Max Collins, strangely enough,
has not been in print in the UK since his first Nate Heller novel, True Detective, almost twenty years ago.
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.
InKisses 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 itworks. 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
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.