On Writing Flying Blind

by Max Allan Collins

    Back when I was writing the DICK TRACY comic strip, I used to get ideas for new villains and crazy storylines sent to me in the mail virtually every day. TRACY's creator Chester Gould warned me about this: Chet never looked at such material, out of fear he'd be sued if he inadvertently, unconsciously used any of the stuff.

    Since the publication of the first Nathan Heller historical detective novel, True Detective, in 1983, I've had a similar experience with fans who have ideas for real crimes they'd like to see Heller and me tackle. For those of you unfamiliar with the Heller novels, my approach is to select some unsolved, controversial crime from relatively recent history (the 1930s through the '60s) and research that crime as if I were going to write the definitive nonfiction treatment. Then I write a mystery novel instead.

    My hero, Nate Heller -- Chicago private eye with a somewhat shady, mob-tinged past -- mingles with a cast of historical figures with occasional composite characters tossed into the mix. But the mandate from day one was dictated by the first title: True Detective.

    Most of the suggestions from readers are obvious ones; often, readers will suggest something I've already done (the Lindbergh case, the Sir Harry Oakes murder), particularly if they've entered the series at a late date. Sometimes the crimes they suggest are interesting but not famous enough -- my editors are easier to live with when I give them a household-name crime.

    Along those lines, hundreds of readers have suggested O.J. Simpson, even though Heller would have to come out of retirement to do so (he's in his nineties, living in Florida, at the moment). Heller isn't interested in that case. He says there isn't a book in it, just a pamphlet.

    The new Nate Heller -- Flying Blind (Dutton, $24.95) -- represents the first time I've accepted a book idea from a fan, the first time I've written a Heller novel on a subject that had not occurred to me before the fan's suggestion.

    The early Heller novels had centered primarily on the mob and/or the midwestern outlaws of the '30s. Later entries had wandered into more mainstream crimes; one of these -- Blood and Thunder (still available in a Signet paperback) -- centered on the assassination of Huey Long. When I was in Baton Rouge researching the novel, a bookseller recommended I seek out a Huey Long buff named Mike Wynne. Mike, it seemed, had helped out on any number of Huey Long projects, most recently a TNT movie starring John Goodman.

    Mike turned out to be a wonderful resource, and a wonderful human being. We spent time together not only on the two Huey Long research trips, but on my later Louisiana book tour when Blood and Thunder came out. In a slow spell on one of the signings, Mike made his pitch.

    "It's the greatest mystery of the 20th century," he said.

    "What is?" I asked.

    "Amelia Earhart."

    Mike was right: Amelia's disappearance was perhaps the most enduring mystery of our time. And because her story wasn't exactly a "crime," the subject had never occurred to me.

    Mike went on to spin an elaborate yarn that involved bringing back virtually every historical figure from the previous Heller novels, including his pet passion, the Kingfish himself, Huey Long. It was a wild plot, very imaginative, and I used not a trace of it.

    But Mike Wynne got my attention in a way no fan ever got Chester Gould's. And Mike earned a book dedication for his trouble, and I wound up with what is probably my favorite Heller novel to date.

    Of course, I haven't told you much about the book itself yet. No time; no space. I guess you'll just have to buy it. That's my suggestion to readers.

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