Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Two From Collins– Well, Two and A Half.

Almost two months without adding new books to the to-read pile. As New Year’s resolutions go, that’s pretty good. At least for me.

In my defense, I didn’t cave all on my own. I had help. Max Allan Collins sent us his new thriller, Girl Can’t Help It, his latest book starring midwest police chief Krista Lawson and her father, retired detective Keith Lawson.

No sooner do Hot Rod and the Pistons reunite for their induction into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, than two band members take a final bow. Both alleged suicides. A tragic way to go out. A bum way for one-hit wonders to be remembered. But it’s Labor Day weekend. The show must go on.

With replacements at the ready, the Pistons are back on home turf to headline the first ever Rock and Country Music Fest. Police Chief Krista Larson and her father, Keith, are there listening. And watching. Because they suspect there may be more to the band members’ untimely deaths than anyone else can see.

As Krista and Keith navigate the investigation, a dark picture of the band’s rocky history begins to take center stage. As betrayal, revenge, and blackmail start playing out in the present, the father-daughter team fear that this encore may be the band’s finale.

It will surprise no one who’s been reading this site for any length of time that I’ve been a Collins fan since I first encountered Ms. Tree back in the 1980s. In fact, one of the first columns I did here was about Mr. Collins and his Quarry series. My fellow Junk Shop scribe Ed Bosnar likes his stuff too, as he wrote about here.

So a new Collins is a pretty easy sell for me. I expected to like this book a lot and I did. What I did not expect, though, was the reason I liked it as much as I did.

Here’s the thing. Max Allan Collins’ work resonates with me because he is an unapologetic genre fan. He knows mysteries and he knows how they’re built and he likes playing with various tropes within the form of pulp fiction and mysteries in general. Ms. Tree is a riff on Spillane’s Mike Hammer and the revenge thriller. Nolan is a bounce off Westlake’s Parker novels and the heist story. Road to Perdition is a modern version of Lone Wolf and Cub, starring a hit man and his son instead of a medieval samurai and his son.

And so on. I’m not disparaging them, they are all original, but each wears its influences on its sleeve. Sort of “new wine from old bottles,” so to speak. Collins has always been very upfront about this and I consider it a feature, not a bug.

Likewise he has done several meticulously-researched series that are as much full-on historical novels as they are genre pieces. Nate Heller, Eliot Ness, the “Disaster” books, and others.

Girl Can’t Help It doesn’t read like any of those. It isn’t just a genre riff. There’s more ambition to it. It feels personal, like it’s built out of real-life things and not just re-imagined genre tropes.

This isn’t to say that it’s a roman a clef or a thinly-disguised memoir or anything like that, but there’s an authenticity to the novel, a lack of distance, that isn’t present in the other Collins books I’ve got around here. You can see him bringing his own life experience to the project; Collins lives in Iowa, he plays in a retro-garage band that’s actually in the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and so on and so forth.

And it’s a tough cool thriller that’s impossible to put down.

So I broke my resolution. I went and bought the first one as well, Girl Most Likely.

In a small Midwest town, twenty-eight-year-old Krista Larson has made her mark as the youngest female police chief in the country. She’s learned from the best: her father, Keith, a decorated former detective. But as accustomed as they are to the relative quiet of their idyllic tourist town, things quickly turn with Krista’s ten-year high school reunion.

With the out-of-towners holed up in a lakefront lodge, it doesn’t take long to stir up old grudges and resentments. Now a successful TV host, Astrid Lund, voted the “Girl Most Likely to Succeed”—and then some—is back in town. Her reputation as a dogged reporter has made the stunning blonde famous. Her reputation among her former classmates and rivals has made her infamous. Astrid’s list of enemies is a long one. And as the reunion begins, so does a triple murder investigation.

Krista and her father are following leads and opening long-locked doors from their hometown to the Florida suburbs to Chicago’s underworld. They just never imagined what would be revealed: the secrets and scandals of Krista’s own past.

Loved this one too. Reading them in reverse order did not affect my enjoyment at all. There’s only two of them, so it’s pretty easy to get caught up, and anyway Collins is enough of a pro to give you everything you need without getting bogged down in a lot of continuity stuff.

Both books very much recommended, which will surprise no one. But maybe a little more strongly recommended than usual when it comes to my appreciation for Mr. Collins. I really, really dug these. Krista and her dad may edge out Quarry as being my favorite Collins series of novels…. and it’s certainly easier to get up to speed.


That’s the two. Here’s the ‘half.’ From The Files of Mike Hammer.

Max Allan Collins didn’t write this book, just edited it. But he wrote a very nice foreword about his frienship with Mickey Spillane, a scholarly introduction about the history of the Mike Hammer strip, and an afterword as well. This volume collects the complete dailies and Sundays of the Hammer comics Mickey Spillane did with Ed Robbins back in the day. I’ve always been curious about it since it heavily influenced two other Collins projects I love– not just Ms. Tree, but also the much-missed Mike Danger from Tekno Comix. In fact, the look of “Mike Tree” is based on the Robbins Hammer.

Because of that I’ve always wanted to see the original. Last year I came across this Hermes hardcover collection for cheap and snapped it up, and since I was already writing about Max Collins this week it seemed like a good time to finally get around to reading this book as well.

So how is it? About as cool as everyone said it was.

Spillane wrote some of the continuities himself and plotted the rest, so it certainly feels like the real thing.

The art from Ed Robbins has a great sort of rough-edged look to it that’s a perfect fit, too. It’s no wonder it’s such a favorite among mystery fans. Hermes very wisely did not succumb to the temptation to do any modern re-coloring or anything like that. No idea if that was a specific editorial call or if that’s just how they roll over there, but either way, it was the right decision. These should look like real comics, not that lacquered Photoshop stuff you see so much of in recent years. (Looking at you, Dark Horse Conan Chronicles.)

Hugely recommended, whether you’re a Spillane fan or a comics fan; either way it’s a piece of history worth having.

Anyway, that’s my no-new-books resolution down the drain. But it was worth it.

Back next week with something cool.

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  1. Edo Bosnar

    Wait, what? Collins has launched a new crime/mystery series? Geez, like I don’t have enough stuff to read…

    The Hammer strips look really cool, by the way. And yes, I agree with you about the original newsprint coloring on the Sunday strip – definitely the way it’s supposed to look.

  2. Andrew Collins

    Another big fan of Max Allan Collins here. I really liked the first Krista Larson book way more than I even anticipated, so I’m anxious to read the new one, which should be hitting my mailbox today.

    Don’t know if I would put them in the “better than Quarry” territory just yet, but they’re off to a good start.

    Collins also has a new Mike Hammer novel and a new Caleb York novel coming out too. At this point, I think it’s fair to say they’re more Collins than Spillane as I believe he’s down to only bare bones plots left behind by the late, great Mick…

    And according to his website, Collins is writing a new Nolan novel, and Hard Case Crime will be reprinting all of the previous books in 2-in-1 packaging. That’s exciting for me as Nolan is Collins’ only non-work-for-hire series I’ve never read…

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