I am a fan.
That sounds like something you’d stand up and say at Enthusiasts Anonymous, but there it is. I became unreasonably interested in all sorts of popular arts over the years. Among the obsessions were Dick Tracy, Mickey Spillane, Bobby Darin, and (of course) the Beatles.
Being a fan is hardly unusual these days, but we were once a smaller breed, particularly in regard to comics and mystery fiction. Movie magazines have been around since the days of silents, and teenage girls have screamed for singers since Frank Sinatra. TV fads for westerns and then private eyes infected everyone, but no “fandoms” emerged, even if 77 Sunset Strip’s Edd Byrnes did talk through “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” (with the help of Connie Stevens) and hit the record charts. Pockets of science fiction enthusiasts, including some young punk named Ray Bradbury, had little coven-like meetings and ran off mimeographed fanzines.
Back in the ‘60s, I was the kid in my high school who read comics. Everybody knew I was a Bobby Darin fanatic, an ailment that would never be cured but was at least tamed by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Somewhere out there, comic book fans were starting to gather. The first comic book conventions started (unbeknownst to me) in the early ‘60s, thanks to the likes of Don and Maggie Thompson and other enthusiastic fans.
But I felt very alone in all my various enthusiasms, and frankly I kind of liked it that way. I had no idea that Star Trek fandom was only a few years away. Or that rock ‘n’ roll would, before very long, blossom into something bigger and even politically powerful.
By college, tough mystery fiction remained my only obsession that hadn’t turned into a national interest with a vocal fan base. Then Bouchercon (the annual convention of mystery and crime fiction fans and writers) started in 1970, and mystery bookstores like Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop sprouted in the late ‘70s.
When I began publishing in the early ‘70s, I became aware of other mystery writers around my age who, like me, had led lonely self-absorbed existences loving mystery fiction and wanting to create their own. Like Bob Randisi, Bill Crider, and my fellow Iowan Ed Gorman (the last two now in the “late, great category,” unfortunately). I got to know many writers I’d read and admired, in particular Donald E. Westlake but also Evan Hunter, Lawrence Block, and of course Mickey Spillane. I soon became aware that I was publishing concurrently with such greats as Rex Stout, Robert Bloch, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, and W.R. Burnett – even Agatha Christie.
Obviously I was starting out just as they were wrapping things up, but it was a thrilling thought.
Talking to many of these greats, and to screenwriters of the generation or two before me, I found writers who – while familiar with my literary heroes, Hammett and Chandler and Spillane – did not have roots in anything at all fannish. They were pros who had followed their literary ambitions into the writing business, and for whatever reasons or circumstances wound up in mystery fiction.
They had created the material that generated fans. And now fans like me were following our enthusiasm for that material into careers. My generation of writers appears to be the first to emerge from mystery fandom – many of us having contributed to fanzines like Armchair Detective, Mystery Readers' Newsletter, The Mystery FANcier, The Not-so-Private-Eye, and The Poisoned Pen. In 1985, Randisi and Gorman would create the newsstand magazine, Mystery Scene, where I was the mystery film reviewer for a decade.
This is an elaborate preamble to explain that – even after fifty years-plus as a published mystery writer – the ball of enthusiasm at my center is of a fannish fire. It explains why, in the wake of a big personal success (Road to Perdition), I devoted much of my time to completing the works of a writer (Mickey Spillane) who I idolize. Yes, Mickey – like Fearless Fosdick to Li’l Abner – remains my “ideel.” (If you understand that, it dates us both.)
Fans, as the screaming girls in the Ed Sullivan Show audience could tell you, are not rational beings. They are so caught up in their enthusiasms they just can’t think straight. I am one of those people. Now and then – not often – I run into someone with that level of enthusiasm for me and my work, and I am embarrassed. For them and myself. Poor creatures. How could they allow themselves to fall to such a pitiful level of existence?
Well, that was exactly what I did in December 2009.
My wife Barb and I spent a weekend at Second City in Chicago attending the famous improv theater’s 50th anniversary celebration. Many huge comedy stars were present (Steve Carrell and Steven Colbert the biggest draws), including scores of familiar comedy faces from legends like Shelly Berman and Robert Kline to SNL vets like Tim Kazurinsky and Rachel Dratch.
Barb and I had gone to Second City regularly in the ’70s and ’80s and followed many of those who entertained us on the famous Second City main stage to SNL and show biz glory. Of that company, Larry Coven became a friend and appeared in two of my indie films (Mommy’s Day and Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market) and brought the legendary Del Close into Mommy’s Day for a cameo (making me Del’s final film director). Del, creator of the SCTV concept, was a big fan of the Nate Heller books — he would come to my Chicago signings, and that’s an honor I cherish.
Barb and I were at the 50th anniversary event for the one-time only reunion of the SCTV cast, who did two shows Friday night and a panel the following morning. My obsession with SCTV is one I share with Barb, and my longtime comics partner, artist Terry Beatty.
SCTV debuted in 1977, right around when I got my first home Betamax, and I taped every show. I have rarities few people even know of (a Cleveland special, a Dave Thomas time travel mini-movie, a Bobby Bittman bio). SCTV was the comedy Beatles...and their reunion was the Beatles reunion that never happened.
I spoke briefly with both Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis before the show, and both were apologetic before the performance. In truth, they were under-rehearsed, putting it together via e-mail, with one rough run-through Friday afternoon. They used scripts at times (worked into the pieces — i.e., the newscast sketch), and in the first scene they fumbled a bit.
But as the love from the audience washed over them — and as each amazed and proud cast member watched the geniuses around them shine, they entered the zone. It was a mix of Second City standards – some of which had given birth to SCTV regulars, like Ed Grimley, Pirini Scleroso and Edith Prickley – and routines from SCTV itself, including Dr. Cheryl Kinsey’s instructions on how to fake an orgasm and Count Floyd’s 3-D glasses pitch.
Their panel Saturday morning was as good as the Friday night reunion show — they shared backstage stories, and were funny and entertaining. They spoke movingly about the late John Candy. I asked a question from the audience – how had the famous folk they’d impersonated reacted? Dave Thomas told of Richard Harris being furious, Andrea Martin of Streisand being oblivious, and Martin Short of Jerry Lewis being gracious.
I was a shameless fanboy all weekend — really disgraceful, a blithering idiot, snagging autographs whenever I could, and embarrassing myself and my poor wife, who told me she early on she had decided just to go with it. To take the ride, even when humorless security guards threatened to throw me out.
I had met Dave Thomas once before and had already embarrassed myself. At a San Diego comic con a few years prior, I’d seen him and an acquaintance of mine walking down a center aisle. I think the best way to describe my reaction was that I lost my shit. I approached them, my friend introduced me, and I spoke with such 1964-era teenage girl Beatle enthusiasm that Thomas was clearly embarrassed, perhaps to be alive.
When he and I spoke at the SCTV reunion, I was somewhat more restrained. He was gracious and friendly. I did not anticipate we would ever encounter each another again.
At 2019, again at San Diego Comic-Con, I ran into Tom Kenny, the actor/comedian most famous for being the voice of Sponge Bob and a member of the Mr. Show cast. He is – while we are on the subject of fans – a self-professed big fan of mine. He wondered if I was going to be in California the following week, because he and a friend were having lunch with Dave Thomas and maybe I’d like to tag along. Of course I would have been thrilled to do so, but Barb and I were heading back to Iowa right after. Tom could tell I was disappointed not to be able to accept his invite.
This led to Dave giving me a phone call and we had a nice, long chat, hitting it off immediately. (I don’t recall whether I mentioned either of my prior two fanboy assaults on him.) We were about the same age, had a number of friends and interests in common, and he was aware I’d written a Bones tie-in novel while he was a writer/producer on the show. There were other odd little resonances – we’d both had open-heart surgery, he’d directed a film called The Experts and I wrote a film called The Expert, we both had known Del Close.
Dave said he was thinking about writing a novel and wondered if I’d take a look at a proposal/synopsis he’d put together. Maybe I’d have advice or suggestions. I said I’d love to see it, though I admit I had misgivings because if it stunk on ice, I wouldn’t have the nerve to tell him, even though he couldn’t have seemed less pretentious or needy.
He sent a thirty-page single-spaced document called The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton. It was the first five chapters of a novel and a brief synopsis of what might follow. In it, a smalltime Boston thief is accidentally propelled into many alternate lives after stumbling into a physicist’s quantum experiment in a basement lab.
It was beautifully written but in a style and format more like a screen treatment than a novel – not surprising, since Dave was an accomplished screenwriter. In addition to being head writer on SCTV, his produced screenplays include Spies Like Us, Whitecoats, and Strange Brew, and many TV episodes, including Bob and Doug (the animated version of the McKenzie brothers), Grace Under Fire, and Blacklist (as with Bones, he was a writer/producer on both).
I liked Jimmy Leighton a lot, which was a relief. But more than that, I saw real potential in a story that tapped into the kind of sf/fantasy story I’d always been partial to but hadn’t got around to writing. It had a similar vibe to time travel tales, and the same kind of character growth as Groundhog Day. Its human warmth reminded me of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life.
On our next phone call, I encouraged him to pursue his novel and tentatively offered to collaborate. He said yes, and a wonderful friendship and artistic collaboration began.
Initially we intended for me to fly out to California for us to dig in, or for him to come to Iowa with the same intention. But we began with trading revised materials and also a long series of phone calls in which we explored the many possibilities of this concept. I did a draft from his first chapter and he scolded me for being too respectful of his work, encouraging my best shot.
Dave was concerned that my audience would not know what to do with a science-fiction book from me. I responded that I’d written the movie tie-in of Waterworld and three Dark Angel TV tie-ins, as well as the Mike Danger time travel comic book, though admittedly to most I am a mystery writer. One of us tumbled onto the idea of Jimmy Leighton taking a bullet to the head when the Many Worlds phenomenon took hold, putting him in a coma while his journey began, and leaving behind an attempted murder case for the police.
Dave’s experience as a writer on Bones and Blacklist made it natural for us to come up with a secondary storyline about two police detectives trying to figure out who shot Jimmy Leighton and why. We would follow that storyline in chapters alternating with Jimmy’s various lives. It’s the old Edgar Rice Burroughs technique – at the chapter cliffhanger, shift to the other storyline, then repeat the process.
A great deal of fun and even excitement occurred on the phone as we charted what Jimmy’s lives would be, and figured out what they might add up to, and who those detectives were. And when Covid kicked in, this working relationship – daily phone calls and occasional Zoom calls – forged a deepening friendship that made the sheltering-in-place more tolerable for us both.
We decided to write the first of three sections and a full synopsis of the other two before taking The Many of Lives of Jimmy Leighton out to market. It took a lot of honing. Dave was keen to learn the differences between novel writing and screenwriting. I explained that I didn’t believe in fiction-writing rules, but I did believe in strategy. The omniscient approach of a screen treatment didn’t work well in a novel, where point of view needed to be limited to one character at a time – in my preferred strategy, anyway.
As with other collaborators of mine, Dave wrote first draft of chapters and then I did my pass. But he stayed in close touch with me during the writing of his pass and sought my input. We kicked around various potential plot twists and turns. My other collaborators had never brought me in during the writing of their pass, and it made for a more fully collaborative creative process.
A harrowing hospital stay for Dave – that scared the hell out of me, frankly – found me starting to market the book to a few trusted editors while he recovered. I ran into resistance over the blending of science fiction and mystery/crime – genre hybrids often cause brain freeze in editors.
Dave was still in the hospital when I approached NeoText, where I had just delivered Fancy Anders Goes to War. Just when things were looking dicey for him, I was able to tell him we’d sold the book. He had no choice but to fully recover, because we had the rest of the thing to write.
He did, and we did.
I will end this batch of essays about my life in crime – although I may eventually return to the scene of my crimes – with the observation that being a fan has paid off for me in surprising, almost unbelievable ways. I am the Dick Tracy fanatic who became the second writer on the strip. I am the lunatic defender of Mickey Spillane who was chosen by him to complete the Mike Hammer stories.
And now I am the SCTV fan who collaborated with Dave Thomas. And I never met a man I liked more.
The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton by Dave Thomas and Max Allan Collins is published on 26th October. Click here to order a copy of the ebook, or click here for a print edition.