Friday, October 23, 2020

A conversation with Robert Campbell - Part One



You may not know Robert Campbell's name, but chances are you know his work. A prolific novelist and screenwriter, he penned more than two dozen books, and almost as many films, including a number for legendary producer/director Roger Corman. Campbell's screenplay for the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES earned him an Academy Award nomination.

He also acted in several films, sometimes alongside his brother, veteran actor William Campbell (for a time, his sister-in-law was Judith Campbell Exner, best known for claiming to have had affairs with both JFK and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana). This interview was the first of a number I did with Campbell, a Newark, N.J., native, for various publications. We stayed in touch off-and-on until his death in 2000.


At the time of this interview, he'd just released his novel ALICE IN LA_LA-LAND, the second in his series about a quirky not-quite-official Hollywood private detective named Whistler. He had two other series under way at the same time, one about Chicago ward boss and neighborhood troubleshooter Jimmy Flannery, and another featuring railroad detective Jake Hatch. The first Flannery book, THE JUNKYARD DOG. won the 1986 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. (His 1975 novel THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED, was a finalist for the National Book Award that year).

This interview was conducted by phone from his home in Carmel, Calif., in November 1987, with an in-person follow-up at the Wyndham Hotel in NYC not long afterward.


WALLACE STROBY: First of all, I enjoyed the new book a lot.

ROBERT CAMPBELL: Which one was that?

STROBY: ALICE IN LA-LA LAND. Is there something else you have out that could be construed as new?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I have the third book in the Jimmy Flannery series, called HIP DEEP IN ALLIGATORS. That was out the month before ALICE IN LA-LA LAND. And then I have another book, which I still consider a new book, that was out about two months before that, under the name “R. Wright Campbell,” called HONOR.

STROBY: That was your screenwriting name, wasn’t it?

CAMPBELL: Yes, I wrote as R. Wright Campbell as a screenwriter for many years, but I also used (that name) for my first six novels. Then I started writing under Robert Campbell, but R. Wright Campbell was put on HONOR because it was not quite this kind of urban streets voice that I’m speaking with now in the Robert Campbell books. (Those books) are a little bit more in the argot.

STROBY: How many books have you written altogether?

CAMPBELL: Well, let me see ... There were seven as R. Wright Campbell. I wrote one book as “F. G. Clinton” called THE TIN COP. I’ve published three Flannerys so far, but there are two more Flannerys that are already written that will be out soon.
I’ve published two LA-LA-LAND books so far, and the third one I’m working on right now (SWEET LA-LA LAND), and that’ll soon be completed. And then I have a book coming out from Pocket Books, another detective named Jake Hatch, who is a railroad detective working the Burlington-Northern line between Denver and Chicago. He works out of Omaha. The first book in that series is called PLUGGED NICKEL, and that’ll be coming out in March. That’ll be (under) Robert Campbell too. And then I’ve got a contract (for) another book in that same series called RED CENT that’s coming out.

And then I just sold a book to Simon & Schuster – through Pocket Books, which is under the Simon & Schuster umbrella. for a book called JUICE, which is one of these urban crime novels, but is not in any series. It’s not the beginning of any series either. It’s just a standalone crime novel.

STROBY: Have the novels been something you’ve been doing mainly in the latter part of your career or were you writing books while you were doing screenplays?

CAMPBELL: No, what happened was in – I’m probably not too clear on these dates – in 1971 or ’72 there was a major strike with the screenwriters guild down in Hollywood. At that time, I turned to the novel.

I always wanted to write a novel. I think a lot of screenwriters do. They’d like to either write a play or a novel. Not so much that it’s more substantial, but certainly they have greater control over it.

I’ve had some absurd things happen to me as a screenwriter, but I took the attitude that what I wrote in my original draft was my contribution to my own sense of achievement, and that whatever they did with it afterward (was up to them). If they said to me, “Hey, we’d like to change this from five cowboys to five Orientals on a raft,” I’d say “Sure, what the hell? Why not? Let’s go for it.” That can drive you really mad.

So I finally sat down and I wrote THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED (1975) and made some inquiries in New York and got an agent, and it gave me at least the courage (to pursue writing novels). I wrote a couple of books after that before I finally made the move.

But Hollywood at that stage of the game was becoming – not only the profession but the city itself – was becoming so extraordinary ... Everything was based upon money, everything was based upon greed. Listen, money is okay, we all need money. But sometimes in certain professions an odd line is crossed where people who were pretty decent and with some integrity in practically any given situation, suddenly turned from simply ambitious people to greedy people, and then all bets are off. They would sell you down the river for a nickel. And it became such a terrible atmosphere that I hate to even go down there.

STROBY: How long have you lived in Carmel?

CAMPBELL: Ten years.

STROBY: How many screenplays have you done, do you remember?

CAMPBELL: I did about a dozen, maybe a little more. Early in the game, many times you do things and you don’t take credit for it, for one reason or another. Either because your contribution you feel isn’t great enough, or sometimes you’re asked to come in and save a picture, and you don’t even want to bother. Then, of course, I did a lot of television. When the business started to change, it was almost a requirement.

STROBY: How did you get hooked up with Roger Corman?

CAMPBELL: Roger is, as you know, sort of an odd sort of a guy. He’s got a reputation for having discovered people. The way he discovered people – and this is not a criticism of him, it was actually a wise way of going about it – was that he didn’t pay (them) anything. What he did do was give young writers or newcomers to the business opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get. Unfortunately, Roger never allowed any of the writers to grow with him. When he got better opportunities, he very rarely called upon the writers that had more or less worked with him in the beginning.

But frankly, that’s another matter altogether. To me, it’s almost as if my movie career was a separate life and, from my point of view, has no bearing upon the novels that I write.

STROBY: The LA-LA LAND books seem to indicate a love/hate relationship with Hollywood that eventually seem to fade to simple disgust. Would that be an accurate evaluation?

CAMPBELL: (Sighs) Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I first went to Hollywood years ago, my brother had just gone out there to go under contract to Warners. I was an artist back in New York. He came back east to buy a new Chevy convertible, because my father had contacts at some big car joint and it would save my brother several hundred dollars. Anyway, my brother asked me to help him drive his car back to California.

At that time, Bill was living in a furnished room behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and around Hollywood and Vine it was like a small town. It was extraordinary. Remember, I came from a big industrial city – Newark, New Jersey – so this really seemed like hicksville to me. People would stroll along Hollywood Boulevard at night doing window shopping.

The thing that really knocked me out was that they had these juice stands on the street where you could get any fresh juice you wanted. Strawberry juice by the glassful, who could believe it? Bill and I would drive around in his open Chevy, which he was very proud of, and then stop at one of those big circular diners they had at the time, those great drive-in diners.

STROBY: How did you end up a screenwriter?

CAMPBELL: I first went to Hollywood in 1952, when I was 25 years old, but then I got my draft notice and had to go into the Korean War for two years. I had come home on leave at the same time Bill was back from Hollywood to visit our folks at Christmas. He had a script with him that he was about to do called BATTLE CRY. I read the script and asked him, “How much does somebody get for writing something like this, Billy?” “(He said) Oh, he probably got $50,000.” I said, “God, Billy, anybody can write this kind of stuff.” Billy laughed, and told me that it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

After the war, I returned to Hollywood. I used to hang around, like everybody did, at either Schwabs, the drugstore, or a coffee shop named Googies that was right next door. We’d sit around and chat, and there would be all kinds of people there – actors, directors, writers, people that were trying to make it.

There was a guy named Jackie (Jonathan) Haze that I knew, and Jackie was a young actor who had some kind of connection with Roger Corman. I think he had worked as a grip or something on one of Roger’s pictures, just to pick up the extra dough. And Jackie had a cousin, Red Hershon, who was an agent. So what happened was that Jackie told me that Roger was looking for somebody to write this western (FIVE GUNS WEST, his directorial debut) for very small money, and I said “Well, hell, I’ll do it.”

I only got $200 for the script, but that was the first real movie sale I made. I said to Roger, “Jesus, Roger, that’s not a hell of a lot of money to live on.” I told him I noticed that all the actors, because they were in the Guild, made more money than I did, even the bit players. He said, “You want to play a part?” and I said “Why the hell not?” So the next thing you know, I was acting in my own picture.

PART TWO: FIVE GUNS WEST, working for Roger Corman, and an encounter with Lon Chaney Jr.

A conversation with Robert Campbell – Part Two

In Part Two of this archival interview from 1987, the prolific screenwriter and novelist Robert Campbell talks about his days writing – and acting – for director Roger Corman, and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Lon Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). You can read Part One HERE.

Above, Campbell (left) with Jonathan Haze in Roger Corman's FIVE GUNS WEST (1955).


WALLACE STROBY: What part did you play in FIVE GUNS WEST?

ROBERT CAMPBELL: I played a guy named Billy Candy, who was supposed to be this kind of deadly, quiet killer. And the funny part about it was I got sensational reviews, which made me laugh because I didn’t want to be an actor.

STROBY: FIVE GUNS WEST was Corman’s first film as a director, and your first film as a writer and actor. In an interview, Corman once said that he was nervous and sick to his stomach the whole time the movie was being shot and could barely make it to the set. What are your memories of the picture?

CAMPBELL: What I remember most about that movie was that we used to go out to Irison’s ranch to shoot and we were in the same dirty clothes day after day after day and they got filthier and filthier.

I also remember that I learned to ride a horse on that film. I was a city boy, you know. Ben Johnson was married to Fat Jones’ daughter, and Fat Jones was the guy who supplied all the horses for motion pictures back then. He had this big rental ranch with all kinds of stagecoaches and everything. So it was Ben Johnson who taught me how to ride.

I used to ride this little horse called Shorty, which was also the horse Jimmy Stewart always rode. He was a real nice little horse. One day, however, I arrived at the ranch and found out that Shorty had been put onto another picture. As a substitute, Ben brings out the biggest horse I ever saw. (I said) “Ben, what happens if I fall off that horse?” “Well,” he said. “You fall off that horse, you’ll never fall off again.”

Touch – his name was Touch Connors in those days – Mike Connors, also went riding with us. He learned how to ride there too. I remember one day his horse started to paw the ground, and he asked Ben what was going on. Ben said, in his Texas drawl, “He’s ‘bout to lay down.” “What’ll I do?” asked Mike. “Step out of the saddle,” answered Ben.

It was fun. I remember Roger well. Roger was always working on short change. He didn’t have any money, and some of the actors were unhappy with that, but, you see, I wasn’t an actor. After I did that first film, I wrote another picture for Roger (NAKED PARADISE 1957), and this time I got $400. I also told him I didn’t want any credit for it.

STROBY: How many films did you do with Corman?

CAMPBELL: Five or six. After that, Red Hershon took me on as a client. I had written an original screenplay that was sold to Kirk Douglas. That film was never made, oddly enough, but that was the picture that broke me out. The next picture I did was GUN FOR A COWARD (1957), which I sold to Warner Bros. Warners bought it for James Dean, but then Dean got killed. So we took it to Universal and it was made over there.

STROBY: In those days, working with Corman, when you were facing tight schedules, low budgets, scrambling for everything, were you enjoying yourself or was there too much stress to really do that?

CAMPBELL: It was fun. A lot more fun, I’m assuming, than it is now. I think what happens is that youth is a powerful sweetener of whatever you’re doing. Nobody was making any big career moves. But some of the older actors in FIVE GUNS WEST, like Paul Birch, got a little unhappy because Roger didn’t have it on the schedule to get in for the closeup.



I thought it absurd one day in a (scene) where I’m under the cabin and I’m shooting up through the floor to try to kill the hero, John Lund. Lund finally runs out of the house, across the porch, and I’m firing like this (points up). He scrambles in behind me and I was supposed to turn around and shoot at him.

Now, it had been established in the screenplay that I was a deadeye, that I could pick off a fly at 300 yards. The cameras are rolling and Lund, who wasn’t all that athletic, is supposed to be crawling around under there while I’m winging off shots. I must have shot six times and John never fired back. He was supposed to get me with one shot. Well, it looked silly as hell, but of course Roger never reshot because there wasn’t any time. That was a take.

I have to admit, that little picture made a lot of money for him for its day. He made it for spit.

STROBY: What kind of time frame were you looking at when you wrote a screenplay? How long did you have to work on it?

CAMPBELL: I could write a screenplay in about a month, that’s how long it took me. I don’t know why it takes people so long to write screenplays, except that everybody wants to get in on the act. And that was less true of Roger. The one thing that could be said of working with him is that Roger didn’t spend a lot of time romancing anybody or with nonsense. Roger would say, “Here on Page 20, I’d like to have some violence.” You’d say, “Roger, there’s no motivation for it.” “Well,” Roger would say, “Find a reason for it because it seems to me that it’s slowing down and the crowd that comes to our pictures wants to see a little something.”

So okay, it was pretty cut and dried. You were a tailor that was telling a guy “You want purple pockets on your tan suit? It’s okay with me, babe. It’s not going to look good, but I’ll do it.”



STROBY: How did the MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES project come about? It may be your best-known film as a writer.

CAMPBELL: Producer Bob Arthur came to me and said he had been impressed by the fact that I had been able to establish a language in film that identified the era and the place, that had a great sense of the time in which the film was taking place. He was talking about, I think, the westerns that I had done. It was on that basis that I got the assignment.

There was one guy (Ralph Wheelwright) who got a screen credit for having done the notes as well. He had worked with Chaney and had kept all these notebooks. That was the basis for the story.

STROBY: While you were writing the screenplay, were you in a position where you had to do research into Chaney’s life or did you use those notes exclusively?

CAMPBELL: The guy was right there on the scene, so there was no requirement for research. But in those days the so-called harsh – well, the more candid, let’s put it that way – biographies that are done today were not possible.

I remember when I came walking up the aisle from a screening – a studio screening, and there were just a few people there. I didn’t realize it, but Lon Chaney Jr. was sitting in the back of the room. As I passed, he said to me, “You really whitewashed the son of a bitch, didn’t you?”

Lon Chaney Jr. had nothing to do with it. There were no consultations, no conferences, no discussions, no nothing. It may well be, for all I know, Bob Arthur may have had discussions with him, but I was never asked to get into it. I knew Lon from around the lot but I just saw him that one day when he was sitting in the back watching the picture.

STROBY: In your estimation, how much of the finished film is Hollywood and how much maybe accurately reflected Lon Chaney’s life?

CAMPBELL: I don’t know. I think it was probably ninety percent his life. Remember, what we’re talking about here too is a matter of attitude. Lon Chaney was apparently a very jealous husband, he was a very obsessive father. He didn’t like the idea that Lon Chaney Jr. wanted to go into the acting profession, for whatever reasons he had. Maybe he wanted to be the king of the hill, who knows, (maybe) he didn’t want competition from his own son.

On the other hand, you talk to the old-timers, if there’s any left – the grips and the electricians, and everything – and they’ll tell you that Lon Chaney would come driving along on the boulevard on the way to the studio in his great big gray open car. He’d see guys that he knew from the crew standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus, and he’d pile them in the car and take them to work. He was apparently a very generous, easy-going sort of a guy. It’s like anybody’s life. There’s no such thing as a life that’s all black or all white. It’s a matter of choosing details.

I don’t know what Lon Chaney Jr. meant about “whitewashing the son of bitch.” I thought we were being fairly accurate based upon this guy’s notes, that we were being accurate about his personal life. Of course, I had no access to hidden interviews that may have changed this guy’s opinion. He was a friend of Chaney’s. I don’t think he was out to do a hatchet job on him.

STROBY: Did you work with Charles Beaumont on Corman's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)?

CAMPBELL: No, what happened was Charlie was very, very sick. He had taken on a lot of assignments because he wanted to leave his family with some money (A prolific film and television writer – notably for THE TWILIGHT ZONE – Beaumont died in 1967 at age 38, from a degenerative brain disease linked to a childhood case of spinal meningitis).

Charlie was one hell of a writer. He was damn good, but he was under such stress and he had taken on so many assignments to provide for his family. What he had done was taken the Poe short story “Masque of the Red Death” and used that as the only source for the entire film, and that’s where the screenplay failed. There just wasn’t enough material there.

I was living in London at the time and Roger called me and said Vincent Price had read Beaumont’s script, and that if changes weren’t made by the time he arrived in London, he was going to take the next flight back to the United States. So then I got the idea of taking another Poe story, “Hop Frog.” and putting the two of them together.

Roger had already leased the sound stages and (art director) Danny Haller had already built some of the sets, some of which I think were borrowed from another film (BECKETT) that had also been shot there. So Roger asked me if I could write it – it was a castle set with a big clock on the wall and all. So I simply said, “Yeah.” I went over to Elstree (Studios) one day, I think that’s where we were shooting, and I got the physical layout in my head and I went home and wrote it in ten days. When Price arrived, they went right into production. I never even met Charlie.

STROBY: Some people consider it Corman’s best film (as a director). There were a lot of talented people involved, like cameraman Nicolas Roeg.

CAMPBELL: It was one of his classics. It had a lot of elegance and it had a hell of a lot going for it. Danny Haller did a great job art directing on that thing ... Yeah, it was a good one.

PART THREE: Francis Ford Coppola, young racers and teenage cavemen.

A conversation with Robert Campbell – Part Three

This is Part Three of an archival interview conducted in 1987 with prolific novelist and screenwriter Robert Campbell (1927-2000). You can find Parts One and Two HERE and HERE).

WALLACE STROBY: What do you think was the best film made from one of your screenplays? Do you have a personal favorite?

ROBERT CAMPBELL: Yeah, a little film called QUANTEZ (1957). Harry Keller directed it, and it starred Fred MacMurray and Sydney Chaplin. That was a lovely experience, probably the nicest experience in terms of working conditions as well. It was a very laid-back set. There were not a lot of egos flying around, and nobody was trying to hammer anybody else into the ground. Everything was realized that I wanted to be said in that little screenplay.

STROBY: Were you often on the set when you were working on a Corman film? Was it his policy to have writers on the set to do rewrites, or did it end when you handed in the script?

CAMPBELL: It ended when you handed in the script, but this is true of most of Hollywood. They would rather the writer get off the set, and they don’t want him around. For one reason, they feel that actors will come up and agitate him for an improvement in their role or long discussions about this or that. In fact, there was one occasion when I was in Dubrovnick, Yugoslavia, when a picture of mine (THE SECRET INVASION) was being shot. The actors kept coming up to me with just those kinds of things and I put it to them bluntly. “I’m here on holiday. I didn’t come here under Roger’s auspices. He didn’t pay my way.”

They were appalled by that. They thought I should be there, and as long as I was there Roger should put me on the payroll. But, of course, Roger would never do that.

STROBY: Is it true THE YOUNG RACERS (1963) came from Corman bringing everyone to Europe on a holiday?

CAMPBELL: No. What happened was, one of the ways he attracted people to the idea of doing the picture was the way the races themselves were set up. There were circumstances where you’d be at Elstree, you’d shoot the races for that day or the day of practice, so you’d be out there with cameras for those two days. They would shoot what they could on locations around Elstree and then, of course, there’d be a three-day wait for the next race in Spa or someplace. So everybody just sort of took off, for sometimes four or five days.


I went with Francis Ford Coppola (a Corman protege and soundman on THE YOUNG RACERS) to Ireland, and that’s where I introduced him to this producer, Raymond Strauss, who put up the European half of the money that Francis shot DEMENTIA 13(1963) with. He asked my brother to star in it, and the English actor Patrick Magee, who was also in THE YOUNG RACERS. In fact, Francis got most of his crew from people who worked on that picture. He also called up some friends of his.

STROBY: You had a fairly large role in THE YOUNG RACERS yourself.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I played my brother’s brother. I was an awful actor. At the time I did THE YOUNG RACERS I had an excuse for it, because I had developed Bell’s Palsy so part of my face was paralyzed, and it was very difficult to act with half your face. But I never thought much of acting as a means of living your life. It’s a pretty boring process.

Later on, when my brother did CELL 2455, DEATH ROW (The story of “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman, based on his memoir) for Columbia, they wanted somebody who looked enough like Billy to play him when he was younger. It ended up I co-starred in that picture with my brother, and most people didn’t even know there were two actors, so I must have done a pretty good job. But I never wanted to act.

STROBY: Do you miss those screenwriting days at all?

CAMPBELL: No. I’m sure there are some screenwriters – Robert Bolt and others – who have had prestigious assignments right from the beginning and have managed to get in a group that works well together and frequently. My career didn’t go that way.

Most screenwriters will tell you of their bitter frustration, even though they are the initiators of the material that allows everything else to go forward, they are treated as third-class citizens and they are the low man on the totem pole. Their opinion counts very little.

STROBY: And yet, some of Corman’s best films had screenplays by you – MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, MACHINE-GUN KELLY...

CAMPBELL: Going back to what I said before, Roger – even though he paid so little money – was probably the least intrusive of any director I ever worked with. Roger didn’t have any personal artistic ax to grind. Roger was out there to make films that were going to make him money. That’s what his interest was.

Now, in more recent years with all the publicity Roger’s gotten, I’m sure he considers that he always did have a game plan artistically, but I don’t believe he did. I think Roger was simply trying to make films as efficiently as he knew how for as little money as he could.

Roger was a guy who knew how to make pictures lean and mean. And I was a guy who knew how to write dialogue and make concise characters very fast. Not stereotypes, they were characters with unique possibilities, but there they were and you could roll. His career would have been much different if his films had budgets which could support huge stars.



STROBY: By the same token, you wrote what many people considered a very thoughtful, maybe thought-provoking, script called “Prehistoric World,” and when it came out it had the exploitation title TEENAGE CAVEMAN.

CAMPBELL: Yeah (laughs). I was in London at the time when they called me about the name change. I just laughed because, as I say, right from the very beginning I grew a very thick skin.

Later, I met Robert Vaughan in a coffee shop on the Sunset Strip and we were talking. I asked him about his latest effort. He mumbled something about having just completed filming a screenplay called “Prehistoric World,” “an allegory.” I said, “You mean TEENAGE CAVEMAN?” “That was regrettable,” he said. Bob is a very serious fellow, you know. So I said, “I know, Bob. I wrote it.”

That wasn’t the most serious injury done me on that film. The whole thing was an allegory, as you know, about the destruction of the world by atomic power. And here is mankind trying to struggle out of it, building all the myths, the taboos, doing all the things that were supposed to preserve the remnants of the race long enough for it to survive. And when Vaughan’s character goes stumbling off into the lush forest, when he goes daringly out there – which is also allegorical, that somebody sooner or later is going to turn their back on the teaching of the elders and find out that what was said was not true – he was supposed to come upon this spaceman in what I envisioned as a marvelous, elaborate spacesuit, you know, Victorian, sort of like the kind of stuff Disney did in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

Well – and this is why I say Roger really had no artistic intent about most of what he did – instead of this, he came up with this lizardman suit he’d found. Here this was supposed to be this elaborate spaceman, and he’d come up with this lizardman suit. I think he said it cost $65 (laughs).

(Robert Campbell's – mostly – complete filmography can be found HERE.)<





Friday, July 03, 2020

The short stories



Was asked recently if there was anything on-line that cataloged the handful of short stories I've published over the last few years. There isn't (and the brief one on my website is woefully out of date), so here they are.

"Nightbound" – A Crissa Stone short story, originally published in the Lawrence Block-edited anthology AT HOME IN THE DARK, released in 2019 by Subterranean Press. It's also been selected to appear in the upcoming (and final) edition of BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, guest-edited by C.J. Box, which will be out in Oct. The 2020 edition also contains stories by James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Tom Franklin and others. The cover is above, and preorder links can be found here.


The story was originally written for the AT HOME IN THE DARK anthology, and the limited edition hardcover sold out quickly, however it is still available in trade paperback and e-book.

"Nightbound" takes place sometime between the events of the third and fourth Crissa Stone novels, KINGS OF MIDNIGHT and SHOOT THE WOMAN FIRST, and follows her through one long and dangerous night in Brooklyn while she tries to hold on to a bag of stolen cash. A preview of the story can be found here on Lawrence Block's site. If you'd like to hear Larry and I talk about the anthology – and his amazing 60-year-plus career – you can tune in here.

"Night Run" This standalone story was originally written for the 2016 Mulholland Books anthology THE HIGHWAY KIND: Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers and Dark Roads, edited by Patrick Millikin from the Poisoned Pen bookstore.
It's a road-rage story that's somewhat of an homage to Richard Matheson's classic short story "Duel." The story was later reprinted in the 2017 edition of BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, edited by John Sandford.

–"Heart" This story was written for the 2006 horse-racing-themed anthology BLOODLINES, edited by Maggie Estep and Jason Starr. A slightly revised version was later printed in the 2009 summer fiction issue of INSIDE JERSEY magazine, and it was shortlisted for that year's edition of BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, edited by Lee Child. The story takes place on a hot summer day at Monmouth Park racetrack. The main character, an aging drug gang enforcer named Morgan, later appeared in my 2010 novel GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER.

"Lovers in the Cold" This story was commissioned by Jessica Kaye and Richard Brewer for their now long-out-of-print anthology MEETING ACROSS THE RIVER, a collection of stories inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song that appeared on his 1975 album "Born to Run." My story took its title from an unreleased BTR outtake, and took place in 1974. It followed two guys from the Jersey Shore who find themselves in over their heads in gritty 1970s Manhattan. It's currently available in an e-book version for most platforms.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

John D. MacDonald: 1916-1986


This obituary was written for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press shortly after John D. MacDonald's death on Dec. 28. 1986. It's reprinted here for the first time.


By W.C. STROBY

PRESS STAFF WRITER

They’re putting up a plaque down at the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It’s to mark slip F18, a famous place as far as boat slips go. To millions of mystery readers it is close to a literary landmark, and the plaque is there as a tribute both to the marina’s most famous resident and the man who created him.

When John D. MacDonald died on Dec. 28 at age 70, he left a legacy that few writers can match. One of America’s best-selling writers for nearly 30 years, MacDonald was the author of 77 novels – 21 of which featured the inimitable Travis McGee, a lanky, slightly battered boat bum and private avenger who became one of fiction’s most popular creations.

From his first appearance in “The Deep Blue Good-By” in 1964 to his final adventure in last year’s “The Lonely Silver Rain” (all the books had colors in their titles), McGee found his way into the hearts of millions, with each book entering the bestseller list as soon as it was published.

With more than 30 million copies of his adventures sold, McGee was the type of fictional character other writers could only hope to create. Complex, multi-layered, tough yet tender, McGee was what every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to find. Operating out of his houseboat “The Busted Flush,” McGee’s specialty was conning the con men, fending off the human predators and avenging the helpless – as well as bedding the willing damsels in distress.




Unlike his other compatriots in popular fiction, McGee avoided violence if possible and eschewed casual sex, while preferring to philosophize on the general state of the world. His adventures offered not only mystery and suspense, but words to live by as well, sometimes voiced through MCGee’s best friend and confidante Meyer, the economist and fellow boat bum who served as McGee’s conscience and alter ego. The McGee books came to be about the price of violence as much as its practice.

According to Leona Nevlar, editor-in-chief at Fawcett Books, who worked closely with MacDonald since 1973, the secret to McGee’s success was the underlying sense of morality and humanism that MacDonald incorporated into him.

“Travis changed and grew a great deal,” she said. “He began as the conventional macho detective and eventually became a full person. He got older, he got depressed at times. He grew just like the rest of us. I think that was the greatest attraction. The plots were good, but the plots were not what held people all those years.”

Once referred to by science fiction author Harlan Ellison as “the last honest hack,” MacDonald was a writer who knew his limitations and lost no sleep over what some saw as his refusal to devote himself to “serious” works.

“The fact of a writer taking himself seriously does not make of him a ‘serious’ writer,” MacDonald once wrote. “I know that I am involved in entertainment, but I also know that the more entertaining a book is the more readers it will reach, and if the entertainment is built upon some solid foundations of awareness of the world, then there will be a resonance about the work which can in certain ways alter the internal climate and the outward perceptions of the reader.”

Throughout the McGee novels, as well as his other books, MacDonald voiced his concern over many social issues, including conservation and the growing development and “uglification” of his beloved Florida. Concern for the environment was at the heart of many of his best-known non-McGee works, including 1963’s “A Flash of Green,” 1979’s “Condominium,” and his final published novel, last year’s “Barrier Island.”


“John was interested in a great deal of things,” said Ms. Nevlar in a phone interview from her New York City office shortly after MacDonald’s death. “Politics, the environment, morality – there were a lot of things he was thinking about, a lot of things he cared about. John was one of those people who cared very much about the way things work. Anything that was in the books, he knew about, whether it was a gun or a martini or the way condominiums are financed.”

Born in Sharon, Pa., in 1916, MacDonald attended the Wharton School of Finance and the Syracuse School of Business before earning a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Business in 1939. After serving in the Army during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services in the China-India-Burma theater, he returned to the States to find that his wife had successfully sold a story he had written for her while overseas.



In the following months, MacDonald wrote nearly 500 stories, both for the “pulp” magazines of the day as well as the more upscale markets of Esquire and Cosmopolitan. As he once wrote, "if you want to write, you write. The only way to learn to write is by writing ... because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.”

Eventually moving to Sarasota, Fla., where he spent the rest of his life, MacDonald continued to maintain a highly disciplined writing schedule. Even into his 60s, he wrote every day from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., producing anywhere from 900 to 9,000 words (about 28 typed pages) a day.

“There is not a day that I cannot get a quick electric feeling when I roll the white empty paper into the machine,” he wrote.

In 1972, MacDonald was given the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1980, the American Book Award mystery competition prize for “The Green Ripper,” his 18th Travis McGee novel. He was working on his 22nd McGee – title unknown – at the time of his death.

Troubled with heart problems ever since suffering a minor heart attack in 1970, MacDonald’s last battle was fought not in his beloved Florida but in snow-frozen Milwaukee, Wisc., where he had gone to have a bypass operation – an operation from which he never recovered.

Ironically, “The Lonely SIlver Rain” contained a closing revelation that gave McGee a new outlook on life. Increasingly cynical, world-weary and lonely, McGee himself was beginning to seem an anachronism. But the book’s closing pages gave him a new reason to live, and opened up a new chapter in his life. Suddenly there were new places to go, new dragons to slay. A life worth living to the fullest.

Goodbye, Travis. And goodbye, John D. You will be missed.



(Miami Herald photo)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Where dreams are found and lost

This album came out 40 years ago today. I bought it that day on the way to a high school graduation party in Lincroft, N.J. Immediately put it on the turntable in my friend’s finished basement, and played it all the way through twice.
When I left for college a few months later, it was the the record I brought with me to remind myself of home. My life was changing quickly, and these songs of loss and anger and triumph were the perfect companion. They still are. I don’t think I could articulate what they’ve meant to me over the years, personally, artistically and emotionally.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Noir @ the Bar in Asbury Park April 29



The Noir@theBar crime-fiction reading series returns to Asbury Park Sunday April 29, from 6 to 9 p.m., at the Capitoline basement complex on Cookman Avenue.

I'll be joining a stellar group of writers, including Jen Conley, Scott Adlerberg, Jay Butkowski, Angel Luis Colon, Alex Segura, Thomas Pluck, Lee Matthew Goldberg and Dave White. Music by members of the surf/noir band Black Flamingos.

I'll be reading from a brand new unpublished Crissa Stone short story that will be featured next year in the anthology AT HOME IN THE DARK, edited by the legendary Lawrence Block.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Booklist on SOME DIE NAMELESS

The always-nervous-making first review. BOOKLIST on SOME DIE NAMELESS, out in July from Mulholland Books & Mulholland UK. (click on image to zoom in).