I gotta come clean. Once again the gang at Hard Case Crime have crossed the transom with the requisite paper in the form of two novels in the Nolan series by Max Allen Collins. If Dime Pulp were a legit operation, we might expect more, but since it isn’t, we don’t. The latest from Hard Case Crime did keep these offices burning the midnight oeil. Not due to a guilty conscience, however, but in pursuit of guilty pleasure, i.e., reading crime fiction.
To make up for the gap in our limited knowledge of the Nolan saga, those Hard Case types bookended these offices with the original Collins foray into Nolan territory, and then an encore, as a wrap up to an epic crime career, written thirty three years later. Collins’ origin stories for the Nolan and Jon characters begin in a novella titled Bait Money, a boy meets thief story, in which the bond between apprentice and master is forged and sets the tone for all the Nolan-centric adventures to follow.
Hard Case Crime has reprinted four novellas from that late 80s period, Two For The Money and Double Down (reviewed in Dropping A Dime Two) each in the twofer format, which will be joining another two (four) titles slated for publication in 2022 and 2023. Skim Deep, the encore curtain call for Nolan and Jon, is novel length in its own right.
The incredibly prolific pulp polymath Max Allen Collins is a Hard Case Crime franchise author, it should be noted, Mickey Spillane’s heir apparent, and author of the Quarry assassin series (also well represented under the Hard Case Crime imprint). In the author’s note to Two For The Money, Collins reveals that the idea for the title and the plot of the first story, Bait Money, was inspired by his girlfriend who worked in a bank. The story starts off solid with a portrayal of Nolan, heist meister extraordinaire, trying to smooth things over with the mob over his killing of one of the bosses’ relatives. The mobster wants a blood price and Nolan has to find a way to pay it. Enter Jon, a comic book aficionado and amateur who has come up with a plan to take down a local bank. Needless to say it’s a bad plan, but the pro sees a way of fixing it and potentially clearing his debt. And naturally there are double crosses, unfaithful women, killing, and last minute glitches.
The Nolan character, Collins admits, is based on Richard Stark’s Parker. And to fix him in the reader’s mind, he is described as looking like Lee Van Cleef. If you were reading Bait Money when it was first published, you would know who Lee Van Cleef was and what he looked like. For the new generation of readers, Hard Case Crime has commissioned covers featuring the likeness of a Van Cleef-ish looking protagonist. And while Parker is a meticulously formulated character, Nolan, ostensibly just as tough, is humanized by taking on an heir apparent in Jon who also adds some comic (book) relief as it is his naivete that informs the narrative. There the resemblance ends, due primarily to a difference in styles.
Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark, author of the Parker novels, presents a casebook for the terse, uncompromisingly “stark,” stoic, “just the facts, ma’am,” Joe Friday deadpan voiceover narration. It is a style Stark is known for, and one admired by countless crime fiction buffs and aspiring writers. The economy of the prose finds it source in an older generation of writers who knew the value of counting words, as they were paid by the word, and well aware of the editorial constraints on length. The Parker novels may be formulaic but they have an edge that never gets dull. Combined with nearly imperceptible cinematic scene transitions and you have a style well worth emulating.
Max Allen Collins’ Nolan stories have what might be termed an improvisational discursive style, aka the kitchen sink approach, in which everything you need to know (cue Ed McMahon) about the characters’ looks, motivations, hopes, fears, hangnails, and warts are presumed open secrets from the discourse of the omniscient narrator who does not hesitate to tell the reader how it is. Collins is a good storyteller whose style is no style, just a recounting of the honest to goodness facts of a story that is too good to be true and bound to go south at any point, and of course that’s what the reader is looking for behind the feints and dodges, and seemingly untenable albeit predictable situations.
In some sense Parker doesn’t seem to have a future, going from one heist to another, scrabbling to stay even. Nolan, on the other hand, is trying to get just enough ahead so he can open up a snazzy club while staying out of the clutches of the mob. He wants to retire from the heist biz and lead a normal and happy life without a .32 Colt breathing down his neck. It would be difficult to make Nolan into a petty bourgeois but he has the dreams of one, a quintessential American dream, though with more than a little tang of cynicism. Parker is an untamed animal, a force of nature, with which nature will deal.
The second novella in Two For The Money is titled Blood Money in which the bonding between Nolan and Jon solidifies in their quest for revenge against the men who killed Jon’s guardian uncle, the “Planner” (shades of Dortmunder). The “eye for an eye” theme is big in the Bible Belt Midwest where most of the action takes place: Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, anywhere the mob and fundamentalism might have its tentacles. There are no shortages of derring-do, shootouts, kidnappings, and miraculous rescues. Enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning, a few slapstick moments to offset the more compelling business of getting the money and getting revenge, and the hedging justifications for that chosen lifestyle of outlier/outlaw. Yet there are consequences: that butterfly whose butt you kicked is going to come back around in the form of a homicidal maniac looking to get even. And take all the money.
Can an author go back to a character thirty three years later and pick up where he left off? What will have changed in experience and maturity of style? These are question the curious reader might ask as they dip into Skim Deep, the epilogue to the Nolan saga, the last ride into the Acapulco sunset.
Nolan is retired from the heist biz with that snazzy club he always wanted and the soft life is making him sentimental so he pops the question to his longtime live-in gf. Enter Vegas, where Jon now resides trying to make a living as a comic book artist keyboardist for a casino cover band and where Nolan and his bride-to-be are heading to get hitched. Enter, also, revenge, in the form of “Maw” Comfort, matriarch of a clan of crooks from (where else?) Missouri, three of whose members Nolan has had to eliminate for stepping on the toes of his thief’s integrity and going for the double cross. And, of course, money, the root of all robbery, in the form of a casino skim. This one time, the coming together of the retired robber and his now journeyman partner is not with the object to plan a job but to celebrate and “legalize” a relationship about which Jon’s feelings are ambivalent (incidentally). Not to spoil all the machinations of the plot, but like a Jacques Tati movie, everything that goes around, comes around and meets at the intersection in a head-on collision. The pitch might be spun as: they fall in shit and come out smelling like roses.
As for the difference in style, Collins has not abandoned his fussy omniscient narrator nor the breezy improvisational writing style. The sex scenes have improved in detail if not in sensitivity. In the portrayal of Jon, Collins allows more of the autobiographical nature of the character emerge (which has always been there on one level of emphasis or another). That the main action does not take place in the Quad Cities area somehow ups the ante on the techniques of graphic violence. In Skim Deep, the pulp adventure returns to its roots as a Western, and Collins’ long expertise in the pulp genre skillfully brings about the denouement to everyone’s (characters included) satisfaction.
To read in this crime fiction genre is to discover something about the American psyche, the deep rooted divide of oblivious well-off swells and the continual rebellion of the have-nots who want theirs. The symbolic outlaw then becomes valorized to justify contravening societal norms as a leveling of the playing field, a kind of grass roots communism, a Utopic equitable community. Yet the myth of egalitarianism posits a level playing field in which universal values are applied equally when obviously this is never the case—the “nature” of humans intervenes—hierarchies or boundaries are created depending on the circumstances. Idealized individuals (such as Nolan and Parker) stand symbolically for the masses, and differences are glossed over to align with the symbolic outlier outlaws who are too unruly to fit into the narrow category of convention and reside at the periphery where dogs howl to be let in, but flee the multitude once the gates are opened (thus their tantalizing mystery). Fiction can only deal these issues a glancing blow in the hazy nostalgia for a way it has never been.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,
for Dime Pulp
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