Michael Collins Essay - Critical Essays

Dennis Lynds


Dennis Lynds once said of “Michael Collins” that heis more than a pen name; he is my alter ego—part of me that isn’t the same man who writes my other books. I live far from New York now, but Collins will never leave that complex city-world where everything changes and yet never changes. When I decided to write about Dan Fortune, his city and his people, I knew I needed Michael Collins—the perpetual New Yorker no matter where he is.

Michael Collins and his creation, Dan Fortune, are associated with the Chelsea district on the East Side of New York City. Collins presents a microcosm heavily burdened with crime and poverty. The cast of characters in each novel is large and complex, with virtually all characters playing significant roles. People of numerous nationalities mingle, and multiple ethnic groups struggle to form a cohesive society. Highly varied occupations must fit into the human puzzle: police, priests, prostitutes, smugglers, merchants, racketeers, gangsters, show girls, addicts, gamblers, professional people, and crime lords. Collins presents the communality of the members of Chelsea society as being greater than their differences; the people of Chelsea share ambitions, needs, fears, and weaknesses.

Along with a few continuing characters, each of the Dan Fortune mysteries offers its own memorable cast. For example, in Freak (1983), much of the action centers on a four-member band of criminals with extensive records. Jasper “J. J.” Murdoch, the leader of the gang, had been mauled and castrated by a bear when young and therefore cannot have sexual relations with women. This caused him to develop a perverted antisocial nature and turn to smashing things and committing brutal killings. Second in command is a large black man with the well-earned name of Dog; the remaining two members of the group are the American Indian Charley and Flaco Sanchez.

As psychological studies, the Fortune novels explore questions pertaining to the evil and violent actions of people. Because few of the characters are stereotyped, virtually all have some saving graces; despite social and economic differences, most characters also have a dark side and the potential for violence and brutality. Collins rips the facades off normal citizens to reveal the violence hidden beneath and the propensity to commit crime. His typical characters wrestle with their fates: The weakest succumb to evil and crime, and the strongest fight against it, yet destiny can destroy any of them. The revelation of true character comes at a moment of crisis; the inner person builds up over an extended period of time and finally explodes into overt action. Although the result is frequently brutal and violent, Collins still saw himself as an optimist; as he once explained, “I write about the darkness in man because I believe it doesn’t have to be dark, and that makes me an optimist.”

Although Collins populates his novels primarily with the criminal element, he gives the works needed contrast and balance by introducing various socially acceptable characters. His ability to weave the divergent elements into a literary whole may well be his greatest strength as a novelist. Skillful handling of interrelationships among the characters is demonstrated in Blue Death (1975), in which Franklin Weaver of International Metals and Refining, an executive, is driven by his business concerns to become involved in four deaths. In this mystery, the plot moves far below the corporate level to include such people as a belly dancer and her husband, as well as other executives and scientists. The settings also shift—from cheap hotels and lowly bars to luxurious office suites and penthouses.

As a protagonist in detective fiction, Dan Fortune is both conventional and unconventional. He must serve as a master investigator who gathers, retains, and fits together the often seemingly disparate pieces relating to a crime. Average in size and appearance and dressed in an old blue duffle coat and a black beret, Fortune patrols the Chelsea district, where he has his office-apartment in a loft. His one distinctive physical feature is his missing left arm. Because of this handicap, dating back to his boyhood, and because he seldom carries his old “cannon,” Fortune poses little physical threat to his opponents. However, he has learned to compensate, to use what abilities he does possess. His limited fighting skills consist of cunning, speed, good legs (he is not ashamed to run if conditions favor it), and a quick wit. He will act when necessary; he simply does not seek out or relish violence. The lost arm actually works to his advantage in some ways; for example, it humanizes him in the eyes of others. Also, while the loss tends to alienate him, it drives him to assert his selfhood. Collins indirectly, but effectively, makes the reader aware that the world is filled with disabled people and that virtually all are worse off than Fortune, especially the motley population of Chelsea.

Fortune’s inner strength sets him apart from his fellow private investigators. Among his many ennobling traits is his great compassion for others—criminals as well as their victims—especially the downtrodden. As a very sensitive person, even “something of a sentimentalist,” he has to guard against becoming too emotionally involved with his clients. Also, as the pseudophilosopher of the slums, he has to guard against becoming too “preachy”; he often makes pithy comments on various aspects of life.

Essentially a passive man, Fortune seems to be sought out by crime. Minnesota Strip (1987) offers a typical start to one of his cases. A young woman, seeking his aid in finding her boyfriend and a young Eurasian woman, explains how she chose him from the telephone book: “Your name sounded like good luck: Dan Fortune. Your address sounded cheap. I didn’t know about the arm.” He accepts the mission and, because of his compassion, charges a much lower rate than usual. Like this case, which becomes a study of prostitution, drug trafficking, white slavery, arms smuggling, and terrorism and involves at least ten violent deaths, all of Fortune’s cases tend to burgeon. Despite his reluctance, he is drawn into complicated patterns of crime and violence. In attempting to solve his cases, Fortune does not try to manipulate lives—only to understand them as well as his own. He has a driving need to gain answers to basic human questions and dilemmas, and the role of private investigator gives him the license to inquire. His findings are often presented to his readers in the form of a miniature lecture or sermon.

Fortune has great fluidity of movement among the various social and economic classes—a decided advantage for a private investigator. He has good relationships with the police, especially with Captains Gazzo and Pearce in New York and Sergeant Gus Chavalas in Santa Barbara, and even has a long-lasting, if somewhat ambiguous, relationship with Andy Pappas, a crime lord. His strongest ties, however, are to the poor; he recognizes their shared characteristics as well as their individual needs. A lonely figure, he rides (more often walks) like a knight through the mire and muck of the Chelsea district. He is essentially without armor, made vulnerable by his passion and sacrifice for truth. He not only “gets dirty” in his investigation of the slime found in Chelsea, but also is shot, beaten, drugged, held prisoner, bombarded by insults, and injured in various other ways. Also, there are few women waiting to comfort him; he has only occasional sexual relationships, frequently with women as alienated as he. Nevertheless, he is always determined to fulfill his mission and to complete his quest, even at the risk of his own life.

Throughout his many exploits, the character of Fortune undergoes few changes. Middle-aged when he first appears in Act of Fear, he ages very little in the following novels. He does increase his daily fee and expenses, but he is sometimes too modest to insist on them. His personal relationships undergo some modification; for example, his friend on the police force, Captain Gazzo, is gunned down on the East Side in The Nightrunners (1978) and replaced by Captain Pearce at Homicide Central, and his bartender-friend, Joe Harris, ceases to appear in the works. Fortune also loses his girlfriend, Marty Adair, to the West Coast and marriage. She is...

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