True Detective, by Max Allan Collins

[Detective] Miller stood planted there like one of the lions in front of the Art Institute, only meaner-looking. Also, the lions were bronzed and he was tarnished copper.

I discovered, after I had bought True Detective, the first of Max Allan Collins’s Nate Heller novels, that it was one I’d already read, some time back. Nevertheless I didn’t regret the purchase. I’d forgotten what an extremely fine book this is—one of those few novels that lifts the hard-boiled mystery to a new level.

All the Heller books are good. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s impossible to keep a series from becoming formulaic after a while. With the Heller books, you have a series where the same private eye somehow manages to be on the scene for almost every important murder in America between 1930 and 1970. Each one is plausible individually, but they stretch credibility in the aggregate.

But this first novel deserves a place all its own. Collins’s own contemplation of the hard-boiled genre led him to want to write a book that stretched the limits and broke the rules, not with malice but for a reason. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was an honorable man, trying to keep clean in a dirty world. Collins’s detective, Nate Heller, is a soiled man, trying to find a way to preserve some degree of integrity. He’s a tragic character, and True Detective is a genuine tragedy, with a plot that functions like the mechanism of a guillotine.

I’ve told you about Nate Heller before. When this book starts, he’s a detective on the pickpocket squad of the Chicago Police Department. One day two detectives summon him—against his will—to follow them on a raid. It turns out to be an attempt to assassinate gangster Frank Nitti. Nitti survives—barely–but Nate ends up killing a man. In disgust, he quits the force and sets up as a private eye.

True Detective actually centers on the murder of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (Heller’s inside account doesn’t match the one in the history books), but it also involves the Chicago World’s Fair. I was particularly impressed by the climax, which was as heart-stopping as any I’ve ever read, and the payoff was a heartbreaker.

So if you’re a fan of hard-boiled, I recommend True Detective highly.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult content.

All that remains in this review is to find a way, in spite of my admiration for his book, to insult the author.

Because Max Allan Collins has shown up in our comments, not once but twice, to answer my criticisms. And that’s deeply satisfying to my pathetic ego.

So here it is:

You say, “In the first Nathan Heller novel, TRUE DETECTIVE, one of my goals was to have my very much Marlowe-derived detective break all of Chandler’s rules…including despoiling a virgin.”

Well, you know what? Heller doesn’t know she’s a virgin!

Your Heller is a white knight, Collins! A WHITE KNIGHT!

That ought to get a rise out of him.

3 thoughts on “True Detective, by Max Allan Collins”

  1. Thanks for this lovely review.

    I realize Heller despoiled his virgin on a technicality — but that still counts.

    Did you pick up on the MALTESE FALCON reference, set up by the epigram?

  2. I noted that it was by Hammet. My erudition failed me beyond that.

    I also meant to praise you for including Ronald Reagan as a minor character, without taking a cheap shot at him (I’m sure the inherent humor of depicting his political views at the time would have made him laugh too). That must have taken considerable authorial self-control.

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