Max Allan Collins is probably best known for having written the graphic novel on which the movie The Road To Perdition was based. I myself know him as the author of a very fine mystery novel, True Detective, set in Chicago in the 1930s. Turns out he’s written more books about his Jewish-Irish private eye, Nathan Heller, that I didn’t know about. These include Chicago Lightning, a collection of short stories covering a period of about twenty years.
Nathan Heller differs from the standard fictional private eye in that he’s ethical but not technically “clean.” He does occasional, cautious business with organized crime, and those associations are often useful to him in his investigations. His relations with the police are about as equivocal, as some of them bear him a grudge for helping to expose some crooked cops in the past. The assumption throughout is that both groups are about equally corrupt.
Collins’s trick with the Nathan Heller stories is to do them as historical fiction. Each mystery is based on an actual criminal case, only minimally fictionalized. Most of them are set in Chicago, but he ranges as far as Miami Beach and Hollywood. Characters such as Eliot Ness, Frank Nitti, and Mickey Cohen make appearances. I found the results very interesting, as a history fan. A certain amount of narrative tension gets sacrificed, I think—not because we already know the outcomes (these are not famous cases), but because the facts of the record limit the possible involvement of an imaginary detective. Heller is generally not allowed to crack the case, and if he does his participation has to be covered up through some stratagem.
Still the writing is clean and crisp, if not memorable (I searched in vain for the kind of noir-ish prose descriptions one expects in Hardboiled, but that’s not how Collins writes). But the stories are interesting, the research impressive, and the characters well drawn.
Recommended, with the usual cautions for language, violence, and sex.
Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which is West Oversea.