Saturday, October 1, 2011

Re-Kindling Interest: True Detective, True Crime, and The Million-Dollar Wound by Max Allan Collins (Nathan Heller series of historical private eye novels)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print novels that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Though they've been out of print for most of the last decade, I was happy to learn that Amazon's new mystery imprint, Thomas & Mercer (named for the cross streets where the offices are located) would be reprinting all of author Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller novels. Now they're available in trade paperback and e-book formats.

Recently, the first book in the series, the Shamus Award–winning True Detective, was promotionally priced at $0.99 and shot to #1 on the Kindle charts. As of this writing, it's still at the reasonable $1.99: an easy impulse buy.

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. Nathan 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's 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.

The Nate Heller series continues with True Crime, also the second book 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.

True Crime was originally meant to be part of True Detective, but Collins realized that what was supposed to be a novel was slowly turning into an epic, and that cutting the entire Dillinger plot was what was needed. So, when the editor who bought the first asked if Collins had ideas for a sequel, he had an instant answer.

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 facts, 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.

Collins sends Heller off to war in The Million-Dollar Wound, the third in the series to be nominated for a Shamus Award. (Note: The title refers to a war wound that gets a soldier sent home, but doesn't kill him.)

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 themselves smack dab in the middle of Guadalcanal Island, surrounded by "Japs" and fighting death in both its projectile and contagious forms.

An 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, 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's 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.

This Frank Nitti trilogy is only the first three novels of this long-running series of "memoirs," which includes the most recent novel, Bye Bye, Baby, wherein Nate Heller investigates the death of Marilyn Monroe. Also upcoming are two collections. Chicago Lightning contains all the Heller short stories produced throughout the last 30 years, previously collected and uncollected. Triple Play contains three Heller novellas written to date: “Dying in the Postwar World,” “Kisses of Death,” and “Strike Zone.”

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