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Spotlight on: The War of the Worlds Murder by Max Allan Collins

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The War of the Worlds Murder by Max Allan Collins Max Allan Collins, The War of the Worlds Murder

Max Allan Collins' historical mysteries are some of the best reading available. His Nathan Heller series has been nominated nine times for the Shamus award (winning twice, for True Detective and Stolen Away) and his "disaster" series has received similar acclaim, with was also nominated for the Shamus). Mysteries are often considered fluff writing, but Collins mixes fact and fiction in a way that is irresistible to those of us who like a little grit in our meringue.

The War of the Worlds Murder is the sixth in the Collins' "disaster" series, and it continues the series on a slightly different note. It is both less "disastrous" than previous entries and slightly less effective. But that doesn't keep it from being fascinating reading, especially to such a rabid fan of Orson Welles, the Shadow, and old-time radio as myself.

This War of the Worlds does not focus on the H.G. Wells novel (although it was undoubtedly released to coincide with the recent film adaptation). It instead features the 1938 Mercury Theatre radio presentation that "panicked America."

Collins introduces the novel, much like the Orson Welles film F for Fake, with the assertion that what follows is true -- the result of a conversation with Walter Gibson in 1975. (Gibson created the Shadow, authored over 230 novels featuring the character, and was the person who recommended Welles the young actor for the role on radio.)

However, also like F for Fake, he abandons this tactic once we are well and truly hooked, introducting a fictional murder into the proceedings. (Welles' mistress, or one of them, is murdered in CBS studios on the night of the broadcast and it is up to pulp writer Gibson, in town to assist Welles on a Shadow film project that never materialized, to solve the crime.)

Unfortunately, it is the murder that is the weak point in what is otherwise a fascinating portrait of an important incident in entertainment history -- it plays little or no role other than slightly enhancing the storyline. It is the real story of the events on the night of October 30, 1938, that keep the reader turning pages: showing the famous War of the Worlds broadcast from behind the scenes (from Gibson's point of view primarily) and how the radio play affected those millions of listeners who tuned in late and missed the opening announcement. By the time they switched from the popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy program (once Nelson Eddy began singing), the Mercury play and the "Martian invasion" were well underway.

Max Allan Collins puts a lot of research in his work and often comes up with surprising, heretofore unknown facts. After all, who knew that Judy Holliday (who would later win an Oscar for her portrayal of not-so-dumb blonde Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday) was an office assistant at CBS studios back in 1938, subject to abuse from Welles' Mercury Theatre partner, John Houseman? I didn't. (Interestingly, as Welles' career was coming to an embarrassing close, Houseman's second career was just taking off due to his own Oscar-winning performance in The Paper Chase.) This use of facts brings further enjoyment to The War of the Worlds Murder, and offers a further example why I'll pick up a Max Allan Collins novel over any other.

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