The action in Weeds ... has Spillane’s aging hero and his voluptuous secretary/partner, Velda Sterling, embroiled in two entwining story lines: the first involving a string of “accidental” deaths among Gotham cops; the second focusing on Rudolph Olaf, a slum denizen arrested four decades ago for slaying gay men, but now potentially eligible for release—and a huge settlement from the City of New York--thanks to someone else having copped to those hate crimes. This yarn pops with moments of humor (as when Velda tells Hammer to quit talking like an Eisenhower-era gumshoe--“People are starting to look at you funny”), but packs plenty of what Collins calls the “traditional crime elements” Hammer fans expect.While I hope you’ll find that Kirkus column enjoyable, it contains only a small portion of a recent e-mail exchange I conducted with Iowa resident Collins, who is perhaps best known as the prolific author of the Nate Heller historical gumshoe series and a growing succession of books starring a hired killer named Quarry. Below, I offer the rest of our conversation. It covers everything from the influence Spillane exerted on the young Collins’ decision to become a novelist and this author’s work on a new Spillane Western series, to Collins’ forthcoming thriller (the near-future-set Supreme Justice), the “Trash ’n’ Treasures” books he pens with his wife, and his opinions on the proper use of explicit sex in modern-day crime fiction.
J. Kingston Pierce: My understanding is that Mickey Spillane began writing King of the Weeds during the late 1990s as a sequel to his ’96 Mike Hammer novel, Black Alley. But then, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he dropped Weeds and set to work instead composing The Goliath Bone. Had he not been satisfied with the direction Weeds was taking?
Max Allan Collins: Oh, he was happy with King of the Weeds, and would have got back to it, I’m sure. The ending was one of his favorites, and he loved the title, as well. But like a lot of Americans, he was deeply troubled by the terrorist attacks on September 11, and I think he just had to get Mike Hammer into that fray. But as much as I like Goliath Bone, I think King of the Weeds, with its traditional crime elements, feels more like the final Hammer novel. When I looked at the six substantial Hammer manuscripts I’d be finishing, it made sense to start with Goliath Bone, the last book Mickey had been working on, and then wind up with King of the Weeds, which he’d long intended to be Mike’s swan song.
JKP: During an interview I did with you back in 2008, you said that Spillane left behind “five substantial [and unpublished] Mike Hammer manuscripts, and a number of less substantial ones.” Yet you’ve now added six new Hammer outings to Spillane’s signature series. Does that mean one of the manuscripts you worked from was not “substantial”?
MAC: The amount of unfinished, unpublished material Mickey left behind was and is staggering. Even now I haven’t read every word of it. So early on, I was just going through looking for readily identifiable Hammer manuscripts that were of substantial length. I had one manuscript that dated to the late 1940s that began with Chapter 2 and appeared to be an early version of The Twisted Thing (a late-’40s Hammer that Spillane didn’t publish till the mid-’60s). Its small-town location and character names were from that novel, so I set it aside. Later, I realized I was looking at about 80 pages of the never-finished sequel to I, the Jury , and a completely different story than Twisted Thing. Even then, I set it aside, because it began, as I say, with Chapter 2, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing the first chapter of a Mickey Spillane novel--at that point, anyway. But after I’d done the first three collaborative books, I felt I was up to it. I had a chunk of ’60s manuscript, about a chapter’s worth, that dealt with a similar sex-fiend killer. So I worked that in, bringing the Mickey page count up over 100. That became Lady, Go Die! .
There’s a lot of carpentry involved in these books, and a considerable amount of using alternate versions of chapters of books-in-progress in a different way, or different position. In Goliath Bone, I needed a scene fairly late in the book where the feds come rattle Hammer’s cage. I found just the right scene in an alternate draft, but which appeared much earlier. But an FBI vs. Hammer scene can go almost anywhere. Think of it as Spillane Legos.
JKP: You’ve spent a lot of time now, slipping into Spillane’s stylistic shoes in order to complete his final, fragmentary novels. But you also knew the author long enough, and read his stories for enough years, to have been influenced by his storytelling. What would you say is the biggest contribution Mickey Spillane made to your own work as a crime novelist?
(Left) Max Allan Collins
MAC: I started reading him at 13, and the books were thrilling--tough and sexy and surprising and blackly humorous, with a distinctive, unusual, charismatic protagonist. They were so much fun that it made me want to write books myself, so I could have fun, too … and let readers have fun, as well. It’s that simple: he inspired me to be a writer.
There’s a lot from a craft standpoint, too. My approach to action scenes is pure Spillane, the run-on sentences, the brutality. The notion of strong first sentences, grabby first chapters, strong last chapters, compelling last sentences--that’s Spillane 101. Putting emotion into the books, including the lead character. Putting a noirish poetry into the descriptions. Mickey all the way.
But I was just as influenced by [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler, and [James M.] Cain and Jim Thompson. Donald E. Westlake as Richard Stark had the last major impact on my work. I think the Quarry novels are a reflection of some rather contradictory influences coming together. A writer who combines Hammett’s lean understatement with Spillane’s fever-dream approach just has to be interesting. Any writer is the child of his or her favorite writers and their books. The trick is to have all that add up into something that is you.
JKP: So let’s move on to the next book you’ll make available to the reading public: Supreme Justice, which is due out in late June. This, I believe, is your second standalone thriller for publisher Thomas & Mercer, following last year’s What Doesn’t Kill Her. How would you synopsize Supreme Justice’s plot?
MAC: Simply put, a Supreme Court Justice is shot in a bar hold-up and an ex-Secret Service agent, after studying the security footage, thinks he sees an execution. Another Justice falls, and it begins to look like somebody is trying to change the balance on the big court through assassination.
JKP: Supreme Justice is a political thriller, and it doesn’t cast right-wing politicians in a very favorable light. In that story, a Republican president and cooperative Supreme Court of the United States have given new teeth to the notorious USA PATRIOT Act, overturned the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, returned prayer to public schools, and reversed Roe v. Wade, making it illegal and dangerous once more for a woman to get an abortion. Do you worry that you might lose some readers because they disagree with your politic views? Or is it more important to tell the story you want to tell, and let the chips fall as they may?
MAC: You know, I’m a little puzzled by this, because the intention was to be apolitical, in the thriller aspects, anyway. Our lead is a kind of Kennedy liberal, but he is protecting the conservative justices and trying to stop what may be a leftist plot. That strikes me as a fairly straight-down-the-middle approach. Where my politics may peek through is by depicting a lesser America after Roe v. Wade is repealed and the PATRIOT Act expanded.
But I learned early on that you can’t worry about what some people in your audience will think. I was 23 when my first novel [1973’s Bait Money] was published, and my father was the director of the First Methodist Church choir here in Muscatine, Iowa. Some of those good people (not my father, though) were outraged by--yup--the sex and violence. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. A story has its own integrity and the writer has to follow it or fail.
You know, Mickey wasn’t exactly a flaming liberal. As a conservative, he knew very well what my left-of-center politics were, and yet he had no hesitation with trusting me not to turn Mike Hammer into Alan Alda.
JKP: After doing so many series novels, why have you started to take on more standalones?
MAC: Some ideas are clearly best served in a standalone fashion--like my Wyatt Earp Meets Al Capone novel, Black Hats , or the World War II thriller, Red Sky in Morning , based on my father’s wartime experiences commanding black sailors. [Both were published under the pseudonym Patrick Culhane.]
JKP: And are these indeed standalones, or are they more like TV pilots in search of future series? Is there any chance of more books featuring your protagonist from Supreme Justice, Joseph Reeder? Or maybe a sequel or two possible for Jordan Rivera of What Doesn’t Kill Her?
MAC: Well, most of my series--from Nolan to Quarry, from Nate Heller to Road to Perdition--started with novels designed as standalones. When a publisher wanted a sequel, I just figured, “That’s my job, isn’t it?” Supreme Justice could lead to more books about Joe Reeder and Patti Rogers. There could be a follow-up to What Doesn’t Kill Her. It depends on readers and publishers.
Still, I don’t think of these as pilots for series. That’s not healthy with a book designed primarily as a standalone, which in my case [means they] are usually “high concept” novels--as in Supreme Justice, [with] a killer targeting Supreme Court Justices to change the balance.
JKP: Once more you employed author Matthew V. Clemens--with whom you worked on more than a dozen TV tie-ins as well as the thrillers You Can’t Stop Me and No One Will Hear You--to help you with the research and plotting of Supreme Justice. How do the two of you work together on these books? And are there plotting elements that Clemens brings to the stories that are distinct from you can offer?
MAC: Usually it starts with an idea I have, again a “high concept.” Then Matt and I meet in the middle of an afternoon in a restaurant somewhere and brainstorm for several hours, with Matt taking notes. The plotting ping-pongs back and forth. Then Matt writes up a synopsis, and I do a second draft, and it gets shown to my agent. When the book has been commissioned by a publisher, Matt and I get together in a restaurant again and spend several hours breaking it down into chapters. Then Matt writes a long story treatment, sort of a short first draft, and I use that to write the full-length novel. He stays handy so I can bounce ideas off of him, if I get a notion of going in a new direction with something. Matt is great. We’ve been collaborating for 20 years.
JKP: You and your lovely wife, Barbara (writing together as “Barbara Allan”), also have another installment of your long-running “Trash ’n’ Treasures” series, Antiques Con, due out this week from publisher Kensington. I have to confess, it’s easy for me to forget that you’re composing this series, as it’s so unlike the usual books you write--much “cozier” and more humorous in nature. What unfamiliar part of Max Allan Collins do these Trash ’n’ Treasures books tap? And what have you learned from them that’s helpful in your other fiction writing? Finally, how much of you is there in this series, versus what Barbara brings to them?
MAC: The process is in some ways the same as with Matt Clemens--a trip to a restaurant to brainstorm. We start with a title, usually, because the pattern is that “Antiques” must be part of it, and a pun the second part. So Antiques Con became a story about a comics convention. Antiques Bizarre  led us into a church bazaar. Next year’s Antiques Swap will deal with swap meets (and, delicately, wife-swapping). Barb feels she can only write effectively if she is emotionally connected to the material, so I follow her lead and try not to force anything on her. We do a chapter breakdown, fairly loose but with all the major plot points covered. She writes a rough draft of about 200 pages, with little input from me--only if she’s hit a wall and needs to talk. Then I write a final draft of around 300 pages. We stay out of each other’s way. It’s good for the books. And the marriage.
These are Barb’s books primarily, but I earn my half of the byline. I bring plotting expertise, professional polish, and lots of jokes to the enterprise. I’d say these books are 60/40 Barb/me. The trick is that we both put in every funny thing that occurs to us, and that makes us seem like one really funny author. Plus, Vivian Borne is a terrific character, so off the wall that there’s almost no way to go too far with her.
I think there’s humor in almost all of my novels, which is not really an unfamiliar part of me to tap into. The Antiques series is probably the most successful one I’m working on now, so what I’ve learned is--you never know what’s going to hit.
JKP: I understand you’re also now working on a Western, based on an unproduced screenplay Mickey Spillane wrote originally for actor John Wayne. Can you fill in more of the background on that particular tale, which you’ve titled The Legend of Caleb York? How did Spillane take such a detour from Hammer?
MAC: Mickey and John Wayne were pals. Or “buddies,” in Spillane-speak. Wayne starred Mickey in the  film Ring of Fear, on which Mickey did a major uncredited rewrite. So I assume Wayne asked him for a script, but Wayne’s production company, Batjac, got into financial difficulties due to overruns on The Alamo , so the screenplay never got made. I don’t see it as a stretch for Mickey--Mike Hammer was an urban gunfighter, after all.
There were three unproduced screenplays in the Spillane files, and all would make good novels. This is the first one I’ve pitched. Or I should say, casually mentioned to my Kensington editor, who handles the Antiques series. Over a Bouchercon breakfast I said, “You know what I have? An unproduced screenplay Mickey Spillane wrote for John Wayne. You guys publish Westerns, right?” And my editor sort of pounced.
JKP: Aside from your work on the tie-in novel to the 1994 Mel Gibson/Jodi Foster/James Garner film Maverick, I don’t recall that you have much experience writing Westerns. So how is the work on Caleb York going? Have you had to consult with more practiced Western-writing hands in the course of this project?
MAC: Black Hats is sort of a Western--anyway, it’s about Wyatt Earp and has a flashback to O.K. Corral days. I’ve always been a fan of Western movies and TV shows, though I haven’t read many Western novels.
Mickey did a great job on the screenplay, so my job has been relatively easy. At times I did turn to Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, and Bob Randisi for advice and research answers. And I bought a shelf of reference books, although I’m strictly writing about the mythic West. I just turned The Legend of Caleb York in, and feel really good about it. But I’m nervous, waiting to hear the editorial reaction. It’s new territory for me. Or is that new frontier?
JKP: Is Caleb York another one-off character, or does he have series potential? And if you intend to produce more books about him, will you still be basing them on Spillane material?
MAC: Kensington wanted three books. I only wanted to do the one based on the screenplay, but that was the offer. [Mickey’s wife] Jane Spillane and I decided to say yes, because there are limited markets out there for Western novels, and this would get Caleb York out there. I will be doing direct sequels to the first book, using primarily the same cast of characters, to root the books in Spillane.
JKP: What’s this I hear about a potential Nathan Heller TV series?
MAC: Extremely early days. I have been working with an entertainment lawyer and some Hollywood folks on putting together a pitch for the series, with me as the writer.
JKP: And what’s the status of the next Heller novel, Better Dead? I understand it’s based around the political hysterics of the Joseph McCarthy era. Does that mean you’re moving backwards in time from the setting of Ask Not (which took place in 1964) to the Eisenhower ’50s, giving Heller back some of his youth?
MAC: Yes, I’m going back to fill in some blanks. I jumped forward to the Kennedy Trilogy [Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer, and Ask Not] because I wanted to make sure those books got written and published, and also because I knew the subject matter would be attractive to readers and publishers. Better Dead was plotted 20 years ago.
JKP: Your 2002 Nate Heller novel, Chicago Confidential, also used Republican Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin as a character. Is Better Dead a sequel to that book?
MAC: No, it just has McCarthy in it. Chicago Confidential caused me trouble because it didn’t cover a famous crime for the publishers to promote and for readers to gravitate toward. But it was a necessary story in Heller’s arc. Its relative failure led me to put Heller on hiatus for a decade.
JKP: And what might we learn about private investigator Heller in Better Dead that we don’t already know?
MAC: I’ll tell you when I write it. But I’m sure he’s anxious to be younger again. I would be.
JKP: I keep hearing rumors that you’re not really done with the Jack Starr series, that the warm reception you had for the third entry in that series, Seduction of the Innocent (2013), has caused you to consider writing more--perhaps one based on the death of actor George Reeves, who played Superman on television in the ’50s. Can you separate truth from rumor here?
MAC: I am open to doing another Jack and Maggie Starr, and the George Reeves story is one of two ideas I’m kicking around. But Seduction of the Innocent has not sold as well for Hard Case as the Quarry novels, so there may not be any more. I’m a little surprised, because--as you say--the critical reception was warm and there was a lot of coverage on it, because of the comic-book censorship subject matter.
JKP: I asked you before about a Heller TV drama. But there’s also a series in the works based on your books about hit man Quarry. Where does that stand?
MAC: The pilot was shot last year in Memphis with a terrific cast, great director, and a strong script. We are still waiting to hear, although I’m told a decision is imminent. The delay comes from the script being a sort of origin story, with the two scripts that followed jumping to a more “lone wolf” hired-killer Quarry. HBO liked the pilot but wanted a different path than the initial second and third scripts, following more directly on the pilot, retaining a lot of the cast members. So it was essentially a reboot, where the screenwriting process was concerned. If the series goes, I’ll be writing two episodes a season, and I’ve been kept in the loop on the various drafts of the pilot script.
JKP: As you know, I very much liked your last Quarry novel, The Wrong Quarry. But I’ve heard that you have already delivered an 11th entry in the series, Quarry’s Choice, to Hard Case Crime. Can you say a little about its plot?
MAC: Since the Quarry pilot focuses on his beginnings, I made Quarry’s Choice a kind of follow-up to The First Quarry --it’s a contract-kill story taking place during Quarry’s first year in the business. More of a crime novel than a warped P.I. novel, like the recent Quarrys have been.
JKP: Word on the street is that Quarry’s Choice has even more sex in it that your usual Quarry books. True or false? And aren’t there already some readers who object to the sexual bits of your tales? Are you trying to make their heads explode?
MAC: I don’t know if there’s more sex, but probably at least as much as in The Wrong Quarry. Some people, mostly male writers, have complained about the sex. Are they trying to look sensitive to their girlfriends or wives? I come from a time and place where a guy did not complain about there being too much sex in a book--quite the contrary. But if I can be a tiny bit serious about it … in melodramatic crime fiction, and that’s what just about all of us in this genre write, you need to have sex and violence, because sex is life and violence is death, and those are the two big issues, as well as leading to lots and lots of real crime. I use sex scenes for a multitude of reasons--characterization being one, but also humor at times, and certainly as a means of striking emotional chords. Does the sex and violence in a Quarry novel disturb some readers? Good. It’s supposed to. If you’re comfortable with Quarry and his thoughts and actions, seek help.
There’s another factor in play here, where the sexual content of my hard-boiled novels is concerned. I came in, arguably, at the end of the first wave of crime fiction created by the success of Spillane’s Hammer novels in reprint. All the Gold Medal authors I read growing up, like Jim Thompson, Charles Williams, and Richard S. Prather, were still active, in the later portion of their careers. I sold my first novel in 1971 and it (Bait Money) came out in December ’72. It was a paperback original from Curtis Books, who were doing Michael Avallone’s final Ed Noon novels. A year later, Robert B. Parker--in hardcover--would begin the next wave of tough P.I.s, and the world of our genre would be very different.
Several of my novels--the Nolan follow-ups and the first two Mallory novels--went into publishing limbo when Curtis was swallowed up by Popular Library in ’73. I didn’t get the rights back till years later, and all of those books emerged in the early ’80s. Of course, the first four Quarry novels were published in 1975 and ’76. What I’m getting at is that I was writing fairly traditional hard-boiled crime novels, but in the context of the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was then--and to a degree am now--writing the kind of books that readers like me thought they were getting when they picked up a Gold Medal, but weren’t. Because of the repression of the ’50s and early ’60s, sex scenes in such novels were highly euphemistic. I, however, was writing and publishing my first novels when the sexual revolution was in full sway, and films like Midnight Cowboy and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls were out there, breaking down old taboos. So what you get in my work, from day one, is in direct line from ’30s/’40s/’50s hard-boiled, but informed by late-’60s/early ’70s cultural changes. I think I may have written about hippies and counter culture before any other mystery writer. Mallory--I sold No Cure for Death in 1971, though it wasn’t published till a decade or so later--was a hippie private eye of sorts. So, anyway, the way I handle sex in the novels, and the amount of it, reflects the point at which I began publishing. This includes the level of “bad” language, the f- and s-word and more.
JKP: By the way, congratulations on that Robert McGinnis painting Hard Case has scored for the cover of Quarry’s Choice.
MAC: As usual, the cover for Quarry’s Choice was done before the book was written, and it greatly impacted the novel. The same was true of The Wrong Quarry.
JKP: Last but not least, I’m going to voice a question I know many readers probably have: How in the hell do you write so many books? And are you producing so many now, in your mid-60s, because you’re afraid you’ll have to give up the game sometime soon? (Not that I would ever wish that to be the case.)
MAC: You are kind of right. When you’re young, your life stretches out like an endless road. At 66, I know this ride is finite. I still have books to write. And I have a living to make. Also, I would like to enhance my reputation. Writing this much actually does the opposite, but I still think each individual book, if those books are excellent, will give me a shot at being read after I’m gone. It’s about keeping the lights on in the joint. And it’s about legacy.