Better Read

May 10th, 2016 by Max Allan Collins

Audiobook (Digital Download): Amazon Audible

Books are on their way to the winners in the giveaway announced a week ago. As usual, the books were spoken for in about 48 hours. Thanks to all of you for your willingness to write Amazon (and other) reviews. I encourage all of you who actually paid for BETTER DEAD, THE BIG SHOWDOWN and/or ANTIQUES FATE to post reviews, anyway. And we’re still very short on MURDER NEVER KNOCKS reviews.

Barb and I are half-way through the audio of BETTER DEAD and, as usual, Dan John Miller has done a stellar job. He really is the voice of Nathan Heller. The Forge hardcover’s great jacket (among my favorites ever) has been replaced on the audio with an evocative but rather generic private eye figure. Really, both are cool. If you like the Nate Heller books, I highly recommend the audios as read by Dan – really nice for long car trips (we made a day trip to Bowling Brook, Illinois, to visit Barb’s 93 year-old mother in a nursing home).

We’ve had two raves for BETTER DEAD in key places. Take a look:

Chicago private eye Nate Heller has investigated most of the last century’s headline-grabbing crimes and, thanks to Collins’ impeccable research, has always come up with believable explanations of what really happened. So it’s no surprise that Heller was in the mix in the 1950s when the Rosenbergs were executed for being Soviet spies. But we all know that Julius was guilty, and Ethel was a sort-of accomplice, so what’s left for Nate to uncover? Plenty. It starts with a superb premise that has Nate playing both ends against the middle, helping Joe McCarthy hunt for Reds in the CIA and, at the same time, working for Dashiell Hammett and a group of literary lefties trying to uncover new evidence that will exonerate the Rosenbergs. His investigation, though, leads him to another, equally juicy scandal—at least for today’s reader—involving a real-life CIA scientist, on McCarthy’s hit list, who disappears after Nate contacts him. The shocking, little-known story of what happened to Frank Olson makes a great true-crime subject, but it’s even better in the hands of fact-fiction maestro Collins.
— Bill Ott

The prolific Collins (Ask Not, 2013, etc.) finds veteran gumshoe Nathan Heller in the McCarthy era, when Wisconsin’s demagogue senator looked for a Commie under every bed and his counsel Roy Cohn manipulated the Rosenbergs into the electric chair.
Read this one as two novellas, loosely connected by McCarthy’s appearance. The senator summons Heller to Washington while noted author Dashiell Hammett takes the Fifth at a Senate hearing. Later, Hammett hires Heller to conduct “an eleventh hour investigation” into the Rosenbergs’ case. McCarthy—”big off-white smile blossomed in the blue-jowled face”—wants to stick his nose in the atomic-bomb spy case, too. With that, and bringing in an interesting cast of real-life characters sure to be familiar to baby boomers, Collins offers another homage to the noir detective genre, albeit laced with post-Vietnam/Watergate knowing cynicism. Book 2 festers with nuclear-age conspiracies and the CIA running amok. Institutional paranoia has the spooks conducting LSD-25 experiments on its own people, and innocent civilians, while using the mob for a bit of wetwork. There’s a tenuous link between the two books—Heller’s hired to pry McCarthy’s file from the CIA in Book 2—but Collins generally navigates that tightrope fine, all while keeping both plots logical, the pace electric, and scenes powerful—Nate’s observation of an LSD–induced suicide is cringe-inducing. Characters real and imaginary are believably sketched, and Collins’ take on 1950s New York City, especially Greenwich Village—dancing at the Village Barn, breakfast at the Waldorf Cafeteria—is impeccable.
Veteran author Collins knows detective novels work best when there’s a rugged, flawed, self-aware sleuth, a shades-of-gray atmosphere, a righteous quest, and a bed-ready damsel, Bettie Page filling the bill here.

Okay, now it’s a small miracle that I got a rave review from Kirkus, where I have been routinely savaged (recently a review of somebody else’s book had a gratuitous “at least he isn’t as bad as Max Allan Collins” type remark. Of course, J. Kingston Pierce, who writes the Kirkus mystery/suspense blog, has said many kind things about my work. But it’s kind of stunning to get a review like this in Kirkus itself.

Last Wednesday’s Grindhouse presentation of MOMMY at Iowa City’s cool Film Scene theater was fun if sparsely attended (I blame it on finals week). I hadn’t seen the film in a while, and it nudged me again into thinking my cohort Phil Dingeldein and I should re-master the film (also MOMMY’S DAY). Both were shot on Betacam and taken to Hollywood for the FilmLook process. We could do better now, and MOMMY particularly got darkened in that effort. I hope to find some DVD/Blu-ray company that might release a double-feature disc (and a few dollars to do the new post-production work). It’s been twenty-two years since we shot MOMMY!

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Finally, here’s a condescending but really very good review of my WATERWORLD novelization, of all things!


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3 Responses to “Better Read”

  1. Tom Zappe/St Louis says:

    I’m just finishing up with Caleb York before getting to the new Nathan Heller(s). In the mean time, though, it appears the point of no return has been overrun and that I must admit the error of my ways a few months back when in these pages I predicted that THE DONALD did not really plan on running for POTUS. I stand [with knees knocking] corrected.

    Oh well, it seems that he may be a nice bunch of guys after all. (Thank you Zoot Sims.)

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    I still say he’s Tony Clifton.

  3. Tom Zappe/St Louis says:

    With the addition of some shinola.