Processing Spillane and Heller

November 23rd, 2021 by Max Allan Collins

I should probably dispense with asking you to buy and then Amazon-review both Fancy Anders Goes to War and The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton (co-written by the great Dave Thomas). I won’t even remind you what wonderful Christmas gifts they would make.

I just have too much class for that.

Instead, I’ll talk about process this week. Who doesn’t love process? A few weeks ago I touched on the challenges and difficulties of Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction, co-written with James L. Traylor. We are waiting with anticipation for the editorial notes to come back, which will require tweaking but I hope nothing major, as I am very proud of my draft, and Jim likes it, too.

What surprised me was reading all the material about Mickey I’d gathered going back to my junior high days – I literally used the scrapbook I kept, because it had various articles and reviews pasted in among my carbons of indignant letters to anti-Spillane reviewers and my cartoony portraits of Mickey. What I hadn’t anticipated was the picture all of that material would paint when, for the first time, I read it all at once…not just in dribs and drabs as articles and such first appeared.

I feel like I put together pieces of the Spillane puzzle that had eluded me, despite my close personal relationship with the man for the last 25 years of his life. Many assumptions I’d made – and had cockily presented as fact in various pieces and introductions about Mickey and his work over the recent years – proved short-sighted…not wrong exactly, but lacking nuance.

For example, I no longer think his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses had anything much to do with the near decade-long respite he took from novel writing. I do think his style shifted, and the violence and sex were both more restrained; but not absent. Re-reading The Deep recently, I saw how he used the threat of impending violence to create a story about a tough hero who really only kills once, and then in self-defense. In The Girl Hunters, Hammer kills nary a soul, though he does trick the “evil one” (as Traylor puts it) into self-destruction.

This probably had as much to do with his attempt to develop as a writer and to respond through his work to the incredibly unfair and even vicious attacks upon him throughout the 1950s. Other than perhaps Elvis Presley, no figure in popular culture had ever seen so much success and, simultaneously, so much condemnation. But the bio will, for the first time, reveal the major reason he stopped writing novels at his popular peak.

Writing about Eliot Ness with Brad Schwartz was a similar experience for me. So often Ness had been presented as a glory hound when the research showed he was primarily responding to pressure from above to get positive press. Additionally, things routinely dismissed by the Ness naysayers – including events reported in his autobiographical The Untouchables (mostly ghosted by sportswriter Oscar Fraley) – turned out to have really happened. It shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Eliot Ness was actually Eliot Ness, but it was.

The Big Bundle Cover, Without text
The Big Bundle (Cover Sneak Peak)

And now, for the first time in several years, I am digging into the research for the upcoming Nathan Heller novel, The Big Bundle (for Hard Case Crime). The case I’m dealing with – the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping of 1953 – is not as famous as most of those I’ve examined; it was at the time, but today it seems mostly forgotten. What gives it the needed household-name-crime aspect that a Heller novel requires is a sinister connection to Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. It is, in fact, the first of two novels about Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, although this first one focuses primarily on the Greenlease case.

The Heller process is an odd one. First I have to select the true crime that seems appropriate for Nate’s attention (and mine, and yours). Second, I have to familiarize myself enough with the crime to write a proposal to be submitted to an editor/publisher, who must first sign on before I start serious work. Once we’re at that stage, I have to dig into the research, where the proposal was just a superficial look at the case. The approach has always been to look at the subject as if I were preparing to write the definitive non-fiction treatment of the case and then write a private eye novel instead.

A real problem with the proposal stage is that I am only guessing what the book will be about. The in-depth research (you will not be surprised, many of you, that I am in touch with George Hagenauer right now) is what reveals the book to me. And it always surprises me.

Here’s a small example. In True Detective, in what is essentially the origin of Nate Heller, Heller sells out to the Chicago Outfit to get promoted from uniform to plainclothes – to become a detective. He fingers the fall guy (who is playing along) to get somebody blamed and put away for the publicity-attracting murder of reporter Jake Lingle. The willing patsy, very minor in all of this but a seminal part of Heller’s story, is a real-life low-level mob guy named Leo Vincent Brothers.

So I’m researching The Big Bundle yesterday. For reasons I won’t go into right now, a taxi cab company run by a St. Louis racketeer named Joe Costello is instrumental in the story. I went in familiar with Costello in, again, only a superficial way – his name came up in the preliminary research and got him on my radar. So now, reading a book called A Grave For Bobby by James Deakin, I learn that Joe Costello’s partner in the taxi cab company…wait for it…was Leo Vincent Brothers.

This kind of thing always sits me on my ass. This tiny fact isn’t key to the story – it’s just an odd resonance, and a reminder that Heller’s life is just one long story, not really a succession of novels. Another name turned up yesterday, a Chicago thug with ties to the JFK assassination.

It would help if I had a steel-trap mind. But I don’t. I didn’t in my thirties and I really, really don’t in my seventies. So such discoveries send me scrambling back into the research.

In the meantime, I am looking for a way to insert Nate Heller into this narrative in a meaningful, credible way.

Wish me luck.

* * *

Two brief Blu-ray recommendations.

Jack Irish Season 3, Blu-ray

Jack Irish Season 3 is out from Acorn. It’s the final season of this series (there are actually five seasons, but the first two were movie-length episodes) and it’s a four-hour movie, essentially – one story, wrapping up the series in a smart, thoughtful way. I will go so far as to say it’s one of the best wrap-ups of a series, certainly one of the most satisfying, I’ve ever seen.

Guy Pearce plays a solid modern version of a private eye in this Australian neo-noir with all the surviving regulars back. Three years have passed since the preceding series and the passage of time and the need to learn, grow and move on is the central theme.

Great series.

Speaking of great, Eddie Muller has delivered one of the best Blu-rays of the year in the Flicker Alley presentation of The Beast Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir), a 1952 Argentinian noir based on the Nicholas Blake novel, The Beast Must Die. Blake was really Cecil Day-Lewis, a UK poet laureate who is also the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

While it’s a bit pricey, the blu-ray is essential for noir enthusiasts, and if you spring for it, be sure to watch Muller’s introduction, which provides context and more, including how-to-watch Spanish-language melodrama of this period, i.e., the acting tends not to be subtle.

You can get it directly from Flicker Alley here.

The Beast Must Die Blu-Ray
The Beast Must Die Theatrical Poster
* * *

Check out this lovely review of Fancy Anders Goes to War.

Here’s a Ms. Tree: The Cold Dish preview with info.

Also here.

I did a Mike Hammer interview for what, uh, appears to be an interesting magazine….


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11 Responses to “Processing Spillane and Heller”

  1. I very much look forward to reading THE BIG BUNDLE (that’s great Paul Mann cover art, by the way) as well as your forthcoming Spillane biography. Those two books alone are good reasons to live through 2022!


  2. Regan MacArthur says:

    Meanwhile, at the office of MAC’s agent, a phone call to the editor of Hussy Magazine is in progress: “My client is a highly respected author in the mystery field. He knew Spillane and Westlake personally, for God’s sake! How dare you expect him to appear in your despicable little smut rag! What? You say he’ll get free samples included in the deal? Yeah, he’ll do it.”

  3. See you in 2022, Jeff! I hope!

    Regan, do you have a phone tap in my office? Isn’t that illegal?

  4. Regan MacArthur says:

    Um, I think I have some Amazon reviews I need to write.

  5. Ray Cuthbert says:

    A lovely cover tease for THE BIG BUNDLE. Nate Heller is my favourite of your protagonists and every outing is a treat. It goes without saying – but I’m saying it anyway – that the Spillane biography is also eagerly anticipated!

  6. Tim Field says:

    Who doesn’t love process? I sure do. I’m a big fan of how it’s all put together, especially the uncovering of weird twists like the Leo Vincent Brothers reemergence you reference. Never heard of the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping but if Heller, RFK and Hoffa are in the book, count me there.
    Looking forward to the Spillane biography, the new Heller and digging into the Fancy Anders book some generous author sent me.

  7. Howard Cohen says:

    I’m two thirds of the way through The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton and all I can say is that my head is spinning: because of the plot, the science, the characters,… Just wow. Can’t wait to get home from work and finish it tonight. I hope there will be more collaborations between you and Dave Thomas.

  8. "Groovy" Mike Decker says:

    Thanksgiving Day is finally over and I couldn’t let it pass without saying how thankful I am for Max Allan Collins. This has been my year to get reacquainted with some old friends. This summer I picked up a DVD set of the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer TV series and it reignited the flame of my dormant Hammer fandom. I picked up all of the Spillane/Collins collaborations at Half-Price Books and have been reading them steadily.

    This, in turn, brought back some great memories of reading the early Nate Heller novels back in the eighties. In the last two months I’ve bought a complete set of the Heller Series, as well as the Eliot Ness Mysteries I also read back in the day. I am having a blast (from the past) returning to the hardboiled world of Hammer and Heller and Ness (Oh, my!) and will be leaving some glowing reviews over at amazon.

    My eyesight isn’t what it once was and it takes longer to finish a book these days, but I plan to read them all through the next year so I’ll be caught up when “The Big Bundle” and your Mickey Spillane biography comes out.

    Thank you, Max, for all the great writing you’ve done. I’ve been reading your stories, starting with the Dick Tracy comic strip, since I was 10 years old, followed by Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Adventures and the Nolan, Mallory and Heller paperbacks of the eighties. Even though I lost track of you for a while I’ve never forgotten your work. And I’m so grateful to have rediscovered it once again.

    Happy Holidays

    “Groovy” Mike Decker

  9. Andrew says:

    I’m really excited by that Heller cover. Any chance HCC will be reprinting the rest of the series? I’d love to have a matched set in that style. I’ll certainly be buying the new book (as I do with every Heller) to show support.

  10. Some lovely comments here — Mike, you really are groovy. Thanks for years of support and interest.

    Andrew, I don’t see how a Heller reprint series is possible from Hard Case. Thomas & Mercer has everything up to BETTER DEAD. And that’s a good thing, because they got everything back in print and have sold more Heller copies than anybody. I do hope to convince Charles Ardai to reprint BETTER DEAD and DO NO HARM in their trade paperback line — I have the rights back on the former and will get them back on the latter before too very long.

  11. Andrew says:

    Thanks! I had completely forgotten most of the Hellers were available from Thomas & Mercer.