Max Allan Collins Essay - Critical Essays


Max Allan Collins perceives himself as a storyteller who writes primarily to entertain readers. He shapes his stories to appeal to his audience by incorporating cultural references, jargon, and attitudes. Themes of violence and corruption resonate in Collins’s writing. He uses dark humor and irony to establish sinister tones. His stories are often set during the 1930’s Depression or wars to intensify ominous themes and suggest characters’ jaded, pessimistic outlooks. Characters, both male and female, are prone to narcissism and hedonism, with men frequently displaying misogynistic behavior.

Collins focuses on depicting unsolved twentieth century crimes in the United States, appropriating historical persons and events for his stories’ foundations. Because he manipulates history, he prints disclaimers and historical notes to distinguish fact from fiction, emphasizing that his protagonist Nathan Heller presents original, factually sound hypotheses to solve infamous cases. Name dropping in these provocative mysteries, thick with historical casts, is often overwhelming and distracts from the crime solving.

Collins creates unreliable, flawed narrators who are often angry and dishonest and survive on the periphery of society. Truth and memory are constant themes as characters lie, create stories and identities, and withhold or divulge information according to their perceptions, motivations, loyalties, and weaknesses. He frequently casts his characters as being more accurate than standard historical accounts, and Heller reveals that recorded facts are untrue. Collins enjoys surprising his readers with unexpected plot twists and variations on clichés.

Family and home are themes that contrast with horrific images in Collins’s works. He presents characters’ positive attributes, noting people and places to which they have emotional ties, to reveal their vulnerabilities and humanity, no matter how brutal they are to others. Collins emphasizes father-son relationships. Settings in Iowa and Illinois, places familiar to the author, add a sense of realism to his stories and enhance his strong visual writing style.

True Detective

In True Detective, Collins introduces Nathan Heller living in 1933 Chicago. Describing Heller’s story as a memoir, Collins implies that his investigator, using first-person narration, is recalling an incident from his past, and his memory might not be completely accurate. A police officer, Heller refuses to lie while testifying in a murder trial involving police and gangster Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s associate. After relinquishing his badge, Heller establishes a detective agency, traveling to Atlanta to meet with imprisoned Capone, who hires him to stop Nitti from killing Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. Returning to the Midwest, Heller interacts with his friends, Eliot Ness and Dutch Reagan (whose comments are humorous because Collins knows Reagan’s future election to the U.S. presidency). Heller witnesses Cermak’s assassination, which the press believes was intended for visiting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as has been explained in history texts.

Collins states that he presumes histories of infamous crimes are usually incorrect, so he reveals the truth, supported with research, through Heller’s eyes as a witness. This premise continues in his second Heller...

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