Thursday, November 30, 2023

Is This Really the End for Nate Heller?

According to a small notation I inked on its inside title page, I purchased and read the Tor paperback edition of Max Allan Collins’ first Nathan Heller private-eye novel, True Detective, in 1986. That was just three years after the book was published in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press. I was enthusiastic enough about the tale that I picked up its sequel, True Crime, in that same year, and in 1987 laid down my hard-earned cash for book three, The Million-Dollar Wound.

It’s now been 40 years since True Detective initially saw print, in November 1983. And Collins hasn’t yet ceased to produce new, action-packed, but also literate and quite thoughtful stories about his Chicago-based gumshoe, each of which finds Heller embroiled in a different high-profile 20th-century crime. From the 1933 assassination of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (True Detective) and the “alleged” 1934 murder of bank robber John Dillinger (True Crime, 1984) to the 1947 rub-out of Las Vegas mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Neon Mirage, 1988), the 1932 abduction of Charles Lindbergh Jr. (Stolen Away, 1991), the 1937 disappearance of aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Flying Blind, 1998), the Roswell UFO mystery and the 1949 suicide of U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal (Majic Man, 1999), Hollywood’s notorious “Black Dahlia” slaying of 1947 (Angel in Black, 2001), the 1954 case of Cleveland osteopath Sam Sheppard, charged with bludgeoning his wife to death (Do No Harm, 2020), and the 1953 kidnapping and killing of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease (The Big Bundle, 2022). There are now 19 Heller novels, including the newest: Too Many Bullets (Hard Case Crime), which appeared last month and imagines Collins’ principal trying to solve the 1968 assassination of U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

I’ve read every one of them.

And I am far from alone in admiring Collins’ creative efforts. The late crime and suspense author, John Lutz, called True Detective—which captured the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Novel in 1983—“a lovingly and often elegantly written novel” as well as “a must-read for every fan of private-eye fiction.” Kevin Burton Smith, creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, opines, “Collins deserves credit for the skill he brings to his well-researched true crime/fictional P.I. masterpieces that not only humanize old stories, but force us to look at them again as he digs up old theories, and comes up with new ones.”

“I love the Heller books, and have since I read my first (Flying Blind), when I was a judge for the Edgar [Awards] in 1998,” says Charles Ardai, the editor of Hard Case Crime, which has published the most recent pair of Heller outings. “I then went backwards and caught up on the earlier books, and I’ve been reading the new ones ever since. I think the Nathan Heller novels are astonishingly good and do something no other detective series ever has, which is to insert a fictional detective repeatedly into comprehensively researched versions of actual historical crimes and propose solutions to those crimes that are often eerily plausible. Some other writers have done it with one case or two, but no one else has done it 19 times, or with the level of care and research and ingenuity that Max has brought to it. It feels like a portrait of the 20th century done in detective novel form, and when you finish reading one of the Heller books you really feel the author knows as much about the case in question as the best-informed non-fiction author possibly could.”

These yarns are replete with period verisimilitude and cameo performances by familiar real-life characters. Burlesque dancer Sally Rand has done turns in more than one novel (and more than once in Heller’s bed) over the years. Frank Nitti, Chicago mob boss Al Capone’s bodyguard (and later successor), has been seen multiple times, as have odious “Reds-baiting” Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, and a couple of Heller’s pals: one-time U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness, and pro boxer Barney Ross.

However, there’s never a question that Nathan Samuel Heller is the focus of this series. Born in 1905 to a Jewish immigrant from Germany, Mahlon Heller, and his redheaded Irish wife, Jeanette (who perished during a miscarriage in 1908), Nate grew up to become a Chicago policeman, much to the displeasure of his father, a determined labor organizer who—after surviving several strike-related beatings—resorted instead to the business of used and new book sales. Mahlon Heller had scant respect for graft-happy Windy City cops, “the definition of which (my father frequently said) was a guy with change for a five,” as Heller recalled in True Detective. And after Nate was promoted from traffic-control duty to plainclothes service on the city’s pickpocket detail—a reward for his having committed perjury in regard to the 1930 killing of Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle—Mahlon took his son’s gun and put it to his own head in shame.

In that wake of his pater’s passing, Nate quit the Chicago force and went out on his own as head of the new A-1 Detective Agency.

Above, left: The first, hardcover edition of True Detective, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1983. Right: Tor Books’ 1986 paperback reprint of that same novel.

The decision turned out to be favorable. Over the decades, Heller’s business has expanded to occupy offices in downtown Chicago’s historic Monadnock Building, and take on affiliates in New York City and Los Angeles. Following the publication of a Life magazine profile in the early 1950s, he gained a reputation as the “Private Eye to the Stars,” based on his having worked for and among the leading lights of both Tinseltown and American politics. (He doesn’t appreciate that appellation, by the way; as he tells his latest love interest, “if you ever use that shopworn phrase again, I’ll spank you.”) It’s been said, too, that Heller was the inspiration for TV shamus Peter Gunn. His stature has only grown as he’s rubbed shoulders with celebrities such as actress Marilyn Monroe, pin-up darling Bettie Page, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and future president John F. Kennedy.

Yet even in his early 60s (as readers behold him in Too Many Bullets), Heller exhibits a distinctly hard-boiled edge, acquired from many moons spent dealing with crooks and officials of a hardly more honest bent. As Collins told me during a 1999 interview for January Magazine, his protagonist “is not adverse to a dishonest buck, but there are lines he won’t cross. He is a randy son of a bitch, but also a romantic, quite prone to falling in love. He is capable of violence, even murder (particularly after his experiences on Guadalcanal in the Second World War), but he’s not sadistic—just capable of rough justice, having no faith in the system to be anything but corrupt. Oddly, he doesn’t really mind that corruption, as he’s quite adept at swimming in murky waters.” Collins makes sure that’s where he stays.

Too Many Bullets is, in many respects, a classic Heller outing. Our wisecracking, old-school hero is hired in June 1968 as a last-minute fill-in on his friend Bob’s body-guarding staff. “Bob” being former U.S. attorney general and now Democratic contender for the White House Robert Francis Kennedy (“none of us called him Bobby, by the way. Not even Ethel”), who is preparing for a campaign stop at downtown L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. After RFK is shot to death in a kitchen passageway, a guilt-ridden Heller reluctantly—and with encouragement from a comely young TV actress, Nita Romaine, who like him witnessed the assassination—accepts the job offered him by two prominent Washington, D.C., journalists to look further into the senator’s demise. Was the alleged shooter, a Palestinian-Jordanian ex-stablehand named Sirhan Sirhan, responsible for the killing alone, or was he a pawn in a conspiracy to do away with Kennedy, who’d succeeded in making powerful enemies? The more Heller digs into this case, the more questions arise. “For starters,” writes Mary-Jane Oltarzewski in her critique of the novel for Reviewing the Evidence, “there’s a discrepancy between the number of shots fired and the distance at which they were discharged, as well as the involvement of a mysterious hypnotist who may or may not have been on the CIA’s payroll, and may have plotted a Manchurian-candidate style effort to convince Sirhan to fire a pistol loaded with blanks so that he would take the fall for another shooter who was never identified. [Wealthy engineer, pilot, and filmmaker] Howard Hughes might have had a hand in it. And, don’t forget the rumored presence of the alluring Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, who may or may not have been seen prancing out of the hotel saying, ‘Kennedy! We shot him! We killed him!’”

Collins’ plot sends Nate Heller to interview RFK’s friends and detractors, get in a scrape or two, wheel around L.A. and Las Vegas searching for clues, ogle several curvaceous lovelies (and bed the most delightful one), and determine there was nothing remotely straightforward about Sirhan having done away with Robert Kennedy.

It’s precisely the sort of dramatic, complexly woven, and lightly sexy story that followers of this Iowa fictionist have been relishing for decades. And Collins has still more ideas for investigations his historical P.I. might undertake in the future. Yet he is uncertain of how much longer Heller can continue his adventures in print. Underwhelming critical response (at least so far) to Too Many Bullets, heaped atop the 75-year-old author’s recurring health challenges, have left him concerned that his best-recognized protagonist may have finally reached the end of his welcome.

Max Allan Collins has been at this writing game for a hell of a long while. He concocted his first novel when he was still a teenager, and soon completed “four or five” crime novels, all headlined by a private eye named Matt Savage—“who made Mike Hammer look tame,” as he once told me. In the decades since, Collins has been known for prolificacy. He’s produced several series of novels, including those starring single-monikered hit man Quarry, professional thief Nolan, and Manhattan shamus Mike Hammer (a gig he took on after his friend, Hammer creator Mickey Spillane, died and left him his unfinished manuscripts). Together with his wife, Barbara Collins—and under their joint nom de plume, Barbara Allan—he co-writes the Trash ’n’ Treasures series of antiques mysteries. In addition, he’s produced TV and movie tie-in novels, written the Dick Tracy comic strip and Batman comic books, produced the Ms. Tree comics series, and created (with artist Richard Piers Rayner) the 1988 graphic work Road to Perdition, which was adapted into a 2002 film of that same name and which he followed with two novel-length sequels, Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise.

As if those weren’t credits enough, Collins’ byline appears, as well, on assorted non-fiction works. Among those are a couple of histories, Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher: Hunting America's Deadliest Unidentified Serial Killer at the Dawn of Modern Criminology (2020) and Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago (2018), both co-authored with A. Brad Schwartz; and Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction, which hit stores earlier this year.

The idea that somebody who boasts such a record of success would be forced to abandon the series to which he has devoted the greatest amount of time and energy in his life seems inconceivable. Fortunately, Collins’ current editor and publisher agrees.

“I was thrilled when Max suggested bringing the series over to Hard Case Crime,” Ardai recalls, “and I would love to see it continue indefinitely—or for as long as Max’s health and interest permit. … Each Heller takes an enormous amount of research and longer to write than, for instance, a Quarry novel, and we are none of us getting any younger. So really it comes down to what Max feels he’s up for. But I hope we haven’t seen the last of Nathan Heller.”

Curious to learn more about how the background of Too Many Bullets, and how his myriad other ventures have been going, I recently e-mailed Collins some questions. OK, dozens of questions. They covered everything from his introduction of Nate Heller in this genre and the origins of his interest in the Kennedy clan to crimes he’d still like to tackle in any future Heller books, the loss of his longtime research associate, his work on a possible Heller podcast, the making of his latest indie film, and a surfeit of other topics.

J. Kingston Pierce: It was in November 1983—40 years ago this month—that your first Nate Heller novel, True Detective, saw print. Did you have any idea back then that you would still be writing this series as you moved through your mid-70s?

Max Allan Collins: None, although I’d already seen my novel Bait Money [1981] lead to a Nolan series and The Baby Blue Rip-Off [1983] to a Mallory series. I knew that if the Heller novel was at all successful I’d likely be asked to do another, and doing another is what a writing career is all about. Also, I was well aware that the crime at the heart of True Detective—the assassination of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak—had resonance with both the JFK and RFK killings, which got me thinking about heading toward those goals.

Max Allan Collins at his home in Muscatine, Iowa, surrounded by historical research materials. (Photo by Barbara Collins)

JKP: So you’d originally intended Heller to be a series character.

MAC: In a way I had. I’d been writing a draft that included the first act or so of what became True Crime, the second book—Heller dealing with outlaws like Dillinger and the Ma Barker brood. But my wife, Barb, advised me to put that aside and wrap up the Cermak tale, as the book was already longer than any first-person private-eye novel had ever been. So when St. Martin’s [Press] requested a second Heller, I was already ahead of the game.

JKP: How long did it take you to compose True Detective? And how long had you been thinking about that book before you wrote it?

MAC: I’d been thinking about it literally for years. The idea first manifested around 1975 as a comic strip that was sold to Field Enterprises. But the editor who bought it lost his job and the strip got shelved. That editor, however, was among several people who recommended me to the Chicago Tribune syndicate as a logical heir to Chester Gould on Dick Tracy, which was the first big break of my career. I wrote [Dick Tracy] for 15 years. In the meantime, I was developing the idea for True Detective and did several years of reading and researching, and discussing the book with my eventual researcher, George Hagenauer, who was a Chicagoan. I worked on the writing itself for at least a year. I bought a computer—I think I was among the first of my generation of private-eye writers to do so—because the research kept shifting on me. I wrote the first chapter maybe a dozen times and got fed up with doing more typing than writing.

JKP: True Detective won the Best Novel Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. How much did that win encourage you to continue penning Nate Heller tales?

MAC: Winning the Best Novel Shamus for True Detective in 1984 was a real breakthrough for me, and remains a career high. I had written chiefly paperback originals and a couple of mysteries for Walker. A hardcover book, a substantial novel that broke new ground, was a big deal for me, or anyway getting recognized for it was. I had great compliments from writers I admired, which meant a great deal. As for doing a Heller series, I believe St. Martin’s had already given me a two-book contract. I felt the novel and the character were my best, most original work—hard to do for someone as influenced as I was by the hard-boiled masters—and determined to keep Heller going as long as readers and publishers remained interested.

JKP: Do you still consider the Nate Heller series your finest achievement as a novelist, your legacy work?

MAC: No question about it. The Quarry novels are crowd-pleasers among noir/hard-boiled enthusiasts, and Road to Perdition (the graphic novel) is my key work in comics, though Ms. Tree is a close second. But overall, the Heller saga is my primary accomplishment.

JKP: Heller came on the scene at a time when there seemed to be a revival of interest in 1930s gumshoe stories, especially in films (think Chinatown) and television (City of Angels, Banyon). Was that coincidental, or were you heavily influenced by those other entertainments? Was there a principal influence for you among those?

MAC: Really, there wasn’t an abundance of ’30s/’40s retro P.I. stuff going. Banyon [1972-1973] didn’t run at the same time as City of Angels [1976], and neither of them ran long and attracted any real attention. A few period P.I. novels had been published, by Andrew Bergman and [Stuart M.] Kaminsky. But nobody was doing real crimes, although Chinatown [1974] heavily fictionalized the reality of water coming to L.A. I would say Chinatown was an influence—it’s among my favorite films—and I have been a big booster of City of Angels for many years. Of its 13 episodes, City of Angels did two based on real crimes. [Editor’s note: Those would be the show’s three-part opener, “The November Plan,” and Episode 13, “Castle of Dreams.”]

JKP: You started out writing about Heller, intending that he should be more than a cardboard cut-out of a character, that he should demonstrate both strengths and faults, that he should be capable of goodness as well as violence. Over the years, have you seen him evolve in ways that you didn’t originally intend, or didn’t anticipate?

MAC: Heller hasn’t really surprised me, because he was always intended to grow and change. The aspect of his starting out in a one-room office and his business growing nationwide came early. I knew early on he would to go war and come back with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], although that term wasn’t widely in use yet.

JKP: I know novelists hate this sort of question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: How much is Nathan Samuel Heller a reflection of you? Do you share similar backgrounds (Heller’s family past being German) or habits, or comparable prejudices?

MAC: Despite the name “Max,” I am not of German heritage on any side of my family—pretty much strictly Anglo. I made Heller’s heritage half Jewish, half Irish, to make him someone who felt separate from any one heritage—in that sense, a traditional private eye outsider.

JKP: Not every P.I. fictionist has been willing to see his or her character age over the course of a series. But you’ve allowed Heller to grow older and a bit slower, taking his career (so far) into the late 1960s. In the summer of 1968, when Too Many Bullets begins, he would be 63 or 64. (I don’t remember that you’ve ever revealed his exact birthdate.) And we know from previous books that he’ll live through the 1990s, marrying twice in his life and having a son (Sam, who eventually takes over the A-1), before finally retiring with his second wife to Boca Raton, Florida. How important has been to let Heller age? And does that aging allow you to share with readers some of your own revelations about what it means to grow progressively older?

MAC: I have felt more comfortable writing about the older Heller as I have aged myself—I am 75. But the books have not been written in chronological order, so I always think about where he is in his life at that point. Heller was created around the time my son, Nathan, was born and that had a big impact on how Heller viewed having a son, who was born around the same time I was. I do think the books about Heller in his 50s and 60s reflect my own experiences as I have aged. He and I are very similar, but the limitation is that we grew up in different eras and have different backgrounds. My Quarry character, despite his being a hired killer, shares much more of my background and even, to a degree, my worldview, somewhat skewed of course.

JKP: You’ve published 19 Heller novels so far, each of them rooted in a true crime. How do you choose which such crimes to employ? What makes one or another worthy of Heller’s attention? And how many times have you thought to mix Heller up in some true criminality, only to ultimately decide that the story just doesn’t work?

MAC: I have noodled with crimes that I either abandoned or haven’t got around to—notably a graphic novel I wanted to do about Heller and Eliot Ness in their college days, with Loeb and Leopold as their classmates. But I never got around to it. I usually gravitate toward crimes that have something unsolved about them—either unsolved or controversially solved, and mostly household-name famous. If a crime appeals to me (so to speak), I read about it until a Heller approach reveals itself to me. I can’t think of any I have abandoned.

Right now I am still (I say “still” because it’s been in the hopper for some time) considering doing a Jimmy Hoffa/RFK book. And I think there may be a Heller in Watergate somewhere. On occasion I’ve had an idea and even started research on a crime that someone else got to first, like the Black Dahlia, which I postponed for years till it felt I could approach it without being too much in [James] Ellroy’s shadow. There have been several of those—best-sellers based on a famous crime that made me either abandon or greatly postpone doing it.

JKP: Do you have favorites among the Heller books? Have any of them produced what you define as disappointing responses?

MAC: The most disappointing thing is that the current one, Too Many Bullets, of which I am particularly proud, was not reviewed by any of the “trades”—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist. All of them have previously reviewed the Heller novels, but it would appear that the [delayed release] of the previous one, The Big Bundle, due to a dock strike in the UK, put it and Too Many Bullets too close together, and got Bullets ignored. I like all of the books in the saga, some more than others, but I really consider them one big collective work, still in progress. I do think the first three are strong (True Detective, True Crime, The Million-Dollar Wound), and I like Flying Blind a lot.

JKP: Outside of Heller, which character or characters in these books have you most enjoyed writing about? Maybe one of the women who became part of Heller’s romantic history?

MAC: Of the women, Sally Rand has been a recurring pleasure for both Heller and me. I like Nita, the actress in Too Many Bullets, very much—so does Heller. It’s a spoiler to say why, but let’s just say she has appeared (without her name) in many previous Heller novels. Of the male characters, I would say Eliot Ness is the favorite.

JKP: You do mention in Bullets that Heller had earlier on encountered Nita Romaine—brunette and 20 years younger than he. It was interesting to watch their relationship develop over the course of that story, and to see what impact she ultimately has on him. If you do pen those Hoffa and Watergate novels, will we see her again?

MAC: I think I’ll be doing the Hoffa book next, and I will try to work her in credibly without contradicting anything in Too Many Bullets. She has been revealed as definitely Heller’s second wife, the woman he retired to Florida with. So in that sense she’s been in any number of the books already, in the sections of the novels that deal with Heller in semi-retirement. She’s suggested by a real-life figure in the RFK case [Nina Rhodes-Hughes, aka Nina Roman], but like all the women in my books, is basically my wife, Barb.

JKP: Do these books also give you the opportunity to show real-life figures you don’t especially care for in a deliberately negative light, or do you refrain from such practices?

MAC: I make up my mind, as does Heller, about the real people as I encounter them. I never use the novels to satisfy a grudge or express a political opinion.

JKP: You hinted in your blog that Too Many Bullets might be the final outing for Nate Heller. How serious are you about that? Is it mostly your health problems in recent years that make you think you might not be up for more of these books, or is it something else?

MAC: It may not be up to me. The fact that none of the trades reviewed the novel may be the death knell for the series. My health has indeed been up and down lately—I am struggling with taming A-fib [atrial fibrillation]—and a Heller novel is always a daunting undertaking, perhaps a bad choice words. I have discussed with Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai doing the Hoffa/RFK and Watergate novels, if I feel up to one or both. If I’m unable to do one or both, Too Many Bullets is a natural end point.

[Editor’s note: I asked Charles Ardai whether the shortage of reviews for Too Many Bullets might kill the series. His response? “No. But it doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure. When I launched Hard Case Crime nearly 20 years ago now, pretty much every book we published got reviewed by lots of publications—major newspapers, magazines, Web sites. These days, many of those newspapers have stopped reviewing books (or only review a handful of brand-name bestsellers), some of the magazines have ceased publication entirely or gone strictly digital, even many of the book-coverage Web sites have dried up. In their place are bookstagrammers and TikTok and Goodreads reviews, all of which is wonderful and I’m grateful for it—but it’s not the same as when Max did his first book for us and it got reviewed by USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, all the trades (Booklist, PW, Library Journal), and quite a few smaller publications. That coverage reached literally millions of people, including many thousands that were curious enough to give the book a try. There’s probably a way to reach a similarly large audience through TikTok—but if so, I’m not the person who knows how (and I’m not sure our books are necessarily the sort the TikTok crowd is most into). I’d love to find a way to get Max’s books in front of the huge number of readers I know would enjoy and appreciate them—but it’s harder than it used to be.”]

JKP: Even if you were to give up writing Heller novels, would you still want to write short stories about the character?

MAC: Very possibly. I think if I did one or two more novels, I would then try to live long enough to fill a Heller short-story collection. I feel close to both Heller and Quarry.

JKP: You mentioned before that for much of the time you’ve been writing the Heller series, you relied heavily on your researcher, George Hagenauer, for help in learning about the crimes you hoped to incorporate into each book, and in developing your own theories about the solution to each inadequately resolved case. When and how did your association with him begin? And at what point, and why, did you lose Hagenauer as an assistant? How has his departure changed the way in which you develop these stories, or affected your decision to go on writing them?

MAC: George is around my age, perhaps a little younger, and has retired. He also no longer lives in Chicago. We had a sort of brief falling out over research done for the two non-fiction Eliot Ness books, primarily coming out of the bad idea for three people to try to collaborate on one book. But that was a relative blip, as George remains a great friend to both Heller and me, and has read in manuscript (and commented about) the novels written since he stepped away from his research role.

Research does eat into writing time, but I have a large non-fiction library and am up to handling that aspect myself. George’s role was first and foremost to keep me honest where Chicago geography and attitudes are concerned, and to share the research reading load. We would compare notes and have long conversations about what we thought may have been the real solution to the crime at hand. We met at Chicago Comic Con, where we were both big collectors of original comic art. As I’ve said many times, he moved me off the clichéd private eye of fiction into writing about a human being who was specifically from Chicago, with the attendant attitudes and foibles.

JKP: I am not the first person to observe how Nate Heller, as pictured by artist Paul Mann on the covers of your two Hard Case Crime-published Heller books, looks uncannily like the American actor Robert Lansing. Is that close to your conception of the character … or have you ever had a strong vision of Heller’s appearance?

MAC: The Lansing resemblance was my doing. My mental image of Heller is of a rather more conventionally handsome man, but of actors, Lansing seemed closest. I had used him as the model for private eye Matt Savage in the novels I wrote in junior high and high school. I sent Paul appropriate pics of Lansing. He may have hewed a bit too close, much as the covers of the Nolan novels are perhaps too on the nose for Lee Van Cleef. But I sent artist Mark Eastbrook reference photos on Van Cleef for those novels, I admit.

JKP: As you say, you’ve skipped about, time-wise, in this series, in order to hit the 20th century’s criminal high points (or should that be low points?). But during the last dozen years, you’ve created what might be called a mini-series within the main run of the novels, following the famous Kennedy family and their various travails. You had Heller get better acquainted with Bobby Kennedy in Better Dead; you incorporated Bobby and his elder brother John into your Marilyn Monroe mystery, Bye Bye, Baby; you recounted the planning for a pre-Dallas assassination attempt on President John F. Kennedy in Target Lancer; you revisited John Kennedy’s killing in Ask Not; you gave us Bobby Kennedy again in The Big Bundle, working to take down Jimmy Hoffa; and now, in Too Many Bullets, you have Heller untangling the conspiracy surrounding RFK’s murder in 1968. Why have you focused so much on the Kennedys? Have they long been a particular interest of yours, and if so, what is the source of your fascination?

MAC: The simple answer is “yes,” and I always intended the Kennedy novels to be a series within the series, much as the Nitti Trilogy [True Detective, True Crime, and The Million-Dollar Wound] had been when I launched Heller in the mid-1980s. But my interest, even obsession, with the assassination dates to my sophomore year in high school, when JFK was killed. That night I wrote a piece about my typical day at school and how it had been disrupted by the tragic news of the president’s murder. I don’t think people who weren’t alive at the time can understand what a seismic blow that event was. My essay became an award-winning one and marked the first publication of anything I’d written.

(Left) Nina Rhodes-Hughes, the model for Bullets’ “Nita Romaine,” with Robert Kennedy and, on the right, Elizabeth Perry from the TV soap Morning Star.

JKP: Robert Kennedy’s killing was the last of four major assassinations in the United States during the 1960s (JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and RFK). What lasting affects do you think those murders have had on the country, both psychologically and politically?

MAC: To me, World War II represented a loss of innocence for the USA that, coupled with the Depression before the war, led to a national denial of what we’d just gone through. We became Ozzie and Harriet and their boys, superficially at least. Spillane uncovered the wriggling worms of that lost innocence as did a number of other writers, including overwrought ones like James Jones and Norman Mailer. The one-two punch of the assassinations and the Vietnam War shredded any remaining sense of innocence, of good, that America had managed to cling to. World War II was helped by [Adolf] Hitler being a monster who was easy to see as a one-off villain. We now can see that generations who weren’t touched by that monster have zero sense of history as we careen into a possible nightmare scenario of pure authoritarianism.

JKP: One of the best parts of Too Many Bullets comes at the outset, where you recount the hours before Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s murder at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on June 5, 1968. You have well-known folk such as Jimmy Breslin, Rosey Grier, and Pete Hamill making cameo appearances; you offer intimate moments between Kennedy and his wife, Ethel; you re-create the familiar scene of Kennedy addressing campaign supporters after he won the California and South Dakota presidential primaries; and then you follow Kennedy’s party to the crime scene: the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen area and adjoining corridor, filled with more suspicious characters than just Sirhan Sirhan, people destined to become part of the assassination story. How hard was it to get all of those atmospherics right?

MAC: I did a lot of reading. I don’t have George Hagenauer working with me anymore, so I had to immerse myself in the non-fiction material, and there’s a lot of it. Also, I was alive during this period—the same wasn’t true for True Detective, which was set almost 20 years before I was born. And my wife, Barb, and I were married on June 1, 1968, and honeymooned in Chicago. While we were there, Bobby was assassinated. We had been supporters, so it hit us hard.

JKP: In Chapter 1, you have RFK telling Heller, his substitute bodyguard in this story, that he’s not allowed to pack his gun for the Ambassador assignment—a decision that may have sealed the candidate’s fate. Kennedy is rather eloquent in his explanation. Are those your words or actual quotes delivered to somebody else at the time?

MAC: I have a habit of putting the research aside once a book is written. While I’m writing it, I am the biggest expert in the world on the subject, the crime, at hand. When I finish, that expertise fades. I always say, you have to throw a lot of luggage out to keep the plane in the air. But my memory is that Bobby said that, or something close to it. The stubborn insistence on no armed guards—which one critic lambasted me for, as being an unrealistic piece of fiction—was RFK’s doing. Everyone around him wanted armed bodyguards. He refused.

JKP: It seems one of your biggest challenges in dealing with high-profile cases such as Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide” or the killing of Robert Kennedy would be that there are so many conspiracy theories floating around, and so many books still being written about those subjects, that it’s hard to bring much that’s new to the discussion, hard to either shock or surprise readers. Whereas, when you’ve dealing with, say, the long-ago slayings of Frank Nitti and Bugsy Siegel, or the Sam Sheppard murder case and the kidnapping of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease—crimes that have been largely forgotten—you have a better opportunity to, first, acquaint your readers with the nuances of the case, and then to astonish them with your well-researched conclusions. Do you, in fact, face different hurdles and realize different satisfactions in dealing with better-known or lesser-known crimes? Do you have a preference between them?

MAC: Heller taking on famous unsolved, or controversially solved, crimes came out of the need to figure out what to do with him after the initial Chicago novels had been written—the Nitti Trilogy and Neon Mirage, which starts in Chicago and moves to Vegas. But all the crimes you list, with one exception, were hugely well-known throughout the 20th century. So I disagree, a bit, with your premise. I did choose the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping as a once-famous crime that was somewhat forgotten because I wanted to launch Heller at Hard Case Crime more as a noir detective series than as a historical one. The historical aspect puts some readers off, which it shouldn’t. There’s as much sex and violence in the Hellers as in Quarry or my Mike Hammer novels. The conspiracy issue is a thornier one. Conspiracy has gotten a bad name, a bad rep, in recent years, partly because Trump World is awash in ridiculous ones, and also because both citizens and government display a sense of denial about conspiracy. The first line of Too Many Bullets references the reality of many conspiracies. A conspiracy killed Abraham Lincoln, for example. History is full of real conspiracies, which all the phony ones contaminate.

JKP: Most of the time in your books, Heller interacts with historical figures—people who have long been deceased and are therefore unlikely to complain of your portrayals. But at least a handful of folks in Too Many Bullets are still alive. Do you go out of your way to make sure you accurately capture those extant players on the page?

MAC: I do try to get the historical figures right, often working in quotes they’ve given the media and material from biographies and especially autobiographies. Also courtroom testimony. I have rarely been attacked over my depictions of real people, and in fact fairly often I’ve been told I got it right—even have been asked how I came to know so and so, the assumption being I must have known them to write so accurately about them. A number of readers who knew Sally Rand—same is true of Barney Ross—have complimented me on capturing those real folks. And I have Heller conduct a decades-long affair with Rand! And a friendship with Barney going back to when they were kids.

JKP: Thomas Noguchi, the former chief medical examiner for the County of Los Angeles, did Robert Kennedy’s autopsy and has a substantial presence in this new novel. He’s still with us at age 96. Did you try to contact him and question him about that 1968 autopsy as part of your research? Do you ever endeavor to talk with those among the living who you feature in your books?

MAC: Actually, I go out of my way not to get in touch with any surviving players. With Noguchi, I had plenty of interview material to draw upon and media coverage. The problem with contacting the real people is two-fold: first, they have their own agendas, and second, they have fallible human memories. I made the mistake of approaching two of the individuals who claim to be the grown-up Lindbergh baby, and these gentlemen both tried to convince me in ways that could have skewed the novel, Stolen Away. They called me for years after with updates, not understanding that I had moved on and, well, had tossed that luggage off the plane to keep it flying.

JKP: I had forgotten that Howard Hughes earned any sort of connection to Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Yet you managed to rope him into your latest story in all of his nude and paranoid glory. I can imagine you grinning with delight as you wrote the scene in which Heller faces off against one of that era’s richest and quirkiest men in the world. Who have been some of the most fun real-life but secondary characters you’ve had the chance to play with in your stories?

MAC: Quite a few. Robert Montgomery, George Raft, Jayne Mansfield, assorted famous gangsters, Mickey Cohen coming to mind. Eliot Ness, obviously, among the good guys. My approach is to immerse myself in research about them, then treat them as fictional characters I’ve created. To do otherwise would be crippling to the creative process.

JKP: After researching Too Many Bullets, do you think there’s any chance that Sirhan was solely responsible for killing RFK?

MAC: None.

JKP: You said you’d thought early on about growing Heller’s P.I. business nationwide over time. When we see him again in Too Many Bullets, he’s the head of an agency with offices not only in Chicago, but also in New York City and L.A. What do you know about real-life American P.I.s of that time—was it wildly uncommon for somebody like Heller to expand his investigative business so greatly?

MAC: Heller is obviously a fiction, but I hope a believable one. [Independent filmmaker] Robert Meyer Burnett calls him the Zelig of private eyes. While I have read many articles about real-life private eyes, and how the security industry has grown and changed over the decades, I make no claim on the accuracy of Heller’s business and how it’s grown. That came chiefly from wanting him to age and thrive logically. The biggest problem with Heller comes from reviewers or readers who find it unbelievable that one detective could be involved in all these famous cases. That’s why I allow Heller to attract the publicity—articles in Life and Look, for example—that would naturally come from his involvement in so many prominent cases.

Look, people need to take the ride. Nobody bitches about Perry Mason winning 100 murder cases, or Nero and Archie solving 70-some. Or Richard Kimble eluding Lieutenant Gerard for, what, four seasons of TV? In reality, some real-life detectives have been involved in numerous famous cases—Frank Wilson and Elmer Irey of the IRS worked on Lindbergh, [Al] Capone, and Huey Long.

The skylighted central atrium of L.A.’s Bradbury Building.

JKP: Being very interested in historical architecture, I love it that, while Heller’s A-1 Detective Agency is still headquartered in Chicago’s landmark Monadnock Building, its field offices are located on the 46th floor of Manhattan’s Empire State Building and in downtown L.A.’s Bradbury Building. That certainly demonstrates how far he’s come up in the world! I’m particularly interested in the Bradbury, since that five-story office structure has figured in so many crime-fiction movies (from 1951’s M and 1953’s I, the Jury to James Garner’s Marlowe) and TV shows (including the controversial sixth season of 77 Sunset Strip, and the aforementioned Banyon and City of Angels). Was it because of its long association with such genre productions that you decided Heller’s business should take up residence in the Bradbury? And do you have personal association with that 1893 edifice?

MAC: I love the Bradbury Building but have never set foot in it. I’m a film and TV buff and all of the films and shows you list played into my choice of that setting. I, the Jury (1953) made terrific use of it, as did the ’70s series City of Angels. I suggest in several of the books, chiefly Neon Mirage, that Heller has taken over Jake Axminster’s old office, Jake being the P.I. Wayne Rogers played so well in City of Angels. In Neon Mirage, I also kill off Lieutenant [Murray] Quint, the corrupt cop from that series.

JKP: Wait a minute here! Do you mean that the ex-LAPD lieutenant you call “Bud Quinn” in Neon Mirage is your stand-in for Quint? Does that mean the “ditsy blonde” who runs an answering service for call girls out of Fred Rubinski's fifth-floor Bradbury Building office is supposed to be Axminster’s part-time secretary, Marsha Finch?

MAC: I plead the Fifth.

JKP: As you mentioned first in True Detective, and recall once more in Too Many Bullets, Nate Heller’s labor organizer-turned-bookseller father, Mahlon, was terribly disappointed when his son became a cop rather than go to college, and again when Nate, in that job, cooperated briefly with Chicago mobsters. Mahlon Heller wound up committing suicide. When Robert Kennedy suggests to Nate that Mahlon would have been proud of how Nate turned out in the end, the P.I. waves off the suggestion. But let me put that question to you, as you are familiar with all of the players involved—hell, you invented them: Would Nate’s father, had he lived, ultimately forgiven his son for his career decision, one that earned him the reputation of Private Eye to the Stars?

MAC: Heller’s father would never have come to terms with his son’s early behavior, nor would he have condoned his capitalistic, situational-ethics approach to life. But Heller himself has come to terms with it and left guilt largely behind—though he still carries the gun his father killed himself with, considering it the only conscience he has.

JKP: Let me ask about your newest collaboration with the late Mickey Spillane, Dig Two Graves, which came out in September. What piece of Mickey’s left-behind material did you incorporate into that story?

MAC: There was a several-chapter fragment of a non-Hammer story that dealt with the gangster who I turned into Velda’s father. The plot grew out of that fragment, largely.

JKP: Other than providing some family background for Mike Hammer’s partner and girlfriend, Velda Sterling, what contributions do you think Dig Two Graves makes to the long-running Hammer series?

MAC: It’s a missing link between The Girl Hunters [1962] and what comes after. Mickey’s follow-up, The Snake [1964], a good and surprisingly traditional private-eye novel, doesn’t really explore the ramifications of Velda’s long absence and sudden return to the degree it might have. There’s a character clearly designed for Mick’s then-wife Sherri Spillane to play in a never-produced follow-up to the Girl Hunters film. That lessened what should have been a focus on Velda’s return. I think Dig Two Graves corrects that. It also shows Hammer and [his best friend, NYPD Captain] Pat Chambers putting the pieces of their shattered friendship back together.

JKP: I believe it was you who first intimated that Dig Two Graves would be the penultimate book-length collaboration between you and Spillane. Is that still your plan, and if so, what led you to that decision? How do you feel about finally laying Mike Hammer to rest?

MAC: I have one more to write. There’s a Hollywood sale of Hammer that may lead to more movies, which could spur me to turn a couple more fragments into novels. The publisher at Titan, Nick Landau, has been a great supporter of this project, but he thinks it’s time to tie a bow on it. The thing about this project is this: I am not “continuing” Mike Hammer, I am completing Mickey Spillane. Every novel has strong Spillane content, from 100-plus pages in some cases down to synopses apparently written for the [Stacy] Keach TV series. I take incredible pride in looking across my office at a shelf of Hammer novels I’ve completed, their spines bearing both Mickey’s name and mine. I think he’d be happy with what I’ve done.

JKP: I see in Wikipedia that the title of your 15th and final Hammer collaboration novel will be Baby, It’s Murder. Can you tell us something about what Spillane’s contributions are to that work (which is due out next August), and what the plot has in store for Hammer? Will Baby, It’s Murder be longer than Dig Two Graves’ 208 pages?

MAC: I don’t know how long Baby, It’s Murder will be, though probably longer than Dig Two Graves. Really, I just stop the story when it’s over—a very Spillane thing to do. So that wasn’t me being lazy or anything, doing Two Graves at a relatively short length. Baby, It’s Murder grows out of a fairly substantial Spillane fragment—30 pages—of a non-Hammer novel about a cop and his daughter. As usual, the direction of the plot is apparent in what Mickey wrote.

JKP: With Baby, It’s Murder, you’ll have written 15 Hammer novels to Spillane’s original 13. Do you think your work in extending that series has changed public perceptions of the character and his creator? Or have you simply given readers more Hammer to appreciate?

MAC: Mickey chose me as a collaborator, not a water carrier. I do bring elements of my approach to Hammer. My humor is more wiseguy than the Spillane tough male humor, which is basically right out of Howard Hawks. My version of Hammer may be marginally more human, but I actually think that plays into Spillane—a more human Hammer dispatching bad guys in a cold-blooded fashion is even more chilling. And I think I’ve given Velda more to do, put more flesh on her pretty bones. But the bottom line is that I want these novels to feel authentic. It saddens me when Spillane fans refuse to read them out of some misguided sense of loyalty. What, loyalty to the man who chose me for the job?

JKP: I read in your blog is that some time ago, you sold Heller to the pay TV channel FX for the purpose of making him into a small-screen series character. You even wrote the pilot script. What happened to that project? And how long ago did all of that take place?

MAC: This was around 2015, before I had my health issues kick in. By the time I was writing the pilot, I was facing open-heart surgery and I remember doing a phone call with FX execs and having to pretend I felt fine when I was barely hanging on by a thread. What happened was a change of management came in and reduced the next year’s number of projects from something like 12 to eight, and I didn’t make the cut. Interestingly, though, they held onto my script while returning the Heller rights generally. It was the beginning of what would have been an adaptation of Stolen Away.

JKP: Which brings us very conveniently to the subject of your prospective Heller podcast. You’ve adapted the first chapter of Stolen Away as a pilot for that project, and have actor Todd Stashwick in mind to portray your Chicago gumshoe. Where does that project stand? Has Stashwick said “yes” yet?

MAC: Chicago boy Todd is onboard and makes a terrific Heller. I will be writing the scripts, and Robert Meyer Burnett—an incredibly talented man—is directing. I wrote a pilot script of sorts, which has already been produced with Todd and a talented voice cast, and Alexander Bornstein has scored it. We have big plans that include a crowd-funding effort to be able to add a bunch of physical media to what will be a kind of updated version of Golden Age radio.

(Right) Todd Stashwick will supply the podcast voice of Nate Heller.

How this came to be is remarkable, even bizarre. I started watching Rob Burnett’s shows on YouTube and was impressed by his combination of wit and erudition. And he was an expert on Star Trek, which Barb and I have loved since its first run. So I went to write him—he operates out of Hollywood—but his address was in the Quad Cities, which is just 25 miles from my house here in Iowa! His business partner, Mike Bawden, is someone I’ve known for years. A day later, Mike and I and my indie movie partner Phil Dingeldein were having lunch with Mike, who immediately set up a Zoom call with Rob, and that very afternoon the Heller podcast project was born.

JKP: So when will we see the push to get that podcast out?

MAC: The pilot is finished and the crowd-funding campaign begins this December. I have work still to do on Blue Christmas and my draft of the next Antiques novel, then I tackle the first eight-episodes of script.

JKP: Let’s talk about Blue Christmas. You decided earlier this year to shoot a film based on your novella “A Wreath for Marley” (aka “Blue Christmas”), which was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What led to that decision?

MAC: As you know, I was deeply involved in indie filmmaking from around 1993 till 2006. At that point Phil [Dingeldein] and I put a big effort into getting my screenplay for Road to Purgatory (the Perdition sequel) made into a film, with me directing. We came close, very close, but it slipped through our fingers. In the meantime, I sold a few screenplays, including the Quarry movie The Last Lullaby, and the Quarry TV series happened, and I wrote a couple scripts for that. But with my heart problems, the idea of me making any films myself, directing anyway, went on the shelf … permanently.

Then last year I was approached to do a benefit production for the local art center. Initially they wanted me to write a Dick Tracy Golden Age-style radio show, but I said no—that was the past. But I offered them Mickey Spillane’s Encore for Murder, which began as a Stacy Keach full-cast audio and was later produced with Gary Sandy as Hammer in Owensboro, Kentucky, and Clearwater, Florida, somewhat under my supervision. For this Muscatine, Iowa, production, I wasn’t going to be involved much, outside of allowing my script to be produced. But I went to the first table read and the local cast seemed terrific. I rounded Barb up to go to the next rehearsal, to see if I was crazy—maybe I just wanted it to be good—and my tough-critic wife said, “No, they’re very good. You’re right.”

So I took over the directing. I was pressured to ask Gary Sandy to return as Hammer, though that seemed very unlikely, but gave it a shot. There was no money involved and no reason, really, for Gary to say yes. But he did. The week of the production came around and Gary was great in rehearsal. I went to Phil and said, “Wanna make a movie this weekend?” He gathered up some HD cameras and we shot two dress rehearsals and the one performance of this Golden Age Radio-style production. Chad Bishop, who had been on-stage foley artist, edited the material with me. I entered Encore for Murder in the Iowa Motion Picture Awards and won Best Director. Phil and I were already expanding my 1999 Spillane documentary into an updated, longer version, and VCI Home Entertainment was set to bring it out. [It’s due to go on sale in December.] I showed Encore to VCI president Bob Blair and offered it up as a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray release. He not only said yes, he’s bringing Encore out individually on a DVD.

Chris Causey (left) and Rob Merritt on the set of Blue Christmas. Want to see a trailer for this movie? Click here.

That experience got my filmmaking juices going again, and I had a script for Blue Christmas written decades ago just waiting to be revised and filmed.

JKP: You raised production money (more than $6,000) through an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, and were hoping to supplement that with grant funds from the Produce Iowa-State Office of Film and Media’s Greenlight Grants program. Although Greenlight Iowa ultimately didn’t come through for you, you went ahead and made a more economical version of the picture yourself. When did that filming commence, and how did it go? Were you able to do it with the money you’d raised through Indiegogo?

MAC: We wound up with a $14,000 budget, which any filmmaker would respond to by saying, “Yikes!” It came from one investor who contributed $5,000 and of course the $6,000-plus from crowd-funding, and Chad and I put a few more thousand in. I took no salary or fee, and neither did Chad or Phil Dingeldein. We are strictly back-end participants. Gary Sandy was going to be in it—he had been a fan of my Blue Christmas script for years—but had conflicts he couldn’t get out of, plus the actors’ strike was an obstacle. My cast is mostly local, primarily people I’d used on Encore. A terrific Cedar Rapids actor, Rob Merritt, came aboard in the lead, and Alisabeth Von Presley—who made a splash on American Idol and American Song Contest—is the female lead. Chris Causey, who played Pat Chambers in Encore, is Jake Marley.

We shot it in six days on one set, which my rewrite dictated, built in a black box studio at Muscatine Community College. Chad Bishop and I are deep into editing now. And there’s still some second-unit photography left to do.

JKP: How long will the finished film be, and when can we see it?

MAC: It’ll be about 80 minutes. We’ll take it to a few Midwestern festivals early next year, and we have physical media interest already. My Hollywood agent plans to take it to the streaming [TV] services. We may get distribution with a major Iowa movie chain for Christmas 2024. We’ll see. Had everybody been properly paid, the budget would have been around half a million, so that $14,000 figure is deceiving.

JKP: As you said, this was hardly your first experience in filmmaking. How did it feel to be back in the game?

MAC: I love it. Barb said, early on, “You’re really in your element.” But she’s watching me closely. My health issues hover.

JKP: Finally, I would be remiss if I did not ask about your health. What challenges have you faced over the last couple of years, and how do you think you’re doing now? What have you had to cut back on in order not to strain yourself too greatly?

MAC: I am on a lot of daily medication, but I’m 75—a lot of people my age are in the same or worse boat. The big problem is my A-fib. I’ve had numerous cardioversions, which is basically jump-starting me like an old Buick. And the ablation procedure, which should have put things right. But after finishing the tough week of production, I was back in A-fib and took another cardioversion. I’m slowing down a little. Barb is concerned, but I came to the party to dance. And dance I will.

1 comment:

stephenborer said...

This is an awesome look at the career and life of Mr. Collins ! Danke for the unique questions !