Come Back, Nolan, Come Back
MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ MASTER THIEF, NOLAN, RETURNS IN ALL-NEW EDITIONS OF HIS CLASSIC ADVENTURES
DOUBLE DOWN | Max Allan Collins | May 25, 2021 | Trade Paperback | 352 pp
ISBN: 978-1789091410; e-ISBN 978-1789091427
US $13.95; CAN $18.95
FULL DISCLOSURE: Hard Case Crime provided the review copy of Double Down by Max Allan Collins after these editorial offices begged for any kind of review material, press releases, etc., to post in this column, essentially filler in an effort to give the impression that we here at Dime Pulp are dialed in and ready to drop a dime on the fine art of pulp fiction (which may sound to some like an oxymoron but more on that later).
Hard Case Crime might have even thought that they had merely tossed a crumb our way but it had the effect of opening up a whole new box of donuts. At any rate, the classy pulp tome with its appropriately garish cover remedied an editorial unfamiliarity with Max Allen Collins’ writing and his master thief and heist maven, Nolan.
Hard Case Crime has built a solid inventory reissuing some underappreciated and long forgotten authors of the paperback pocket book explosion of the 40s and 50s as pulp magazine fare evolved to standalone crime novels. Reprints of Collins titles make available a later iteration of popular adventure/crime novels of the waning decades of the 20th century in what might be termed “pop pulp,” a style readily adapted to graphic novel storyboard treatment. This is not to overlook their emphasis on the work of Donald Westlake, Laurence Block, or the terrific Gregory MacDonald twofer riff on O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief reissued as Snatch. As well, Hard Case has published a few excellent original works, including Von Doviack’s Charlesgate Confidential.
The great thing about Hard Case Crime paperback novels is the nostalgic eye candy of titillating covers in that postwar Madison Ave advertising style that brings to mind twirling the wire kiosks of paperback novels in the corner pharmacy over by the greeting cards display looking for something to jump out, something lurid, scandalous, colorful at least, in the hues of rebellion. Essentially these Hard Case Crime paperbacks work as artifacts of taste and nostalgia, a repackaging of an idealized past in the history of crime/men’s adventure literature as a popular mode of storytelling. Although the genre will likely remain popular, actual volumes of bound pulp paper with the eye catching covers may become specialized objects much like vinyl LPs, especially with the advent of the more cost effective eBooks. As I write this, public libraries are discarding their mass paperback collections in favor of the less space demanding digital formats.
Hard Case Crime titles are also repositories and reiterations of some incredibly terrific writing and imaginative storytelling. The writing style of the hardboiled pulp genre is sourced in the Anglo-American idiom with its laconic exaggerations, understated asides, snappy comebacks, and quaint argot. They are in the main imaginary constructs, based to some extent on experience, but passing themselves off as the real world for reading entertainment. Often situations are farfetched and downright improbable but nothing good writing, deft imagination, and diverting dialogue can’t paper over to render the illogical and unlikely readable. What makes the pulp genre an art is the diverse skill of its practitioners.
Max Allen Collins’ genre specific Nolan novellas have a certain tongue-in-cheek air to them that seems more pop than pulp, particularly with their emphasis on comic book collecting as a kind of meta-referent. Pop fetishizes consumer objects for their cultural resonance whereas pulp is a category of materials used in the manufacture of entertainment literature just as film specifies the medium of cinema. Pop pulp subjects relive imagined circumstances through the objects of their obsession, fantasizing situations in which they can partake in tandem or take on the persona of their fixation. Collins clearly defines his protagonists, Jon and Nolan, as separate individuals yet Nolan doesn’t exist without Jon nor can Jon indulge in his fantasy without Nolan. Or, at the very least, the poster of steely-eyed, rock-jawed Lee Van Cleef that eerily resembles, who else, Nolan.
Also, by way of disclosure, there is a certain amount of resonance to the Nolan referent around the editorial offices of Dime Pulp as it is the family name of one of our contributing authors, Pat Nolan, who is also the brain behind this mad pulp caper as well as the man behind the curtain at Nualláin House, Publisher—Nualláin being Gaelic for Nolan, donchaknow, in tribute to that jolly leprechaun of prose, Flann O’Brien (of The Third Policeman fame) whose real name was Brian O’Nolan or O’Nualláin if you’ve an ear for Celtic speak. It goes without saying that Nolans are a pretty fecund lot and can be found, other than their home turf, from Quebec City to Buenos Aires. Most often it’s a last name, but sometimes a first, especially in the Appalachians and rural South where, as indentured servants and criminals let loose in the new colonies, Nolans headed for those hills as soon as their feet hit dry land after a long and horrific Atlantic crossing. Throw a rock in those parts and you’ll no doubt hit a Nolan, first name or last. Nolans are everywhere, but for Max Allen Collins, Nolan is a mononym—it isn’t his first or his last name, but both, and as such underlines his iconic role as the heroic figure.
Double Down was released by Hard Case Crime in May of 2021 following the April release of Two For the Money. As the titles suggest, each volume features two Collins novella reprints from his Nolan series of the 1970s and 80s. The last two volumes, Tough Tender and Mad Money, will follow in 2022 and 2023. Collins opens with a useful introduction to the genesis of the Nolan series, admitting inspiration from the Parker novels of Donald Westlake’s pseudonymous Richard Stark as well as reiterating a firm denial that he was copy/parodying Don Pendleton’s The Executioner series whose main character is a similar sounding “Dolan.”
These are Max Allan Collins’ fledgling works written years before he wrote Road to Perdition, before his Quarry novels were turned into a Cinemax original series, before he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America or ghosting the Mike Hammer novels for the late Mickey Spillane. Set against a ground of pop culture nostalgia for comic books, old movies, and golden age cartoons, the stories work as an accessory after the fact to their illustrated four color context. Nolan is the master thief, and young Jon, the comic book aficionado, is the sorcerer’s apprentice. Collins’ narrative style, a casual conversational ramble, allows veracity to the coincidental material that makes up the underworld of criminals or at least reprehensible lifestyles somewhere in the middle of Iowa where, not so coincidentally, Collins attended the university and its fabled Writer’s Workshop.
In the first novella, Fly Paper, Jon and Nolan fly to Detroit to commit their righteous payback heist where a comic book convention is also being held and which allows plenty of opportunity to nerd out on comic book references, and of course, since they’re flying, there has to be a skyjacking, DB Cooper style. From this story alone one would get the impression that being a thief, albeit an honorable one, is harder work than might first appear.
Collins uses as epigraph at the beginning of the second novella, Hush Money, a quote from 30’s bank robber, Alvin Karpis, to give an inkling of insight into his Nolan character: “A thief is anybody who gets out and works for his living, like robbing a bank, or breaking into a place and stealing stuff. . . .” On the other hand and in direct contrast to Nolan, “A hoodlum is a pretty lousy kind of scum. He works for gangsters and bumps off guys after they’ve been put on the spot.” In this light, Nolan is a working man, not a mob connected mug.
The midwestern locales of Cedar Rapids and Des Moines in the Nolan sagas provide an entirely appropriate set location for the revalorization of a regional culture hero, the bandit, the bank robber, as in the likes of the James Brothers. The Daltons, and half a century later, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger. Nolan has worked managing Mob assets, but he is not a mobster, and he would like to break free from the association but lacks the leverage or is thwarted or suffers a setback which in itself is the MacGuffin to these tales. He wants out of the game, independence, but will the game let him?
The Nolan stories are narrated matter-of-factly, a backstory always close at hand to smooth over any unexpected inconsistency, told with a faux naïve garrulousness that renders the character of Jon as Nolan’s foil, and in some respects, his Watson. The depictions are spare and not averse to cliché, sketched with minimalist efficiency. The characterizations with the exception of the protagonists are also austerely presented. Unfortunately the “love making” and opposite sex encounters have not weathered well the decades since they were originally conceived (pardon the pun).
As we’ve advocated before here at Dime Pulp, the novella is the ideal vehicle for crime fiction and these two novellas by Collins don’t disappoint in their succinct story arc leading to resolutions that invariably beg for further opportunities to thieve and adventure in the spirit of radio/movie serials of the forties, and four color comic books.
In evolutionary terms, comic books and pulp magazines stem from the same source: penny dreadfuls, the National Police Gazette, and sensationalist yellow journalism of the 19th century. Following WWII, pulp novels and comic books emerged as the go-to reading entertainment while monthly magazines lagged into obsolescence and radio dramas morphed into TV shows. The mood and thrust of the postwar pulp novel reflected the upheaval and brutality engendered by another world war. Crime novels of that time depicted unflinchingly the cruelty and disillusionment of desperate men and women with a darkness and fatalism termed noir. Revenge and lawlessness became more prevalent as themes such as injustice must be avenged took prominence. Yet Justice is blind and wields a double edge sword and in the end, the realization that vengeance is a poor substitute for justice. To enter into that self-devouring daisy chain is enter the lair of the viper, Vendetta ®. Literary depictions of violence tend to be one dimensional, fleeting, and unsatisfactory. It is the lead up to the act, and its consequences, that grabs attention as all violence enacted on the screen or on the page is symbolic no matter how well depicted or orchestrated in its intent to trigger the amygdala’s flight or fight response. A successful effort is often judged by how well and how often the symbolic can undermine the suspension of belief and present the reader with real chills. To be able to accomplish such a feat takes imagination and not a little sadism.
In contrast to the violent vengeful dark despair found in the postwar pulps novels, there was a kind of daffy innocence to prewar pulp fiction appearing in monthly magazines, often as cliff hanger serials, and selling at newsstands. And it is this particular tenor Dime Pulp would like to echo even though it is yet another marginal drop in the meta bucket. Serials were a large part of pulp fiction’s appeal, working class epics on the installment plan for one thin dime. As a serial pulp magazine, Dime Pulp, as in the pulpy days of yore, hopes to offer not only high quality serials but garishly appropriate cover renditions. Pruriently attractive colorful cover art and its arousing effect in stirring up the imagination was a main selling point on the newsstands. A fact attested to by Dime Pulp’s A Detective Story by Colin Deerwood as the story is entirely predicated on the author fixing his gaze on the cover of a vintage issue of Black Mask magazine and improvising time travel to an imagined place where such a detective might live, say in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor. As a serial it has unlimited potential for unfolding from the pages of pulp to the pages of panels. As well, the nominal policiers of Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth find themselves with a seemingly endless and labyrinthine source of material gleaned from Greek myth and tragedy. Although the stories are episodic, the thread follows a sheriff’s detective toward the end of his career and into retirement. The Last Resort, A Lee Malone Adventure, Pat Nolan’s pastiche of the private eye genre turned on its head (buxom babe with brains vs. splinter faced chisel chin with a breath that could pickle a squid), was based on a character from a short story published serially in a weekly newspaper. The novel too, published in 2012 by Nualláin House, Publishers,, was written in installments over the course of a few years for a monthly writing workshop, and now returns to publication in its serial roots.
Lastly, just to reiterate, in case it was not made previously clear, the aim of Dime Pulp, aside from garnering a few discerning readers, is to indulge in a speculative fiction make-work program for the benefit and amusement of the author(s), and to partake of the imagination. You are welcome to come along for the ride.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,
Perry O’Dickle for Dime Pulp