At the end of last year, I finished reading Max Allan Collins’ Chicago Confidential. It was my introduction to his series character Nathan Heller, a somewhat shady private investigator with a set of values and a past that includes association with gangster. The novel is strewn with historical references involving the investigation of organized crime by Senator Estes Kefauver. As such there is a plethora of real figures including the senator himself, Frank Sinatra, and Jayne Mansfield (before she became a big name actress).

I have also read several works of James Ellroy. His pieces are also infused with a historical sensibility and mention several real life people as well. They are set, like Collins’ work, in the fifties (for the most part) and weave the true factual incidents with the fictional protagonists.

So why does Ellroy ring true for me and Collins seem glib?

Collins uses first person narrative in a way that breaks down the “fourth wall” that actors often refer to. As opposed to hearing Heller speak for himself, he is talking to us, the reader in a conversational manner. But because he has done nothing to make me feel that I am OF the fifties, it seems to be a space-time continuum where a character from the fifties is speaking to me in the 2000’s. I have lost the feeling of the writing, the feeling of the time period.
Ellroy writes in third person and from multiple perspectives. His detail seeps through the pores of the writing; it IS the 1950’s (or early 1960’s as in American Tabloid) and I am eavesdropping on each scene. I am a fly on the wall.

In Collins I see the elements of hard-boiled fiction but they seem to be more like pieces in a laboratory, a scientific experiment in which ingredients are distilled down to an essence but without the spark to bring it to life.

Ellroy is scatological, irreverent, hip, and not afraid of stepping on toes. He is the vile version of Hammett, the foul-mouthed godchild to hard-boiled literature.

What I am realizing is that I don’t want my hard-boiled literature to be neat and clean. I want it to have a tarnished feel, a grittiness that is honest, and a trajectory like a bullet fired in the air on New Year’s Eve.

“Mystery” writing is fascinating but a true hard-boiled piece delves into aspects of the human psyche that almost no one outside of a Transgressive writer would even seek to explore.


5 thoughts on “Hard-boiled

  1. Nate Heller is glib, but labelling the writer behind him such is shallow criticism — coming from a reviewer who uses the glib and unsubstantiated claim that my work contains “elements of hard-boiled fiction but they seem to be more like pieces in a laboratory, a scientific experiment in which ingredients are distilled down to an essence but without the spark to bring it to life.” It is my unfortunate destiny to be constantly compared to Ellroy, whose work I dislike, because we began roughly at the same time writing historical crime fiction (my first Nathan Heller novel, TRUE DETECTIVE, however, predates Ellroy’s historical stuff by a number of years). The use of the P.I. figure is my way of making the reader the “fly on the wall.” You read one of my novels — the 12th in a series that runs close to two million words — and make sweeping claims about my work and Ellroy’s superiority, including his use of multiple POV third-person. You are unaware, apparently, that I’ve done such third-person crime novels as ROAD TO PURGATORY and ROAD TO PARADISE (sequels to my graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION), among many others. I find Ellroy’s style to be a strained Kerouac pastiche, his goal to impress not to entertain, his self-promotion embarrassing. But plenty of smart people like him, so I’m probably short-sighted, or too wrapped up in my own approach to appreciate his. Still, it’s always a great frusration to me when somebody says, “Oh you and James Ellroy are my favorite writers!” Please understand that your opinion is your opinion, and I respect that. But to call me “glib,” and then paint me and my work with such an incredibly glib brush…that’s just a little much.

    I will add that I did not want CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL to be titled such, because I did not want to further the Ellroy connection, nor to use Lait & Mortimer’s title. But I was overruled by the publisher (I offered CHICAGO LOWDOWN as a substitute, but no go). Also, I was already researching the Black Dahlia case when Ellroy’s novel came out, and I postponed writing mine (ANGEL IN BLACK) for twenty years. Our emphasis on 20th Century crime means we overlap — many years ago, James used to come up to me at Bouchercons and ask what case I was going to do next, so we could stay out of each other’s way.


  2. Mr. Collins, thank you for your detailed response.
    I was in error to refer to you personally as glib. I do not know you or anything about you personally. I should have specified that I felt the book that I read was glib.
    And it is true that it is just one of a series; however, there is nothing being stated in my commentary regarding your entire oeuvre. I don’t see “sweeping claims” about your work, rather a gut reaction to how one book struck me. And when it comes to Ellroy, I should think that “preference” is more suitable than “superiority”.
    I most certainly see by your website and by various commentaries and articles about you that you have had a substantially successful career, one that I would never be able to match. Which is why I am surprised that you would take the time to respond in such explicit terms.
    However, you did and perhaps that was your gut reaction. I should consider it a privilege that you expressed yourself in this fashion and thank you for your considerable efforts.


  3. Thanks for the civility of your reply.

    Obviously, I dislike being compared to Ellroy or really any other author. The compare/contrast approach is useful to reviewers, but tends to rough up writers, because of the apples-and-oranges nature of the process…with one writer inevitably the winner, the other the loser.

    I also take issue with criticism that labels without example — there are no examples in your piece of my glibness, or of the “elements” I assemble in what you called a “scientific experiment.” This is very common in criticism, whether in the blogosphere or in published reviews. Labeling is easy — actual substantiated criticism is hard.

    Still, you might try another of the Heller novels. The first one in ten years, BYE BYE, BABY comes out in May. As an Ellroy fan, you may find ANGEL IN BLACK of interest, just to compare and contrast (he said putting himself at risk).

    Non-Heller novels that you might find of interest would be BUTCHER’S DOZEN (Eliot Ness), ROAD TO PURGATORY and/or ROAD TO PARADISE, and possibly THE FIRST QUARRY.

    Thank you again. Your response was a gracious one.


  4. And to YOUR civility and detailed response much thanks is returned.

    “Criticism” is for professionals or freelance writers, those who are paid for their efforts. “Commentary” is left to the remainder of those who (admittedly) place little intellectual thought into said comments. Gut or emotional response is accepted (unfortunately) in its place. The plethora of blogs and web sites for such comments has turned us all into journalists—or diminished what journalism used to be.

    That being said, I had never intended to consider you as a “one and done” author of interest (a la the NFL playoffs). ANGEL IN BLACK was a strong consideration as well as FLYING BLIND. (I live in Kansas and Amelia Earhart has always been a fascinating individual.)

    We’ll leave it at this (if it is acceptable to you): I will move on, reading another Max Allan Collins novel that interests me and I will report back in this venue (or on Facebook) with a more concerted effort toward thoughtful criticism. You will continue with your many successes and I will continue to hope that I will be able to achieve a small taste of that in my own literary efforts.

    This has been a pleasure indeed, sir. Thank you again for your responses.


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