Robert Goldsborough interviews Max Allan Collins

If Max Allan Collins is not the most productive writer in the mystery and suspense field, I would be hard-pressed to find another nominee. He has written more than 80 novels, many of them components of seven different series. His works include his 14 highly acclaimed Nate Heller books, the CSI series, and the New York Times bestseller "Saving Private Ryan."

In addition, he has been a scripter of the "Dick Tracy" comic strip, and his graphic novel "Road to Perdition" was the source of the film starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, and Stanley Tucci. He also is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. He has won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award (twice) and the Bouchercon Anthony Award, and has been nominated for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award in both fiction and non-fiction categories.

Max has long been an inspiration to me, among other reasons because of his ability to brilliantly blend real and fictional characters in his novels, many set against the backdrop of actual events, including the Lindberg kidnapping, Amelia Earhart's doomed final flight, and Huey Long's assassination.

I recently asked Max to share some of his thoughts about mixing fact and fiction in mystery/suspense writing. Following is our conversation.

Robert Goldsborough

Goldsborough: In so many of your novels, you have mixed historical figures with your fictional ones. Are there historical figures–or types–who are especially attractive to you as subjects?

Collins: I'm particularly interested in exploring figures in 20th century history who have fed the popular culture–Eliot Ness, Al Capone, Wyatt Earp. To me, it's fascinating to see the reality behind the myth. I'm not myth-busting, though. The three I mentioned led lives fully worthy of generating myths. And always the truth about such figures is more interesting than the Hollywood versions.

Along those same lines, I've tried to examine the private eye myth in its historical context. The hardboiled/noir private eye became a part of the popular culture when Hammett and Chandler defined the character as a genre hero in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. I wanted to dig into the convention and even the clichés of the P.I. in a historical context. Usually in the Nate Heller novels, Heller stands in for the real investigator, often a private eye or insurance investigator. That way, he doesn't feel shoehorned in.

Goldsborough: In several books, you have used famous events as your centerpiece. Do you go to the places where these events occurred? And if you do, do you find the visit gives you a better understanding of the historical event(s)?

Collins: With my primary research associate, George Hagenauer, I've visited virtually all of the Chicago locations in the Nate Heller memoirs. We did a big walking tour of the Loop in '81, and much of what we saw then is gone now. Sometimes time or money makes it impossible for me to visit a location, so I turn to others. I had a friend who was teaching on Saipan take photos and do research there for "Flying Blind," the Amelia Earhart novel. But I did to go Nassau for "Carnal Hours" and to Hawaii for "Damned in Paradise." Seeing the actual place is helpful–it's like location scouting for a film. It's not until you see how tiny the pillars are at the Baton Rouge Capitol–which Long's assassin supposedly hid behind, lying in wait, a physical impossibility–that certain questions start popping into your brain.

Goldsborough: Any anecdotes about those visits?

Collins: Probably the most memorable was sitting around the pool at the Flamingo in Vegas with a retired pit boss who had worked the opening weekend of the casino/hotel. He dispelled the story that the opening was a flop–it wasn't, it was huge–but Ben "Bugsy" Siegel hadn't finished enough hotel rooms, meaning his customers stayed at other hotels and did much of their gambling off-site. He also pointed out several rose bushes under which he claimed certain disloyal employees had gone to rest.

Another prime anecdote had to do with a Cleveland trip George Hagenauer made without me. We did numerous Cleveland visits researching Eliot Ness. George was checking out Kingsbury Run, the nasty gulley where the Med Butcher did his thing, and got chased by a pack of wild dogs for his trouble.

Goldsborough: As a result of writing about real people, have you ever gotten any reaction from their descendants?

Collins: I've had very positive contact with friends and relatives of Sally Rand and Barney Ross, both recurring characters in the Heller novels. Film director William Friedkin, who liked "True Detective," was a nephew or something of one of the crooked cops in that book. The most trouble I've had came from Amelia Earhart fans who were furious that I depicted her as bisexual. I do the research and calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Goldsborough: Do you have any general advice for mystery writers who want to mix fact and fiction in their work?

Collins: The biggest temptation is to put in every scrap of research. You remember the long hours you put in, plus you get fascinated with the subject in a way that doesn't always jibe with the novelist's mission to entertain. The research that shows in the book is the tip of the iceberg that (a) allows the reader to extrapolate the rest of the iceberg, and (b) provides solid if off-stage underpinning that makes the writer confident that the time and place are being shared with the reader.

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Comment by Craig Clarke on June 9, 2007 at 6:07am
Great interview with one of my favorite authors. Thanks for posting this (though I just now found it because I'm new).
Comment by Dennis Leppanen on April 11, 2007 at 3:46am
Hhhhmmm, never had heard of Collins before this. I really connected with his advice on the temptation of using all the research you gleen. I have two historical crime novels in the hopper so this is very timely.

Thanks, Robert

I'm gonna have to read something of his. What would you start with?

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