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From Sunday, 28 December 2014 to Friday, 2 January 2015, I read Max Allan Collins' True Crime (originally published in 1984, but republished by AmazonEncore [Las Vegas, NV] in 2011; ISBN: 978-1-61218-093-9; 481 pps.), on my Kindle.
cover to True Crime by Max Allan Collins

True Crime is the second book in Max Allan Collins' Frank Nitti Trilogy, and the second of his 19-book-and-counting Nathan Heller series, about an ex-Chicago cop (the full details are in True Detective; 1983) turned private eye; the conceit of the Heller series is that Heller somehow gets dragged into various real world mysteries, crimes and conspiracies so that Collins can float his own take on what might've happened without having his work marginalized to the conspiracy theory or crackpot genres. Think of Heller as Forrest Gump in film noir drag.

In this installment, Heller finds that a seemingly straightforward case of investigating marital fidelity pulls him into the orbit of the nationwide manhunt for John Dillinger; after the events of 22 July 1934, Heller takes on another seemingly mundane case of searching for the wayward daughter of a tubercular ex-farmer, only to find himself cheek-by-jowl with a Who's Who of Public Enemies, plotting the proverbial "last big score" to finance their retirement, only this score is a hell of a lot more interesting than your typical bank or jewelry heist.

I liked True Crime slightly better than its predecessor, True Detective, mainly because Collins made a very convincing case for Dillinger's survival; in his afterword ("I Owe Them One"), Collins gives a fairly exhaustive round-up of his main sources, with special recognition given to Jay Robert Nash's "Dillinger's not dead" theories (published in Dillinger -- Dead or Alive [1970], Citizen Hoover [1972], Bloodletters and Badmen [1973], and the revised and expanded edition of the first book, published in 1983 as The Dillinger Dossier), although he takes pains to note: "I do not draw exactly the same conclusions from the evidence at hand as does Nash, so he should not be held accountable for the version of Dillinger's 'death' as told in these pages." My only previous significant exposure to the notion that Dillinger really wasn't gunned down outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre on a hot summer's night in 1934 was in the pages of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. While some of the details in True Crime verge on being overwhelming, they're nowhere nearly as head-snapping (if not mind-expanding...) as those crammed into The Illuminatus! Trilogy. (It does help, however, if you're willing to make a few sidebar searches with Google to fill in some of the details for some of the historical persons who appear in the pages of True Crime.)

Nathan Heller is an interesting, mostly congenial shamus: he's tough and persistent without being superhuman or vicious (he rarely goes armed, at least partly because his father committed suicide with a firearm); he's reasonably fair and honest without being a plaster saint (hey, it's Chicago); and he's an intelligent man with several glaring blind spots. Some readers may be put off by the latter, as he makes two ginormous gaffes in True Crime that land him in more hot water than most of us would ever want to be in; then again, without these errors, there would be no story here, just another counterfactual true crime "history."

Collins' prose style is no frills and WYSIWYG (which is exactly what I wanted after John le Carré's A Perfect Spy), and he lards True Crime (and True Detective) with plentiful, mundane period details that are mostly successful at conveying the feeling of the time and place (the Murphy bed in Heller's office is nearly a character in and of itself here); at times, however, he nearly oversells his research, which threatens to turn True Crime into a Nostalgia Illustrated-themed version of the children's game "I Spy." (That said, Heller's dismissal of the song stylings of Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians made me smile.) Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti is a more subdued presence in True Crime than he was in True Detective, for obvious, plot-related reasons; Nitti's power and influence over Heller (as, indeed, over all of Cook County, Illinois and, to a lesser extent, a goodly portion of the Midwest) is more interesting and sinister here than in the previous book, at least in part because of Nitti's relative lack of "screen time." Collins convinces the reader that Nitti was at his most dangerous when he was at his most avuncular.

And although it would've had no place in True Crime, trivia-happy readers of a certain (admittedly sophomoric) mindset may feel faintly disappointed by the fact that Collins ignores the rumor that Dillinger's reportedly absurdly large penis ("14 in. flaccid, 20 in. erect," according to The Book of Lists 2 by Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Sylvia Wallace [NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.; 1980; ISBN: 0-688-03574-4; 551 pps.], p. 324) was on display at either the Smithsonian Institution or the Medical Museum of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (subsequently moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center). Given that the final chapter of True Crime consists of Heller giving a "Where are they now?" round-up a few decades after the events of the novel, Collins could've easily had Heller raise (ahem) and dismiss this rumor, to the relief of most of his male readers.


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



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