Interview: March 4, 2011
Max Allan Collins and Matthew Clemens have teamed up once again for NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU, the sequel to last year's YOU CAN'T STOP ME, which follows sheriff turned reality television host J.C. Harrow as he tries to track down two ruthless killers, who have locked themselves in a relentless battle for notoriety by sending videos of their latest victims to Harrow's true crime TV show. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Collins and Clemens discuss the ideas that inform their latest novel, elaborating on how they came up with the concept of a "killer" TV series and the real-life reality show that helped inspire it. They also share a few of their favorite unsolved mysteries, give the scoop on the years they spent behind the scenes of "CSI" and unveil their plans for the cast of "Crime Seen!"
Bookreporter.com: I love the concept behind the "Crime Seen!" show that forms the basis of your series, of which NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU is the second and latest volume. It was a neat plot twist to have the cast close to dissembling within the first couple of chapters of the novel. How did that idea evolve?
Max Allan Collins: We arrived at the "Crime Seen!"/Killer TV concept from our success with the CSI, Bones and Criminal Minds TV tie-in novels. Though I bylined those alone, Matt was a collaborator to varying degrees on all of them, and we thought it was about time to do something of our own with the forensics/serial killer thriller. Plus, I wanted to get Matt's name with mine on the covers. We put our idea together as if we were mounting a TV series, but in the execution of the novel --- and based on the response of some of our readers --- we felt we'd been top-heavy with characters and general set-up in the first book. Frankly, we will be eliminating a few cast members in future books, because we want to be leaner and meaner. Also, we need to make room for the character of LAPD Lt. Anna Amari --- who is new to the series in NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU. We can be as ruthless as the bad guys if necessary!
Matthew Clemens: We spent a lot of time developing the characters for YOU CAN'T STOP ME before we even started writing the novel. And, as Max said, when Lt. Anna Amari entered the picture, she strode in fully-formed and ready to rock. She immediately just made herself at home.
BRC: The "Crime Seen!" cast abandons its plans for retirement when a killer who calls himself Don Juan starts murdering young women, filming the deed, and sending videos to J.C. Harrow, the show's host, with the challenge to make his killings the featured investigation of the show's third season. The idea of a killer "auditioning" for a feature role on a true crime show was brilliant. Are you aware of any real-world model for this?
MAC: I'm going to turn this one over to Matt, because he did have a real-world model that served as the spark for this novel. But I will say that we wanted to further the social commentary of what we're doing with reality TV by taking "Crime Seen!" to its absurd, but chillingly logical, conclusion.
MC: That logical conclusion also dovetailed nicely with an Internet story I saw about a reality television show host in Brazil, who was hiring killers to murder people so he could cover the stories for his show and boost the ratings. We wanted to work that concept, while allowing Harrow to continue to be the straight arrow he is. "Auditioning" became a way to do that. The host in Brazil, who has since been indicted, was the germ of the story, though.
BRC: While Don Juan is challenging Harrow and the "Crime Seen!" cast, there is a second killer on the loose in Los Angeles who targets men and strategically mutilates them. I must confess that certain passages detailing Billy Shears's methodology told me a little more than I needed to know about the whole process. Did you use any sort of "modeling," if you will, to get the description just right? If so, what did you do? Or did you just keep rewriting the passages until you felt they sounded authentic? Or both?
MAC: Matt has always been the forensics researcher here --- he has contacts in law enforcement all over the country, and belongs to several organizations made up of professionals in the field. Everything we do in the story comes from research. In a serial killer novel, it's difficult to know where to draw the line --- it's entertainment, and it's good fun in the rollercoaster sort of way, but we are also serious about doing a police procedural, and we don't want to do gore for its own sake. It's very tough to deal with sexual predators and sexually motivated serial killers without falling into exploitation. The best way to scare and disturb the reader in a good way is to do chapters from the point of view of the victims, making them real and sympathetic, so that we're not just knocking down stick figures. Similarly, it's extremely important to make the serial killers sympathetic on some level --- and certainly understandable. Bad people tend to have had bad things done to them.
MC: It's important to us that both victims and killers become real people to the readers. We try to walk the line between horror and exploitation carefully. As to Billy Shears's personal choice of garden implement, I took my own hedge clippers to a weapons expert at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation and asked him what would happen when Billy used them in his own particular method. The expert told me, in even greater detail than we used, and I haven't looked at that yard tool the same way since.
BRC: As much as I loved the dual murder sprees of Don Juan and Billy Shears as the plot-driving elements of the book, my favorite part of NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU is the introduction, which features a story about a gang of criminals that's part of a money laundering scheme involving high-end comic books. This is almost too good a story to have been made up out of whole cloth, so I must ask: fact or fiction?
MAC: You may know that I'm a comics guy --- I wrote the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, and after its creator retired, I also wrote the "Dick Tracy" comic strip for 15 years, after its creator retired...and "Batman," and my own "Ms. Tree." Which means I've been a comic collector --- alright, a geek --- since childhood. I heard about this kind of money laundering being done with comics, presented it to Matt as a possibility for our opening "pre-credits sequence," and he dug it.
MC: From there, we were able to track down some research on a real case similar to the one in the book, and use that as a jumping off point.
BRC: Another element of NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU that was also quite interesting was the alternate head-butting and cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the "Crime Seen!" cast, producers and network. The cast, operating without the legal restraints that are in place for the police, was often able to accomplish more in terms of tracking Don Juan. When it comes to the police's ability to solve crimes, is there any restraint that you would like to see removed? And --- this is a very strange question --- is there any restriction that you think should be placed upon police that is not already in place?
MAC: I think the system works fairly well, and the head-butting/cooperation aspect of the Killer TV concept is half thinking through what would probably really happen, and half just playing off of the natural conflict inherent in the situation. Like so many mystery and thriller writers, we're creating a fantasy on some level --- a place where good guys can take down bad guys in a way that, in our emotions, we wish were possible, but that in our brains, we know could lead to problems. In stories, private eyes should be able to break into a suspect's house to look for clues. But cops in real life? Not so much.
MC: Like Max, I'm a big believer in the fact that the system works. The more I hang around with people in law enforcement, the more surprised I am that anybody gets away with anything. The only restriction I would put in place is not even for the police. The idea that Homeland Security can learn about me without my knowledge is a little scary. As someone who owns books and has visited websites (for research, he says defensively) that have gotten me on certain watch lists, I would prefer not to get detained for the dirty bomb I'm only making in a novel.
BRC: As a student of true crime, what do you find to be the most interesting unsolved murder? Do you have a theory about it?
MAC: My Nathan Heller series is known for taking the great unsolved mysteries and having my PI, Heller, "solve" them in a way that's based off of extensive research. Heller and I have solved the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Roswell incident, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the assassinations of Huey Long and Mayor Anton Cermak, the Black Dahlia murder, and much more. The next book, which is due out in August of this year, is BYE BYE, BABY, which unravels the murder --- yup, murder --- of Marilyn Monroe. And right now, I'm working on a novel that deals with the greatest unsolved mystery of all time --- the assassination of JFK.
MC: I used to have favorite unsolved mysteries, but then Nate Heller solved them all for me. Of course, that's also why he's one of my favorite detectives. Still, other than JFK, the next most obvious answer is Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders. There isn't a mystery writer anywhere who hasn't at least courted the idea of taking a shot at those crimes. In fact, Max and I recreated the crimes in Las Vegas for our CSI graphic novel, SERIAL. That gave us our chance to take on the legend.
BRC: It seems as if one cannot change the channel without running into a new and different true crime show. Do you have a favorite? And what is your favorite fictional crime drama series?
MAC: I don't follow any of the true crime shows, but I sort of monitor them to see if a particular subject or crime is being treated. Right now, my favorite fictional crime show is "Justified." There are too many classic shows to name, but everything came from the original 1950s version of "Dragnet," and it's too bad that only the later, lesser '60s/'70s episodes are widely available. As a kid, I loved "Perry Mason" and "Peter Gunn," and I still do. My wife and I are huge fans of lots of the British crime shows: "Morse" and its follow-up, "Lewis;" "Foyle's War;" "Life on Mars" and its follow-up, "Ashes to Ashes;" "Midsomer Murders"; and, of course, the great David Suchet Poirot series.
MC: I don't watch true crime --- it's too much of a busman's holiday. The British show "Life on Mars" may be the second-best TV show ever. "Justified" rocks, and even though it may not technically be a "crime drama," Max and I both love "Leverage."
BRC: What do you personally think of true crime television shows? Do they help or hinder law enforcement? And what about some of the series that deal with forensic investigations? There are those who say that the different "CSI" programs educate criminals. What do you think? Are criminals becoming more careful? Or do you subscribe to the theory that, if criminals were smart, they'd be working at Oak Ridge?
MAC: The funny thing is that "CSI" --- which Matt and I were heavily involved with for a long time, not only doing 10 novels, but four or five video games, four or five graphic novels, a bunch of jigsaw puzzles, and virtually all of the "licensing" writing for the show for five or six years --- has probably hurt cops and crooks equally. The toys they have on "CSI" are real, but few, if any, real departments can afford them, and nobody can afford them all. And crooks are much more paranoid than they probably need to be. Juries have such high expectations for what forensic science is capable of, that all kinds of bad guys are walking. On the other hand, lots of smart young people now want to be CSIs. Maybe it evens out.
MC: True crime shows have the ability to help since, like "Crime Seen!," they don't have to obey every rule. But I'm not sure that everyone in real life is as altruistic as J.C. Harrow, and there are those who might put ratings ahead of assistance. While attending the International Association of Identification's worldwide education conference a few years ago, I got to sit in on a two-hour discussion about what law enforcement calls "the CSI effect." The shows educate potential jurors as much as they do criminals. There are those in law enforcement who worry that it could become more difficult to achieve convictions because, even though they may have a mountain of evidence, the jurors think they should have DNA evidence because they always do on "CSI." Also, in real life, they don't get those DNA results back during a two-minute commercial break, since real-life labs are backed up beyond belief. I learned the difference between reality and real life on my first trip to Miami, where I was doing research for a CSI: Miami novel. When I pulled my rental car out of the airport, I stopped at red light next to a dirty, rusty, white van with Miami-Dade Crime Scene Unit painted on the doors... not quite the silver Hummers on the show. As it turns out, the show isn't a documentary.
On the other hand, "CSI" has long been known for donating equipment to police forces, and Anthony Zuiker, the show's creator, seems to have nothing but respect for the people who do this difficult --- and sometimes dangerous --- job. Also, about the CSI effect: A law enforcement friend of mine was on the stand once, and a prosecutor was going through his Curriculum Vitae, and the jurors were getting bored. Finally, the prosecutor asked my friend if it was true that he had been a technical advisor on the CSI novels. When my friend said, "Yes," he suddenly had the undivided attention of 12 licensed drivers.
BRC: You have worked on other series together, most notably novels based on "CSI." Do you approach your collaboration on the Crime Seen! books differently? If so, how? And did your approach to working together change in any way when you wrote NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU?
MAC: Well, the CSI experience --- and we also did non-crime stuff together, too, primarily the very successful trio of Dark Angel novels --- began sort of gradually. Matt was primarily researching and helping plot and preparing story treatments. But the story treatments grew into full rough drafts, and the way we work now is pretty much the same as it was when we were working on the later CSI novels --- I come up with a basic idea, we have several meetings brainstorming and plotting, Matt researches and writes an intentionally short rough draft, allowing me room to expand and explore and, well, breathe. The procedural stuff is almost entirely Matt's --- I either write or heavily rewrite just about all the dialogue. In NO ONE WILL HEAR YOU, our models were Richard Stark's Parker novels, and the great 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain.
MC: In real estate it's location, location, location. With these thrillers, we've started thinking pace, pace, pace. We are aggressively trying to pare these stories down so that they are a rocket ride from beginning to end.
BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
MAC: Rex Stout's PRISONER'S BASE.
MC: I'm getting ready for spring training and the baseball season, so I'm revisiting FAITHFUL by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan, as well as MEN AT WORK by George Will, which is also a great baseball book.
BRC: There are a couple of loose ends at the conclusion of the book, mostly dealing with relationships between cast members and others inside and outside of the "Crime Seen!" team. Is there anything you can tell us about future volumes?
MAC: We know exactly where we want to go. Matt, you want to provide a teaser or two?
MC: We have three more books outlined already. Well, let's just say it wouldn't be true to the world of "Crime Seen!" if things didn't get a little more complicated for everybody.
BRC: What are you working on now, singularly or collaboratively?
MAC: Matt and I have a vampire detective concept we're working on, and we're developing another serial-killer thriller series, with less emphasis on forensics. I am working on the new Nathan Heller novel, and my draft of ANTIQUES DISPOSAL is also up ahead --- the latest in the Trash 'n' Treasures cozy mystery series by my wife, Barb, and me, writing as "Barbara Allan." Then I have another one of Mickey Spillane's unfinished Mike Hammer manuscripts to complete.
MC: While I'm working on the beginning of the new thriller series, we've also started talking about a political thriller called SUPREME JUSTICE. It's a project we've been interested in working on for a while now. Plus, somewhere in the murky future, there's a project about the DEA that I've had bouncing around in my head for years now.
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