Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 30, 2019


A Long Time Dead by Micky Spillane & Max Allan Collins (2016)
Quarry in the Black by Max Allan Collins (2016)
Quarry's Climax by Max Allan Collins (2017)
Fate of the Union by Max Allan Collins with Mtthew V. Clemens (2015)
Executive Order by Max Allan Collins with Matthew V. Clemens (2017)
Better Dead by Max Allan Collins (2016)
Men's Adventure Magazines with text by Max Allan Collins and George Hagenaur (2008)

Over the past week and a half I read seven books by Max Allan Collins.  Collins, a MWA Grand Master and recipient of the PWA Life Achievement Award, is certainly not a "forgotten" author and his books have been well-received, but the sumbitch writes so much that many (like me) find it hard to catch up and sometimes a book will fall through the cracks.  I can't keep count, but I think he's pubished over 150 books -- and that doesn't count video games, mystery jigsaw puzzles, comic books, and anthologies.  (He also writes and directs independent films and is a musician -- his 60s revival band Cruisin' has been inducted into the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and has opened for some of the biggest names in rock.)

About the headline above:  Since this review covers a number of his books, I felt that Max Allan Collins deserved a collective title.  "Murder" had already been taken by crows; "Collection" would be confusing because only a small amount of his books are collections; "Cacophony"?  That's just not right.  Anyway, I settled on "Contagion" because that's what his writing is:  contagious.  You can't eat just one Lays potato chip.  Likewise, you can't read just one Collins if there are others laying around.  His finely-honed, swift-moving prose grabs you and doesn't let go until the end and you find yourself searching for more.

Now, on to the books in question.

Collins was a long-time friend of writer Mickey Spillane as well as a longer-time admirer of his work.  Before Spillane's death, they edited four crime anthologies together, and collaborated on comic books and several films.  Shortly before Spillane's death, he asked Collins if he would finish his work in progress, The Killing Bone.  Spillane also asked his wife to give any unfinished work to Collins -- "He'll know what to do."  Collins took the incomplete manuscripts, notes, and fragments and carefully constructed a number of books and short stories from them, with more to come.  A Long Time Dead collects the eight Mike Hammer stories that resulted in this posthumous collaboration:

  • "The Big Switch"  Donald Dilbert, known by many as "Dopey Dilldocks," was not the smartest kid on the block.  He was just an innocuous messenger who happened to be found guilty of murder and sentenced to die.  Shortly before his execution date he asked to see Mike Hammer and told him the he had been framed.  Hammer has less than two days to stop the execution and deliver justice Hammer-style.  This story was selected for The Best Crime and Mystery Stories of 2009.
  • "Fallout" A 2006 Scribe Award winning story.  Hammer, suffering from insomnia, had taken to long walks at night, following the same route each time -- a route that would take him past the site where he happened to see a hooker hit and killed by a runaway driver a month before.  During the month that followed there had been three "incidents" that could have been attempts on Hammer's life.  Then the night-time building guard where Hammer had his office was murdered...
  • "A Long Time Dead" Nominated for the CWA Dagger Award, a Thriller Award, and a PWA Shamus Award, this story was selected for Best American Mystery Stories of 2011.  Grant Kratch, sadistic killer of at least three dozen women, had been executed.  He was dead.  He was really dead.  So why did Mike Hammer see him getting into a New York City taxi when the serial killer was supposed to be long gone?
  • "Grave Matter"  Bill Reynolds, auto mechanic turned war hero, came back missing an arm and a leg.  His wife left him and he could not get work at any garage; his new prosthetics worked well, but not well enough to be an auto mechanic.  The last time Hammer saw him, Reynolds was feeling good  and was about to start work as a handyman at an estate upstate in a town named Hopeful -- the town's name being a good omen perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  Reynolds' body, spine broken, was found in the city park.  Local police did not investigate, saying he had probably been hit by a car.  In standard B-movie horror fashion, Reynolds had been hired by a beautiful and reclusive scientist working in unnatural waters and attended only by a large, thuggish mute.  Hammer, on the way to investigate, ran his car into a ditch during a violent storm and had to find refuge in the creepy mansion.  Cue eerie music.
  • "So Long, Chief"  2014 winner of both the Shamus and the Scribe Awards, and nominated for an Edgar.  Forty-three years ago, a newly promoted police detective turned Hammer's life around.  Hammer was a young kid then and running numbers for the mob.  The cop who made Hammer take a different path ended up as police chief, retiring before Hammer began his brief career as a cop.  Now the Chief was dying and Hammer came to pay his respects.  The dying man gives Hmmer a key without telling him what it opens.  Then, with maybe a day or so left to him, the Chief is murdered in his hospital bed.
  • "A Dangerous Cat"  The neighbors across the way from Hammer had moved and had left their cat behind.  The cat, being very cat-like,  adopted Hammer.  Coming home, Hammer is greeted in the hallway by the cat, but Hammer knew that the cat had been locked in his apartment when he left.  This was the third odd thing that had happened to Hammer in recent days.  First a car had tried to run him down, then he had been winged by a bullet from a barroom brawl, and now someone had broken into his apartment.  Instict had Hammer calling his friend Pat Chambers to get a bomb-smelling dog to his apartment.  The dog narrowed in on eight sticks of dynamite.  Who is after Hammer this time and why?  The story ends with a five-word sentence that is the essence of Mickey Spillane.
  • "It's in the Book"  Don Nicholas Giraldi, head of one of New York's Mafia families, has died.  Rumor had it that the Don had kept a hand-written ledger of every transaction and every deal he had ever made.  Hammer is hired by a U.S. senator to find the book, which could not only incriminate himself but also the president.  The Don's nephew also wants the book.  Hammer, of course, quickly finds the journal and outfoxes the mafia, collecting a fee from both the mafia and the senator.  The story ends with a fitting and surprising twist.
  • "Skin"  Hammer spots a dog on the side of the road, body stetched out, pointing toward some bushes, teeth bared.  Hammer stops his car and takes a look.  There's a mangled body in the bushes.  "If it weren't for the hand lying next to the carnage wreaked on a human body, you would have thought it was road kill that half a dozen vehicles had rolled over."  Turns out that the area has had a spate of graverobbing over the past few years, always beautiful women who had died young, two or three a year.  But this body was a man and the fingerprints on the severed hand cameback as those of Victor King, a famous Broadway producer who had vanished the month before.  The hand was King's but the body wasn't -- and the body was fresh.  Hammer meets up with a pretty young newscaster and a homicidal maniac with a skinning machine.  This story takes place in the late nineties.  (All eight stories are presented in chronological order according to Hammer's timeline, from the 60s to the 90s.)  Hammer may be older, perhaps slower, but he remains the engine of justice he has always been.
Collins has taken Spillane's fragments and notes and produce stories true to Spillane's legacy.  Perhaps too well.  Although trying to do justice to Spillane's style, some of the stories (IMHO) read better than Spillane himself.

Quarry, the hitman protagonist of Max Allan Collins' longest-running series, has been around since 1976's The Broker (republished as Quarry), in which the returning Vietnam vet arrives home a day early, only to catch his wife in bed with her lover.  Quarry crushed the lover beneath a car and soon got an offer to be an assassin for a mysterious middleman known as the Broker.  Quarry has been the subject of a movie and of a television show and was lately the subject of a graphic novel, Quarry's War.  In Quarry in the Black, he is still working for the Broker  He and his sometime partner (the Broker's hitmen always work in pairs) are sent to Ferguson, Missouri, to dispatch a Black civil rights leader, thought to be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.  The target is linked to Eugene McCarthy's run for the White House.  Quarry usually doesn't do racial or political assassinations, but he is assured that the hit is due to the target's drug dealing.  But now Quarry has to face a couple of Nazi country boys, the St. Louis mob, and a KKK Klavern, learning that his target has never dealt drugs.  Quarry has to maneuver these various obstacles and figure out a way not to kill his target.  The Quarry books are fast and violent and  have a lot of graphic sex and this one is no different in that regard.

In Quarry's Climax, the titular anti-hero's assignment is not to kill someone, but rather to save someone from assassination.  The Broker had been contacted about an assignment to kill a pornographer based in Memphis.  The Broker turns down the assignment because he has a financial interest in the target's strip club and "adult" (think gynocology) magazine.  Knowing that someone else is certain to take up the contract, the Broker sends Quarry and his some-time partner Boyd to Memphis to prevent the hit from taking place.  It's not enough to take out the other team; Quarry must also figure out who ordered the hit in the first place and eliminate that threat also.  More violence.  More sex.  And more great action-packed reading.

In 2014 Collins and his frequent collaborator Matthew V. Clemens released Supreme Justice, the first in a trilogy of thrillers focused on the three branches of American government.  This first volume concentrated on a plot against the Supreme Court.  It was followed up by 2014's Fate of the Union, dealing with the legislative branch.  One of the main characters in the trilogy was Joe Reeder, a former Secret Service Agent who had been assigned to presidential protection.  Reeder had taken a bullet saving the president, becoming a national hero.  His career ended when he openly criticized that president, whose policies Reeder hated.  Reeder became a private investigator in D.C.  The other main character was FBI Special Agent Patti Rogers.

Reeder is straight, divorced with a college-age daughter and is a liberal.  Rogers is a mild conservative, possibly gay, possibly bi, and some years younger than Reeder.  There is no romance among them, in case you were wondering, but there is a strong affection between the two and they work well together.

A retired colleague of Reeder's is dead of a suspected suicide, but Reeder is not convinced.  Meanwhile Rogers is heading a special task force looking into a series of possibly related murders seemingly random victims, killed months apart, each killed by a double tap to the head. The cases begin to converge with hints of a vast conspiracy against the heart of the government and a plot to blow up Congress and the Senate.  Reeder, Rogers, and her team face almost impossible odds as they race to stop the greatest threat the country has ever faced.

Another character in the trilogy was Miguel Altuve, an FBI computer wizard.  Altuve is known as "Miggie."  I mention this because the actor Miguel "Miggie" Ferrar was a close friend of Max Allan Collins and I suspect Collins "Tuckerized" his friend in this trilogy.  "Miggie" has an even greater role in the final book in the trilogy, which was published the year Ferrar died.

One character introduced in Fate of the Union was Kevin Lockwood, who as "Virginia Plain" was a successful drag queen.  By the final book in the trilogy, Kevin and Rogers are dating.

The trilogy closes out with Executive Order, which focuses on the executive branch.  The Secretary of the Interior has died from an allergic reaction to sesame "accidently" included in her sandwich.  Reeder, who had known and dated the secretary after his divorce, thinks it was murder.  The country's economy is doing poorly and there are federal budgets cuts looming -- on the chopping block is Rogers' FBI team.  To avoid this, she needs a headline-grabbing case to keep the pencil pushers of her back and to retain her team.  Reeder suggests that she look in the the Interior Secretary's death.

In Azbekistan, four CIA agents have been sent, against the president's orders, to scope out a planned Russian invasion.  Somehow the invasion began sooner than their intelligence had said it would and all four were killed by Russian soldiers.  Hardliners are demanding action and WWIII appears to be on the horizon.  At home, several government agents have been killed.  It's all a part of a large plot hatched by powerful members of the same group that was behind the plot in the previous book -- the group that Reeder and Rogers thought had been destroyed.  This time they plan to place one of their own in the presidency by eliminating the president, vice president, and cabinet.  This organization's tentacles extend everywhere and Reeder and Rogers soon find themselves wanted by law officials.  As the tension ratchets up, all the pair have to do is get past the ultra-high security at Camp David and save the president. 

The Reeder/Rogers books are pure high-tension suspense, reminescent of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels set on a larger stage.

Perhaps Collins' most signature character is Nathan Heller, who started as a private eye in Chicago in the thirties and eventually ended up connected with some of the most famous cases of the twentieth century.  His cases have involved notorious gangsters (Nitti, Ma Barker, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Jack Ruby), politicians (Anton Cernak, Huey Long, the Kennedys), famous personalilties (Amelia Earhart, Marilyn Monroe, Sally Rand, Barney Ross, Charles Lindburgh, Bill Veeck), and such events as the Roswell UFO case and the murder of Harry Oakes.  All of the Heller stories are based on actual events and are thoroughy researched, allowing Collins to come up with plausible alternative solutions and surprise twists.

(A timeline of Heller's life written by Bill slankhard was printed this week on Collins official web site.  It makes intersting reading and you can find it here:

Better Dead is the latest Nate Heller novel.  (A new novel, Do No Harm, will be published in March.)  Heller is hired by Dashiell Hammett, representing a group of leftist writers and Hollywood personalities, to find evidence that would exonerate Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  It's a Hail Mary pass, as the two accused spies are due to be executed the following month.  Columnist Drew Pearson, who put Heller in touch with Hammett, has agreed to pick Heller's expense in exchange for a news story. Meanwhile, Heller has a tenuous relationship with paranoid, Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, having done some work for the Senator.  McCarthy's legal aide is the unscupulous Roy Cohn, who happened to be the person who railroaded the Rosenbergs to a death sentence.  (Incidently, Cohn went on to nurture a young Donald Trump, teaching The Donald his take-no-prisoners and never-admit-you're-wrong-never-apologize philosophy.)  Cohn uses his power to force gangster Frank Costello to warn Heller off the Rosenberg case.  A young staffer working for Cohn is Bobby Kennedy, who admires Heller because of occasional work he had done for the family -- including erasing much of the evidence of Jack Kennedy's brief, ill-timed first marriage.  McCarthy thinks the CIA is riddled with communists who are trying to sabotage his mission and wants Heller to see what the CIA has on him that it can use for blackmail.  He also hires Heller to investigate Hammett and his friends.  Heller interviews the Rosenbergs and finds them personable.  He then interviews Ethel Rosenberg's brother, who supposedly had smuggled information about the atomic bomb for the Russians and who had accused his sister and Julius of being spies to save himself from a deth sentence.  The Rosenberg's had an incompetent lawyer and a farce of a trial with much of the evidence being manufactured by Cohn.  The common feeling is that Ethel Rosenberg, accused only of typing up some notes, will never be executed and that she is sitting on Death Row in an effort to intimidate her husband into telling all.

And that's just the first third of the novel.

McCarthy wants Heller to interview a scientist about the CIA.  The scientist tells Heller about mind control activities and about CIA poisons and LSD experiments.  Later the scientist goes missing and Heller tries to find him.  Meanwhile Heller meets Bettie Page and manages to save from testifying before Estes Kefauver's senate committee.  The CIA misdoings lead to murder.

As with Sacco and Vanzetti, people are widely divided on the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs.  Whether guilty or innocent, it is clear that their treatment went far beyond reasonable bounds.  Collins skillfully covers the pros and cons in this matter.

Nathan Heller's career takes him on the fringe of history.  He's an important, albeit minor, character in many of the events that shaped the country and its culture over the last century.  Because of the detail Collins includes, reading a Heller novel is like reading a history text, although more interesting, more fun, with more detail on individuals involved and with the violence and sex left in.

Speaking of textbooks, Men's Adventure Magazines is a hefty coffee table book about the size and weight of a college physics text.  It includes hundreds of full color pictures of covers and cover paintings of the men's "sweat" magazines of the 50s and 60s -- Male, Man's Action, Man to Man, True Men, Epic, Fury, and Real Action, to name just a few.  All images were taken from the Rich Oberg Collection.  These magazines, containing what purported to be true stories, focused on blood, babes, and beasts -- outrageous and oft-times xenophobic stories with such titles as "The Promiscuous Redhead of Torture Island," "I Saw Blood Lusty Congo Cannibals Butcher White Hostages and Eat The Alive!," "Wrestling to Death with a Wounded Leopard," "The Hill Ran Red with Blood," "Those Slimy Rodents Are Eating My Flesh," "Death Orgy of the Doomed Vice Queens," "Hi-Jacked Yank Skipper Who Smashed a Dominican Red Ring," "Sex-Slave to the Jungle Japs," "Devil Dog Dan Was the Toughest S.O.B. of Them All!,"  "Secrets of the Nazi Horror Castle," and the immortal "Weasels Ripped My Flesh."  The covers usually features bare-chested manly men, cleavage-showing, well-endowed female beauties in distress, leering Nazis or Japs or Africans or Viet Cong or what have you, blazing guns focused on the enemy (be they soldiers, sadists, ships, or planes), mean-assed animals with a grudge against humans, rough seas, hot sands, jungle huts, battlefields, and Nazi labs.  These covers were coll, man, and designed to attract the male reader.  The stories, of course, were usually not true, and those that were had little to do with the cover illos.

Collins and his long-time researcher George Hagenaur provide the text -- what little there is of it.  It seems like there's much more than is really there because it is repeated in German and in French and is printed in teeny tinny type which, to my old eyes, is about the size of  pimple on a protozoa.  Nonetheless, their text is interesting, informative, and entertaining.  That said, it's the art that makes the book truly worthwhile.  Think the polar opposite of the old Playboy excuse, "I buy it for the aricles, not the pictures."

So.  Seven books over a period of about ten days.  All of them winners.  All of them highly recommended.  Few authors have shown more consistancy over so many themes and genres as Max Allan Collins.

P.S.  I don't want to think that this all of Collins that I have read this year.  Earlier I read his graphic novel Quarry's War, his throughly researched non-fiction book Scarface and the Untouchable (written with A. Brad Schwartz; they're working on a sequel now), his latest Mike Hammer novel Murder, My Love (bylined with Mickey Spillane), his western novel The Bloody Spur (based on characters created by Spillane in an unproduced movie script for John Wayne), and Antiques Ho-Ho-Ho Homicide ( a collection of three novelettes in the Trash 'n' Treasures mystery series he writes with his wife Barbara Collins under the joint pseudonym "Barbara Allen").  And there\'s still plenty left for me to read.

As I said, the sumbitch writes a lot.

And well.


  1. This is a lovely surprise. Thanks for this. But reading it makes me realize: I'm friggin' exhausted!

    1. As you should be, Max, but I doubt that will have any effect on your amazing output.