The Washington Times ran my On Crime column on Max Allen Collins’ The Big Bundle.
This interesting and insightful crime novel is about a fictional private eye traversing through a begone era and a true and once famous child kidnapping.
You can read the column via the below link or the text below:
In “The Big Bundle,” Max Allan Collins’ 18th novel featuring Nathan Heller, the private detective appears alongside Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, as well as historical crime and law enforcement figures involved in the real-life kidnapping of a millionaire’s son in 1953.
I contacted Mr. Collins and asked him to describe “The Big Bundle.”
“In many respects, it’s a private eye thriller in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane,” Mr. Collins replied. “I was moving to a new publisher, Hard Case Crime, and knew their audience was steeped in hardboiled fiction and might be put off by the famous crimes I usually look at in a Nathan Heller novel. The real-life case in ‘The Big Bundle,’ quite well known in the 1950s but forgotten now, allowed me to put the emphasis on the noir aspect of the Heller novels and not be accused of teaching a “history lesson.”
How would you describe Nathan Heller?
“Heller is a businessman who starts out in a small office where he sleeps on a Murphy bed and winds up with a coast-to-coast detective agency. He is not the typical Phillip Marlowe-style modern-day knight who would never take a bribe or seduce a virgin — Heller has done both and often indulges in situational ethics. Unlike most fictional private eyes, he marries (more than once) and is a father and had a father and mother and even grandparents. He ages with the years. At any age, Heller recoils at injustice in society and serves up rough justice when he feels it necessary. He not only knows where the bodies are buried, he has buried more than his share.”
Why have you written a series of crime novels based on historical events with a fictional character interacting with historical figures?
“Rereading ‘The Maltese Falcon’ for a college class I was teaching in the early 1970s, I noticed the 1929 copyright. I had a light-bulb moment: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was 1929 — Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries! Instead of Mike Hammer meeting a Capone type, I could have Capone meeting a Mike Hammer type. It was a fresh way into a form that had gone stale,” Mr. Collins (seen in the bottom photo) explained. “What evolved, from the initial novel about Frank Nitti’s Chicago (“True Detective,” 1983), was Heller solving famous unsolved or controversially solved crimes, like the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahila murder, the assassinations of Huey Long and JFK. Often, I substitute him for a real detective involved in a case. Heller becomes a sort of ‘private eye witness’ to history.”
How did you research the history that you use in “The Big Bundle”?
“Less was available about the Greenlease case than with most mysteries Heller has tackled — both Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, the Roswell incident, required dealing with a staggering number of books and voluminous newspaper and magazine material. Only a handful of books about the Greenlease kidnapping existed to draw upon in “The Big Bundle.” But the political aspect — Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa’s involvement in the aftermath of the ransom’s disappearance — meant referring to several dozen nonfiction works, as well as the usual newspaper and magazine articles, which the kidnapping itself also generated. The idea is that I prepare to write the definitive nonfiction book on a real crime or mystery. Then I write a private eye novel instead.
Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you about the kidnapping and other elements you use in your novel?
“Automobiles were everywhere in the narrative, befitting the postwar boom in car buying and interstate travel. Key events took place at a famous no-tell motel, the Coral Court, outside St. Louis. A crooked taxicab company was caught up in the probable theft of half the ransom, and every criminal in the case seemed either to drive a Caddy or want to — purchased inevitably at one of the many Midwestern Cadillac dealerships owned by the kidnap victim’s father.”
Do you plan to continue the Nathan Heller series?
“Too Many Bullets” has been completed, with Heller present in the pantry at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert Kennedy was shot. It’s an open-and-shut case, supposedly, yet the research indicates otherwise. In many respects, the real story is like something out of Raymond Chandler: hit men, crooked cops, a crazy hypnotist, a duplicitous showgirl. That comes out in October, again from Hard Case Crime. There may be one more after that. The degree of difficulty here is high, however, and I just turned 75, so it depends on how well Heller and I hold up.”
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.
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The Big Bundle
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime, $22.99, 304 pages