Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Give ’Em Heller

My column this week for the Kirkus Reviews Web site is an interview with the prolific Max Allan Collins, author of the new novel Bye Bye, Baby (Forge). Baby is the 13th installment of his long-running historical thriller series about Nate Heller, onetime small-fry Chicago gumshoe, now a “private eye to the stars.” This new book finds Heller way out in Hollywood, working for (and sleeping with) Marilyn Monroe.

All of these novels focus on famous historical cases, which Heller investigates--only to discover that the facts on record aren’t quite complete. That pattern holds for Baby. After Monroe dies from a drug overdose in 1962, and the local cops chalk it up to a tragic case of suicide, Heller goes looking for a more credible solution--maybe one involving the politically potent Kennedy brothers or mobster Sam Giancana, all of whom benefited from the premature demise of America’s number-one sex symbol.

Bye Bye, Baby is a crisply presented, well-researched tale that--while it doesn’t promise to “solve” Marilyn Monroe’s death--certainly raises a number of questions about the veracity of the official investigation that followed it. What’s more, it’s a fun, sometimes humorous read, as are all of Collins’ Heller yarns.

You’ll find my Kirkus column here.

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As is so often the case with my interviews for Kirkus, because of word-length restrictions I was unable to use all of it on the Web site. So below I offer up a few tidbits from my conversations with the author that didn’t make it into that post.

J. Kingston Pierce: It’s been nine years since your last Nate Heller novel, Chicago Confidential, was released. Why such a delay? And do you now return to Heller’s story with fresh interest in the protagonist?

Max Allan Collins: Chicago Confidential came out just prior to the release of the film version of my graphic novel, Road to Perdition. The success of that film encouraged me to explore the world of Perdition further--of course, it’s an off-shoot of Heller’s world--which I did in the prose novels Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise. I also did a second graphic novel, Road to Perdition 2: On the Road. Incidentally, Return to Perdition [Vertigo]--the last of the saga, at least chronologically--is a graphic novel that will be out in the fall, drawn this time by my Ms. Tree artist, Terry Beatty.

I was already doing the historical “disaster” series for Berkley Prime Crime, which required the same sort of research and effort that goes into the Hellers. There were six of those, starting with The Titanic Murders and ending with The War of the Worlds Murder. Then I did two Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries for Prime Crime (A Killing in Comics and Strip for Murder)--they are sort of “Heller Lite,” Rex Stout-style novels set in the world of comic books and comic strips in the 1940s and ’50s. Plus, I had several other historical novel ideas I wanted to get to--specifically, Black Hats, in which old Wyatt Earp encounters young Al Capone, and Red Sky in Morning, based on my father’s wartime experiences commanding black sailors. The latter two were published under the Patrick Culhane pseudonym ... the use of which I now consider a mistake, by the way. Anyway, it was a busy decade or so.

I didn’t need to summon fresh interest in Heller, because he is my favorite character and the books are what I consider to be my best work. I was anxious to return to him, and hope I can get another half-dozen Heller novels written in the coming years.

JKP: Longtime Heller readers ought to be pleased to hear that.

MAC: I am hopeful, too, that Bye Bye, Baby will initiate a new wave of interest in Heller, which should be considerably bolstered by AmazonEncore bringing out the first 12 novels in trade paperback and on e-book, yet this year. And Brilliance is doing audios of all the Hellers, too. AmazonEncore and Brilliance will both also be doing Chicago Lightning and Triple Play, new Heller short-story and novella collections, respectively. All of this will happen yet this year and early next.

JKP: Although writing books is always difficult work, I imagine you must have plenty of fun, too, dropping Heller into the midst of famous criminal cases from the 20th century, over and over again.

MAC: I realize some people have trouble with Heller’s presence in the midst of all these famous crimes and events. Well, deal with it. I can tell you that a lot of the same people pop up in the cases, which tend to be crazily inter-related even without Heller. Look at how many famous cases a criminal lawyer can get involved with--F. Lee Bailey, for example. The same federal agents who worked the Capone tax case did the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Huey Long investigation. Real-life P.I. Robert Maheu was involved in all sorts of famous events. I feel, in the context of the novels, it’s believable.

But I do try to have fun with it, for example the notion that a famous person really should think twice before hiring Nate Heller as a bodyguard. It’s sort of like being Mike Hammer’s best friend.

JKP: Do you think we’ll ever know what really happened to Monroe on that fatal night of August 5, 1962?

MAC: Anyone who reads Bye Bye, Baby will have a damn good idea.

JKP: Finally, is it true that you and your wife, author Barbara Collins, named your son after Nate Heller?

MAC: Nate was born in 1982. That’s the same year I finished [my first Heller novel] True Detective. Barb and I knew we were having a son, and we determined to name him Nathan, on the condition that the book had sold before his birth. I did not want to have a little rejection slip running around the house.

READ MORE:Kiss Her Bye Bye,” by Max Allan Collins (F.O.M.A.C.); “Killer, Cover-ups & Max Allan Collins,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(January Magazine).

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