Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3443
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 replaced by Kay Michaels, who runs a model agency. Eventually, Fortune moves to a virtually secluded life bearing strong resemblance to that of many other detectives.
Although Collins chooses to place primary emphasis on characterization, he does not shortchange the reader on action. His plots are highly original, while still retaining much of the formula of detective novels. Although complex, his plots are logical and essentially free of melodrama. The motivating act is often seemingly insignificant: A man loses his lease or someone’s friend breaks an engagement. The complication that follows is the strength of Collins’s narrative. Early in the narrative, Collins mixes action scenes with scenes of quiet philosophical discussions. Each work eventually shifts into sudden and violent action. This violent action is usually not committed by Fortune, as he seldom moves to such a state; however, he is frequently its target. The building complication rapidly exposes the weaknesses and obsessions of characters, leading to a multitude of crimes, including a generous number of murders. The story line moves in various directions, acquires complementing subplots, and depends heavily on complex interrelationships among characters and events. The result is to draw Fortune deeper into the web of violence and death.
A typical Collins plot is found in Minnesota Strip, in which Fortune is hired by a young woman to find a missing Eurasian woman and the client’s boyfriend. Early in the novel it is discovered that the Eurasian woman has been brutally murdered and that the boyfriend has become a self-appointed vigilante seeking freedom and justice in the world. Fortune’s investigation takes him from the chaos of the inner city to the cleanliness and orderliness of the suburbs, from the Minnesota Strip to the California Gold Coast, and from brothels to executive suites. He encounters such characters as an Irish Italian who would like to be an American Indian because the Indians have tribes to which they belong and a supposedly benevolent man who is helping Vietnamese escape to the United States but is concerned only with his own profits. There are hangings, stabbings, shootings, and mutilations.
Collins’s novels usually move to a last climactic scene, marked by a bloodbath, in which the struggle for order and justice culminates. When the elements finally fall into place, Fortune experiences a revelation. All that remains is the explanation of the solution. This conclusion is more realistic than in most detective works. However, if a reader demands the usual fare of a clear and decisive judgment and action—a resolution that sorts out all elements and categorizes them, with the detective punishing and rewarding justly—then Collins’s works may not satisfy. His world is not this simple; the characters and actions are consistently multifaceted and often intentionally ambiguous, and the usual resolution leaves the reader knowing that greed is not abated, drugs are not eliminated, and, given the right set of circumstances, violence leading to murder is a future certainty.
Although Collins’s plots are engrossing and entertaining and often deal with significant topics in a realistic manner, the primary value of his novels is found in the highly individualized characters he creates, the sociological studies he offers, and, to a more limited degree, the philosophical statements he makes.
Act of Fear
Act of Fear well illustrates the typical setting, plot, characters, and investigatory methods found in the Dan Fortune novels. Early in the narrative, Fortune explains, “It’s not the facts, the simple events, that tell a story. It’s the background, the people and what they have inside, the scenery a man lives with, the shadows all around him he never knew were there.” Chelsea furnishes this background as well as the cast of characters and the motivation for the story. Although the residents of Chelsea are destined to live out their lives there, most of them do not have an American Dream but, instead, live with their personal nightmares, which are often bred by poverty.
In Act of Fear, three seemingly separate crimes are committed: A young, inexperienced police officer is mugged in broad daylight, and all of his possessions are taken, including his summons book; a teenage boy hires Fortune to find his friend, who has been missing for four days; and a chorus girl has been killed. Armed with few clues—primarily a losing stub on a slow horse at Monmouth Park and a charm in the shape of a red Ferrari—Fortune sets out to find the boy and, in the process, to discover the relationship among the three crimes. His investigation takes him from Chelsea to Florida, gets him pursued and beaten by criminals, brings him up against a code of silence, exposes him to several deaths, and occasionally leads him to Marty Adair for the solace her love can give. Further, the investigation brings Fortune in contact with a young female addict living in a tenement, an alcoholic who instructs mechanics, a crime lord and his henchmen, a secret lover turned killer, a woman who works at a travel bureau, and an old garage man. He also encounters a young boy who is willing to sacrifice his best friend because a girl rejected him, parents who are more worried about themselves than their children, and another young boy who shows promise of escaping the slums. As the detective moves among these people, he lectures his audience on such matters as family obligations, love and marriage, operations of the underworld, the American Dream, the rules of slum life, misplaced loyalty, and the need for self-survival. These many and varied activities are all in a book’s work for Dan Fortune, a slightly soiled knight who never quits. Even when he discovers the solution to the crimes, however, neither he nor his audience is fully satisfied with the resolution. Victory for him is always qualified.
In Red Rosa (1988), Lenny Gruenfeld hires Fortune to investigate the attempted murder of her grandmother, Rosa “Red Rosa” Gruenfeld, a leftist political activist with connections to the Communist Party. The murder takes place in Chelsea, but the action leads Fortune to North Paterson, New Jersey, where the local police resent Fortune’s investigation. Before the novel ends, the Black Liberation Front, the Communist Party, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Mafia with their ties to local politicians are all involved. As in other Fortune novels, Collins provides histories for many of his characters, especially for Rosa, who was married to Flaco and faked his death with the help of local police and who reappears later in the novel. Despite warnings (from the police and in the form of a brick through a window) and attacks, Fortune persists, even while further attempts are made on Rosa’s life. Typically, one crime leads to another, in this case the murder of Johnny Agnew, but although Fortune discovers that Rosa’s shooting was accidental and that later attempts on her life were made by her son, Agnew’s killer is not caught until the end of the novel. In a Collins twist, it is the Mafia, not the police, who “get” the villain, F. X. Keene—they shoot him. In the course of the novel, Fortune unravels motives, discovers the collusion between Keene and the North Paterson police to frame a black militant for a murder, and decides, with the help of the visiting Kay Michaels, that he is ready for California, his destination at the end of the book.
The Irishman’s Horse
In The Irishman’s Horse (1991), Forune, now living in California, takes on the job of finding Paul Valenzuela, an idealistic diplomat serving in Guatemala; his wife has not heard from him. It is a typical Fortune assignment, one that quickly mushrooms into murder and political corruption. As he investigates the murder of a drug dealer, he is aided by Sergeant Chavalas and is harassed by government agents, who encourage Valenzuela’s wife to trust the government, although several government officials are working with Guatemalan drug lords to promote American policy. The Irishman of the title is Tyrone Earl, a drug dealer who helps Fortune escape from danger and later takes him and Paul to Guatemala, where he tells them about the complicity between drug dealers and the government. After Earl gives Paul the information, Paul and Fortune return to California, where Paul and his wife are killed in a car explosion before he can reveal the incriminating evidence to the appropriate government agents. Meanwhile, Earl and his minions are attacked and killed by government troops. The person “behind the scenes” is Martin Dobson, a former elected official and successful entrepreneur who has power without any accountability. Educated at public expense, Dobson has ironically become an Ayn Rand follower and a staunch conservative. In the novel, Collins provides his readers with a sympathetic treatment of the poor and the repressed, both in Guatemala and in the United States. Reading the histories, including Fortune’s own, provides readers with the motivations and values of the poor. In this novel, however, the crimes committed by the political “haves” do pay, and the poor are punished and unsuccessful. It is one of the bleakest of the Fortune novels.
Cassandra in Red
Cassandra in Red (1992) begins with the murder of Cassandra “Iron Cassie” Reilly, a homeless political activist in Santa Barbara. The novel deals not only with the plight of the homeless but also with American xenophobia. The police who harass the homeless and the wealthy who want to take the country back from “the bums and foreigners and liberals” create a climate that leads to violence. Fortune is hired by Al Benton, the “Marx of city hall” and the “guru of the gutter.” Initially Jerry Kohner, Cassie’s boyfriend, is the suspect, but he kills himself and his family members. As Fortune probes further, he begins to suspect the Latino gangs, the Westside Rockers and the Hondos, but they are also innocent. Collins supplies his readers with individual histories that explain the motivations of Jerry and the Latino kids. In the course of the investigation Fortune is attacked and almost killed—he is saved once by Kay (one of her few appearances in the novel) and once by Super Barrio, a ludicrously costumed figure who is a kind of Latino Superman. Fortune’s attention is then devoted to the Seven, a group of students at the Western Service Institute who fancy themselves patriotic militarists devoted to maintaining the purity of the United States. Fortune’s investigation leads to the deaths of the school principal and one of the students. This novel, one of Collins’s most political, explains how the power and the fear of losing that power cause the most extreme of the “comfortable voting majority” to resort to violence. At the end of the novel Fortune does not see “any bombs bursting, any rockets glaring”; he just sees “stars and the blackness.” The novel is an indictment of the far-right.
The Cadillac Cowboy
The protagonist of The Cadillac Cowboy (1995), also set in California, is Langford “Ford” Morgan, a forty-six-year-old former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency in retirement in Costa Rica. His former wife calls Ford back to California to help her son Johnny prove that he is innocent of the charge of attempted murder of his father, Ralph Baliol. Ford soon finds himself involved in murder and corporate shenanigans. Part of the reason for Ford’s return is his notion of “unfinished business,” and he resumes sexual relations with his former wife for a while and ignores Lareina Alvaro, a wealthy and beautiful Costa Rican actress. He then becomes enamored of Barbara Allison Schoenhausen, who finally tells him that his “love” is just an “illusion.” At the end of the novel Barbara has teamed with Roy Shepherd, the “Cadillac cowboy,” a hired killer for Ralph Baliol. Because Baliol had killed his business partner Fletcher Comrie, Ford, who is a witness to Barbara killing Baliol, walks away from the murder, allowing Barbara and Shepherd to get away. Later he sees Lareina again, but their relationship is over. She decides to return to Costa Rica, and he decides to buy the Northern California company Baliol and Comrie had owned and robbed. At the end of the novel Ford realizes there is no security and that his life story is unimportant. Justice will be served not by him but by the authorities.
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