Friday, April 11, 2008

Black Hats by Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane (historical crime fiction)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

It's hardly a secret that author Patrick Culhane is actually Max Allan Collins (in fact, it's all over the dustjacket copy), who is probably best known as the author of Road to Perdition, but who has been writing crime (and other) novels since 1973. He also occasionally collaborates with his wife Barbara under the name Barbara Allan. But whatever name his work appears under, Collins is a solid, dependable writer whose specialty is taking real events and people and crafting a fictional framework around them. Black Hats is no exception. From its high concept (Wyatt Earp meets Al Capone) to its exhaustive research (a Collins signature), it fits easily into the author's bibliography.

It is 1920. The Volstead Act was passed and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution ratified just months ago, beginning the era of Prohibition. Ex-U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp, now 70 years old, has adapted to the disappearance of the Wild West by working as a private detective in Los Angeles (and occasionally consulting on "those so-called Western pictures").

One day, "Big Nose Kate" Elder shows up and wants Earp to go to New York since her son (John Henry Holliday, Jr.) has gotten mixed up with a "dangerous lot," including an up-and-comer with the Italian mob named Alphonse Capone. Earp subsequently hops a train, winds up in Manhattan at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties in the middle of the Roaring Forties, and pairs up with old pal Bat Masterson (now a sports editor) to help out Holliday, the son of his late best friend.

Though its prose is as readable as is to be expected from so experienced an author, Black Hats is actually, generally speaking, a disappointment. Collins/Culhane spends too much story time introducing Earp to Manhattan and personages of the day. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy taking the trip along with Earp. Collins's skill at folding real people into a nearly seamless fictional narrative is in full swing the whole time, and getting to see folks like Damon Runyon and Texas Guinan come to life is a great deal of fun. But at times it does feel like he tried to include too much color, and was distracted from setting the stage for the advertised meeting of six-guns and tommy guns.

This is a minor quibble, however. I think the main problem with Black Hats comes from the restrictions that historical fact places on the options for the story. As promising as the premise is, the story must also gibe with documented truth, and since Earp lived nine more years, with Capone lasting till the 1940s, that pretty much cuts out any opportunity for a satisfying "showdown" of sorts, which leaves us with only a struggle over the liquor rights of a speakeasy, and that's not enough to carry a novel starring characters of this magnitude.

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