Sunday, September 03, 2006

Majic Man- Max Allan Collins (book review)

Now and then I go to my local library and grab a copy of a book on CD or tape. The selection’s not all that good and that’s part of the fun. I get to “read” a lot of writers I never would have tried in print and most of the time I don’t expect much. Much like open mike night at a comedy club, when you’re surprised it’s a great experience. I shouldn’t have been surprised by Max Allan Collins, Majic Man. Collins, Nathan Heller detective stories have been nominated for a Shamus Award nine times and he’s won twice. I guess I don’t follow my mystery writers closely enough. Collins writes in a variety of forms that range from graphic novels and movie novelizations to straight crime fiction. One of his books was “Road to Perdition”. The Heller books are what I call Mystorical fiction, a traditional detective story set in the midst of historical events. It’s similar to alternate history (a favorite genre of mine) but instead of disturbing the conventional timeline, mystorical fiction interpolates some unsolved historical mystery and leaves events intact but fills in "explanations" for those moments from the past that the historical record has left tantalizingly blank.

While most of Collins’s earlier Nathan Heller books are set in Chicago with Elliot Ness and Al Capone (there’s also one about Amelia Earhart), Majic Man ventures into X-Files territory by looking at the 1947 Roswell Incident, when the Air Force cryptically reported the crash of a flying saucer near Roswell, New Mexico then mysteriously retracted the story. While complex mysteries are hard enough to plot, Collins throws in a variety of real historical figures as Heller’s client, notably James Forrestal, America’s first Secretary of Defense and Drew Pearson, the muckraking columnist.

There are also short appearances by Harry Truman, Teddy Kollek (Zionist activist and later mayor of Jerusalem after the establishment of Israel), Jack Anderson, and every known witness to whatever happened at Roswell. Collins rather deftly blends in Project Paperclip, the U.S. post-World War 2 use of Nazi spies and scientists, the beginnings of the Red Scare, the beginnings of U.S. Intelligence, and the details of post-World War 2 D.C. into the intertwining of a pair of mysteries from the end of Truman’s first term- Forrestal’s mental breakdown while in office and Roswell. In the process, he manages to work in all the usuals of the hard-boiled detective story-mysterious love interest, moral dilemmas, and a full ration of escape/chase scenes as Heller tries to penetrate multiple coverups.

Collins writes really well. His descriptions of James Forrestal and his troubled wife Jo and segregation era D.C. are vivid and make for fascinating social commentary. While Collins command of the tremendous amount of historical detail that went into Majic Man is genuinely impressive, he doesn’t let that get in the way of pacing or plot construction. Heller, the lapsed Jew-former Chicago cop-tough guy-soft heart, who narrates the story also serves as an effective enough moral center for the book that manages to give its narrator more sense of dimension than the genre's more usual informational conduit and plot mover. In short, Collins’s reputation as a crime novelist is well deserved.

If I have a criticism of Majic Man, it’s with Collins’s relatively timid ending. He does such a good job assembling the elements in the chapters that get him to Roswell, I wanted him to sustain the same level of brio in unwinding the historical mystery . Instead, he settles for simply solving the story at the detective level, never quite getting to the point of transcending his chosen genre into more serious statements about post-World War 2 America, etc. He does however slip some very interesting wrinkles into the fundamentally epistemological nature of detective fiction (okay I always wanted to use that phrase). Majic Man rather shrewdly explores "how we know" through the lens of paranoia, coverup, implanted memory, and identity without making the reader think Philosophy with a big "P".

While my favorite detective series (also discovered through books on tape) remains Troy Soos’s Mickey Rawlings’ series, a mixture of Ty Cobb era baseball, American social history, and murder mystery, I have a feeling I’m going to be checking out the rest of the Nathan Heller series soon and it's right up there with Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books for me.


At 9/05/2006 12:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love mysteries because their writers routinely do fascinating research on an era or an area like art forgery. I've read or heard everything dear Dick Francis ever wrote and have always been illuminated at a breakneck pace. He combines British horse racing with a variety of subjects which might be arcane but seem clear after the book. Big banking from the inside, say.

Dick Francis used to be a jockey for the Queen Mother so knows his nags. He always has his protagonist undergo one scene so physically gruelling that you can hardly read it, but the protagonist soldiers on eventually.

The Southwest Tony Hillerman Navajo books are all good tho I'd look at the publishing dates to start at the beginning so you don't spoil what the later books reveal.

In Lindsey Davis' detective Falco in ancient Rome series I've started, I found out that they used urine to bleach the senators' togas really white. Who knew. I also get an intimate feel for the era that I would never have from a straight history book.

History and mystery -- a tasty mix indeed.

At 9/05/2006 08:57:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

You know, Tony Hillerman is the one mystery writer I didn't take to, but now that you mention it, it might well be because I read a book in the middle of the sequence. (part of the problem with using the library-takes more patience)

I probably lean to those mystery writers who use the plot as a painless way to share a bunch of research about an era, place, specialty...I might be jaded, but the "mystery" part of it rarely gets me all that excited nor do I even remember the elements of the "find the killer" part of most books.

A couple others I've liked. Martin Cruz Smith (especially in communist countries) and Caleb Carr.


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