"THE CASES HAVEN'T CHANGED AS MUCH AS HE HAS": AN INTERVIEW WITH TOO MANY BULLETS' MAX ALLAN COLLINS
Too Many Bullets, the latest Nate Heller novel that has the private detective unraveling the RFK assassination with the help of a sexy and smart campaign volunteer, has been rumored to be the last in the series. If so, it works as a great swan song with the aging PI examining his life as well as the case. We asked author Max Allan Collins to talk about the book as well as the entire span of Nate Heller books.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: I've heard this may be the last Heller novel. How much of that is true?
MAX ALLAN COLLINS: It does feel like the last book. And that may be the case. It depends on reader response, and we had a little problem with its release -- the previous Heller, THE BIG BUNDLE, was published last November, but held up in the UK because of a shipping strike. So it didn't show up on USA shores till around February, and then TOO MANY BULLETS kind of collided with it later in the year. As of now, none of the major trade reviewers -- Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal -- have reviewed it, having already reviewed a Heller this year (THE BIG BUNDLE). Frankly, that may be enough to do what no bad guy has ever managed...kill off Nate Heller. If so, BULLETS does sort of finish Heller's saga. Nonetheless, I am contemplating a Hoffa book with Heller and a Watergate one as well. S.M.: This book was mainly supposed to concern the disappearance of JImmy Hoffa. What made you switch focus to the RFK assassination? M.A.C.: I have been trying to get the Hoffa book written for decades, but various things have intruded. This time it was the RFK killing itself that did it. I assumed RFK was an open-and-shut case and that it could serve as one section of a three-part novel. But the research revealed the assassination to be much more complicated as a crime, and richer as subject matter for a novel, than I'd imagined. Doing the Hoffa material as well would have led to a 200,000-word novel. That seemed a little much. STOLEN AWAY was that long, and I swore never again. S.M.: Nita proves a wonderful partner and love interest for Nate. How did you go about constructing her? On the one hand, I knew it was time for Nate to settle down, after carrying the torch for his first wife for so many years. The other reason came out of research -- a real-life woman who'd been in the midst of the RFK assassination that night, an actress who I found very interesting. That real woman became who I built the fictional Nita around. She's a good match for Heller. Like all the women in the Heller books -- really, all my books -- she is based on facets of my incredible wife Barb...who I married in 1968 and was honeymooning in Chicago with when the RFK killing happened. S.M.: Which historical character in the series did you have the most fun writing for? M.A.C.: "For" would be Eliot Ness. "About" would probably be Huey Long in BLOOD AND THUNDER. S.M.: Nate thinks back to the murder of Mayor Anton Cermak in the first book, True Detective. Do you think the world and especially the cases have changed for Nate when we get to Too Many Bullets?
M.A.C.: Well, I knew when I did the Cermak assassination, which history still assumes to have been intended for FDR, that if I continued with Nate Heller, he'd wind up in the JFK assassination. It was a surprise to find that RFK was the logical next step, which it certainly was -- though I at the time I realized Zangara was the prototype for Sirhan, so that would resonate. Really the cases haven't changed as much as he has. It was always my goal to grow and change Nate, to start him out in that little office above Barney Ross's blind pig and take him to the head of a private security operation with offices in various major cities. He was, on one level, meant to be a small businessman whose business grew. In the context of the saga, after all, he's in the middle of all these famous crimes, and would have been well-publicized. A major element was taking him to war and separating the wise-ass cocky pre-war Heller to the traumatized post-war Heller. Fictional private eyes are often short on continued character development, or anyway they were when I was starting out in the early 1980s. Remember, too, following him through the decades was a way to examine the controversial crimes of the Twentieth Century from a private eye view. S.M.: What has made Nathan Heller, as a character, worth returning to for all these years? M.A.C: He is very real to me. Not a friend exactly, more a facet of my own development, my own life. So is Quarry, in a very different way. Readers are always asking me why I dropped the Mallory character after a few books, and I always tell them the same thing -- he's too similar to me, and for that reason he bores me. Mallory's also a little nicer than I am. I'm closer to Quarry and especially Heller. Heller has a lot more women in his life than I've had -- but I got lucky as a young man and found my Nita when I was eighteen. Barb and I have been together 55 years.