his hands in front of him, squeezing them into fists. He told me what he would like to do the thieves, then his fists became fingers again, and he said, “But I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that now.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I spoke to him about The Last Stand on the phone, he said to me, “You know, I really like that Big Arms.” If a voice can have a twinkle in it, his did. With that big-kid quality he often got, when he spoke of work he’d done that had pleased him, he said, “I really like that character.” Not Joe Gillian, but Big Arms, who haunts the good-natured pages of The Last Stand like Mike Hammer’s ghost.

The unfinished first Mike Hammer manuscript—amounting to a fairly substantial 60 double-spaced pages—also explored Spillane’s familiar themes, with an emphasis on the returning combat veteran’s loyalty to his buddies in battle. But there is also a strong female with whom Hammer bonds, and a corrupt town ruled by one wealthy man, as well as police force marbled with corruption. The pace Spillane establishes is break-neck, with a naked woman on page one and bent cops waiting in the wings to beat Hammer half to death. In its way, this was first (if unfinished) Hammer novel was as important as Mickey’s final, non-Hammer yarn. Likely begun in 1945, the novel I’ve called Killing Town is one of the most purely noir in the Hammer canon.

What to do with these two very special works?

That’s when it occurred to me that saving both of them for the centenary of Mickey’s 1918 birth would be perfect timing. Fortunately, Titan Books agreed with me. They, and their associate publisher, Hard Case Crime, were keen to celebrate Mickey’s day (a day of the guns, as it were) with the publication of the last solo Spillane novel, The Last Stand (which also includes a previously unpublished vintage Spillane novella, A Bullet for Satisfaction), and the very first Mike Hammer story, Killing Town.

It may be Spillane’s birthday year, but readers are getting the gifts.

Copyright 2018, Mickey Spillane Publishing, LLC.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Noir, Pop Culture, Private Eye, Western, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“And They Wrote Happily Ever After” (by De Paepe & Depuydt)

Both from Ghent, Belgium, Herbert De Paepe and Els Depuydt have cowritten four highly acclaimed thrillers. They’ve been nominated for both Belgium’s Diamond Bullet Award and Holland’s Golden Noose Award. Their work first appeared in EQMM in May 2016, in translation from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Their latest story in translation, “End of the Line,” appears in the Passport to Crime Department of EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2018). De Paepe and Depuydt have come to be among the mystery field’s notable collaborators, and in this post they talk about some of the circumstances that make their collaboration unique.—Janet Hutchings

When we began writing together in 2005, we embarked on a tremendous adventure. We had already been a couple for thirteen years, and we had both always written, but we’d never published—Herbert due to a lack of discipline and Els to a lack of self-confidence. One warm summer evening in our garden, over a bottle of red wine and a good dinner, we decided to try writing together, and that’s when the magic happened.

We had no children, two incomes, and not a care in the world, so we traveled a lot in those days, long journeys to faraway countries: Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, China, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia, to name only a few. We dove into the histories of ancient cultures, met people with strange customs and of all colors, walked on mountain paths and among wild animals.

So international thrillers seemed an obvious genre choice for us. We both loved to read, but we read different types of books. Herbert is a comics and science-fiction fan, Els prefers classical literature. In thrillers, our tastes met. We also loved television series like Lost, Deadwood, and Prison Break, Scandinavian crime series, and movies with strong plots. We agreed that our thrillers should be exotic, overwhelming reading experiences, filled to the brim with suspense. We wanted to create a villain who was more evil than Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and so Andries Swartwater was born. Our debut novel was a mixture of our travel experiences in Africa, the history of southern Africa, and a huge amount of devious imagination.

We spent great evenings composing the story, creating characters—sometimes based on people we’d actually met—and deciding what twists and turns the story should take and which character should be the next victim of our vengeful serial killer.

The book—Mensenvlees (Human Flesh)—was a success. Two more thrillers followed, both with Andries Swartwater returning as the principal villain. We seemed to have a unique voice. We didn’t write standard whodunits, with a corpse in the woods and a detective with marital problems and a drinking habit. Instead, our novels are rollercoasters of action, emotion, and suspense. Readers praise our sense of place, and tell us that reading our books almost feels like watching a movie.

Over time, we grew more experienced and developed a good routine for our writing. Weekends, we’d sit together over our bottle of wine and dinner and plot out our next story. With strict discipline, we assigned ourselves particular tasks for the coming week: write a scene, research background information, review each other’s drafts. Sure, sometimes we argued about the evolution of a character or the believability of a story turn, but overall we had a lot of fun. During the week, we worked independently. Then, the next weekend, we’d repeat our routine—again and agauin until we had a completed manuscript.

After finishing our 1,300-page Swartwater trilogy, the next highlight in our career was encountering Josh Pachter. Josh translated our short story “Garage 27,” which was published in the May 2016 issue of EQMM, introducing us to the U.S. audience. Josh has become a friend, and we look forward to working with him again in the near future.

Eventually, though, our personal relationship changed. The books had nothing to do with it. After twenty-two years as a couple, we broke up. Not with a smashing of doors, not with feelings of hatred or the wish never to see or hear from each other again, as you too often see when lovers end their romance, but with the sad realization that we simply couldn’t go on any longer as a couple. We made one last trip, a long-planned journey to our beloved city of Galway on the West Coast of Ireland, a place that has marked most of the major milestones in our lives: our first experience with living together, numerous writing trips, and, at last, the place where it all ended. We spent a week there, talking endlessly, trying to figure out if maybe there was some future left for us as a couple . . . but the outcome, unfortunately, was negative. Sometimes, you have to make painful decisions, and this was one of those times. We knew that, in the long run, it would be better for both of us to split up, while maintaining an everlasting friendship and wishing each other nothing but true happiness again.

Those were difficult times, but the urge to write and the passion for literature didn’t leave us. We never stopped writing, not even in the early painful days after that final trip. Our fourth thriller, Highway 245, was entirely written post-breakup. It is situated in present-day California, with flashbacks to Northern Ireland during the bloody era of conflict known as “The Troubles.” Ever since we wrote it, we have referred to our own relationship problems as “The Troubles.”

We haven’t changed our modus operandi. There is still wine, and there are still dinners. The only thing that has changed is that we need to check our calendars now; getting together has become more like a business appointment.

And, yes, we both have found new loves: patient, understanding partners who know that writing as a duo will always be part of our lives.

We are working on our fifth thriller as we speak. Els published a solo novel (Mia) last year and is working on a second one, and our personal story has served her as inspiration.

Life isn’t a fairy tale, so our story does not end with “And they lived happily ever after.”

But one thing we know for sure is that we will continue to write together happily ever after.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Passport, Publishing, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Your Shrinks Might Need to be Shrunk” (by Dennis Palumbo)

It’s been more than twenty years since Dennis Palumbo’s fiction has appeared in EQMM. In the meantime, he’s been busy with a series of novel-length thrillers featuring Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police (the latest is Head Wounds, from Poisoned Pen Press), and his short stories have been collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). A former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis is himself a licensed psychotherapist, and in this post he talks about some misconceptions many mystery writers and readers have about the usefulness of psychological diagnoses in solving crimes. —Janet Hutchings

As a former Hollywood screenwriter, now a licensed psychotherapist and mystery author, I have more than a passing interest in how therapy is portrayed on screen and on the page. That said, I’ve noticed that in recent years, whether in some best-selling crime thriller or on your average procedural TV drama, the therapists depicted are usually pretty quick-on-the-draw when it comes to diagnosing characters in the story.

For example: To explain a suspect’s behavior to the investigating detectives, shrinks in these novels and TV series toss out easily-digestible diagnoses like “psychopathic,” “schizophrenic,” or “borderline personality disorder.” As if these terms explained everything the cops (and readers or viewers) needed to know about the person being discussed. In my view, not only is this lazy storytelling (psychological symptoms taking the place of character development) but it’s clinically debatable.

The problem starts with the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Used as the premiere diagnostic bible by mental-health professionals worldwide, the DSM has been predominately responsible for the labeling of an individual’s behavior, in terms of whether or not it falls within the range of agreed-upon norms. As such, it’s been both praised and reviled over the years. Praised because of its concise descriptions and categorizations of behavioral symptoms; reviled because of its reinforcement of stigmatizing attitudes towards those whose behavior is deemed “abnormal.”

In fact, there’s an old joke about how clinicians use diagnostic labels to interpret their patients’ behavior. If the patient arrives early for his therapy appointment, he’s anxious. If he’s late, he’s resistant. And if he’s on time, he’s compulsive.

Nowadays, however, it’s becoming clear that the joke may be on us. Diagnostic labels are thrown around quite casually by people who ought to know better (therapists on TV news programs) as well as by people who usually don’t (writers of mystery novels and procedural crime shows).

For the latter, it’s perfectly understandable. With rare exceptions, most writers depend on research—and such tools as the DSM—to provide their psychologist and psychiatrist characters with the right lingo. This not only makes these characters sound like the mental-health professionals they’re supposed to be, but it also allows the writer to describe the bad guy’s psychological problem in a way that the reader understands. Plus it makes the shrink character seem wicked smart.

However, as I said, it can also lead to lazy storytelling. In too many mysteries and thrillers nowadays, the shrink character need only say that someone’s a psychopath and—in an instant—a whole series of inexplicable or horrendous behaviors are explained away. To the question of why the bad guy did what he did, the answer is simple: he’s crazy.

In other words, so much for developing a vivid, relatable backstory for this character. Or creating a motive that makes sense. Or for acknowledging, as the author should, that most people are too complicated to be reduced to a set of easily determined symptoms.

Which is why I feel that crime writers—especially those who make use of therapists in their stories, either as protagonists or “experts” brought in to help the hero or heroine—need to take care not to use a one-size-fits-all model of diagnosis when it comes to describing a character in the story.

(There’s another problem with this, one which I think writers need to be aware of. Diagnostic labels, like practically everything else nowadays, follow the dictates of trends. Remember how, not too long ago, every other child was diagnosed with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]? Or Asperger’s? Well, forget about those. Now the “hot” new label, regardless of age, is bipolar disorder [what used to be called manic-depression]. Lately, whether you’re a movie star, teen heartthrob, politician, or athlete, you’re not cool if you’re not bipolar.)

Not that there’s anything wrong, per se, with labels. Nor with the idea of a common vocabulary so that all us clinical geniuses can communicate with each other. It’s just that, if we’re speaking honestly, diagnostic labels exist primarily for the convenience of the labelers. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But how far is too far? Especially for crime writers?

In my opinion, “too far” is when authors give their therapist characters an almost clairvoyant ability to declare (with God-like conviction) what’s going on in the mind of some suspected bad guy. Because, as any working mental health professional will tell you, facile, off-the-cuff interpretations of a patient’s psychological state rarely end up being accurate. And can even do great harm.

Once, when asked how he worked, Albert Einstein replied, “I grope.” Frankly, that’s what most good therapists do, too. They grope. That is, if they truly respect the therapeutic process—and their patients.

In my own series of mystery thrillers, my lead character, psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, does a lot of groping. Trying to make sense not only of his patients, or some suspect for which the Pittsburgh Police are seeking his expertise, but of himself, too. His own motives, prejudices, needs.

As a therapist in private practice for over 28 years, I’ve grown to appreciate the vast differences in temperament, relationship choices, communication styles and beliefs of my patients—and how these translate into behaviors, both healthy and harmful. Which means I’ve been forced many times to challenge the orthodoxy of my own profession, and to pay attention to the potential danger of reducing people to a simple diagnostic category.

I think all of us who write mysteries owe our various suspects and bad guys the same consideration. As well as try to keep our shrink characters’ smug, self-congratulatory opinions in check.

After all, despite being fictional, they’re still only human.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Untouchable Truth” (by Max Allan Collins)

This year, for the first time in nearly seventy-seven years of publication, EQMM brought a true-crime column (Stranger Than Fiction by Dean Jobb) under its banner. The connections between crime fiction and true crime are many, and a number of EQMM’s fiction writers are also true-crime writers, so we were pretty sure our readers would be interested in hearing about new true-crime books. One very important writer who tackles both fiction and true crime is Max Allan Collins. Max’s solo fiction and collaborations with Mickey Spillane have been appearing in EQMM for a number of years. A Grand Master of the MWA, Max is noted in the fiction realm for his Shamus Award-winning Nathan Heller historical series, the Quarry series (on which a feature film and Cinemax TV series were based), the graphic novel Road to Perdition (basis for the Academy Award-winning film), and the Trash ’n’ Treasures cozy series written with his wife, Barbara Collins. Now, Max has teamed up with A. Brad Schwartz to produce the definitive history of Al Capone and Eliot Ness: Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago (William Morrow, August 2018). In this post, Max gives us some insights into his historical fiction, his deep-rooted interest in Eliot Ness, and how his new true-crime book with A. Brad Schwartz came about. After reading this fascinating piece, those who missed it earlier may want to check out EQMM’s Stranger Than Fiction column for March, “Murder and Mayhem in the Windy City” (available free at our website).—Janet Hutchings 

On Monday night, April 20, 1959, the first of a two-part TV presentation called “The Untouchables” appeared on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. I was eleven years old, watching in Muscatine, Iowa, and I was dumbstruck. The next day, all the kids—well, the boys, anyway—were talking about this hardhitting crime show, the fact-based story of federal agent Eliot Ness and his band of incorruptible lawmen, taking on the Capone gang during Prohibition.

Me, I was bowled over by how much it tallied with my obsession (which had started at age six) with Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, particularly reprints of 1930s and ’40s comic strips. When the concluding “Untouchables” episode aired, finally presenting Al Capone on camera (after the week before’s crafty cliffhanger), I was struck by how much Capone was like the ’30s Tracy villain, Big Boy.

I could hardly have imagined that, less than twenty years later, I’d be writing the strip, and hearing Chester Gould confirm my suspicions that detective Tracy had been based on Ness and the Untouchables—a fact still little noted or known.

That was the beginning of my interest in true crime in general and Eliot Ness specifically. I immediately read Ness’s memoir, The Untouchables (1957), cowritten by sports writer Oscar Fraley, as well as Fraley’s follow-up, Four Against the Mob (1958), about Ness’s later law enforcement career in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Ness/Fraley book has largely been dismissed as fabrication, but one of our many discoveries has been how surprisingly accurate it was. Fraley built his book on a decidedly nonboastful, fairly short memoir by Ness, amplifying it with newspaper and magazine accounts. But the ghost writer paid no heed to chronology, and events appeared in what struck Fraley as the most effective order. Ness protested to no avail, taken out by a heart attack at fifty-four, before publication of the work that would make him far more famous dead than he’d been alive.

Fraley’s readable if creatively rearranged account led to a backlash among Ness’s contemporaries in law enforcement as well as Chicago journalists, building him (inaccurately) into a glory hound. The enormously successful TV series that the Desilu Playhouse two-parter spawned did Ness’s real-life reputation no favors, either.

Ironically, the original two-part film (released theatrically as The Scarface Mob) was the most accurate presentation on film Ness and the Untouchables has ever received. Director Phil Karlson was a master at true-crime noir, with Phoenix City Story (1955) behind him, and Walking Tall (1973), ahead of him (with its similar glorification of real-life lawman Buford Pusser).

Featuring Hollywood star Robert Stack as a grimly charismatic Ness, “The Untouchables” two-parter boasted a semi-documentary style, Roaring Twenties nostalgia, and fast, violent action, with ’30s media star Walter Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat narration perhaps the masterstroke.

But in their accidental pilot film, director Karlson and screenwriter Paul Monash exhausted the source book, concluding with Capone on his way to prison. With the nemesis of Ness’s real and reel Untouchable days incarcerated, the series had no choice but to focus on Capone successor Frank Nitti, with only a single two-parter (“The Big Train”) bringing Neville Brand’s memorable Al Capone back during the show’s four-season run.

A much fictionalized Chicago mob was amplified by similarly fanciful episodes taking on such real-life criminals as Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, Dutch Schultz, Waxey Gordon, Legs Diamond, and Lucky Luciano. J. Edgar Hoover, never a fan of the real Ness, objected so much to the Untouchables’ latter-day fame that he insisted the producers credit the FBI’s work at the end of the Ma Barker episode.

The only other two-part The Untouchables episode, “The Unhired Assassin,” was loosely based on the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. That event also became the subject of my detective novel, True Detective (1983).

In the late ’70s, teaching mystery fiction at a community college, I happened to notice The Maltese Falcon’s 1929 copyright—the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That meant Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries—instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.

In 1981, I set out to write period private eye story around a real crime—the Cermak assassination. I sought the help of George Hagenauer, a Chicagoan whose knowledge of the city and its mob history was considerable. I said to George, “My private eye, offended by the rampant graft, will quit the Chicago PD.” When he stopped laughing, George said, “Max, don’t you know? You get on the PD for the rampant graft!” In that exchange, Nathan Heller was born.

Ever since, George has been my primary research associate on the Heller novels, as well as many other historical thrillers. With Heller, the approach is to research a famous unsolved (or controversially solved) crime, and when I’m ready to write the definitive work on the subject, I write a private eye novel instead.

Early on I had the idea of making Eliot Ness the honest law enforcement contact for my somewhat shady P.I.—every private eye has a cop pal, after all. But I’d read in Fraley that Ness and the Untouchables had disbanded after Capone went to prison, and that Ness was gone from Chicago by 1933. The mandate of my novel was authenticity, so I abandoned the notion of using him.

And then he turned up in the research! Ness was right there on the scene, after two corrupt cops attempted the assassination of Frank Nitti. And into True Detective he went. Ness appears in a number of subsequent Heller novels, as well, in particular The Million-Dollar Wound (1986), Stolen Away (1991), and Angel in Black (2001).

In 1986 I was asked by an editor to spin Ness off into his own novels—a good opportunity to explore his little-written-about years as Public Safety Director in Cleveland. George and I made several trips to that city and explored the locations of potential Ness novels, from the castle-like boathouse on Clifton Lagoon where Eliot lived to the dreary Kingsbury Run gully where the serial-killing “Mad Butcher” pursued his homeless prey.

Our research took us to the Cleveland Public Library, the City Hall municipal reference library, and the Case Western Reserve Society, where the Ness papers reside. I expected to be disappointed. Noted mob expert Hank Messick’s Silent Syndicate (1967) explored the Cleveland mob while disparaging Ness’s gangbusting role.

So when I found in the Case Western Reserve card catalogue (remember those?) an entry saying, “Eliot Ness Scrapbook,” I held out little hope. We’d already been there all afternoon, but asked to see the scrapbook anyway. A civil servant slogged off dutifully to answer our request.

Near closing, the civil servant returned, pushing a hand truck with perhaps half a dozen huge scrapbooks, each many inches thick and large enough for a newspaper front page of the era to be pasted in. George and I exchanged the same kind of dumbstruck look that the original “Untouchables” broadcast had generated in me.

Actually exploring this treasure-trove find—apparently the last person to use the scrapbooks had been Oscar Fraley—meant returning the next day, and the next, and many more after that. Examining such items as Ness’s eyeglasses and a signed photo, I alerted the staff that this material should not be handed out to the general public, and soon Case Western had put the scrapbooks on microfilm.

Among that material were postcards sent from a mental institution to Eliot Ness by the “Mad Butcher” of Kingsbury Run. Eerily, the front of one postcard depicted actor Neville Brand, insane and ranting, clutching prison bars, in a still from Riot On Cell Block 11 (1954)—years before Brand would be Al Capone on The Untouchables.

The four Ness-in-Cleveland novels—The Dark City (1987), Butcher’s Dozen (1988), Bullet Proof (1989), and Murder by the Numbers (1993)—were followed in 2004 by a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. A one-man show performed by my late friend Michael Cornelison, Untouchable Life became a film of the same name in 2005, airing on a number of PBS stations.

I had written the play, and then filmed it, in part because I wanted to go on the record with my version of Ness’s life. The research George and I did, particularly on Butcher’s Dozen (the first book-length work on the Kingsbury Run slayer), had been plundered without credit by other novelists and graphic novelists, and by nonfiction writers, who apparently felt that not acknowledging our work was fine because we were “fiction.”

I also wanted to address aspects of director Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables. De Palma is a director I admire and the film is well made and entertaining. The screenplay is another matter. David Mamet certainly created a memorable speech for Sean Connery—“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” and so on.

But the historical inanities—inaccuracies doesn’t cover it—are unforgivable. I have no trouble with liberties being taken with historical material. But having Mounties chase rum runners in a country where rum is legal? Depicting a trial where a jury is changed midstream? Showing Eliot Ness tossing Frank Nitti off a building? The screenwriter displays a lack of respect not just for history, but his audience.

Untouchable Life attracted a high-school student from Michigan to the Des Moines Playhouse to see Michael Cornelison perform as Eliot Ness. A. Brad Schwartz had been a Dick Tracy fan since around five years of age, having been exposed to the film of that name (on which I was a creative consultant and wrote the movie tie-in novel).

At age eleven—and this may sound very familiar—he saw a movie called The Untouchables, recommended by his mother as being “like Dick Tracy but real-life.” He became enamored with that film, which led him to my work, including Road to Perdition, a graphic novel in which Eliot Ness appears. Brad was fifteen the summer he came to Des Moines for the play Untouchable Life, going to the premiere of the film in Moline, Illinois, in February 2005.

Somewhere along the way we got to know each other, and—after his college thesis evolved into the Orson Welles book, Broadcast Hysteria (Hill & Wang, 2015)—he suggested we collaborate on a biography of Eliot Ness. I’d had several editors suggest the same to me, but I felt Untouchable Life was my last word on the subject.

Apparently I was wrong.

Soon the project morphed into a dual biography of Capone and Ness. For a good long while, we hoped to follow Ness through to the end of his days, but eventually Chicago became the focus. For now.

We hope to set the record straight on any number of things. The inaccurate and unfair portrayal of Ness is one; the glorification of Al Capone is another. Jonathan Eig, in his Get Capone (2010), is guilty of both, particularly in trying to clear the mobster of the infamous baseball bat murders and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

For the former, Eig claims the baseball bat story only dates to 1975 when we have it in print within a year of the event. For the latter, he ignores ballistics evidence, eyewitness testimony, and a credible confession in favor of a convoluted theory based on a single error-ridden letter written to the FBI.

Deirdre Bair, in her book, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend (2016), collaborates with Capone family members to present a portrait of a loving husband and father. Typically, Bair disparages Ness, claiming he made “sure the press was there to take his picture as he struck heroic poses over gallons of illegal boozed being smashed to pieces and going down the drains and into sewers.”

No such pictures exist.

A handful of diligent researchers—among them Rebecca McFarland, Paul Heimel and Scott Leeson Stoka—have endeavored to shed light on the real Ness and his accomplishments. But even self-proclaimed Ness defender, Douglas Perry—in Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (2014)—lingers on sordid details of Ness’s supposed womanizing and drinking, with little in the historical record to back him up.

Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use Eig as a source for Prohibition (2011), Novick insisting, “Eliot Ness had nothing to do with catching Al Capone. . . . he wrote a book in which he just made stuff up.” Gary Aford of the IRS—singing the praises of tax investigators—told the New York Times, “They don’t write movies about Frank Wilson building the [Capone] tax case.”

Only they did—Undercover Man (1949), directed by B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis of Gun Crazy fame. Starring Glenn Ford as “Frank Warren,” the film—which could have been a dry run for The Untouchables TV series—was based on Frank J. Wilson’s self-aggrandizing article in Collier’s magazine (1947), a hardcover book following in 1965.

Wilson’s boss Elmer Irey wrote (or a ghost writer did, as had been the case with Wilson) his own puffed-up work, The Tax Dodgers (1948), taking credit for busting up the Chicago mob. One wonders if Irey realized, filming a crime-does-not-pay opening scene for T-Men (1947), that Chicago gangster Johnny Roselli was an uncredited producer on the picture, with a ten percent stake.

Neither Frank J. Wilson nor Elmer Irey even mention Eliot Ness in their respective memoirs. Read this book and see if you think that was fair. Add to that the treatment Al Capone got from the Federal government, and we include the questionable conduct of the much-lauded Judge James H. Wilkerson.

In trying to set the record straight, we used decades of Collins/Hagenauer research, including published sources—newspapers, books, long-forgotten true-crime magazines—as well as newly uncovered archival documents and federal files obtained through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Trips have been made to libraries, archives, and personal collections in a dozen states as well as the District of Columbia, including the office of the Cook County Medical Examiner.

Coauthor Schwartz has combed through the personnel files of the Untouchables in the historic archives at the ATF’s D.C. headquarters. Brad also made a trip to the small Pennsylvania town where Eliot Ness died, speaking with the last people with living memories of the man. He also spoke with the son of an Untouchable and the grandson of another, and spent an afternoon with George exploring Ness’s old South Side neighborhood, visiting as well Capone’s Miami mansion.

While we have verified much of the Ness/Fraley book, The Untouchables, we do not use it as a source, with the occasional exception of drawing upon Ness’s state of mind in relation to certain incidents.

Neither of our subjects has really gotten a fair shake from history. Our hope is to balance the scales of justice on their behalf. Telling the story of Capone and Ness accurately is our goal—not only is truth stranger than fiction, in this case it’s even more compelling than the many lies and exaggerations visited on both.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago will be published on August 14, 2018, by William Morrow.
Copyright 2018, Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz
Posted in Books, Guest, History, Noir, Politics, Pop Culture, Real Crime | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Flame Wars & More” (by Paul D. Marks)

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-winning thriller White Heat and its upcoming sequel, Broken Windows. His story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” won the 2016 EQMM Readers Award, and his story “Windward” has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Louise Penny; the story is also nominated for both the Shamus and Macavity Awards. In this post, Paul takes up an important topic—book banning, and its modern social-media equivalent.—Janet Hutchings

How political should an author be in public? There’s a lot of rancor in the country today. It’s on social media. It’s in public places. It’s in the air. Many people are up in arms about the country’s immigration policies and Supreme Court appointments, among other things. Many writers spout off about these and other issues on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. And often when one person disagrees with another the flame wars and defriendings begin.

I generally tend to keep my opinions to myself, at least on social media. I see posts I agree with and others I vehemently disagree with. But I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind and they’re not going to change mine, so mostly I keep quiet. Nor do I see any point getting into flame wars. In my younger, wilder days, I loved to argue. Hell, I got into my share of physical fights. But these days I’m older and “wiser”. And my wife, Amy, has calmed me down to some extent. But there’s still part of me that yearns for the good fight. That said, I’m not sure the Internet is the place I want to make that stand. It reminds me of people yelling at each other from the safety of their cars. It’s easy to flip someone off from behind your windshield. Much harder to do to their face, with no safety glass between you. So I’m not opposed to a good discussion, but that’s not what seems to happen on social media.

I’m also a free speech absolutist. I believe people should be able to say pretty much anything they want to. I remember the days when people on all sides said things like, “I might not agree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment. And I believe the antidote for speech you disagree with is more speech, not defriending someone because you don’t like what they’re saying. People are too quick to unfriend. You can try arguing your point, but what’s the point of unfriending someone? Isn’t it good to see another point of view? And isn’t it good for the other party to be able to see your POV too?

While I’m constantly seeing people on FB, the social media outlet that I use the most, talking about how they defriended someone for this or that reason, I’ve never defriended anyone because of their opinion. But I did get defriended one time for something I put up. A couple of years ago around Christmas I put up what I thought was a funny, satirical video and song, The Season’s Upon Us, by the punk band the Dropkick Murphys, about families at Christmas. One of my FB friends got extremely offended by it and reamed me out in private e-mails. I apologized to her three separate times, saying I certainly didn’t mean to offend her—but I wouldn’t remove the video from my timeline. She defriended me. Other than that one time I don’t know of anyone who’s defriended me for anything I’ve posted.

I find it both sad and scary that discourse has become this vitriolic and contentious. It seems very overheated. In real life—people I know in person—I have friends from all sides of the spectrum. Sometimes we agree to disagree and don’t talk politics when we’re together, yet we still maintain our friendships and liking of each other. Other times we argue the hell out of issues. And yet again we maintain our friendships. I’ve lost friends because of one reason or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost a friend because we disagreed about political issues. So, I don’t mind arguing issues, I’m just not sure social media is the hill I want to die on.

All that said, my books and characters often deal with issues that we recognize from the real world. One of the most interesting things, to me, about my novels White Heat and Broken Windows, its coming sequel, is that, though they’re mystery-thrillers and take place in the 1990s, the issues they deal with, racism and immigration, respectively, are still things that top the news today. You know what they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that reading these books gives us an insight into things that are happening today through the prism of the recent past and in the form of mystery-thrillers. And when I wrote them I was concerned that people would be turned off for one reason or another. I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. I don’t mind doing that as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say. So I’m not averse to dealing with controversial subjects, I just don’t see the point of spending my time arguing about them on social media. Of course one doesn’t want to get too polemical or hit people on the head with a sledge hammer in our books either. Nobody wants to be preached to.

Banning friends because one disagrees with their opinions seems similar to banning books because we don’t like what they say. Do we really want to limit what people can read—or say? I don’t think we should ban books, either the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf, to use two examples from opposite poles, and I don’t think we should ban friends. I mean, from the “now I’ve seen everything department,” someone wanted to ban Where’s Waldo?. And don’t forget that when John Steinbeck wasn’t nice to Kern County they wanted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

If we start censoring and defriending each other or engaging in flame wars, it’s like censoring books. Think of all the books you might not have seen because someone censored them, and you don’t have to like what they say but at least they’re out there.

Here’s just a partial list of banned books from the ALA and the reasons for their banning.

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain — Coarse language, racial stereotypes and use of the word N word
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — Mark Twain — Coarse language; racial stereotypes
  • All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren — Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”
  • Always Running — Luis J. Rodriguez — Gang violence, drug use and sexual references
  • An American Tragedy — Theodore Dreiser — Sexual content; abortion; murder
  • Animal Farm — George Orwell — Political (Communist) commentary
  • As I Lay Dying — William Faulkner — Dealing with issues of death; abortion
  • Black Boy — Richard Wright — Themes of Communism, racism and atheism
  • The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison — Themes of racism, incest and child sexual abuse
  • Brideshead Revisited — Evelyn Waugh — Themes of homosexuality, alcoholism, infidelity
  • Bridge to Terabithia — Katherine Paterson — Allegations that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism
  • The Color Purple — Alice Walker — Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Fahrenheit 451— Ray Bradbury — Obscene language, references to smoking and drinking, violence, and religious themes
  • Friday Night Lights — H. G. Bissinger — Obscene language, sexual content, and racism
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin — Obscene language, explicit sex, references to masturbation, rape, violence and sexism
  • Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell — Several uses of racial slurs, the book’s portrayal of slavery, and references to rape
  • Goosebumps (series) — R. L. Stine — Supernatural themes, violence, and encouraging disobedience
  • The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck — Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light
  • The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood — Sexuality, profanity, suicide, violence, anti-Christian themes
  • Harry Potter (series) — J. K. Rowling — Unsuited to age group, witchcraft, religious viewpoint, anti-family, darkness/scariness/violence, and for “setting bad examples.”
  • Heather Has Two Mommies — Lesléa Newman — Homosexuality
  • The Holy Bible — various — Religious viewpoint, violence
  • The House of the Spirits — Isabel Allende — Sexual content
  • The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins — Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou — Sexually explicit
  • In Cold Blood — Truman Capote Violence — sexual content, and obscene language
  • Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison — Obscene language and sexual content
  • The Naked and the Dead — Norman Mailer — Obscene language
  • Naked Lunch — William S. Burroughs — Sexual content
  • Native Son — Richard Wright — Violence and sexual content
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four — George Orwell — Pro and Anti-Communist views, sexual content, and violence
  • Of Mice and Men — John Steinbeck — Offensive language, racism, violence
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey — Obscene language, violence, and references to mental illness
  • Ordinary People — Judith Guest — Obscene language and sexual content
  • The Outsiders — S. E. Hinton — Anti-religious content
  • The Pillars of the Earth — Ken Follet — Sexual content, and references to violence toward women
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany — John Irving — Anti-religion and criticism of the Vietnam War
  • Private Parts — Howard Stern — Sexual content
  • Rabbit, Run — John Updike — Sexual content
  • Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut — Sexual content, anti-religious content, violence
  • Song of Solomon — Toni Morrison — Sexual content, beastiality, and racism
  • Sophie’s Choice — William Styron — Sexual content
  • Sons and Lovers — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content, and incest
  • The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien — Violence, animal abuse, obscene language, and criticism of the Vietnam War
  • A Time to Kill — John Grisham — References to slavery, rape, and the text includes racial slurs
  • To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee — Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
  • Tropic of Cancer — Henry Miller — Sexual content
  • Twilight (series) — Stephenie Meyer — Religious viewpoint, violence, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Ulysses — James Joyce — References to masturbation
  • Where’s Waldo? — Martin Handford — Nudity
  • The Witches — Roald Dahl — Misogyny, encouraging disobedience, violence, animal cruelty, obscene language, and supernatural themes
  • Women in Love — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content and misogyny
  • A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L’Engle — Supernatural themes, and religious themes

I don’t want to see these or any books banned for their opinions. And I’m not saying don’t be political or express your views, but allow others to have their POVs too, even though you might find them distasteful. So maybe we can live and let live. We don’t have to agree but we don’t have to defriend either. And maybe it’s best to remember what your mother taught you, don’t talk politics or religion in polite society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 25 Comments

“I Solve the Mystery of my Confessions” (by Bill Pippin)

Last week I posted about production changes in the publishing industry over the past few decades; this week author Bill Pippin talks about how he got his start, and what publishing was like from an author’s perspective several decades ago. Bill had stories in EQMM in 2010 and 2017, and we have a new story from him scheduled for 2019. He is the author of an historical narrative of Potter County, Pennsylvania, Wood Hick, Pigs-Ear & Murphy, and many short stories for other publications. For sixteen years, he also instructed new writers at the Long Ridge Writers Group.—Janet Hutchings

When I was about ten, inspired by stories I read and loved, I began making up my own stories. Until I was fifteen I wrote these stories down in notebooks. Then one day my dad saw a magazine ad for a Remington portable typewriter and sent away for it. Owning a typewriter had never entered my head, but maybe Dad was prescient. Presenting it to me in its businesslike gray case, he said simply, “A writer needs a typewriter.”

I quickly taught myself to hunt and peck. The professional looking result spurred me to invest in some Number 10 envelopes and send the manuscript to a magazine. I don’t recall which magazine, but I do remember the story being quickly rejected. Which somehow didn’t deter me.

I continued mailing my stories regularly to magazines I was familiar with: Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Argosy, Bluebook, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, any publication that published the sort of stories I loved to read and write: spine-tingling stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense.

Although my stories were consistently rejected, I kept writing and submitting them. Until, miraculously, a letter of acceptance came from a magazine called Savage. The editor offered me $75 for a blood-and-guts Western I’d sent him: “I’ll Live to Kill You, Ward Moolin.”

Did success go to my head? I was nineteen. I figured within six months—maybe sooner—my name would be a household word.

I wrote a plethora of stories after that—even a long novel. After reading that novel, one crusty literary agent wrote to inform me I’d broken some sort of record. He didn’t think anyone with so little to say could possibly write over 100,000 words saying it. It took a couple of years without another acceptance for me to decide I needed to take my writing in a new direction.

An ad in Writer’s Digest caught my eye: Modern Romances, owned by Dell Publishing, was hungry for confession stories. I’d never read any confession stories. I thought those confessions were true, made by loose women with a need to reveal their darkest secrets. I bought a copy of MR and read the first story. Then I wrote a similar story and sent it to MR.

Shockingly, it was rejected. Only this rejection slip wasn’t like others I’d received, saying my story didn’t suit their needs or whatever. A real person had actually typed it on a torn sliver of paper. I didn’t mind the strike-overs because the reader detailed what was wrong with my story. Why it didn’t work. What specifically it needed to make it work.

For example, I needed a sympathetic character the reader could identify with vicariously (I looked up vicariously in the dictionary); a central problem that wasn’t trite and led to strong conflict; believable obstacles that entangled the first-person narrator more deeply in her problem.

And a credible plot.

Thirteen MR rejections later, I zeroed in on that plot thing. I could do all the other stuff fairly well, I was being told, but when it came to plotting a story it was hit or miss. Mostly miss.

I bought a book called Writing the Confession Story by Dorothy Collett. The main thing about plotting, in her view, was having a compelling idea to structure the plot around. Dorothy Collett described the ten elements that comprised the typical confession story. Following her game plan, I wrote a story set in the deep South about a young woman whose lover is attacked by a lynch mob. Because of the young man’s background and other carefully planted plot details, the mob believes his illicit affair with the girl amounts to rape.

I sent the story off and a week later MR’s managing editor Dan Senseney shot me a telegram offering $350 for “The Fury of A Mob.” A telegram!

I got a little carried away in my euphoria. The next confession story I wrote was over twice as long. Again set in the deep South (I’d once lived in the Carolinas), it featured a teenage narrator whose abusive backwoods pap makes potent moonshine. After a shootout with the Feds, Pap goes crazy from lead poisoning, resulting from drinking his own swill, and his daughter lands her lover boy. MR sent me a check for $600 for “The First Touch of a Boy’s Lips.” Due to the excessive length, MR published the story as a two-part serial.

I still didn’t fully understand what I’d done to achieve this success. Both stories had strong plots, but what else? Over time it came to me: although my stories featured the requisite titillating romance, the engine that made them run was conflict. Conflict resulting from intrigue, mystery, and suspense. I’d written the sort of stories I loved in the form of confessions.

Still, my writing continued to be hit or miss for several years. I’d sell a confession story on occasion, always sending it to MR first. If MR rejected it, I sent it to True Confessions, True Story, then Secrets. Some stories wound up at obscure confession magazines further down the totem pole. I even sold an occasional story to a men’s magazine like Rascal or Jaguar, or a thriller to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. But I continued to rack up more rejections than acceptances. It was one thing to develop a strong plot, quite another to find a fresh idea for the next plot.

Even though I mostly wrote confessions, I still read stuff I loved: stories in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazines, mystery story anthologies and mystery novels. When I read John Godey’s crime novel, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome, I was captivated by its originality: a criminal has plastic surgery in prison, and the operation for a disfiguring cleft palate not only changes his appearance, it changes his personality.

Something clicked. In a blaze of inspiration I wrote a confession story about a man who marries a young woman with a severe cleft palate. His wife is attractive in other ways: she’s good-natured with an appealing personality, generous and affectionate. But that cleft palate is a bummer. The male narrator adores his wife and finally saves enough money to pay for an expensive operation that will make her face as lovely as the rest of her. But as a result of the successful surgery, men suddenly find the narrator’s wife desirable. She changes, grows vain, flirtatious, fickle, leading the narrator to cheat. “Marriage on the Rocks” sold to MR for $350.

If you’re thinking I plagiarized Godey’s novel, I beg to differ. What I did was isolate the essence of his idea and create my own plot around it. I used none of Godey’s actual words. “Marriage on the Rocks” bore no resemblance to The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome.

I began reading mystery stories and novels with my antenna out for additional plot ideas. I grew so confident in my ability to plot salable stories consistently, I quit my day-job. As a full-time writer, I needed to write a confession story a week and sell most of them. Not easy. I worked seven days a week. Working from an outline, I’d type the first draft, edit it, then my wife Zona would type the final draft. All on that Remington portable.

While Zona was typing, I’d search for a new idea. In my quest for a steady flow of plot ideas I read voraciously: Dear Abby and Ann Landers columns, various newspapers, and mysteries, loads of mysteries. John D. MacDonald, a master of the mystery genre, became my go-to writer. His female characters were vividly drawn and often I gave my male narrators traits similar to Travis McGee’s. Frequently MR published two of my stories in the same issue, one from a male POV, one from a female POV.

Alas, in the mid seventies the popularity of confession magazines faded. My heroes at Modern Romances, editor Henry Malmgreen and managing editor Dan Senseney, retired. Dell sold the iconic magazine to Macfadden Bartell. Since Macfadden Bartell paid on publication rather than on acceptance, I could no longer send a story out one week and receive a check the following week. For a freelance writer living hand to mouth, this was the kiss of death.

Needing a real job, I gravitated to advertising. I spent over twenty years writing advertising copy, working my way up to copy chief, creative director, vice-president. When I retired I started writing a memoir, then set it aside to write what I loved most—stories featuring intrigue, mystery, and suspense. When you love your work, it’s not work.

Posted in Fiction, Guest, Publishing, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

CHANGES TO THE PROCESS

In a recent interview for the blog SleuthSayers, I was asked, “What does a typical work day for you look like?” I replied that there is no typical day. And there really isn’t anymore. There are reading days and issue-release days, days devoted to special projects, days when social media (such as this blog) soaks up a lot of time, letter-writing days and editing days, days spent crafting an issue—deciding what should be included and how it should all be put together—and days spent at conventions, writers conferences, and so forth.

The question got me thinking about how fluid my days have become. If I’d been asked this question a couple of decades ago, before we had fully converted to desktop publishing and the other technological innovations that have given us control over the production process, my answer would have been different.

Up till the mid 1990s, magazine production was a process with rigid deadlines and little margin for error. All of our text was set in type by a typesetter in another state. Edited manuscripts had to be delivered strictly to schedule, by parcel service. I can recall many evenings bent over the desk in my office with one eye on the clock, rushing to make the last pickup. When proofs were returned to us, we had only two opportunities to make corrections (with the second round of corrections frequently drawing acerbic complaints from the typesetter). The next stage was what were known as “mechanicals.” The typesetter would return all of the text to us on shiny, high-contrast paper, pasted onto what were known as “boards,” with everything positioned according to our instructions. At this point, we proofed most of the issue again, not only for the positioning of each page’s content but also for any typographical errors we might have missed earlier. But any mistakes we found at this juncture could be corrected only by a junior member of the art department equipped with an X-Acto knife. He would meticulously cut out each wrong (eleven-point!) letter, then cut the correct letter from a stack of old boards and paste it in the gap, trying to align it perfectly with the rest of the word. It was an excruciatingly slow process and since there was only one person to do it and four magazines going to the printer on the same day, we had to be very economical in the changes we made. (Not to mention getting in line for the X-Acto knife wielder before the other magazines, if we could!)

We had our final look at the issue, and our last chance to make corrections, when the printer sent us “bluelines”—prepress photographic proofs made from the mechanicals. Any changes made at this stage not due to a printer’s error were charged for at a high rate, and usually required justification to management.

How different this is from today, when all type is set in-house and we frequently make several dozen corrections immediately before the magazine goes to the printer in what is called “camera-ready” form, meaning in files that are ready to go to press without the printer’s intervention. Even in the days of mechanicals and bluelines, EQMM’s release days were never like the image old Hollywood movies used to give of deadline pandemonium at press time, but then, as a monthly magazine composed almost entirely of short fiction, we have never had many time-sensitive features that require last-minute preparation and placement. Still, prior to desktop publishing there was always an element of tension in the knowledge that we had to get things right the first time, and that we had to be ready to spot any printer’s errors—of which there were many in those days, since so much of the work was done by hand. The two worst missed printer’s errors that I can recall were an upside down spine and a switching of the final pages of two different stories. The latter still haunts me, since one of the tales was a first story and the author’s relatives had ordered around a hundred copies.

Desktop publishing and other technological innovations have brought their own problems, of course, and eat up chunks of our work time in other ways. For one thing, the number of errors in manuscripts submitted to us has grown exponentially. This may seem strange, given that everyone is equipped with programs such as spell checkers, but we are now in the era of endless revision and it has become extremely common for people not to proof their revisions—and therefore to leave parts of revised sentences in when they meant to delete them or accidentally delete what was intended to stay. We can usually figure out what was intended, but I find I’m more often having to write to authors to clarify such things nowadays than before. It used to be (at least at our magazine) that when a manuscript was submitted to a publisher, it was considered by the author to be finished, except for any changes the editor might require. Now I find that a large percentage of our writers continue to work on stories they’ve submitted to us while they wait for our decision. This can create all sorts of problems for us. First of all, the revised story must be reread to make sure it’s still acceptable to us; secondly, we may already have decided on a space for the story at the time of acceptance, based on its word count. If the count alters significantly, our planned use may no longer work. There’s also a much greater chance that errors will occur in the final version of the magazine if revisions not specifically asked for by us have to be incorporated. Occasionally, I will edit a manuscript immediately upon acceptance. If a revision is submitted subsequent to that, the changes have to be pieced in, increasing the possibility of mistakes slipping through. For all of these reasons, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a plea to writers: Submit to us only what you consider a finished story. And if you must make changes, let us know immediately.

Personal computers and desktop publishing have, indisputably, been a good thing for the publishing industry—though I clearly recall the fierce resistance in our own company when management insisted on the transition. There is a drawback from our side (as publishers), however, in that it has made us more complacent. Knowing we can always make a correction at a later stage has made us less careful, our eyes less sharp. From the authorial side, it seems to me the technology’s chief disadvantage may be never allowing a writer to consider a work finished.

What do you think?—Janet Hutchings

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