"I was rereading The Maltese Falcon for a community college class I was about to teach, and noticed the copyright -- 1929 -- and had the thought, 'Huh, that's the year of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. That means Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries.' That started me thinking that instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type."
-- Collins' oft-told tale of how Nate Heller came to be
As a crooked Chicago cop in the glory days of Al Capone, and later as a big-shot private eye, NATE HELLER seems to have wandered into every major crime story in the last century, in what's turned out to be one of the most intriguing and satisfying P.I. series of the eighties and beyond.
Collins drew a little heat when he first lay claim to having invented the historical private eye novel (he seemed to have conveniently forgotten previous retro eyes such as Toby Peters and Andrew Bergman's Jack Levine), but he pointed out that "I deal with real crimes, real people; the closest thing to what I do that existed before me was Chinatown, which changed names, dates, etc., and certain episodes of the greatest of all P.I. series, City of Angels. Stu and the rest do period mysteries -- using the setting, the nostalgia, some real people but not real events. That's the diff."
Regardless, 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. Who REALLY kidnapped the Lindbergh baby? Who REALLY bumped off Bugsy Siegal? Was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre a mistake? Who REALLY shot John Dillinger? What REALLY happened to Amelia Earhart? For any fan of classic true crimes and other unsolved mysteries of 20th century America, or anyone who just enjoys a great PI yarn, you could do a lot worse than this entertaining, and often, enlightening series.
And Nate is an intriguing appealingly-less-than-perfect, character. Half-Jewish, half-Irish, he's greedy, horny, morally amivalent, if not downright ambiguous. He can be bought off, but only on his terms. 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 shot himself after Nate lied on the witness stand, in order to join the police department (and therefore make his way to the trough). Nate carries the nine-millimeter with which his father did the deed, and he calls it "the closest thing to a conscience I've got."
It's frequently not enough, as Nate more than willing to get his hands dirty, hobnobbing with mobsters, politicians and Hollywood starlets. Yet there's a unflinching and impressive steeliness to his moral code (and his loyalty to his clients) -- it may be flawed and as hard to pin down as Hell, but God damn it, Nate sticks to it.
"Let's just say," as he puts it in Target Lancer (2012) "that if the long arms of the law prove a little... short... I might sometimes find a way of evening a score."
And Nate's journey through the series from loose cannon lone wolf P.I. with a one room office over Barney Ross' Dill Pickle to the head of the A-1 Detective Agency with offices in Hollywood and New York (its headquarters remains in the sixteen-storey Monadnock Building in downtown Chicago, has proven equally impressive, as Nate moves from being a known acquaintance of low-level thugs and B-girls to rubbing shoulders with high-flying crime lords, U.S. presidents (the Kennedys!) and Marilyn Monroe.
Besides creating Heller, he's also responsible for continuing the comic strip adventures of Dick Tracy, as well as his own Mike Danger, Mike Mist, the rebirth of Johnny Dynamite, and possibly his greatest coup-the creation of Ms. Tree, the private eye heroine of the longest-running private eye comic book in history. He's also written novels featuring professional thief Quarry and amateur sleuth/mystery writer Mallory, and several novelisations of various crime films and televsion shows. He's also penned, along with James L. Traylor, One Lonely Knight, a spirited critical defense of his idol, Mickey Spillane; a project that lead to a not just a life-long friendship with the creator of Mike Hammer, but a string of co-edited anthologies of original stories, all of which are recommended, especially 1998's Private Eyes. In 2001, he's released what might be stand as his non-fiction magnum opus, The History of Mystery, a personal and passionate stab at the entire crime fiction genre that revealed Collins, once and for all, as not just one of the genre's most talented contributors, but also one of it's greatest fans.
FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY
Available originally only as a 90 minute promotional audio tape.
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