by Max Allan Collins
Published by Dutton Books
304 pages, 1999
Max Allan Collins' Nate Heller Series
"I've wanted to do a UFO-related Nate Heller story for a long time -- ever since I knew I was writing a series," says Max Allan Collins, explaining the inception of his brand-new historical private eye novel, Majic Man. "I'm interested in X-Files stuff, always have been."
In fact, it's unlikely that somebody who was more skeptical about unidentified flying objects and wide-ranging conspiracies would ever have concocted such a complex, dark-edged and thoroughly engrossing mystery as Majic Man.
The body of this yarn begins in 1949, when Chicago peeper Nathan Heller (who was last seen chasing aviatrix Amelia Earhart in Flying Blind) is called to Washington, DC by Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal. In declining health, hounded by muckraking American newspaper columnist Drew Pearson (who casts Forrestal as a coward and Nazi sympathizer) and set to retire from office, Forrestal tells Heller that somebody -- perhaps one of the Communists he believes is secreted within the U.S. government -- is out to get him. "I just know I'm being shadowed," Forrestal contends. "I know they've got the house bugged, the phones tapped." But why, Heller asks, would anybody want him dead? "The obvious answer: I know too much," says Forrestal. "Nate, I've done some bad things, trying to do good. Sometimes I'm afraid I've betrayed my country by trying to serve it.... Once I'm out of office, I'm a threat to all sorts of people."
Although he suspects that the secretary is simply suffering from stress-related paranoia, Heller agrees to look into Forrestal's fears. He discovers that his client isn't completely crazy: The Secret Service, at the behest of President Harry Truman, actually does have Forrestal under a "protective watch." Also dogging Forrestal's every move is the ruthless and hypocritical Pearson, who thinks that the secretary of defense is a "raving lunatic" whose wobbly mental state should be disclosed to the public before he has any chance of winning higher public office, maybe even the presidency. Heller convinces Pearson to back off this campaign of character assassination -- but only by agreeing to do a job for the columnist: look into rumors that a flying saucer crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947, and that its wreckage was recovered by the Air Force.
Before you can say "little green men," Heller is up to his private eyeballs in talk of "alien" technology, conflicting accounts of UFO survivors, reports of top-secret governmental experiments and the murders of people who, like Jim Forrestal, may know more than they should about what really happened at Roswell. Only one thing's certain, Heller observes: "Something had crashed in the desert; something important enough for Uncle Sam to go around scaring the bejesus out of those citizens unlucky enough to be witnesses, coercing those good Americans into a terrible silence."
In the hands of a less skilled wordsmith, this blend of crime fiction with science fiction might have been dismissed as fringe-dwelling, conspiracy-theory nonsense. But the 51-year-old Collins -- a lifelong resident of Muscatine, Iowa, and graduate of the University of Iowa's renowned Writers Workshop, with more than 50 novels to his credit so far -- long ago mastered how to make the incredible sound plausible. Over the course of now 10 Heller adventures, he has introduced his tenacious and libidinous P.I. into one fact-based and controversial mystery after another, from the "alleged" murder of bank robber John Dillinger (True Crime) and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. (Stolen Away), to the assassinations of Louisiana politician Huey Long (Blood and Thunder) and Las Vegas mobster "Bugsy" Siegel (Neon Mirage). In each instance, Nate Heller has found that the historical record is wrong, that the "truth" is stranger than anyone thinks. While even Collins sometimes has doubts about his contrary but well-researched conclusions, his efforts to examine 20th-century America's criminal past through detective fiction have won him ample accolades. Two of the Heller books (True Detective and Stolen Away) have picked up Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, and six others have been nominated for that same commendation.
The Heller stories, however, represent only part of the prolific Collins' oeuvre. He has also composed three contemporary suspense series, a foursome of historical thrillers (beginning with 1987's Dark City) that feature "Untouchable" Eliot Ness, and a delightful stand-alone novel, The Titanic Murders, that posits a real-life mystery novelist solving slayings aboard the Titanic as that ship sails towards icy disaster. Additionally, Collins is a writer of movie tie-in novels (including Saving Private Ryan and Maverick); the author of two original novels based on the popular TV series NYPD Blue; and the co-author (with his wife Barbara Collins) of Regeneration, a cautionary tale about one woman's obsession with youth, due out in October. Many people don't know him as a novelist at all, but rather for his work scripting the syndicated comic strip Dick Tracy, or for his comic book writing, most notably on the hard-boiled series Ms. Tree. Collins even dabbles in independent filmmaking and counts himself a member of two rock 'n' roll bands.
He is involved in so many different enterprises, that it's hard to know where to start interviewing Max Collins. So you ask a bit about everything. Shortly after the release of Majic Man, I had the chance to question him about his Heller series and other books, his views on tough-guy novelist Mickey Spillane and cinematic shamuses, and his passions for comic books and pin-up art.
J. Kingston Pierce: When did you realize that your future was as an author?
Max Allan Collins: From grade school into early junior high, my goal was to be a cartoonist -- but not just an artist, a writer as well. I did countless homemade comics, which I would circulate at school. I did a Mad magazine imitation that I handed around in the seventh grade.
Were your professors there supportive when they heard that you wanted to make a career of writing crime fiction?
At the University of Iowa, in the late 1960s, early 70s, I was swimming against the tide. Writing tough crime fiction in that bastion of literary pretension was a rough go; but several of my instructors championed me, particularly Richard Yates. When I first approached Yates, full of hope, bubbling with enthusiasm, trying to get into the undergrad workshop, I dropped off my novel Mourn the Living, only to be told by Yates that he doubted he'd allow me into the class. Writing "commercial fiction" was beneath the workshop.
And those three books spawned your first three series characters: a professional thief named Nolan, a hired killer known as Quarry and an Iowa detective novelist named Mallory.
None of those characters was designed to be a series character, though. In the first version of Bait Money, in fact, Nolan died on the last page. Mallory, as a writer, had no excuse for being mixed up in murder after murder, and Quarry -- on the last page of a novel that was published under the name The Broker (not my choice) -- was left in an untenable situation that seemed inevitably to point to his death.
But, given the opportunity as a young writer, I did more books about each of these characters. My favorite of them is Quarry -- next to Heller, that character is my most innovative. [It was] the first series about a hit man, and used a hit man as hero decades before Pulp Fiction.
While Nolan, Quarry and Mallory pop up every now and then in your short stories, you haven't written a novel about any of them since 1987. Were you tired of them? Or is Nate Heller just more marketable than they ever were?
Though a lot of readers like him, Mallory is the least interesting to me, because he is too close to the real me. There's no journey involved, no fun in the playacting of being a Chicago private eye in the 1930s or a contemporary hit man.
Heller was an idea I'd been developing since the early 70s, even prior to [the movie] Chinatown. I've said this many times before, but it was a re-reading of The Maltese Falcon that inspired Heller -- not the book itself, but the copyright date: 1929. This caused me to muse, "That's the year of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries. That means that instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, a Phillip Marlowe type could meet the real Al Capone." Realizing that the private eye had been around long enough to exist in a genuinely historical setting was the revelation.
I have been chastised for making this claim, but I do feel I invented the historical hard-boiled detective novel. Not the period private eye novel ([Stuart] Kaminsky and [Andrew] Bergman and Robert Towne and maybe a couple others pre-date me), but using a fictional noirish protagonist in a story that is otherwise solidly based on fact. That's my contribution.
You mentioned Jack Nicholson's Chinatown. Nate Heller debuted in the shadow of that popular 1974 film, and also in the wake of American TV imitations such as Banyon and City of Angels. Did these large- and small-screen stories about Depression-era P.I.s help convince you to create a 1930s gumshoe of your own?
For those readers who are not familiar with the Heller series, could you give me your quick take on who the character is and what his place is in the world? What do you see as his strengths and weaknesses?
Probably the key to his character is the death of his father: Nate's old man was a dedicated leftist, an old union guy, who committed suicide after his son lied on the witness stand, in order to climb in the police department. The gun Heller carries is the nine-millimeter with which his father committed suicide -- Nate terms it "the closest thing to a conscience I've got."
The concept of the novels is for my Marlowe/Hammer-ish tough detective to solve various great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. Early on, the novels concern mostly Chicago gangland, but [beginning] with Stolen Away (dealing with the Lindbergh kidnapping) the books have opened into broader subjects, most recently Amelia Earhart's disappearance (Flying Blind) and the Roswell Incident (the current Majic Man).
You liken Heller to Spade, Marlowe and their wonderfully noirish ilk. However, there's something very modern about Heller, in that he has an involved private life that the classic American gumshoes did not have. This addition of a complex background has been one of the principal evolutionary developments for American detectives over the last, say, 40 years. So, while Heller may operate during the same time period as Spade and Marlowe, I'm not so sure that the readers of the 1930s and 40s would have been as receptive to his stories as are their counterparts in the 1990s. We expect so much more of fictional P.I.'s nowadays. Do you disagree?
The Heller novels are not replicas of Golden Age detective yarns -- they are historical fiction; you're quite right to perceive them as modern. But I wasn't influenced by any modern trend toward giving Heller a more complex, complete background, just my own desire as a storyteller to make my lead character rounded and real. It was a response to the classic detectives existing in such a vacuum. It was an early decision to give Heller parents (even grandparents) and -- for example -- rather than just refer to a mysterious traumatic experience in the "war," to send him to war [in The Million-Dollar Wound] with the readers along for the ride, to witness that trauma. I wanted to use cliché elements of the private eye, and figured if I could find the truth at the heart of the cliché -- i.e., follow Heller to war -- I could get away with it better.
The books are conceived as memoirs, with Nate himself writing these in geezerhood retirement -- which is why certain anachronisms creep in (the old boy is not perfect, nor is his memory). It's also possible Heller is not a reliable narrator -- like [George MacDonald Fraser's] Flashman, he may be bullshitting us to some extent. But who cares? I wanted the events of the various novels to impact later novels -- I hate the way series characters experience earth-shattering events in one story and any ramifications disappear by the next story. The violent, world-weary postwar Heller is a very different guy from the brash, world-beating younger Heller.
How do you choose which unsolved mysteries are appropriate for Heller's investigations, and which are not?
It has really evolved. Amelia Earhart was a huge move into uncharted skies -- I had never considered her until a fan suggested it. My reaction was "Thanks, but no thanks -- it's not a crime, and a detective needs a crime to solve." But the more I thought about it, the more feasible it seemed.
The major aspects a subject has to have are controversy and mystery: no one knows what really happened, but lots of people have opinions...and are expressing them, and fighting each other. The infighting among Roswell experts makes the Hatfields and the McCoys look like a junior high soccer match.
The biggest problem is that people have come to expect household-name subject matter, and there are some very cool, but obscure cases I would like to do. (These I usually reserve for my short stories.) Sometimes, too, cases don't fit into Heller's time chart. And there are a number of Hollywood mysteries that may require a second hero in a parallel series.
What sort of time and energy do you commit to research before beginning a new Heller novel?
[For Neon Mirage] I interviewed a retired pit boss, who had worked the Flamingo [Hotel] on the night it opened. Most of my Ben Siegel characterization was based on what this real friend of Bugsy's told me. He also dispelled the myth that the Flamingo's opening night was a flop. The interview was held at the Flamingo, sitting near the pool -- at one point the old guy started pointing at rose bushes and telling me who was buried there.
You often draw conclusions about the crimes in your books that are quite different from the official ones. For instance, in Stolen Away, you posit that Bruno Hauptmann didn't kidnap and kill Charles Lindbergh's child, and in Flying Blind, you suggest that there was more to Amelia Earhart's "disappearance" in the South Pacific than bad weather or pilot error. Do you actually believe these conclusions, or are you just putting them out there as intellectually intriguing alternate scenarios?
You said some while ago that Flying Blind was your favorite Heller so far. Is that still true, despite the publication of Majic Man? And what was it about the Earhart story that made it so interesting to you?
Let's talk about Majic Man. There are plenty of wacko conspiracy theorists out there flogging the Roswell story as a government cover-up, whether of a real UFO crash landing or something else. Were you concerned, as you wrote Majic Man, about it being dismissed as more conspiracy theory clap-trap?
Every Heller could be dismissed as conspiracy theory clap-trap. I do believe in conspiracies -- particularly the cover-up variety.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you whether you also believe in UFOs.
I do believe something is out there, and think it's very likely that UFOs exist and even have dropped by, on occasion. I'm not sure I believe every abduction story, nor do I grasp why visitors from afar seem to gravitate toward doofuses in rowboats in southern swamps.
I was fully prepared to have Heller abducted, anally probed, what-have-you, in the course of this novel, if that was what felt right to me. And strange stuff does indeed happen to Heller in the novel, but I'd prefer not to comment any further, in hopes a few people will actually read it.
I assume that you're either planning or already writing an 11th Heller novel. Do you know what it will be about yet? And when might it appear on store shelves?
Maybe I'll be doing my book on [L.A.'s 1947] Black Dahlia mystery next. I was planning to do the Black Dahlia when [James] Ellroy got the jump on me. Now that a decade or more has passed, I think I may go ahead with it. The book will be out in 2001. (Stolen Away will be reissued next year, however).
I can certainly see how the unsolved Black Dahlia murder case might interest you. It offers the tortured body of a beautiful young woman found in a vacant lot. It offers one of California's greatest manhunts. But do you have in mind a radically different approach to this case from what Ellroy offered in Black Dahlia?
As you may have surmised, I am not an Ellroy fan. I can't read him. I avoided his Black Dahlia because I knew I would eventually write the story myself, but I've never been able to get more than halfway through an Ellroy novel (though I liked the movie L.A. Confidential very much). His pseudo-Kerouac writing style annoys me, and the overwrought ersatz-darkness of his characters embarrasses me almost as much as his claims that he is superior to [Jim] Thompson and Chandler, and his dragging his dead mother by her heels into every interview he gives. On the other hand, a lot of people I respect like his work, so I may just be envious of his success. James and I are friendly acquaintances, which may come as a surprise to those who know how much I dislike his work; he's always been very decent to me, personally.
You said a bit ago that while you set Heller novels against high-profile true crimes, you often write Heller short stories around less-sensational ones. Do you have a favorite Heller short story, and where can it be found?
You know, I'm a bit surprised that the Nate Heller stories haven't been picked up by Hollywood. Has there been much interest from filmmakers in these books?
Now that you have a history of composing a historical mystery series, you're branching out to write about fictional crimes related to real-life disasters. You published The Titanic Murders this year, in which American mystery novelist Jacques Futrelle solves a pair of killings on the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912. And you have another similar story, The Hindenburg Murders, due out in 2000. In that one, I hear, you send author Leslie Charteris (creator of the Saint) to solve a crime aboard the doomed German Hindenburg. Was Charteris really on that dirigible when -- while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 -- it caught fire and killed 36 people?
No, Charteris was not aboard the fatal flight, but I'm using him anyway, because he had been rather famously aboard the maiden flight, and wrote about his experiences on the airship. I loved the Saint, as a kid (pre-Roger Moore), and thought this would be both a nice follow-up to the Futrelle yarn and a way to do a faux-Saint novel, complete with Charteris' witty chapter titles. The mystery [in the book] relates directly to the cause of the disaster.
Was Charteris a fun character to manipulate fictionally? Was he anywhere near as interesting as his man Simon Templar?
The Eurasian Charteris was at least as colorful as the Saint. He was a world traveler, a glorious womanizer, a charming egomaniac, a screenwriter, a comic strip writer. He even wore a monocle! He made a wonderful amateur sleuth, and I wouldn't mind using him again, although I can't quite see that happening.
The Titanic, now the Hindenburg -- what do you for an encore?
My next novel will be a Ness book. I'm starting it next week. It will chronicle the Coconut Grove fire. The title will probably be The Coconut Grove Murders, just to fall in line with the others. That ends the three-book contract [with Berkley Prime Crime]. If the publisher wants more, I'll come up with some.
For those people (myself included, I must confess) who are not familiar with the Coconut Grove fire, could you tell me when and where that fatal blaze occurred? And what makes it ideal for your fact-based treatment?
The fire took place in Boston in the late 1930s, a famous nightclub that went up in flames. A number of celebrities were there, notably cowboy star Buck Jones, who died as a result. What makes this an ideal Ness story is that police and fire department corruption led to the blaze, at least indirectly.
Do you read a lot of crime fiction, when you're not writing it? And whose work especially attracts you?
Also, please remember that I am reading research constantly. So my fiction reading is sparse. I do watch a lot of movies, though. I have thousands of laser discs and DVDs.
I'm particularly intrigued by your fondness for Mickey Spillane's work. There are many crime fiction readers and critics who denigrate his tales. None other than Ross Macdonald once dismissed him as "the poet laureate of sexual psychopathy." Yet you have edited books with Spillane, penned a non-fiction work championing Spillane's Mike Hammer, and even written and directed a documentary called Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane. Tell me what you see in Spillane's work that others don't -- or choose not to -- recognize and respect.
Ross Macdonald was a good writer, but not a great one. In his letters he reveals himself to be pompous and self-important, and, like almost every mystery writer of his generation, incredibly jealous of Spillane's success. Macdonald wrote the same novel again and again, and his prose tries too hard -- it's so painstakingly crafted, it becomes brittle, and -- at its worst -- mannered and strained (Chandler agrees with me). I like his work, but he is not on a level with Hammett, Chandler and Spillane, each of whom -- in his own way -- revitalized and reshaped the field.
So why do you think that Spillane is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of American detective novelists?
Would you place Spillane in a list of the 10 most important detective novelists of the 20th century? And who else would make your cut for such a list?
Speaking of Thompson, he's another crime fictionist about whom you (and co-author Ed Gorman) penned a 1983 biography, Jim Thompson: The Killers Inside Him. Unlike Spillane, the late Thompson has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts. What do you think are his contributions to 20th-century crime fiction? And why has Thompson's work become fashionable again?
Although few have noticed, I was at the forefront of the Thompson revival. Ed Gorman and I really started it with our monograph (calling it a biography is overly generous).
I read Thompson in high school, the Gold Medal paperbacks of Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. To me, he was James M. Cain with the amp on 10. Thompson was fearless in where he would take the reader via his twisted protagonists -- the use of the untrustworthy narrators of Killer and Pop was a very sophisticated, very literary approach for a paperback crime writer to take. Thompson is perhaps the key example of the failed literary writer who found refuge -- and his proper place -- in the pulpwood world of paperback originals. I get a little bilious when he gets the academic treatment. Reading Thompson in graduate school doesn't cut it. Reading him in study hall, in high school, was a brain-frying treat.
You said earlier that you had wanted to write cartoons when you were younger. And you finally got your shot in 1977, when you started scripting Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip. How did you land that plum assignment and what do you think were your principal contributions to Gould's famous strip?
I don't read the strip now, but my mail indicates the fans do not care for it.
In addition to Chester Gould, who else most influenced your interest in comics? And what was it about those people's work that you most valued?
While you were authoring Dick Tracy, weren't you also working on a new Batman syndicated strip and a monthly Batman comic book for DC Comics? Were these assignments as much fun as the Dick Tracy duty? Had you long been a Batman fan in the same way as you were a Tracy fan?
For about five years, DC kept promising they'd do more Ms. Tree; finally I asked for the rights back. Terry is very busy doing Batman stuff now, but we would both like to do the feature again. It's just that the comic book market is horrible right now -- I don't know if we could find anybody to publish us, and if we did, if we could sell enough copies to justify doing so. There was very nearly a TV show -- at ABC -- which fell through at the last moment. Movie and TV interest keeps rearing its head, and if something like that came through, we'd probably get Ms. Tree going again.
However, you've kept up a lively interest in illustration. Especially the illustrative works of Gil Elvgren, who you've called the "Norman Rockwell of the pin-up." Elvgren painted a wide variety of subjects, but it was his portrayals of shapely, slightly erotic women, appearing on calendars and advertisements during the 1940s and 50s, that brought him what fame he enjoyed. Last year, you co-authored (with Elvgren's son, Drake) a handsome biography and collection of Elvgren paintings called Elvgren: His Life and Art. Tell me, first, how and when you became interested in Gil Elvgren's work.
I've been a collector of original pin-up art for many years, and I gained a certain amount of knowledge about the artists, along the way. I did a trading card set for the late lamented Kitchen Sink called Painted Ladies that was the first overview ever done of the classic pin-up artists -- dozens of them. I also did several card sets devoted to photographic pin-ups, Betty Page, Marilyn, etc.
Why do you think Elvgren fell into obscurity? Wasn't he at least as good as the better-remembered Vargas?
Was there a sensuality to the illustrated women of Elvgren and his contemporaries that is lacking in today's erotic photography?
The movie tie-ins happened because I was offered the Dick Tracy [movie] novelization back when I was writing the strip, and I was glad to get that gig, as at that point it would have galled me beyond words to have somebody else writing a Dick Tracy novel.
Let's see. You've published seven novels over the last two years, if I count correctly, both your original works and movie tie-ins. And you have yet another one, Regeneration (which you wrote with your wife, Barbara Collins), due out soon. How in the hell do you keep up such a pace?
Awhile ago, you portrayed yourself as a major film buff, owning thousands of movies. You also served as the movie critic for Mystery Scene magazine for nine years. So give me your opinion: Which is the best private eye movie ever made? And which is the best overlooked P.I. movie ever made?
A very tough call, on the best: I'd call it a tie between Kiss Me Deadly and Chinatown, with The Maltese Falcon just behind.
Among critics, you're certainly in a minority in championing The Two Jakes, the 1990 sequel to Chinatown. Why did you like it so much?
The Two Jakes is a good period detective film, a wonderful second chance to spend time with Jake Gittes, and a loving, bittersweet coda to a masterpiece. Having read the screenplay, I only wish Nicholson had cut the film differently -- he omitted some of the more overt detective elements, particularly in the courtroom scene conclusion, which would have helped the picture connect with a wider audience. It's a lovely sad story on its own terms and Harvey Keitel is incredible, getting every nuance out of a well-written role, courtesy of Robert Towne.
Is it true, as I have read, that your favorite TV detective series was 1976's City of Angels? That was a personal favorite of mine, but I thought everybody else had forgotten it. What, to your mind, made that such an estimable TV private eye drama?
While we're on the subject of TV crime dramas, I understand that you're also a fan of the work of Jack Webb, star of Dragnet? What fascinates you about the former Joe Friday?
You've tried your own hand at filmmaking. You wrote, directed and executive-produced Mommy for Lifetime Cable in 1996, and then did a sequel, Mommy 2: Mommy's Day, the following year. What sorts of treats are there in filmmaking that you'd never experienced as a novelist?
Actually, Mommy was produced independently and then sold to Lifetime Cable; we also got into Blockbuster, and both features sold to many foreign markets.
There's no way to answer this simply, other than to say, writing is a solitary craft, filmmaking is collaborative, gloriously so. I love the combination of control I have as a writer/director/producer, but tempered by the creative input of so many other talented people. If I have any regret about my career, it's that I got into filmmaking so late, and I do sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I'd tried to crack Hollywood, as a young man.
We are planning another low-budget independent feature, right now -- probably to shoot in January 2000. A number of other projects are on various back burners -- in filmmaking, it's all about money, finding the funding; then comes the tedious, frustrating selling process.
Would you like someday to be as well known for movies as for books?
Before I let you go, I want to ask about your music. Over the last few years, you've played keyboards and sung with two different bands -- one in L.A., the other in Muscatine. What success have you had with these bands? And can readers look for any CDs with "Max Allan Collins" imprinted on them?
This all began in 1965, in high school, with my band, The Daybreakers. Our one national release, "Psychedelic Siren" (1967), is a legendary garage-band tune, anthologized on any number of albums and CDs. That band evolved into Crusin', in the mid-70s, and Crusin' still exists, a retro band with a 60s slant. We did the songs for the two Mommy features (not egomania -- I could afford me). I also play with Seduction of the Innocent, which appears now and then at comics conventions -- the members are all comics professionals, including actors Miguel Ferrer and Bill Mumy, two good pals of mine. Also in the band are Chris Christensen and cartoonist Steve Leialoha, also great guys. We did one album, The Golden Age, and Crusin' did one called Bullets! Both were done in the early 1990s and can be ordered at www.beatbrothers.com.
I am just about to release Crusin' A.K.A. DAYBREAKERS -- Thirty Year Plan, a 22-song overview of my garage band's output from 1967 through 97. Former teen idol Paul Petersen -- one of the stars of Mommy's Day -- is a guest star, singing one tune with Crusin' (as featured in the movie).
I've been told that one of your favorite singers was Bobby Darin, the guy who gave us such post-war tunes as "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife." Why him, in particular, out of all the singers from that period?
I liked Darin from "Splish Splash" on, though it was "Mack the Knife" that hooked me -- I saw a live performance on TV, and Darin's brash bravado, attached to this grisly crime story in song, captured my imagination. My obsession with him began in the sixth grade. He was the best all-around entertainer America has known, and the only swingin' balladeer to give [Frank] Sinatra a run for the money -- the only real competition Sinatra ever had. And Darin was frequently better than Sinatra on up-tempo stuff like "Mack."
Do you, then, regret having done as many things as you have?
Sure, I am frustrated by not having achieved bestseller status, on the one hand, and the critical adoration of an Ellroy, on the other. But I don't resent Ellroy or Parker or any other superstar writer -- you have to be willing to trade books with them, first. And I sure as hell wouldn't trade any of my books for anything they ever wrote. I don't mean that as a putdown, really -- I don't know that I'd trade for a Westlake or a Block, either, even though we share certain sensibilities. This is about self-expression, ultimately -- and finding a way to make self-expression pay well enough that you don't have to get a real job. | September 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
To learn more about Max Allan Collins, refer to the F.O.M.A.C. (Friends/Family/Fans Of Max Allan Collins) Official Web Site. Developed by Collins' son Nathan, it contains not only background on the author and his numerous creative works, but also an excellent timeline of private eye Nate Heller's life.