Tough guy private eye stories aren’t as popular as they used to be. They arced in the public mind in the 1930s and 1940s. Mickey Spillane kept them alive in the 1950s. But so much of the genre seemed to move to the police procedurals of Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh a little after that.
And then there is Max Allan Collins, who’s steadfastly ignored trends and fashions and published the Nate Heller private eye stories and novels since the early 1980s. And while few of us might ever know a person like Nate Heller, there were people like him – Dashiell Hammett was a Pinkerton operative before he turned writer, for example – and he is a representative of an American original.
In Chicago Lightning, Collins brings together thirteen stories published over the past 30 years that have two primary things in common. They are based on true stories, and they are great reads.
Real personalities walk these stories alongside fictional characters – lawmen like Eliot Ness, gangsters like Frank Nitti (Al Capone’s successor in Chicago). And even some of the fictional characters are based on real people.
The stories themselves are fascinating, and I had to keep reminding myself that I read stories in 2011 that were written in the 1980s and 1990s about events in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s to Collins’ credit that the reader is able to easily move back in time and see the era so clearly.
And the stories are quite a selection of crimes: a young man yearning to be a private detective dies during a stakeout of a department store; the “Blonde Tigress” is arrested for robbery and murder but the woman in question may or may not be the killer; a young wife is found murdered in the basement of a wealthy family’s mansion; a movie star hires Heller but finds herself the victim of “the perfect crime;” a doctor goes missing; a woman suspects her husband of infidelity; a serial killer is loose in Cleveland; and more.
While many of the stories are set in Depression-era Chicago, with its crooked politicians and police on the take, Collins includes Cleveland, Los Angeles and Miami as additional settings for Heller’s cases. And the settings and atmospheres are important – whether it’s the seedy side of town or the in-places of the Sunset Strip in L.A., the author convincingly tells the story of that particular place at that particular time.
Chicago Lightning (the name given to machine-gun fire) is a solid collection of hardboiled private eye stories, and earns a well deserved place in a long tradition of tough-guy hero stories.