Edmonton Journal: Dave Thomas and Max Allan Collins take mystery to the multiverse
Author: Fish Griwkowsky
Dave Thomas and Max Allan Collins have co-authored a new mystery novel, The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton. PHOTO BY FISH GRIWKOWSKY /Postmedia
Fittingly enough, worlds colliding is the bubbling core of Dave Thomas’ and Max Allan Collins’ terrific new sci-fi mystery novel, The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton, which comes out Wednesday.
The book tells the story of the titular small-time Boston hustler who, after breaking into the basement of a quantum physicist working on breaking the boundaries parallel realities, finds himself waking up in a very different life — one where he’s legit, rich and successful. Unfortunately for Jimmy, he doesn’t stay there long.
Thomas, of course, is the internationally beloved SCTV star who has a statue of himself as Doug McKenzie just south of our NHL arena, thanks to the comedy sketch show’s legacy of filming here. Collins, meanwhile, boasts a remarkable 50-year career as a crime novelist and comic book author. One of these graphic novels is Road to Perdition, which became a Hollywood hit directed by Sam Mendes, starring Tom Hanks and then-unknown Daniel Craig. Fellow crime writer Mickey Spillane also handed off his creation of Mike Hammer to Collins before he died.
How their two spheres came together, never mind merging to co-write a great pulp novel, is a funny story in itself.
“It was Spongebob!” Thomas, 72, yelps over Zoom, referring to voice actor and Mr. Show star Tom Kenney, a mutual friend to all of them.
Before this collaboration, Collins was such a fan of SCTV that for his 50 th wedding anniversary — it was coincidentally Second City’s 50 th as well — he offered his wife the following choice: “I said, ‘Do you want to go to Europe? Or do you want to go see SCTV Live?’ and she said, ‘SCTV Live! Now! Let’s go!’ And so we spent a couple thousand dollars and went.
“That’s not Hollywood money, Dave,” he ribs his co-author across the video call, “but in Iowa money that’s a lot of dough.”
The two met briefly after that event — Collins had actually already met him at a comic convention years earlier; Thomas didn’t remember — and they chatted for a bit.
Here’s where Spongebob comes in, as Collins explains. “Tom Kenney knew I was a fan and said to Dave, ‘Why don’t you call him?’ Dave didn’t have to do that, but I think we talked for an hour, just finding out how much we have in common.”
Thomas mentioned he had a book idea and sent it over. Once they hammered it out, they spent the next six months writing together, discussing it word by word.
“We did this whole collaboration on the phone and on Zoom,” explains Thomas. “And we still haven’t actually got together and physically met, which is a shame, because I know now, after spending so much time with him, that I got a friend for life here.”
Thomas originally had the idea of someone hopping through parallel lives as a pitch for a TV series.
“I still approach things as a performer-writer and I thought, what a great thing for a cast: to be able to play different versions of themselves in each episode,” says the foundational hoser who can still muster the best Bob Hope impression. “I remember pitching this to some network executive and just seeing the eyes glaze over. And I thought, well, this is never gonna sell.”
Collins, 73, jumps in: “I thought, this is such a great idea, I can’t believe nobody’s made a movie of this. There been other sorts of multidimensional stories, and lots of time travel stuff, but never anything where somebody hits a fork in the road, and they could go left or they could go right.”
What really sets this novel apart is that it’s Jimmy’s one single consciousness waking up in different, increasingly fraught versions of himself, including on a battlefield. And this spiral journey is tightly wrapped around a detective yarn of two cops trying to figure out, in the story’s solid B-plot, who shot our main character in the head.
“One of the things we did that I think was smart was an old technique I learned from Edgar Rice Burroughs,” says Collins. “When you’ve got two story threads, you lead them up to a cliffhanger, and make him read the next story thread, then you also drop the cliffhanger at the end of the other storyline.
“So it drives you, and that’s what makes people read into the night until their eyes are bleeding,” he smiles. “And I really want red-eyed readers at the end of this.”
You can tell Collins has been writing for a long time, and he doesn’t actually know how many books he has under his belt. “I know it’s over 100, but I’ve been doing this since 1971, so if you do the math it’s not quite like, ‘Wow, what a feat!”
Oh, I don’t know, two a year? Pretty decent hustle.
Meanwhile, this is Thomas’ first novel. “But I do have that SCTV coffee table book … which is primarily pictures,” he laughs.
I ask them both what the other brought to the process, and Collins doesn’t hesitate.
“Not a f—ing thing!” he yells, which gets us all laughing.
“All I can say,” Thomas retorts in an angelic, Merry Melodies voice, “is he’s a good soul.
“And even though it was kind of one-sided, that he hated me during the whole process, that somehow, somehow I was able to defend myself.”
Then Thomas gets real. “This has been a great collaboration.
“I have a reputation with other people I’ve collaborated with as being kind of a demolition man, where once I figure something out, I’m bored with it and I go, ‘Oh, f— this, I don’t want to do this any more.’ And that’s where Max grounded it and kept me on track.”
The two would be thrilled if the story ended up on TV, after all. Reading the book, it’s so easy to picture. “I think it’d be a great series,” says Collins.
“Just to see it rendered and share it with everybody,” adds Thomas happily, until SCTV’s Bill Needle suddenly emerges for a second. “I don’t know what they’ll do it. They’ll make changes and probably things Max and I will call each other about and go, ‘Those f—ers! Look what they did!”
“But that said,” he softens, “that’s what happens with everything — you know what I mean?”
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