Author Max Allan Collins on True Detective
Q: You have been writing your Nathan Heller series on and off again for 29 years. Between these books you have worked on projects as different as Road to Perdition, Dick Tracy, and the CSI novels. What keeps you coming back to Nathan’s story?
A: Nate Heller is my favorite among my characters, and the concept of the traditional private eye solving the great mysteries of the 20th Century is something that appeals to me. I was a fan of historical novels like Captain From Castille and Prince of Foxes as a kid, and of course was interested in detective stories for as far back as I can remember, so the Heller mix of history and noir hits me hard. But after twenty years of writing more or less steadily about him, I took a break of about a decade to work on projects that became possible after the enormous success of Road to Perdition. This included Perdition sequels, but also a series of historical novels that did not involve Nate Heller -- my "disaster" series that began with The Titanic Murders and such works as Black Hats and Red Sky in Morning (both written under the now-discarded Patrick Culhane penname).
Dick Tracy, Batman, CSI and such movie tie-in novels as Saving Private Ryan and American Gangster were the kind of gigs a professional writer takes to do two important things: flex different muscles; and put bread on the table. Both noble goals.
Q: You write graphic as well as traditional novels. How is writing for these two mediums different? Have you ever considered introducing the Heller mysteries in graphic novel from?
A: My dream professional as a child--this lasted into junior high--was cartoonist. I loved comic strips and comic books, and back when I took over the DICK TRACY strip in 1977, a lot of media focused on the "dream-come-true" nature of that job for me, since TRACY was my favorite comic as a kid, and I was only 22 at the time. So wanting to create comics predates my trying to write prose. I like to think my love for comics and film has given my fiction some visual snap. But I consider myself a storyteller, and like to use the correct medium for a certain project. Some stories are best told as films, others as comics, others as novels, and I work in all three fields. The recently released DVD, The Last Lullaby, is a screenplay I co-write based on my Quarry hitman novels.
Interestily, Road to Perdition was a spin-off of Nathan Heller. Around 1993, an editor at DC comics asked me to do a graphic novel, a noir with the historical approach of Nathan Heller, and I said, "Fine, I'll do a Heller graphic novel." But he wanted something in the Heller mode that was new. I was very taken with Asian cinema at the time, and was influenced by John Woo's movies--which hadn't been legally released here yet--and also the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, based on a famous Japanese manga. I put that vibe together with the real-life history of the Looney crime family in Rock Island, Illinois, moving the action up in time a little from the teens to the twenties to be able to make Al Capone and Frank Nitti characters, as they were in the Heller saga. The recent is history, or anyway historical crime fiction.
Q: The Nathan Heller mysteries weave together historical and fictional events. Tell us a little about the research that goes into these titles.
A: The research is, frankly, massive. Years can go into the research of a historical case, and it's ongoing not just for the book at hand but contemplated future ones. My chief research associate, George Hagenauer, has been with me since the very start. He lived in Chicago and helped me--an Iowa boy--learn about and understand the Second City and its quirky ways. The research itself entails reading books on the subject but also looking at newspaper files in depth, usually visiting the sites and sometimes interviewing participants. Essentially, I pick a case--like the Lindbergh kidnapping in Stolen Away--and do enough research to write the definitive non-fiction work on that case... then I write a private eye novel instead. Many of the historical subjects we've dealt with in the Heller novels, as well as the Eliot Ness novels that spun off from Heller, have led to groundbreaking research that others, quite frankly, have appropriated to write non-fiction accounts.
Q: True Detective is the first in the Nathan Heller series. What was your original inspiration?
A: I wanted to write a private eye novel--this was the early 1970s--but couldn't imagine that character in modern dress. Other writers have proven me wrong, but I thought the P.I. was played out. That the best way to deal with him was in an historical context. A big element was the day I noticed that The Maltese Falcon, the greatest of all noir mysteries, was copyrighted 1929... the year of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. This meant that Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries, and it meant that I could put the Bogart-style noir detective into more than just an historical context, but in history itself. Toward that end, the role Heller plays in any given novel is usually one played by one or more real investigators. By the way, it took almost ten years from concept to final execution--True Detective was a big project for a young writer.
Q: When you started this project did you ever imagine it becoming a series that would span almost 30 years? Does it ever surprise you how far Nathan and you have come?
A: Initially, I was just trying to write one book--a big book, and an ambitious one, which I hoped immodestly might be the definitive private eye novel of all time. That may sound inflated, but I did win the best novel "Shamus" up against people like Robert B. Parker and James Crumley. I left the door open for a sequel, mostly because I didn't have time to cover all the story in the first novel, but I wasn't thinking series till St. Martin's Press asked for one. But as soon as Heller became a series character, I knew--just knew--that we would not stop until we had reached the Kennedy assassination. And that book, Target Lancer, was recently completed... with another several possibilities past that.
Q: You write a lot of period fiction as well as modern. Do you prefer a certain era? If so, what attracts you to that time period?
When I was writing the DICK TRACY comic strip, I took pride in doing modern crimes and keeping the strip contemporary and fresh. The MS. TREE comic book I did in the eighties and nineties--which will be revived soon--was also keenly contemporary, with subjects ripped from the headlines. But I admit I am most attracted to the mid-20th Century--the twenties through the sixties. They are interesting times, colorful and compelling. I'm afraid I am a 20th Century man at heart.