Thursday, October 17, 2013

If I Had a Million Dollars...

Max Allan Collins’ third Nate Heller novel, The Million-Dollar Wound, is very different from its predecessors. For one thing, it skips forward in time considerably. The previous book in the series, True Crime, took place in 1934. The Million-Dollar Wound opens in 1943. Nate Heller has returned to the States after fighting in WWII alongside his friend Barney Ross, but he returns a changed man.

Heller is brought back home from combat early because his testimony is wanted at an upcoming trial, one which could finally see Frank Nitti, Louis “Little New York” Campagna, and other gangsters on charges of extortion. But if there’s one thing Heller knows, it’s that double-crossing Frank Nitti is a very dangerous way of living, especially in Chicago, Nitti’s town…

The Million-Dollar Wound is a very interesting novel. It’s the third instalment in the Nate Heller series, and the concluding chapter to the “Frank Nitti trilogy”. It’s also the most unconventional in its storytelling approach. We begin in 1943, with Heller’s return home, then we jump back to 1942, experiencing the horrors of wartime alongside Heller. Then we jump back to ’43 for a chapter before going to 1939 and finding out what Heller knows that the prosecutors are interested in. Finally, we return to 1943 and everything gets wrapped up.

If this sounds confusing, then that’s because I’m purposely being vague about the plot. It’s actually very easy to follow, and the plot is suitably complex and intriguing. I’ve barely even begun to describe it, but it’s such a wonderful story that I dare not say more.

This book is clearly written with Collins’ usual superb prose. The most remarkable achievement of this novel is how much Nate Heller changes. Although the book is written out-of-chronological order, the post-WWII Heller is a very different man from the somewhat-cocky youngster of previous novels. His attitude has changed entirely: he’s witnessed hell on earth and there’s no going back. Somehow, Collins manages to keep these voices separate, and the 1942 section is simply amazing. This is where you get into combat alongside Heller and witness the horrors of war, and slowly Heller’s voice changes into the older, disillusioned voice we hear in 1943. But it's always clear this is the same guy talking: it's still Nate Heller. He'll make the odd wisecrack. He'll keep quiet when it's in his best interest. He won't cooperate with murder or other such fun things: he's got a moral code of sorts, and while he's not perfect, he tries and that's about as much as we can expect in this world. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Heller is a brilliant creation, and in my book, one of the finest detectives introduced to the genre in the 1980s.

The war-time scenes are incredible. To use the old cliché, war is hell, and Collins portrays it that way unflinchingly. It sucked me right in, made me feel like I was right there in the line of fire. Quite frankly, I’m half-convinced at this point that Max Allan Collins has got a time machine hidden somewhere in his house, and whenever he needs material for a new Nate Heller, he just uses it. It would certainly explain Collins’ gift for bringing long-gone names and places vividly to life.

The Million-Dollar Wound is also notable for a historical theory it proposes; I dare not say much about it, but it’s an intriguing thought.

Overall, I can unhesitatingly recommend The Million-Dollar Wound. This is a fine novel, full of suspense and intrigue, and it brings Collins’ “Frank Nitti Trilogy” to a fine close. Its structure also makes it one of Collins’ more daring novels, and the experiment succeeds without a hitch. I loved it and I can’t wait to read more of this fine series.

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