In 1983, Max Allan Collins created a brand new sub-genre, something very few writers have ever done. In TRUE DETECTIVE, his first Nathan Heller novel, he wedded the street-wise private detective novel with the historical novel.
The advantages to this approach were enormous. The big blockbuster historical novels were all too often stagey and wooden. Heller not only brought a sense of humor to the dance, he treated the historical figures he dealt with as human beings who farted, told dirty jokes and had the kind of mundane personal problems the big blockbusters never dealt with. In other words, he brought reality to the table.
In BETTER DEAD Heller is hired by Senator Joseph McCarthy to prove that all the victims Tail Gunner Joe is pursuing are actually “Commies.” His particular interest is Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who sit in prisons awaiting their execution. This is just how I imagined McCarthy, a drunken, ignorant Mick rummy bent on achieving massive power. He is assisted in this by none other than Roy Cohn, a vile and treacherous figure who just happened to be (half a decade later) one of Donald Trump’s mentors.
But Heller also signs on to help an ailing Dashiell Hammett find evidence that the Rosenbergs have been set up and are innocent.
Collins recreates the zeitgeist of the era very well. Yes, there were a lot of Communist sympathizers back then, mostly older men and women, intellectuals often, who saw the suffering during the Depression and thought—mistakenly—that Communism was the solution. (I started college in 1962 and took a history class from an elderly professor who was still a Stalinist, despite the fact that we now knew that Uncle Joe Stalin had slaughtered millions and millions of his own people.)
But these weren’t “Communist agents,” just disillusioned intellectuals (The Coen Bros. wittily address this in their latest film “Hail Caesar”).
Collins’ sociological eye never fails. Here’s a description I’ve now read three or four times just because I enjoy it so much. Heller is in the Bohemian heart of Greenwich Village.
“The clientele this time of time of night was mostly drinking coffee, and a good number were drunk, some extravagantly so as artists and poets and musicians sang their own praises and bemoaned the shortcomings of their lessers. These were self-defined outcasts, their attire at once striking and shabby, drab and outlandish.”
Bravado writing on every single page.Max Allan Collins not only created a new sub-genre--he is its undisputed master.