(A Nathan Heller Casebook)
By Max Allan Collins
Thomas & Mercer
I am a fan of Max Collins’ historical detective series, the Nathan Heller mysteries. From the 1940s through the 60s, each book has taken Heller on an incredible journey connecting him with many of the most celebrated criminal cases of the twentieth century. Now comes this collection of three Heller novellas, each a delicious reading gem and worthy addition to the Heller canon.
What is even more entertaining is Collins’ introductory essay on the matter of the short literary form itself. What is the difference between a novella and novelette? Or are they the same thing and is that best described as a long short story or a short novel? The fun of the essay is his insightful comprehension that the form is the product of the classic pulp tales of the 1930s and 40s. It is evident that short novels were born in the pulp magazines and have sadly morphed in an awkward, literary white elephant in this age of bloated, fat thriller novels. Collins details the history of each of the three pieces in this volume, collected here for the very first time, and how length did factor into the writing of each.
First up is “Dying in the Post-War World,” my personal favorite of the three and by far the most convoluted and gruesome. The story centers on the infamous Lipstick Killer case of 1946 where a young girl was kidnapped from her home, murdered and dismembered. A veteran of the World War Two, Heller is trying to fit into this supposedly brighter new tomorrow with a new business and a pregnant wife. Along comes this brutal case and he’s left wondering what kind of a world it truly is he and his fellow soldiers fought to persevere.
“Kisses of Death,” is an interesting entry in that it gives us Heller’s first meeting with Marilyn Monroe and their burgeoning relationship which is later explored in his recent novel, “Bye Bye Baby.” It also has Heller working in New York City, Mickey Spillane’s old stomping grounds. The tale also peeks in to the life of Chicago journalist turned screenwriter Ben Hecht is another winner.
Finally comes “Strike Zone,” about one of the most bizarre moments in professional baseball which this reviewer, a fan of the game, had never heard before. It casused me to spend a few hours on-line checking out the histories of several of these characters who participated in a madcap publicity stunt concerning the most unusual pinch hitter to ever step up to home plate in a Major League contest.
If like me, you’re a Nathan Heller fan, then you have to pick this up. If you are one of those yet to have encountered Collins’ pragmatic, world-weary hero then we can’t think of a better way to make that introduction. “Triple Play,” is very much a grand slam, no matter what your favorite sport is.