Interview: Michael Slade Part 2

FF: Tell us about your mother’s real-life adventures in “the Land of the Headhunters,” and how that inspired HEADHUNTER.

MS: First, you want to watch this (it’s about a minute long):

Vivian Murdoch, Slade’s mother.

My mom, Vivian Murdoch, grew up in a small Alberta town with a population of about a hundred. During the war, the photo of each of her male friends killed in action went up in the grocery store window along with a black poppy. To do her bit, my mom trained as a nurse in Edmonton, got her RN, then hopped a train to Vancouver, where she worked her way up to head nurse in the operating room of the General Hospital. By luck, she got offered a job nursing up the West Coast “in the Land of the Headhunters”: the Kwakiutl village of Alert Bay.

The chief’s son had arthritis, and my mom had been trained in the latest help: a hot wax treatment. So she spent as much time as she could in the midst of the Kwakiutl (now the Kwakwaka’wakw) longhouses and totem culture. That’s how she learned the history of the Lekwiltok headhunters (the Southern Kwakiutl) who warred down the Pacific coast to Puget Sound, and the Kwakiutl’s Hamatsa cult of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe, the cannibal god, and Hok Hok, the cannibal bird on their totems.

As thanks for helping his son, the chief carved her a small totem pole.

Kwakiutl dancers

Her boat trip back from the Land of the Headhunters almost cost my mom and me our lives.

An old Kwakiutl woman in the grip of psychosis was brought to the hospital. She had to be sent to Essondale – Vancouver’s psychiatric asylum – for assessment, so my mom escorted her on the police boat.

In the 1940s, everyone wore hats. The Kwakiutl woman had a fancy wicker-woven hat festooned with flowers. If you escort a patient or prisoner and there are bunk beds, the nurse should take the lower bunk, so if there’s movement in the night, she can hear the bedsprings squeak.

But it was my mom’s first escort, and she made a mistake.

Because the boat was a police boat, there was a cop on board. It was an overnight cruise to Vancouver, so what better way to pass the hours than chatting up the attractive nurse below deck? So down he went and found the cabin door ajar for air, and charged in just in time to grab the old woman’s arm.

Hidden in her flowered hat was a long hatpin. While my mom was nodding off in the top bunk, the patient had crept out of bed to get the stiletto, and was about to stab her in the heart.

If not for that cop, she’d be dead and there’d be no me.


When I was a boy, most youth culture was American. I thought my flag was the Stars and Stripes because Old Glory flew in all the comics I read. To straighten me out, my mom immersed me in all things thrilling about the Mounties, Blackfoot, Cree, and Kwakiutl, and every year took me to the Calgary Stampede.

Incidentally, my first memory – I kid you not – is sitting in the saddle with a Mountie holding me while surrounded by Blackfoot chiefs dressed in buckskins and feathered bonnets.

The writers’ mantra is “Write about what you know.” So when I read Ed McBain’s LADY, LADY, I DID IT! in my teens and thought, One day, I want to write something like this, I was stocked with material from my family background to turn “this” into what I call “Mountie Noir.”

That set me on my course to practice criminal law, both for the thrill of the courtroom and to write realistic crime fiction.

FF: You’ve been active in more than 100 murder cases, many of them involving the law of insanity. You began your courtroom career as “the hookers’ lawyer” and have faced dangerous situations at the B.C. Pen, one of which involved a cannibal killer and a near prison riot. How do you morph all that real-life material into the fantasy world of Slade’s thrillers?

MS: The best way to answer that is to refer anyone reading this to the Slade Website to see the illustrations as well as get the stories behind the stories.

Here’s “The History of Michael Slade and HEADHUNTER Reimagined”:

Each drawer in the Morgue shows what inspired that thriller:

And here you’ll find the e-books:


FF: The artwork for the 1984 version of HEADHUNTER is amazing. Who did that and how did it come to land on your cover?


MS: Bob Tanner – who acquired the first Slade thriller for London’s W.H. Allen & Co – was a literary-agent-turned-publisher with a knack for selling books. He commissioned the severed head image from British artist Graham Potts. Back then, if Scotland Yard didn’t know the identity of a female victim, they would put out a poster of her face with the caption “Do You Know This Woman?”

Tanner produced similar placards for London Transport’s tube trains and busses, with the severed head artwork instead of a photo. There was – as you’d expect – blowback, and the posters had to come down, but not before W.H. Allen had sold a ton of books and launched HEADHUNTER.

“Controversy sells.”

My American publisher, William Morrow & Co, blew the severed head up to ten times the size. Several clerks in one bookstore refused to look at it, but they were also against censorship. In the end, they divided the store in half, with HEADHUNTER displayed at the central till so it faced in one direction, and the ruffled clerks avoided that half until the book had had its run.

Personally, I thought that a smart compromise.


FF: Your name, Michael Slade, is a nom de plume. Who thought it up? Why? And who is the real Slade?

MS: HEADHUNTER was conceived by me and my two law partners. To distance ourselves from the law firm and have a single name on the cover, we had need of a pseudonym. My wife Lee came up with the name. “Michael” is biblical, sensitive, and most women like it. “Slade” is tough as nails.

Michael Slade is the alter ego of whoever works on that book. My partners, my wife, or my daughter. All of us are Jekylls, and he’s our Hyde. But there must be a single voice telling the story, and I’m the guy at the keyboard.


FF: It was recently announced that D FILMS is launching a production division with Rob Merilees (producer of CAPOTE, “Motive,” and other hits) to film HEADHUNTER as an 8-part TV series. How did you get involved in this and what made you want to do this series with them?

MS: Rob read HEADHUNTER decades ago and is a long-time fan of the book. Every author hopes for a visual producer like that. He and I have kicked around filming HH for some time, so that’s one reason why I sat down and completely reimagined the original book with a movie camera running in my mind.

Rob read the retelling and that was that. Development of HEADHUNTER as a TV series with – hopefully – the other Special X thrillers coming in subsequent years is now well underway.

The new telling of HEADHUNTER is how I would have written the story originally had I known back then what I know now.

Cemetery Dance Publications is releasing a signed limited hardcover edition of the new book:

FF: What’s involved in adapting your Mountie Noir thriller for the screen, and what can fans of the Special X psycho-hunters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police expect from the show?       

MS: The book is the book, and the series is the series. Filmmaking by its nature is always an adaptation. A writer can worm inside his characters’ minds and set forth their thinking, motivation, backstory, reaction, etc. Visual presentation is constrained in that regard, so plot and character must be told in other ways.

The story will be the same story in ends but not in means.


FF: When will you be shooting and where?

MS: Ideally, in Vancouver in late 2018.


FF: How involved in the production will you be?

MS: As an executive producer, I get a say. Filming, however, is a collaborative affair, and I always listen to those with more experience in a field than I have. Storyline will be my main interest.


FF: When can we expect to see it?

MS: Ideally, in 2019. And, with luck, a follow-on Special X series thriller every one or two years.


FF: What is next for you?

MS: I’m currently reimagining GHOUL for subsequent production.

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Amy Seidman is a Toronto based costumer for film/television and writer for Thrillist, Rue-Morgue, Shock Till You Drop and FANGORIA magazine. She has a tattoo tribute to Castor Troy from Face/Off. She is proud of all her life decisions.

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