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Spotlight on: Murder -- His and Hers by Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins

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Murder -- His and Hers by Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins, Murder -- His and Hers

Husband and wife authors Barbara and Max Allan Collins released this collection of nine short stories -- four by her, three by him, and two by both -- entitled Murder -- His and Hers in 2001, preceding Jonathan and Faye Kellerman's Double Homicide by three years. Unfortunately, the level of quality cannot compare, mostly due to one particular party.

Things get off on the wrong foot with "Eddie Haskell in a Short Skirt." Attributed to both Collinses, their voices are easily distinguishable, with each sticking to his/her own gender and trading off passages. Barbara Collins' writing is amateurish and juvenile, always telling more than necessary, in effect talking down to the reader. Max Allan Collins' (henceforth known here as Al) prose is cleaner and more assured.

First impressions are very important to me, and I believe that a short story collection should start off on its best foot. Operating on this belief, it was with some trepidation that I proceeded to the "Dead and Breakfast" Barbara solo. Written with three years less experience than its predecessor, the premise is more interesting but the ending is so bad, concluding with a trite pun (not even an original one -- and I like puns!), than I felt insulted, as if she were mocking me for bothering to finish her story.

The first Al solo story, "Cat's-eye Witness," to my great disappointment, wasn't much better. Yet another addition to the seemingly-endless genre of cat mysteries (and the first of two in this collection alone), it owes a great debt to the author's middle-namesake, Edgar Allan Poe. Unfortunately, the execution is hackneyed, the protagonist uninteresting, and the ending comes to easily, with improper development.

The opening sentence of "Reunion Queen" could give no better example of the low quality of Barbara Collins' writing: "Her mood darker than the night" is bad enough, but the fact that she then feels the need to explain that "the night was very dark" just shows the contempt she has for her audience -- that we won't understand just how dark the mood of "the striking blonde" was as she "tooled the candy-apple Jaguar into the Marriot lot" unless she tells us explicitly. There's one vital rule that she is breaking: assume your readers are at least as intelligent as you are. Her use of music as punctuation is clever but it does not support with is essentially a revenge story with a weird twist ending tacked on for shock value.

"Inconvenience Store" is (almost) worth the price of the book alone. An entry in the continuing Ms. Tree series of stories, this Al solo has a remarkable female lead unlike any I've seen and is a fast-paced, gripping tale of a trip to the market gone awry. (It was also the basis for Collins' independent film -- and innovative DVD -- Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market.) Al could teach his wife a few things about writing active females who take charge of a given situation and don't just whine bitterly, and also how to write endings and not come up with some off-the-wall conclusion that negates everything that came before. "Seeing Red" is another example. "Catgate" is a fascinating but weaker entry -- and the second cat-themed story -- from Al. A senator's murder of his mistress causes serious, and interesting, trouble from all sides, but the ending is just a little too pat.

Then again, it's still a sight better than Barbara's "World's Greatest Mother," a Dragnet pastiche that uses its faux-investigatory format to press a moral agenda. The last entry, "A Cruise to Forget," borrows heavily from Roald Dahl and still manages to be the best of the lot. Written by both Collinses, the prose is seamless, with no sign of who wrote what. Original to this collection, it is a hopeful sign of things to come. Murder -- His and Hers works best with seen as a portrait of developing short story talent, since it seldom delivers on the entertainment front.

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