Junior Mad Scientist – Lab Notes

Still Dusty

August 25th, 2011 by Weber

Smells like Teen Spirit

HUZZAH! Webmaster MIKE has everything moved over to the new host. But . . . none of the categories for the old posts came with.

I’ll be spending some days getting everything put back to normal. What that means for now is that if you’re looking for an older post, like the 24-Hour Comics or examining the phenomenon of the Carlos V candy bar, you might have do do some digging. The search bar works (as far as I know).

If there’s something special you need and can’t find it, just ask.

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Max Allan Collins and the Case of the Sucky Book Cover

August 25th, 2011 by Weber

The original draft of the Junior Mad Scientist review of Bye, Bye, Baby included a drubbing of book’s the less-than-stellar cover art that made crappy by association what was really a quality read. Rather than risk splashing the text while pissing on the cover, all discussion of the upfront image was removed and saved for later.

Wella, well . . . poking around Max Allan Collins’s Website, it seems the man himself is none too pleased with what will be people’s first impression of his latest work:

“I’ve stirred some interest and even commentary on my admitted displeasure with the cover to the new Heller. I am pleased by the quality of the photograph, and thrilled that my publisher ponied up for a major photographic shoot from the excellent Thalicer Image Studio. But because of fears that the MM estate might object to too overt a Marilyn image, the publisher chose what I consider to be the weakest (and certainly most historically inaccurate) of the photos from the shoot.”

Since the other cover options are not available for review, it’s hard to argue with him. And while the chosen cover is flaccid and dull, it manages to attract the eye and direct it around the primary sights. Here are the excised chunks of the of the original review with full analysis of how the image works.


HEADLINE –– Book Review: Bye, Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins


A good book with a bad cover is like a dead kitty on the tollway. Driving past it, you wonder who was supposed to be taking care of the forlorn thing, think it deserved better, then wonder how long it’s going to lay there. Max Collin’s latest Nate Heller memoir Bye, Bye, Baby is that dead kitty.

[Hey, it’s me again. Just so you know, the majority of the review –– all the stuff about how good the text is, etc. –– came from right here. OK, roll tape.]

Staged photos like this, especially on a fiction cover, are less effective than an auctioneer with a bad stutter. The photo on Bye, Bye, Baby lacks not only luster, but nearly anything related to the story inside. (The title is one of Marilyn’s songs from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; that point goes to Collins, not the book’s designers.) More than probably, the lack of relevance is due to Marilyn’s image or likeness being heavily copyrighted and/or trademarked, and the publisher not wanting to shell-out for using it. Not that I blame them; that kind of thing has got to be expensive. And with publishing costs being what they are today, if there’s a reason and a way to avoid adding to the overhead, all to the good.

Which gets us back to an illustrated cover. Any talented artist could have pulled off something really intriguing that more heavily hinted at, but didn’t show, the corpsified Marilyn, and for a lot less than the cost of staging a shoot.

And while there are several other gripes about the photo –– including the inaccurate death scene and the fedora-sporting geezer eyeballing the dead girl’s ass –– the time has come for it’s one and only good point: an effective use of space and white to guide the eye.

Stay with me here . . .

The starburst camera flash in the upper left corner attracts the eye and drags it across the white of the author’s name to the reporter’s black suspenders framing his white shirt; the V of his open collar, the shirt buttons, suspenders and the angle of his torso draw the viewer’s eye down to the second camera flash a fraction of an inch above the hot pink title –– also outlined in white. From here, the eye might go two directions: flick along the lilting title back to it’s beginning or down to read the single sentence synopsis below before taking in the title. The second scenario seems most likely because those letters are also in white.

Either way, the title will be read because the panicky-looking guy in the suit to the left, just under the flashblown C. His highlit hair, white teeth, white collar, the white slashes in his tie, the lapel button, the lined papers on the angled clipboard and the index finger of his right hand lead the eye down to the dead girl with the nice rack. And oh, look –– there’s a hot pink title between his finger and her chest.

Along with her ample bossoms (which are strangely free of cleavage), the dead girl’s glittering bracelet, satin sheet and telephone receiver conspire to draw the eye down and through the image. Note the ivory colors and off-white tones of the sheet, rug and phone. This is because the body is the eye’s final resting place (as it were), not where the eye should start.

But look how the angle of the girl’s knee directs the eye back up to the white camera flash again, and how the title gets in the way. Funny how that works.

Central to all this is the septuagenarian detective –– who looks nothing like the fiddle–fit Heller described in the book.

Sure, Heller wears suits — also sporty casual clothes, polo shirts, white jeans — and admits forgoing hats thanks to the trend set by JFK. Who this moist-eyed basset hound is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. LAPD, maybe? If you look reeeeeeeal close, he’s holding a badge.

So confused . . . .

Knowing the mechanics of the cover still doesn’t make readers/buyers unfamiliar, or even slightly familiar, with Heller or Collins want to pick it up. Because the cover is boring and displays almost nothing of the real mystery inside.

And why there isn’t a well-placed banner showcasing this as A NATE HELLER MYSTERY, I can only imagine. Most readers like a good series. The Heller memoirs may not be what anyone would consider a traditional mystery series, but after more than a dozen books, that’s pretty much what it is. When you’ve got a nice backlist, why not show it off?

For those who read it and recognize it, an author’s name can overcome uninspired, barely functional cover art. In some cases, the author’s name is all that’s needed: Stephen King, James Patterson, Amanda Quick, Dan Bown.

(. . . gag . . . ack . . . Sorry. Threw up a little in my mouth on that last one.)

Unfortunately, Max Allan Collins doesn’t have quite that level of recognition. Christ only knows why. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. Perhaps it has something to do with publishers wrapping his books in crappy cover art.

Still and all, beyond an author’s brand name, a good cover is what gets a book into people’s hands. Hell, even wine makers know this. Over the last several years, label design has gone through a major shift because what’s true of books is true of wine: buyers judge contents by what’s on the outside. (This is also true of mail-order brides –– though that industry has a narrower consumer base than the other two up for discussion.)

Good art on bad wine sells a lot of bad wine. Bad art on good books sells damned few good books.

Bye, Bye, Baby deserves much better than it got. Here’s hoping the paperback gets the right treatment.

(28 FEB 2012: comments section closed due to excessive spam. Please direct any comments to the address on the ABOUT page. Thanks. bjw)

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Book Review: Bye, Bye, Baby

August 15th, 2011 by Weber

Sometimes, private eye Nathan Heller is about as hard-boiled as a Cadbury Creme Egg. He’d never admit to harboring a soft spot for his teenaged son (especially to the boy) or letting leak a drop of sweet and gooey center for the right kind of woman. But like all the best knights-errant, it’s there, under all the armor. Before long, somebody is dead, the crack gets sealed  with thick, dark chocolate, and Heller is off to serve justice Chicago-style .

Bye, Bye Baby — the 13th book in the Nathan Heller Memoirs — is no exception. This time out, a middle-aged Heller is in LA checking up on the A-1 Detective Agency’s West Coast operations, spending time with his son, and helping his old friend-with-benefits, Marilyn Monroe, a girl for whom it’s damned near impossible not to be sweet on. Between her problems with 20th Century Fox and the silk sheet shimmy she’s doing with each of the Kennedy Brothers, Marilyn’s life has become . . . complicated. So she asks Heller to tap her phones; she wants to keep a record of the ongoings. Heller agrees –– only to find the lines already tapped and the rest of the house bugged. But who, exactly, is listening? The goons at Fox? Hoffa? Sam Giancana? FBI? CIA? And why?

Through Heller, Collins examines the many questions regarding Marilyn’s death. He shows who could have benefited and why, and maybe even how she was offed.  There seems to be a raft of evidence that she was killed elsewhere in her house and was later moved to her bedroom where the tableau was set. He also makes the argument that Marilyn was a victim twice-over: being murdered then having no one stand up for her. Which (according to the book) would have been tough to do when so many parties were vested in squashing any investigation and pushing the official story of ‘suicide.’

The interactions between Heller and the early 1960’s celebrity set ring with authenticity. Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Bobby Kennedy –– usually portrayed as caricatures instead of characters or people –– are given nice depth, as is Marilyn. In fact, Marilyn is probably the most fully realized character in the book, even more so than Heller. Collins clearly has a thing for Marilyn, an affection for the doomed star and a longing to somehow retroactively save her from maltreatment and bitter fate. She’s the ultimate damsel-in-distress; always will be.

And while the plot is more of an unveiling of events than a mystery to solve, Collins’s solid writing and unorthodox take on the particulars make for compelling reading. Indeed. I sat on my ass flipping pages instead of taking care of things that needed my attention. (Special thanks the neighbors for calling about the burning barbeque grill.)

All in all, a good book worth reading. So good, in fact, that I am compelled to get my hands on Nate Heller’s other memoirs and catch up on the few I missed, including “Kisses of Death” –– the story in which Heller and Marilyn first rubbed . . . er . . . elbows.

If you haven’t read any of the Heller books, you’re in for a lot of time well spent. There is a reason they are award winners.

Bye, Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins goes on sale August 16th at fine bookstores everywhere.

And for a further bit of good reading, Chicago Lightning: The Collected Nathan Heller Short Stories will be available starting October 4, 2011.


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Pardon Our Dust

August 15th, 2011 by Weber

 Special thanks to Webmaster MIKE for doing all the background schlepping to get the JMS site up to current codes and standards.

A few things are still in the works (e.g., formatting) and MIKE says he wants to mess with the design. The site’s look is already four years old (the horror!) and needs some updating. Or so he says.

I sez it’s a classic and don’t need no messing. Trying to argue with MIKE is futile, especially about Web stuff, so he’s got free reign, as usual.

So, stay tuned for tweaks and adjustments. We’ll be surprised together.

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Book Review: The Big Book Of Adventure Stories

August 1st, 2011 by Weber


Special thanks to Agent Joe for picking this one up for me. He said that when he found this while wandering though a St. Louis bookstore, he figured, “I must be in the Brad section.”

I showed it to my wife and she said, “Where’d he find this — the Brad section?”

And here I thought the Brad section was full of unread Anger Management books . . .

The Big Book Of Adventure Stories is the third collection of pulp-era/pulp-flavored goodness from the folks over at Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. The other two on your local bookstore shelves are The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps and Big Book of Black Mask Stories.


The tropic-toned cover art sets the right atmosphere for these golden-age adventure tales. And having finished only three of the book’s 47 stories —“After King Kong Fell,” “The Golden Anaconda,” and “The Slave Brand of Selman Bin Ali” — it’ is easy to say the collection lives up to its name. Plus, the fact that these are short stories lets me finish one, at lunch or before bed, without being compelled to stay awake all night or not being able to get back to work on my own writing.

The Big Book Of Adventure Stories was edited by Otto Penzler, the same guy who did the other two. He does a fine job of briefly introducing each story and its author, then letting the reader get on with the action. The forward by adventure/thriller author Douglas Preston adds an interesting fillip, especially his thoughts on the dates most significant to the adventure genre (1853 through 1922). This one far and away satisfies all three of my copyrighted Three Best Things Anybody Can Ever Say About A Book*:

I would pay full cover price, including applicable sales taxes.
I would give this book as a gift.
It was worthy of the time spent reading it.

Per some data on the book’s final page, two more Vintage Crime/Black Lizard collections are on their way: Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! and Agent Of Treachery: Never Before Published Spy Fiction form Today’s Most Exciting Writers. (UPDATE: Agents is in bookstores now!)

One can only hope there is a Big Book of Western Stories slated for the very near future. Because if there is, I’m getting one.

P.S. — if ever a publisher’s logo deserved its own t-shirt, it’s Black Lizard: black shirt, lime green lizard, Web address printed underneath. Just sayin’ . . .

*The Three Best Things Anybody Can Ever Say About Any Book is copyright/Keep-Yer-Grimy-Hands-Off-My-Intellectual-Propertied 2011 by Bradley James Weber. The broadcast, re-broadcast, use or invocation of the listed listing device, its title, or any variation thereof without prior written authority from, and excessive payment to, Bradley James Weber is strictly prohibited.

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