Gangsters and Gunsels and Gals (Oh My!)
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Kindle edition begins with a terrific introduction from the author. He talks about how he came up with the concept for this series and how this book came to be. He tells readers how he named his son, how his literary idol Mickey Spillane complimented him on this book, and how (due to its length and content) it was a challenging book to sell. He also expresses a genuine hope that readers will enjoy the book. I know for a fact that there’s at least one insane reader in Canada who loved every page of it.
Our story opens in December 1932, and our hero is Nate Heller. He’s a Chicago cop, and as Chicago cops go, he’s an honest one. “Which means anywhere else, I’d be in for twenty years,” Heller says at one point. It’s true: he takes the occasional bribe, and rumour has it he sleeps around. One day, while Heller is off-duty, he’s picked up by Harry Lang and Harry Miller, two brutish cops who act like Mayor Anton Cermak’s unofficial Brute Squad. They take him along for a police raid on an operation run by Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s successor. Only it turns out to be an assassination attempt, as Lang shoots Nitti in the back. Things get a bit out of hand, and in the ensuing melee, Heller guns down one of the gangsters.
This is a stunning novel. I was absolutely floored by it. I enjoyed every single page. The true genius of True Detective is that Nate Heller is not just running around with famous historical figures like Elliot Ness: he’s also investigating real-life crimes. The beauty of it all is, fact and fiction are blended together so neatly that I couldn’t tell where fact ended and where fiction began. And even when I knew what was going to happen, such as in the scene in Miami, I found myself on the edge of my seat, wondering how it would all end.
The plot is well-done. It’s a complex plot web with a satisfying resolution. Heller investigates multiple cases throughout the book, and at the end you feel they’ve all come to a close. The story is exciting, full of action and suspense. I really liked the ending, though I don’t want to specify why. Oh, and there’s plenty of sex. It’s used wisely, to develop Heller’s character, and it isn’t as explicit as it could have been.
I never thought I’d say this— but I’m grateful that I read Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury before I read this book. I can see the Mike Hammer influence pretty clearly, although I still dislike Hammer intensely. But it’s interesting how Heller is similar in some ways to Hammer, and similar in some ways to Marlowe. Okay, at this point we can run down the whole list and draw comparisons to Lew Archer, Batman, and the Continetal Op, then muse about the Freudian juxtaposition of these characteristics in a pre-Nietzschean society that ultimately transcend the genre—though not in a Miltonian sense. Whatever that means. The point I’m trying to make is that Nate Heller has some of the characteristics that I absolutely despise in Mike Hammer, and some of the characteristics that I admire in Phillip Marlowe. And instead of clashing, these blend together so neatly, and make for a fascinatingly complex character!
This is one of the things that justify this book’s length—the print edition runs to 480 pages. But don’t run away! I know: far too many books nowadays are bloated beyond all belief, but this book never feels padded. Nate Heller is a fascinating character and I was genuinely interested in his moral dilemmas, his love life, and his family history. This includes his father’s suicide, a tragic moment, especially when we find out why he did it that way. It’s every bit as fascinating as the story, which is fairly complex but which, on its own, mightn’t even fit 300 pages.
Overall, Max Allan Collins’ True Detective is a stunning achievement. I’m positively floored by it. The plot is terrific, and the main character of Nate Heller is fascinating. He’s tough, he’s sensitive. He takes bribes. He sleeps around. He isn’t perfect, but he’s the best we’ve got. Collins’ style is excellent and keeps you invested in the book easily, despite its length. The book’s conclusion is brilliant in its own way. And somehow, Collins manages all this with real historical figures and real historical crimes.
Someone buy Max Allan Collins a drink – I’ve got a glass of Perrier here that I now raise in a toast to the author and to this book. This is a brilliant debut, and I can hardly wait to read more. And thanks to that Kindle Daily Deal, that probably isn’t far off in the future…
Note: I read this book partly on the Kindle and partly via Audible, testing out Amazon’s new Whispersync. (The results are in: it works decently, but it drains the batteries of my phone too quickly.) The audiobook recording is brilliant – Dan John Miller does an excellent job capturing Nate Heller’s voice. I’d love to hear him read a Raymond Chandler novel.