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Spotlight on: Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller series
Max Allan Collins, True Detective (Nathan Heller #1)
Max Allan Collins' first novel in his acclaimed Nathan Heller series, the Shamus Award–winning True Detective, is a stunning mix of fact and fiction. The setting is 1930s Chicago and Collins paints the city of that time with a bold brush. Heller is a city cop who gets roped into a messy situation by his fellow officers. When he ends up killing a man with the same gun Heller's father used to commit suicide, Nathan's own, that's the last straw that leads to Heller quitting the force, despite the efforts of the higher-ups to get him to reconsider.
But working as the president of your own detective agency (called "A-1" so it will appear first in the telephone directory) is by no means boring -- not when your best friend is Eliot Ness and you have connections to Frank Nitti, Al Capone, mayor Anton Cermak, Walter Winchell, George Raft, and a young future actor who goes by the name "Dutch" Reagan (gangster John Looney, whom Collins would feature in Road to Perdition fifteen years later, even shows up).
Collins took five years to research the place and time and this, combined with his immense storytelling skill, make True Detective an immersive experience. The World's Fair comes alive in his hands, as do the characters, who have never seemed so real (even in The Untouchables) as when they are dealing with the fictional Nathan Heller. I plan to repeat this experience soon with the sequel, True Crime, and I think I'm about to become very familiar with the exploits of Nathan Heller.
Max Allan Collins, True Crime (Nathan Heller #2)
Max Allan Collins continues the Nate Heller series (begun with True Detective) with the second in the "Frank Nitti Trilogy." Taking place just months after the events in its predecessor, True Crime centers around the famous killing of gangster John Dillinger in front of Chicago's Biograph Theater (Manhattan Melodrama was the picture that he, a girlfriend, and the famous "Lady in Red" had just seen).
Nate has just begun a relationship with renowned feather/bubble dancer Sally Rand, when a man comes into his office asking Heller to find his wife. How this connects with Dillinger and how Heller then gets mixed up with Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and her boys, and J. Edgar Hoover is a narrative of historic proportions. The accuracy of Collins' details and the amount of research done to get the facts right (sources are named in the back) are an example of the dedication Collins has to his craft.
That he is able to whip up a plot that uses these, but does not rely on them for a crutch, while inserting a fictional character into the midst of the fracas, is nothing short of remarkable. Nominated for the Shamus Award, True Crime is only the second Nathan Heller novel I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.
Max Allan Collins, The Million-Dollar Wound (Nathan Heller #3)
Max Allan Collins sends his historical detective Nathan Heller off to war in the Shamus Award–nominated The Million-Dollar Wound, the third in the series after True Crime. A little male pride, some misplaced patriotism, and a few drinks too many land Heller, too old for the draft, in the Marine enlistment office in 1942, right alongside best friend and ex-boxer Barney Ross. Far too soon after, they find themselved smack dab in the middle of Guadalcanal Island, surrounded by "Japs" and fighting death in both its projectile and contagious forms.
As especially bad case of malaria finds an amnesiac Heller back in the States with a fuzzy memory but a thriving investigation practice, and a request to testify against Frank Nitti, now in control of the territory left vacant by Al Capone's prison sentence. The story quickly flashes back to 1939. Those used to the linear narratives of the first two novels in the series (True Detective and True Crime), and their relative chronological proximity to each other, may be thrown by The Million-Dollar Wound, which takes place nine, then six, then ten years after the events in True Crime.
The Million-Dollar Wound was Max Allan Collins' most complex novel, both emotionally and narratively, up to that point. The weight of the combat experience weighs heavily on Heller's mind throughout the remainder of the novel, especially the bad dreams he has involving a fellow Marine's death by "friendly fire." Did Heller fire the fatal shot? He can't remember. This lends a gravity to this third entry that only enhances the reading, offering a deeper sense of character through Heller's reaction to the truth. I understand that the war effects Heller throughout the series, but only time will tell. (Note: The title refers to a war wound that gets a soldier sent home, but doesn't kill him.)
Max Allan Collins, Stolen Away (Nathan Heller #5)
The fifth novel in Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller series of historically accurate private-eye mysteries not only won the Shamus Award for best private-eye novel (the second in the series to win after True Detective), but is also, at 600 pages, the longest private-eye novel ever written.
But there's a lot of story to cover in Stolen Away, which focuses on the kidnapping of young Charles Lindbergh, Jr., "the Lindbergh baby," son of the famous pilot, "Lucky Lindy," who flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, the first person to do it solo.
The story begins, however, with Heller, at this point still a cop on the Chicago force, following a suspicious-looking blonde, baby in tow, through the local train station. The Lindbergh kidnapping is only a few days old, and Heller thinks he might be on the trail to solving it, which would do wonderful things for his career. He tails the woman all the way home, only to discover he's stumbled onto another kidnapping entirely. But this case catches the attention of Charles Lindbergh ("Slim" to his friends), who requests Heller's assistance in the investigation of his own child's disappearance.
Since Heller is still a cop throughout most of the book, Stolen Away walks the line of being a true private-eye novel. It is only Heller's distance from his normal jurisdiction that, in the long run, makes it feasible -- that and its part in an already established series. Heller works alone, and I guess that's what counts. Having an elderly Heller writing his "memoirs" from his retirement complex in Coral Springs is a nice touch. It lends a realism that an actual person is recounting these events from memory (though he must have Archie Goodwin's memory for dialogue to be able to remember conversations as clearly as he does).
Collins' solution to the kidnapping is a little too clean for my taste, but Stolen Away as a whole is quite a gripping read with a surprisingly emotional conclusion. Fans of the series will tear through this (I have a separate Nathan Heller page with reviews of the ones I have read so far), and I would especially recommend it to those interested in the Lindbergh kidnapping as history, given that Collins' usual exhaustive research is in high gear here. All the characters, except Heller, are either real people, "have real-life counterparts," or are composites of real people, and their actions and motives are taken from various articles and books about the case, mostly written by the participants.
That it all fits together so well is a testament to author Max Allan Collins' skill, especially since, in his "I Owe Them One" afterword (where he lists his sources), he cites the "conflicting source material" and the fact that "none of the books contemporary to the Lindbergh case proved entirely reliable." Nevertheless, Stolen Away is my favorite Heller mystery yet, and I have already stocked my bookshelf with others in the series for when I want to indulge my taste for a great historical whodunit.
Max Allan Collins, Damned in Paradise (Nathan Heller #8)
This eighth entry of the series of historical mysteries where Max Allan Collins places his private eye Nathan Heller within real-life cases is the first one that I haven't loved. That is not to say that Damned in Paradise is not good; it is just not as good as the other entries I have read. There was a marked lack of suspense where I really didn't care about the outcome of the characters and was only along for the ride that Collins so ably provides.
Damned in Paradise focuses on the Thalia Massie case that also inspired the movie Anatomy of a Murder (and the bestselling novel by Robert Traver of the same name). Massie, the wife of an Army Lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, was attacked, raped, and beaten by a bunch of locals. After a subsequent trial resulted in a hung jury, Massie's mother and husband took the law into their own hands and, with the help of two soldiers, murdered the leader of the alleged gang, Joe Kahahawai. The trial of Lt. Massie and Grace Fortescue (the mother) is the focus of this novel.
The most fun of these novels comes in watching real-life celebrities interact with Heller. Famous attorney Clarence Darrow is called to represent the defendants in this case and, since Darrow was a friend of Heller's father, Nate is asked to accompany him as an investigator. Nate has just finished the first portion of his involvement in the Lindbergh baby incident (as told in Stolen Away), but Darrow promises to keep his police department pay active while Nate is away. (The fact that Darrow manages to get by without paying anyone for their help is a running joke.) Also appearing are Detective Chang Apana (the inspiration for Earl Derr Biggers's character Charlie Chan) and a young Buster Crabbe in supporting roles.
Despite all these bells and whistles, however, I found it difficult to care about the outcome of such a despicable character as Thalia Massie. I always felt that she was hiding something -- that she was lying about what happened -- and so could not sympathize with her. Heller's presence ties everything together, and Chang's easygoing manner (except when he has a bullwhip in his hand) make for a relatively easy read, but one that was, on the whole, mildly unsatisfactory. I'll have to read another one soon to get back into the swing of it.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)