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STRANGERS IN TOWN by Ross Macdonald (edited by Tom Nolan) paper $15.00

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KISSES OF DEATH by Max Allan Collins paper $17.00

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( available at specialist bookshops or via POBox 9315 Norfolk, Va 23505 USA or at www.crippenlandru.com)

Ross Macdonald has become unfashionable these days. His stories marked a transition point in the private eye genre, between the classic days of the noir era and the disruption to the world as we know it which we now remember as the Sixties. Macdonald's Lew Archer was prescient in his observations about Southern California and its people, and the sense of flux out of control permeates the 'Harper' films Paul Newman made as Archer. Two of these stories are early efforts. "Death By Water" features an Archer -like Joe Rogers, who finds himself involved in a murder while visiting a house-dick friend. Rogers solves the crime, but the final twist comes in unravelling its motive, whose altruism will be undone by California law. It's a real forerunner to the sort of moral tales which Archer would later guide us through, not least in its references to buried family problems from the past.

"Strangers In Town" is another tale where the secrets of the past reflect on the present, featuring a rather subdued and somewhat wise-cracking Archer. "The Angry Man" dates from later in Macdonald's career, and is a fuller effort in all ways. It was later cannibalised into his novel THE DOOMSTERS, and Macdonald himself marked this as the point where Archer became more than just a guy solving crimes, and became a fifure for understanding the mentality of the criminals. This story has the fatalistic feel of Jim Thompson, but Macdonald was always a more cerebral prose craftsman than Thompson. As a link between the hothouse guignol of those late-era pulps and the more analytical efforts of the 60s, this takes some beating. There is also a long essay about Macdonald's early career by Tom Nolan, which is disappointingly unanalytical. The introductions to the stories do a better job of placing them in the context of the Macdonald's career. He's a writer who should always be in print. Max Collins, strangely enough, has not been in print in the UK since his first Nate Heller novel, TRUE DETECTIVE, almost twenty years ago. Since then, ten more Heller novels have followed, as well as an avalanche of other novels, movie novelisations, films, comics, and even an excellent documentary on Mickey Spillane. But Heller remains Collins' best work, a unique series of detective novels which investigate the great unsolved (or mis-solved) crimes of our century. Collins has achieved a consistency in the Heller books, and a considerable depth of characterisation in a series which could be dismissed as gimmicky. But far from it, as these stories show well. The best of them are the biggest, where the historical figures are given room to be characters. In "Kisses Of Death" Heller is hired as bodyguard for Marilyn Monroe, and solves the mysterious death of the fallen poet Max Bodenheim. It's a great way to slip into the story, and it works. The best of the bunch is "The Perfect Crime", unravelling the death of actress Thelma Todd as a classic locked room (or car) mystery. This story originally appeared, with Philip Marlowe as the detective, in the 1988 anthology RAYMOND CHANDLER'S PHILIP MARLOWE, but it plays better with Heller as the sleuth. My personal favourite is "Strike Zone", in which Heller is hired to protect Eddie Gaedel, the midget who played one game for the St Louis Browns' baseball team when the inimitable Bill Veeck owned the team. He later returns to establish that Gaedel's death, years later, was not of natural causes. The characterisation of Gaedel is priceless. Characters like Elliot Ness and Frank Nitti appear in some of the other stories, and there is a valuable checklist of Collins' myriad books, as well as his own usual useful footnotes on historical accuracy. I admit to being prejudiced in favour of Heller, but I'd suggest this anthology as a starting point for anyone who thinks that modern historical mystery could never get them hooked.

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