Andrew McAleer is the publisher of the venerable Crimestalker Casebook mystery magazine. He's also authored three well-received mystery novels, including "Bait and Switch" and "Appearance of Counsel," as well the non-fiction "Mystery Writing in a Nutshell," written with his father Edgar winner John McAleer, and the number one best seller "101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists: Insider Secrets from Top Writers".
Mr. McAleer, along with Harry Sapienza, has recently ushered a project of his father John McAleer's to fruition: PACKED AND LOADED: CONVERSATIONS WITH JAMES M. CAIN, who as many of you know is the author of "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Mildred Pierce," to name just a few.
Not only does Cain discuss his first notions to be a writer, his newspaper days and his Hollywood years. He also reveals his brutally honest thoughts on everyone from Hammett and Chandler to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller and even Marilyn Monroe. The book is peppered with epigraphs from Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane among others.
Q: Welcome, Andy. Before we get to PACKED AND LOADED, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? I understand that you're a prosecutor in Massachusetts. It seems that your profession has had a definite impact on your novels, can you expand on that a little?
A: Thanks, Paul. I’ve had I think a fairly interesting legal career so far. Right after law school I started a small law practice in the town I grew up in – Lexington. The only legal books I had were my grandfather’s old law books dating back to the 19 teens and 20s including the Mr. Tutt casebooks by Arthur Train, which I devoured and highly recommend. I did a lot of “country” law – real estate, probate, criminal defense. My first book Appearance of Counsel is about a small-town lawyer and my second and third novels Double Endorsement and Bait and Switch about a PI. I prefer the malice domestic formula used by Rex Stout and many of the Golden Age of mystery greats. My latest novel Fatal Deeds (Cherokee McGhee) will be released in August 2011 and is about a retired sheriff Gus Churchill. He hangs his shingle in Concord, Massachusetts. Working as a prosecutor has really helped round off my writing more from an investigative stand point. How things are done from a tactical questioning point of view and in terms of character development. In Fatal Deeds Gus likes to catch bad guys with brain over brawn and a little country charm. I may be old fashioned, but I like to know who the bad guys and good guys are. I would say my entrepreneurial background and legal background have served me well on what it’s really like to survive as a self-employed PI – keeping the wolf off the door can be as challenging as catching bad guys.
Q: You also taught at Boston College. I'm sure that's also had some effect on your writing.
A: I think everyone should teach. It keeps you young and in touch and you definitely learn more from your students than you could ever teach them.
Q: And the third corner of your tri-corner hat is that you're a Sergeant in the Army National Guard. Are you with the JAG? Has your army duty come into play in your writing? And do you plan to do a novel that might specifically revolve around that?
A: Actually I’m with the Military History Detachment now. Like my character Gus Churchill I love local history – I mean . . . I have to, right. . . ? I’ve lived in Lexington all my life just a mile from the Battle Green where the “Shot heard ’round the world” was fired. I enjoyed writing my non-fiction works Mystery Writing in a Nutshell and the 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, so I hope someday to produce a non-fiction book worthy of the men and women who make it all possible for us to write our tales.
Q: I understand that shortly before his death in 1977, James M. Cain commissioned your father, Dr. McAleer, to write his biography? That's a pretty interesting story in itself. Can you tell us a little more about how that came about?
A: Sure. My father was writing Rex Stout’s biography at the time when he and Cain somehow made contact. They began a correspondence where my father would send him questionnaires and Cain would respond. Then, in the fall semester of either 75 or 76, my father’s graduate student Harry Sapienza went down to Cain’s home in Maryland and interviewed him for a couple of hours. Harry did a phenomenal job and really got Cain to open up about all facets of his life. Eventually it came out that Cain had already hired Roy Hoopes to write his bio, so my father put the brakes on things and took up his bio on Emerson. He felt Hoopes had first dibs on the project. I know my father admired Hoopes’ biography on Cain as do I.
Q: Cain responded to Dr. McAleer's questions with the intensity known to him. He gives his thoughts on everyone from Hammett and Chandler, in the mystery genre, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald in literary fiction. Even Arthur Miller. Do you have a favorite story or quote?
A: As a fan of local history one of my favorite chapters in Packed and Loaded is Cain’s vivid description of what a Hollywood “Triangle Girl” is. I mean . . . he talks about Marilyn Monroe and how she was a Triangle Girl and what it really meant to be one. There’s a great story there about this culture perhaps long forgotten by all. Now it’s codified nowhere I think, but in the memories of Cain through Packed and Loaded. These fascinating gals, doing what it takes to survive in the gritty Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, could be the “Mad Men” of their day.
Q: What was your father's impression of Cain?
A: Very high. In one of his letters to Cain he told him he was happy just to be on the same planet with him. My father admired people who were straightforward and by the book. Rex Stout and Cain were very much cut from the same cloth. He was the real McCoy.
Q: Is there anything in particular that you find funny or insightful or unusual that Cain comes up with?
A: I think in his afterword to the book by Shamus Award winner Jeremiah Healy, he summed it up best focusing on how after each question Cain would ask, “What else you got?” Like his works, Cain was the king of “less is more.” You knew where you stood with him.
Q: How did Cain feel about the film versions of his work?
A: Cain wasn’t full of “Cain.” He enjoyed his success because it gave him a platform to write. Above all the story was what mattered. “Why does this story need to be told?” That’s why he preferred the first person POV. It has more of a ring of truth to it. He did not let Hollywood go to his head.
Q: I understand, too, that these interviews were almost lost to us until you found them. Can you tell us a little about that?
A: Good question. Around 2000 a publisher was releasing a new edition of my father’s Rex Stout biography. P.G. Wodehose wrote the original foreword to the Stout bio and when we dug out my father’s Wodehose correspondence to do some research for an updated introduction to the Stout bio, the Cain work – long since thought to be lost – was found!
Q: Your father was a serious literary biographer of people such as Dreiser and Thoreau before tackling Rex Stout in the mystery field. How and why did he make the jump?
A: My father was an eclectic scholar. I think his military training in the Big Two taught him how to adapt and in the old days of education this is what you had to do. In the 40s and 50s Boston College was not the big school it is today. The Jesuits gave him an assignment and it was his job to learn the subject, master it, and disseminate the knowledge to his students. Interestingly, it was his Dreiser bio that landed him the Stout bio. When my father was visiting his cousin in Connecticut back in 1968 or 69, his cousin invited him to meet his neighbor – Rex Stout. When Stout met my father he had just completed my father’s book on Dreiser and admired it very much. Soon after he hired my father to author his bio. They became great friends. A picture of Stout tending to his irises still hangs in my father’s study nearly forty years after Stout’s death and seven years after my father’s. Well . . . I guess my secret as to why I like the malice domestic formula so much is out . . . Rex, Nero, and Archie are alive and well here. Cain, too! There is some more great stuff on Stout and my father on my website www.crimestalkers.com
Thanks, Paul. But I can’t leave without asking you a question or two. You’ve been able to master the short story formula quite well and have appeared in some great anthologies. How are the novels coming and what can we expect?
I feel a little funny since this is an interview about you and your book. I'm just about done with my novel "The Blues Don't Care," a mystery set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. And almost done with another satirical novel about a screenwriter in L.A. – sort of a 21st Century West Coast "Bright Lights, Big City".
Thank you for stopping by, Andy.
I think anyone who's interested in mystery in general and Cain in particular, would enjoy this book. I know that I love both "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" both as books and as movies. And, in fact, if I had to show a Martian the ultimate example of film noir it would be "Double Indemnity".
So anyone interested in mystery or Cain or the McAleers or any of the authors mentioned here should check out...
...PACKED AND LOADED:
Also check out www.crimestalkers.com