Few authors are as prolific as Max Allan Collins. If you ask him how many books he’s written, he can only give you an estimate, As I worked on this piece, I was reminded of yet another series character he created, so we’ll say the number is at least seven. He’s written in practically every medium; books, comics, scripts, and plays (directing a few). He’s also a songwriter for his band, Cruising. At times his output has overshadowed the fact that the quality of his work is that of a master craftsman.
His first major character was Nolan, a thief in the Parker mold who debuted in 1972 with Bait Money (now appearing with second book, Blood Money, in the Hard Case Crime omnibus, Two For The Money). To differentiate him from the Richard Stark character, Collins made him a young, aspiring comic book artist with criminal skills, who Nolan reluctantly takes on. The relationship between the two added a stronger human dimension, while still delivering a hard hitting style and story.
His next anti-hero was Quarry. The character set two precedents; he was one of the first protagonists to be a Vietnam vet (coming out roughly the same time as David Morrell’s John Rambo in First Blood) and also one of the first to be a hit man. With Quarry and Nolan, Collins took the hard boiled story of the ’40s and ’50s and brought it into the counter culture perspective of his generation.
That said, it is probably his character from the past who he is best known for, Nate Heller. Wanting to do a classic trench coat-fedora private eye, but feeling that kind of hero was anachronistic for a modern book, he put the detective in a historical context. Beginning in True Detective, Nate has been involved with Capone successor Frank Nitti, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, even Area 51, and other notorious events in history. He has crossed paths with Bugsy Siegel, The Barker Gang, Ian Fleming when he was a spy himself, Marilyn Monroe, and the Kennedys, who are all portrayed in a very human light.
It’s Collins’ ability to strike a balance between the iconic and relatable that shapes his talent. When talking about genre writing, he once said, “When the story is a shout, I try to write it at a whisper.” He mainly does this through detail in setting and character to make the pulp relatable. Most of his heroes live somewhere between angel and demon (or are a combination of both traits) seeking survival more often than redemption or justice. When the quest is for justice, it comes on their somewhat tarnished terms with questionable methods. Still, Collins never loses the style or sensationalism that draws us to these stories.
Lately, he’s been writing the quintessential tough guy, Mike Hammer. Being one of Mickey Spillane’s first critical defenders, the two struck up a friendship. When he knew he was dying, Mickey asked Collins to take over his unfinished work, including several Hammer books. The last one to come out, Lady, Go Die, a planned follow up to I, The Jury has Hammer in small town America solving the murder of a woman found dead on a horse statue.
His last two novels are almost polar opposites in the genre. Antiques Disposal is the latest in the Trash “N” Treasures series he writes with his wife Barbra under the pseudonym Barbra Allan. Featuring mother-daughter antique collectors Brandy and Vivianne Borne, the series has been described as a subversive cozy. He also has Heller finally involved in the Kennedy assassination with Target Lancer, using an interesting historical footnote that gives a fresh Chicago take on the conspiracy.
And there’s more to come. In February Seduction Of The Innocent, a mystery set during the Communist scare of the 1950s, comes out. In 2013, we also get Complex 90. a Hammer novel with Mike in cold war Russia. Collins is finishing up the third Heller novel in his “Kennedy Trilogy”. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even a few books in between, but I’ll never be surprised at their quality. After his forty years of his writing, as a fan, I’ve come to expect it.