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A Q&A with Max Allan Collins

Question:
Chicago Lightningis a story collection about private detective Nate Heller. It's a rich collection, yet the stories number only 13--meaning that since 1984 (when the first Heller book,True Detective, came out), you've published only one short story for every novel.

Max Allan Collins: That wasn't intentional. I'm not a prolific short-story writer. I'm a novelist at heart, and these stories are all fairly long; little novels. Each one is a commitment--a lot of research goes into them. Like the novels, they're based on real cases.

Q: The stories mostly deal with little-known crimes, whereas the novels deal with some of the major mysteries of the 20th century: the Lindbergh kidnapping in Stolen Away, the Huey Long assassination in Blood and Thunder. Why look into these smaller, more obscure cases?

MAC: Well, that's the fun of it, isn't it? It shows Nate Heller in a different light. These are in fact the kind of cases that might have walked into a private eye's office in Chicago in the 1930s and '40s. And they're "small" only in the sense that they aren't well known. Some very famous names do appear--Eliot Ness is in two stories--and some of the gangsters are famous (or infamous, anyway). Frank Nitti and Mickey Cohen, for example.

Q: How did you find these lesser-known cases?

MAC: My longtime research associate, George Hagenauer, and I mostly scour vintage true-crime magazines. Then we do newspaper research and sometimes even visit the locations. What I like about these stories is that they tap into the roots of the classic noir detective, who began in pulps like Black Mask and in stories by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The whole idea of Nate Heller is to put the private detective back in the historical context he grew out of--and into real-life cases.

Q: What's the meaning of the title Chicago Lightning? Not all the stories are set in Chicago.

MAC: No, they aren't, but Nate Heller is a Chicago guy through and through. "Chicago lightning" means "gunfire" in Prohibition-era slang. Mike Hammer has New York, Philip Marlowe has L.A., Spenser has Boston, but Nate Heller long ago laid claim to mid-20th-century Chicago. And Chicago is the great crime capital of the U.S.A. Maybe the world.

Q: In some ways, Nate Heller is a typical private eye of the old school: tough and brave, with an eye for the ladies. But he doesn't always play by the Raymond Chandler "mean streets" code. He sometimes quits cases, takes bribes, sleeps around.

MAC: I've gone to some lengths to make Heller human, and to make him a specific human. Doing the classic private eye can put a writer in a narrative straightjacket--a lot of writers of this kind of story obey all of Chandler's "rules," not understanding that he meant those rules for himself and his Philip Marlowe character. I want Heller to be a real man: flesh-and-blood, flawed, but still able to maintain a certain shabby dignity.

Q: Will there be more Nathan Heller short stories?

MAC: I can't say. That will depend on whether or not George and I come across some other intriguing cases for Heller to look into. There will be a second collection, Triple Play, that gathers three short Heller novels. It comes out next April. One of the stories, "Kisses of Death," describes the circumstances of Heller's meeting Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s.

Q: What's next for Nate Heller?

MAC: In addition to Triple Play, there will be a novel, Target Lancer, that has to do with the Kennedy assassination. After Nate's nearly 10-year hiatus, I'm hoping to get back to a Heller novel a year for a while. Having all the Nate Heller series back in print is very gratifying. Many readers don't want to get involved with a series if the other books aren't available.

On the other hand, the Heller novels can be read in just about any order--I didn't write them in strict chronological order. The stories in Chicago Lightning are arranged by the year when the events take place, not the year when I wrote the stories. For people who haven't read any of the books, Chicago Lightning provides a really good sampling. With the novels, it's probably a good idea to read True Detective, True Crime, and The Million-Dollar Wound first. That's the Frank Nitti trilogy that started the saga.

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review by . January 08, 2013
The short story isn't something that I normally read, which is unfortunate. It's a great art, where the author has to convey quite a bit in a compressed time frame. Because of this, some aspects you would normally expect while reading a novel are missing, such as detailed character development. However, if you pick up a collection of short stories centered on one figure, for example, Chicago Lightning, by Max Allan Collins, the reader is able to learn quite a bit about the central character …
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