Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Max Allan Collins: The Unlikely Detective

MAX ALLAN COLLINS is the award winning author of crime fiction, including the acclaimed graphic novel Road to Perdition and the Perdition Saga. A frequent Mystery Writers of America “Edgar” nominee in both fiction and non-fiction categories, he has earned an unprecedented eighteen Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991), receiving the PWA life achievement award, the Eye, in 2007. His graphic novel Road to Perdition (1998) is the basis of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Daniel Craig, directed by Sam Mendes. It was followed by two acclaimed prose sequels, Road to Purgatory (2004) and Road to Paradise (2005), and a graphic novel sequel, Return to Perdition (2011). He has written a number of innovative suspense series, including Nolan (the author’s first series, about a professional thief), Quarry (the first series about a hired killer), and Eliot Ness (four novels about the famous real-life Untouchable’s Cleveland years). He is completing a number of “Mike Hammer” novels begun by the late Mickey Spillane, with whom Collins did many projects; the fourth of these, Lady Go, Die!, was published in 2012.
He is the author of the Nathan Heller mysteries, including Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer and Ask Not. Collins also wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for fifteen years, and is an independent filmmaker. For more information, visit  


The recent publication of the sixteenth Nathan Heller novel, BETTER DEAD, has once again reminded some reviewers and readers that my Chicago private detective has been involved in an unlikely number of famous cases. That’s true. But it didn’t start out that way.

The first Heller novel, TRUE DETECTIVE (1983), was designed to be a one-shot, and a much longer, bigger-landscape private eye novel than had yet been written. I had been toying with the idea of writing a period private eye story for some time, but noticing the 1929 date on the indicia page of THE MALTESE FALCON is what brought clarity to the concept: 1929 was the year of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, meaning Al Capone and Sam Spade were contemporaries. Just as Phillip Marlowe might meet an Al Capone type, now Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type, the hardboiled PI having been around long enough to exist in an historical context.

Shortly after that came the natural step of giving the detective a real, unsolved crime from history – in the case of TRUE DETECTIVE, the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak.

Now I won’t say the possibility of continuing Nate’s story didn’t occur to me from the start – with an eye on possible future tales, I made Heller much younger (his early twenties) than most fictional P.I.’s. The notion of at least one sequel came about when the original plot for the novel, whose final section was to include the shooting of John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater, threatened to expand my manuscript to 1000 pages or more. I wanted to write the longest P.I. novel to date, but not that long....

The Dillinger novel, TRUE CRIME (1984), followed, and by that time a trilogy dealing with Heller’s uneasy relationship with Capone successor Frank Nitti seemed a necessity. It would jump decades and conclude with Nitti’s suicide (or was it?).

From the beginning, I had wanted Heller to be more real than the standard private eye of fiction, and had given him a detailed family history, including a leftist father who (unhappy that Nate had joined the corrupt Chicago police) committed suicide with his son’s gun. Heller continues to carry that gun, which he calls the only conscience he has.

I wanted to explore the various cliches of the genre and examine the kernels of truth that had formed those cliches. One trope was that almost every PI had suffered trauma during the war (whatever war was handy). I decided, in the third novel, to take Heller to war, making him a Marine at Guadalcanal. Again I was trying to expand the landscape of this kind of novel, but I also liked the idea of a murder happening behind enemy lines that Heller would solve at home. In addition, I wanted to contrast the cocky young Heller before the war with the traumatized Heller who came home with malaria and a Section 8. That book, THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND (1986), remains one of the novels of mine that I’m most proud of.

The fourth novel, NEON MIRAGE (1988), begins in Chicago but moves to Las Vegas for the story of gangster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. I was still keeping to mob themes, and working to keep Heller a recognizable tough detective in the Marlowe/Hammer mode, but more real – for example, he is married by that novel’s end.

Still, as rich as Chicago is in crime lore, there was only so much I could do there, particularly since I also wanted a real-life unsolved crime or mystery for Heller to tackle each time. The next logical step was to involve him with the great unsolved crimes (and mysteries) of the 20th Century. The first of these novels was STOLEN AWAY (1991), which put Nate in the midst of the Lindbergh kidnapping...with a Chicago slant by way of Al Capone’s offer to get the Lindbergh baby back.

In the years that have followed Heller has solved the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, the assassination of Huey Long, the Thalia Massie rape/murder case, as well as found Amelia Earhart and uncovered the secrets of the Roswell incident. More recently he solved Marilyn Monroe’s murder and the assassination of JFK. If you don’t read the series, you’re probably thinking Heller and I jumped the shark a long time ago.

Here’s the thing. Each novel is researched as extensively as a non-fiction work on each subject, and strives to be wholly credible on its own terms. As for the many famous crimes he encounters, Heller makes something of a running gag of it, although in the context of his world, he gradually becomes famous. His one-room agency grows to a nationwide affair.

Incidentally, back in real life, a surprising number of historical figures turn up in more than one of these cases. For example, the IRS agents involved in the Capone case, Frank Wilson and Elmer Irey, also worked the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Huey Long assassination.

So how do I justify Heller’s FLASHMAN-like propensity for hobnobbing with the rich and infamous? I don’t, really. Basically, he’s a detective in the tradition of the fictional detectives who have gone before him...and how likely were they? How credible is it that Perry Mason won a hundred murder trials? That Poirot solved dozens of murders, and Archie and Nero almost seventy-five? How many best friends did Mike Hammer have who needed avenging? How did Columbo always know who did it right away, and why were they always rich people, for season after season?

What I promise you, with every Nate Heller novel, is a private-eye-witness view of a major crime, with a narrator who is good company as well as tough and somewhat randy, and of course to provide a new solution to an old crime.

BETTER DEAD finds Heller in the midst of the Red Scare era, solving two real-life mysteries, along the way dealing with Senator Joe McCarthy, working for Dashiell Hammett, and bedding Bettie Page. It’s not a bad place to start.


Don Coffin said...

Better Dead is an excellent book; if you haven't had the pleasure f meeting Heller, here's your chance.

KarenM said...

I have not read a Max Allan Collins book, but I have them stockpiled.
I think the Nathan Heller series would be perfect for our reading group. Thank you so much for the insight into this character.