INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.

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SCOTT’S TOP TEN (OR ELEVEN) SO FAR

Since there’s a few more weeks left for summer reading, I thought it might not be a bad idea to share my top ten crime novels so far for 2018. Many of these books pushed the boundaries of the genre, showing that it is still growing and has places to go. I also know there is some great work that would be on this list if I read it yet, like May Cobb’s Big Woods or Sunburn by Laura Lippman. Still, I’ve read enough good stuff, I couldn’t just limit this list to ten.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott – Abbott once again dives through the stylish surface of noir and hits its darkest depths, pushing its boundaries in this tale of science, female competition, and the burden of secrets.

 

 

 

 

The Lonely Witness Cover ImageThe Lonely Witness by William Boyle- Boyle shows his skill of examining lives of quiet desperation, then turning up the volume. A former party girl, now living a quiet life, flirts with her past ways when she witnesses a murder and trails the killer who ends up stalking her.

 

 

 

Dominic: A Hollow Man Novel Cover ImageDominic by Mark Pryor- Pryor brings back his Austin sociopath, tying up loose ends from Hollow Man. A great thriller that has you catching yourself rooting for the bad guy.

 

 

 

 

If I Die Tonight: A Novel Cover ImageIf I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin – A harrowing trip through the social media age with a suburban crime that causes rumors to get way out of control. Gaylin uses an ensemble of characters to show how one act can effect a community and the multiple points of view that fracture and event.

 

 

 

What You Want to See: A Roxane Weary Novel Cover ImageWhat You Want To See by Kristine Lepionka – Roxane weary returns for a second case, clearing a client for the murder of his fiance’, taking her into the dark world of real estate fraud. In just two books, Lepionka proves to know her detective, the craft of great plot, and the art of a great shoot out.

 

 

 

High White Sun Cover ImageHigh White Sun by J. Todd Scott – In this follow up to The Far Empty the law of Big Bend County contends with an Aryan biker gang. Scott uses the Texas backdrop and history for one hell of an epic gritty crime novel.

 

 

 

 

Blackout: A Pete Fernandez Mystery Cover ImageBlackout by Alex Segura & Potter’s Field by Rob Hart – Both of these authors take their troubled private detectives through great changes with cases that hold a mirror to their lives. Along with Lepionka, these two prove the future of the PI novel is in good hands.

 

 

 

Blood Standard (An Isaiah Coleridge Novel #1) Cover ImageBlood Standard by Laird Barron- Mainly known for his horror writing, Barron introduces us to his hard boiled series character Isaiah Coleridge, a former enforcer on the outs with the mob. I can’t wait for the next book about this bad ass.

 

 

 

A Tooth for a Tooth Cover ImageA Tooth For A Tooth by Ben Redher- The latest in the Roy Ballard series has the legal videographer on a fraudulent accident claim that turns out to reveal bigger crimes. A fun classic PI yarn with some fresh spins on the genre.

 

 

 

 

Bottom Feeders Cover ImageBottom Feeders by John Shepphird – A fun fair play mystery with the cast and crew of a made for cable movie getting arrows shot into them. Shepphird, who has directed his share of cable movies, captures

 

WITHIN A GENERATION OF THEIR EXTINCTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JOY

Our Pick Of The Month, The Line That Held Us, is David Joy’s third book to take place in his home of Jackson County, North Carolina. It concerns Calvin Hooper who helps his friend Darl Moody hide a body he accidentally shot. The body belongs to the brother of Dwayne Brewer, the county’s most vicious criminal. What occurs is a tense thriller that also looks at family, friendship, and search for grace in a place that is going through a lot of changes after it seems to have changed little for over a hundred years. We got a chance to talk about the book with David Joy himself.

MysteryPeople Scott: As in all of your books, family plays a major part in the story. Dwayne is avenging his, and Calvin is trying to save his before it even gets started. What makes the dynamics rich subject matter for you?

David Joy: Maybe more than anything it’s the idea of unconditional love that interests me. I think familial bonds, and deep-seated friendships that become familial, make for some of the richest ground to plow. People will do things that defy reason and that defy even their own morality to protect the ones they love. That’s an interesting place to put a character. There’s immediate conflict. There’s this “I know I shouldn’t do this but I’d do anything for you” kind of conflict. Any time you can create that kind of tension in a story you’re going to have movement, and that’s what a story has to do. It has to move.

MPS: Family seems to be a staple in Southern literature. Do you feel it has a special place in the culture?

DJ: That’s definitely true about Southern literature, but I think the reality is that it’s less a matter of the South or the North or the Midwest, and much more a matter of the rural nature of the setting. Family is an integral part of the rural identity. You could go anywhere in the country and if you get far enough out to places where people are largely isolated and seldom leave and that’s all you have is family or families. Take the county where I live, Jackson County, North Carolina. You go back to the late 1800s when that county was formed and the names on that paper the Brysons and Hoopers and McKees and Dills and Fowlers and McCalls and Shulers and Greens and all these names, those names are the same names that are here now. That’s the culture and place that I’m writing about. The work mirrors that reality.

MPS: Dwayne is such a great antagonist, in fact as the book continues he grows more into a counter-protagonist if there is such a thing. Is there any thing you have to keep in mind when writing for a character like him?

Image result for david joy author

DJ: I think one of the scariest things that can happen with a “bad guy” is when they make perfect sense. When, as a reader, you find yourself nodding your head. There’s this great moment in Larry Brown’s novel Father And Son when one of the main characters, Glen, catches this giant fish that everyone had been trying to catch for years. Glen is a bad dude. He’s come out of prison for killing someone. He’s raped at least one woman that we know of. Anyway, he catches this huge fish and he has this moment where he could take it to town and show it off and for once in his life be a hero. Instead, he turns it loose. When they ask him why, the line is something like, “Because that fish never done nothing to me.” Tom Franklin asked Larry about that scene once and he said Larry told him that even the worst people had moments of humanity. I think that’s absolutely right and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. With Dwayne Brewer, I wanted his logic to make sense. I wanted readers to see him doing incredibly horrific things and somehow feel empathy toward those actions. He’s some sort of balance between instinct and reason, between what we feel in our guts and what we think in our heads. At times, we all wash back and forth between those places and that’s part of why characters like that resonate with us. I think he might be the character I’m most proud of. If nothing else, he’s unforgettable.

MPS: In some ways Calvin is even more difficult to pull off. He’s comes off as the friend you want to have and workmate you respect, but I never felt like we had to like or side with him. Is there a way you approach someone like that?

DJ: Calvin Hooper is really an indifferent character altogether, and maybe that’s what you were responding to. He never struck me as a decision maker, as a leader. He reminds me of friends of mine who always wound up in the back of the car riding along to places they had no business going, with people they had no business being with. There were times, especially when I was younger, when I did the same thing. There were times I wound up in the back of a police car because I went along with something someone else wanted to do. Early on in the novel Calvin makes some pretty horrible decisions based on his love and commitment to his best friend, Darl Moody. After those decisions backfire and things go from bad to worse, there’s this sort of detached reaction toward everything. It’s like he just sort of removes himself and thinks if I just leave everything alone maybe it will settle. Well, of course things don’t settle and one of the biggest conflicts in the book is Dwayne Brewer forcing Calvin to acknowledge what he values most and to make a decision based on that acknowledgement. In that way, I think Calvin shows a lot of growth as a character. There’s that question Dwayne asks Calvin toward the end of the book, he asks, “For whom are you willing to lay down your life, friend? Outside of that there is nothing.” I think that question lies at the heart of what this novel is about.

MPS: It seems like with each book, the outside world is closing in tighter on your character’s communities, posing the same cultural threat to the area as gentrification does to cities. Do you see this as an ever-growing problem in real life?

DJ: When a lot of outsiders think about Appalachia, they imagine the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Where I live, that’s not our reality. I’ve said for a long time that unrestricted land development, tourism, rising land costs, and the resulting gentrification, that’s our coal mining. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge tourism as an extractive economy, but it is. It’s not as ugly on the surface as the timber industry was a century ago, or as coal mining was and is, but the result is the same. The result is the destruction of landscape and the displacement of people.

The jobs that are created from tourism-based economies are low paying jobs. What value there is is in the land. There are places here, entire coves, entire mountains, that have belonged to single families for hundreds of years. That land has been divvied up and divided over generations and nowadays its worth more than it ever has been. The thing about that value though is that it forces the hand. Sure you can sell the property to some out-of-state goon looking to build a second or third home that they can come visit for a few weeks out of the year and sure the money you’re going to make on that acreage is more than you’ve ever had in your life, but there’s no lateral move. You can sell the farm but it’s not like you can drive down the road and scoop up another. There’s no other place to go. Those places don’t exist anymore. The family land is broken up and sold and the local people move away. I think we’re looking at the very last remnants of this culture and these people. We’re within a generation of their extinction.

MPS: All three of your books are stand alone novels. Are there any plans for a series, trilogy, or return to any of your surviving characters?

DJ: I’d never even heard that term “stand alone” until I had a book out. I don’t know, I’d just never really thought about books like that. I didn’t grow up reading series. I typically don’t want to stick with characters that long. I like to jump around. I might read something Southern then jump into something South American. Sometimes I’ll read nothing but poetry for months. I won’t say I’d never write something like a trilogy, but the story would really have to warrant the structure. Other than that, my style lends itself more to individual books.

As far as my novels, I do like to throw anecdotes from earlier books into new ones, things that work whether you’ve read the other books or not. So for instance with The Weight Of This World, the time period when that book is set and what’s happening with the methamphetamine culture is largely resulting from the end of the first novel, Where All Light Tends To Go. With The Line That Held Us there’s mention of an event that happened in Weight Of This World. There’s also a lawyer that shows up in Where All Light Tends To Go and The Line That Held Us. The book I’m working on, one of the main characters from The Weight Of This World appears and I don’t know whether that will stick or not, but the point is that I do enjoy playing with things like that.

All of my books are set very specifically in Jackson County, North Carolina where I live and it’s a small place. You get to know people here. It’s the same names in the newspaper week in and week out. When things happen, you hear about them, and when things happen, especially big things, the stories root themselves into the landscape. Nothing is easily forgotten here and I want my books to mimic that reality.

REVIEW: SCARFACE AND THE UNTOUCHABLE: AL CAPONE, ELIOT NESS, AND THE BATTLE FOR CHICAGO

Max Allan Collins appears to have an obsession with Eliot Ness, the leader of the famed Untouchables who went after Al Capone’s bootlegging operation. In his historical novels featuring Nate Heller, he served as the detective’s police contact. He wrote four novels about his post Chicago career, cleaning up Cleveland as it’s safety director. He wrote a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life and even wrote a comic where he teamed up with Batman, Scar Of The Bat. All of this work seems to have led to Collins’ first major non-fiction book he has teamed up with historian A. Brad Schwartz to write, Scarface and The Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageThe book works as two biographies, starting with Capone. The son of an Italian immigrant, a Brooklyn street kid, he forms a gang with his brothers to survive. This leads to him hustling for the mafia, who sends him out to Chicago where he works under Johnny Torrio. He takes over, muscling in on the South Side Irish mob led by Dean O’Banion. Taking advantage of prohibition early, he builds a street empire and practically runs the city.

Another son of immigrants (Swedish), Eliot Ness grows up in his family’s bread business in the Chicago suburb of Kensington. He finds a hero in his brother-in-law Alexander Jamie, an investigator who goes from Pullman Company, FBI, to becoming an executive in the Treasury Department. Ness disappoints his family, by dropping out of college and working for Jamie. He builds a reputation, mainly due to a painstaking operation in The Heights.

The two only see each other once, but find themselves at war on Chicago’s streets. Capone and his war with rival mobs makes the town look like wild west’s Dodge City with its gun battles, except those outlaws didn’t pack the firepower of Tommy guns. The political machine greased by underworld bribes looks the other way. Then the murder of newspaper man Jake Lingle and the infamous mob execution known as The St. Valentines Day Massacre shock the city into action. A group of businessmen known as the Secret Six devise a plan to bring down Capone. Part of it involves an elite squad of federal agents to hit Capone financially by raiding and destroying his liquor facilities. Eliot Ness heads up the unit. Soon their exploits and reputation for refusing bribes earns them the name The Untouchables.

As the stories of Capone and Ness converge in their battle, Callins and Schwartz create a character out of the city of Chicago. They depict it as a loud, colorful, and dangerous town populated by citizens fathered by Damon Runyon and hardworking folks caught in the crossfire. The place forms Capone and Ness and the two contribute to its character as they fight for it. Of the three, the city has the most dramatic character arc as the other two battle for its soul.

The authors give us an engaging look at Eliot Ness and Al Capone. They begin by drawing out comparisons of the two; both sons of immigrant bakers, young, ambitious, and even living on the same street at one time. They study the duality of Capone, who courted the media, coming off gregarious and charming, but who also had fits of rage, calculated rub outs, and bludgeoned to death a traitor with a baseball bat. They show how these opposing traits converged to make him the criminal he was. Ness proves to be the less flashy and more straight forward, but proves to have as many struggles with the politics of law enforcement as Capone did with the infighting in his organization.

Scarface and the Untouchable is true crime written like an epic pulp novel. It has a Michener sweep , but instead of God’s eye, the view is gutter level. Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz turn Chicago into a battleground for the famed lawman and gangster, proving the city to be the true survivor.

 

THE MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON BOOK CLUB EXPLORES IRELAND’S TROUBLED PAST

I Hear the Sirens in the Street: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel Cover ImageThe Murder In The Afternoon book club‘s August book is the second in Adrian McKinty’s Troubles series, a series that’s a favorite to many MysteryPeople staff and customers. It follows Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, a Catholic cop in early eighties Ireland, a dynamic that places him at odds with almost everyone. He copes with humor, a strong sense of justice, both personal and social, and a great record collection. In the book we will be discussing, I Hear The Sirens In The Streets, a grizzly discovery leads to larger crimes and a man and car anyone who remembers the eighties will recall.

A torso is found in a suitcase. A tattoo on the body part serves as the thread Sean follows into a dangerous web of murder, business, and politics. before the case is solved, he has to face the IRA and deal with famous (or infamous) car manufacturer John Delorean, who set his plant in Ireland.

I Hear The Sirens In The Streets is a great read. It examines life life in a war zone with a very human eye. Each chapter provides something to talk about. We will be meeting at 1PM, Monday, the 20th on the third floor. The book is 10% off to those planning to attend.

Three Picks for August

The Long Drop Cover ImageThe Long Drop by Denise Mina

One of the best crime novels from 2017 is out in paperback. Denise Mina weaves the events from one of Scotland’s most infamous trails through with the pub crawl from hell between the father and husband of the victims and the man prosecuted. A dark and rich meditation on media, class, and different forms of sin.

 

 

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday Cover ImageThe Long-Lost Love Letters Of Doc Holliday by David Corbett

The correspondences between the infamous gunfighter Doc Holliday and his beloved cousin come into the hands of an arts lawyer and former rodeo cowboy, ex-art forger, turned western art appraiser. A crooked judge has his eyes on them and soon a militia group and a few other scoundrels are after the the two, Corbett gives us a modern west as wild as the old one, full of colorful characters. The author will be at BookPeople August 27th to sign and discuss the book.

 

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageScarface And The Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and The Battle For Chicago by Max Allan Collins and Brad A Schwartz

Crime fiction stalwart Max Allan Collins teams up with historian Brad A Schwartz for detailed and informative look at the famous mob boss and the driven government agent out to get him. This epic true crime weaves their biographies as well as the life of prohibition era Chicago for something more exciting than any film or TV show captured about their story.

 

PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LINE THAT HELD US BY DAVID JOY

David Joy is quickly building a reputation as one of crime fiction’s finest voices. He looks at the people on the edge of Appalachian society, a society that is on the margins of American life altogether. His main characters tend to be damaged and many are prone to violence, yet Joy keeps you with them until you realize their full humanity. In his latest, The Line That Held Us, he sets us up for what seems like a simple morality thriller and then digs deeper.

The Line That Held Us Cover ImageIt all starts with two people trespassing, each to commit a different crime. Darl Moody goes poaching for a buck on his neighbor’s land when the man is out of town. He can’t find the deer, but thinks he spots a wild pig and fires. It turns out he shot and killed Carol “Sissy” Brewer who was in the woods stealing the man’s gen sing. To make matters worse, Sissy’s brother, Dwayne is one of the town’s most violent criminals.

Darl goes to his buddy, Calvin Hooper. A brother from another mother, Calvin helps him bury Sissy behind Darl’s barn. They agree not to tell anyone, but secrets are hard to keep secret in a small town and Dwayne Brewer is out for vengeance.

The simple tale is told with emotional complexity. Its straight forward plot leaves room to to delve deep into his characters and their world without dragging the pace. Calvin, who soon grows into the protagonist role is a perfect everyman plunged into darkness. A hard working, reliable, blue collar guy you’d want on the job to drink a beer with, he finds himself facing the morality of his actions with Darl as well as danger as Dwayne closes in. He is at that stage in life where friendship can be equal to family and has to deal with a decision for one that puts the other in jeopardy. As a working class man in Appalachia with deep roots, his view of the newcomers who could be saving the town , but killing its culture on par with Dwayne.

Dwayne could simply have been written as thriller psychopath, but Joy proves to know this man well. He introduces us to him with a scene where he threatens a tween bully in a WalMart. It establishes him as dangerous and a man who takes something immediately to its extreme, but we know he has a code and a belief for avenging the weak. We learn how this was honed by his relationship with Sissy. The further his actions go, we never accept them and we fear for Calvin and Darl, but we understand where those actions come from. Instead of an antagonist he becomes more of a counter-protagonist.

The Line That Held Us demonstrates David Joy’s gift in relating to all his characters. We understand the society he portrays through its people and their struggles. Most of them are sinners, but many of them would like to be saints, and in the end the author reminds us we are our brother’s keeper.