Heller – The Starting Gate

November 21st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

I have been researching the upcoming Nathan Heller novel, Do No Harm, for two months. That has consisted chiefly of reading books – ten cover to cover, reading selectively in another ten, filling a notebook with info and page numbers. With any Heller, a lot of research occurs along the way as well; but, in movie terms, I’ve completed pre-production. This past week I read eighteen contemporary articles on the Sam Sheppard murder case, and two more books. On Monday I start the novel.

The process with Heller has remained largely the same since True Detective back in the early ‘80s. I select the historical incident – usually a crime, either unsolved or controversially solved – and approach it as if I’m researching the definitive book on the subject. I never have a firm opinion on the case before research proper begins, even if I’ve read a little about it or seen movies or documentaries on the subject, just as somebody interested in famous true crimes.

The intent is to find the story in the research, as opposed to having the story firmly in mind and researching it. That’s worked out well for me with Heller – any number of times I’ve come up with theories about what probably really happened that have inspired non-fiction books (by authors who never credit me) (but I’m not bitter).

This time I changed my mind about who murdered Marilyn Sheppard, oh, a dozen times. I in part selected the case because it was a more traditional murder mystery than the political subjects of the last four Heller novels – sort of back to basics, plus giving me something that would be a little easier to do, since I was coming out of some health problems and major surgeries.

But it’s turned out to be one of the trickiest Heller novels of all. Figuring out what happened here is very tough. There is no shortage of suspects, and no shortage of existing theories. In addition, a number of the players are still alive (Sam Sheppard’s brother Stephen is 97) and those who aren’t have grown children who are, none of whom would likely be thrilled with me should I lay a murder at the feet of their deceased parents.

Additionally, the case does not lend itself to some of the usual Heller fun-and-games – like violence and sex. There are no bad guys to kill, and the sexual aspects of the murder make Heller hanky panky distasteful. Oddly enough, this comes after the preceding Heller, Better Dead, which found our hero more sexually active than usual (and that’s saying something).

But the research defines the book. The story emerges from the research and I have to be true to it. That story sometimes – this time for sure – takes its time revealing itself. I have changed the structure of the novel almost as many times as I have changed my mind about who killed Marilyn Sheppard.

For that reason, I do not attempt to write a chapter breakdown/outline (vital in a Heller) until I have completed the research phase. In a way that’s too bad, because if I could discern the shape of the book at, say, a third of the way through the research, I could limit further digging to the areas I need. As it is, I’ve taken notes on scores of things that won’t appear in the book.

That’s okay. In an historical novel, it’s all about the tip of the iceberg, and for me to portray that effectively, I need to know the shape of what’s under the water.

As I indicated, research doesn’t end when the writing begins. Each chapter requires some pre-production as I gather the materials from what I’ve already read, and then as I write it and need things I hadn’t anticipated, more research is done on the fly.

In addition to all this, I have to deal with the feeling I always have at the beginning of a Heller – I experience this, to a lesser degree, with Quarry and really any novel I write – that I may not be up to the job. Coming off health problems, that’s a little exaggerated this time. How do I do this? I ask myself. At least a little panic, a minor anxiety attack, always precedes the writing of chapter one.

I have completed the chapter breakdown/outline to my satisfaction, having wrestled the structure into submission – I have even found a bad guy for Heller to kill. I feel good about where I am, even if certain insecurities creep through.

For me, the saving grace has always been Nate Heller. Like Quarry, he has always been there when I need him. I start writing and there he is.

By the time you read this, I will know if he’s come through for me yet again.

* * *

Despite a few inaccuracies, this is a nice overview of Mike Hammer, touching on the Spillane/Collins collaborations.

Here’s an interesting Road to Perdition (film) article.

Check out this good interview with Hard Case Crime editor, Charles Ardai, flawed only in his neglecting to be mention me (again, I am not bitter). Several Quarry covers are featured, though.

Finally, here’s a lovely piece by Bev Keddy covering many of my books – much appreciate, Bev (who is a boy, he will have you know).


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4 Responses to “Heller – The Starting Gate”

  1. Maggie Thompson says:

    I understand your going back and forth concerning whodunnit in this case. At the time, as I recall, the CLEVELAND PRESS was blamed for (if I remember correctly) running an editorial in which it asked why Sam Sheppard hadn’t been arrested. And (yes, my memory is vague after all these years) I was told that the reason that the editorial ran was that all the investigating police were stating flatly but off the record that he’d done it. But, heck, you probably know all that already …

  2. Mike Doran says:

    What follows is sort of friendly warning:

    When I read this posting yesterday, I followed an instinct and sent a comment to Mitchell Hadley at his It’s About TV blog.
    For some while now, Mitchell has written up occasional comments about the Sam Sheppard case, in particular its possible relation to The Fugitive TV series.
    I passed your name and site location to Mitchell; what (if anything) he decides to do with it will be his decision.
    That said, should he decide to share with you, be aware that his political and social views are considerably to the Right of yours (and mine, comes to that – but that’s another story…).

    Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving to you and Barb and Nate and Abby and Sam and whoever else crosses your path between now and the end of the year …

  3. Tim Field says:

    I always enjoy your posts but your musings on the writing process are always my favorites. I have a friend who like you attended the Iowa Writers Workship, but unlike you, this writer has never tackled a massive project like a Heller novel and instead is content to write twee little essays and short stories he submits to university literary journals. Your latest entry reinforced for me the massive effort involved in writing a Heller project or any major work, how it never gets easier even for a veteran like you, and that even a Grand Master suffers from occasional self doubts.
    I appreciate your honesty, your ambition, and your many accomplishments. Can’t wait to read the final work!

  4. Max Allan Collins says:

    Tim, thanks for your kind words.