Review by C.J. Bunce
Fifty years after author Max Allan Collins wrote his first novel while in college at the University of Iowa, titled Bait Money. The novel featured Nolan, a 48-year-old thief tied in with the mob toward the end of his career in crime, inspired by Donald Westlake’s popular character Parker. Collins would write eight more Nolan stories, but now 33 years after the last he’s released an all-new Nolan sequel through the Hard Case Crime imprint, the cleverly titled Skim Deep. In 1987 Nolan is 55 now and thinking about tying the knot with long-time girlfriend Sherry, who he saved from Coleman Comfort, the villain in earlier novels, years ago. But can someone like Nolan ever quit the business? Will his past let him settle down in his house with Sherry in the Quad Cities on the Iowa-Illinois border? Count Skim Deep as another in the win column for author Collins, and a great read that will usher in coming reprints of all his Nolan novels.
The 1980s come alive again, not via anyone who hadn’t actually lived through the decade or only experienced it via watching movies of the era as so many films to and fail to replicate. The 1980s of Nolan is the real deal–details of slang and dialect, people, places, music, and more will suck readers back truly like nothing I’ve read about the period when I was actually in it. In an author’s note Collins asks the reader to consider it a novel written in period as opposed to a historical novel, and you can see the angle throughout the story. Concepts and word choice the Hard Case Crime imprint might not use in its noir crime fiction today gets a different twist from Collins writing as if he’s documenting Nolan’s actions from the window of a nearby hotel back in the day.
The Comfort crime family–what remains of it–is back, with a vengeance. That hillbilly family from Missouri is headed up by “Maw” Comfort, one of the most ghastly, vile, despicable gun moll types readers will have ever read about. But her story of bloody revenge amounts to merely the bookends of a deeper, more personal plot about Collins’ anti-hero, as Nolan takes his fiancé for a few days to Las Vegas for an unexpected return of a few other characters from his past–some good, some bad. Collins paints a vivid, rich portrait of the French Quarter of Vegas and drops his characters into the edge of the outer edge of the Strip with action and color as if he was writing the next James Bond movie.
Readers will meet (again, for those familiar with the series) Sherry, who runs the restaurant with Nolan for an older class of clientele than she might serve were she doing it alone. Jon is back, a little older from working what was supposed to be Nolan’s last job. Just as Collins pulls from his own local knowledge of Eastern Iowa for Nolan and Sherry, with Jon you can see Collins pulling from his inside knowledge of comics, comics artists and comics shops (I first met Collins at San Diego Comic-Con, where he is probably best known for the graphic novel Road to Perdition). Jon is trying to open his own comics shop, and he’s currently playing back-up for those famous “oldies” rock band acts that went through Everytown, America back in the late 1980s.
Collins describes Nolan as “Lee Van Cleef crawled down off the screen out of a Sergio Leone western,” and that’s precisely how artist Mark Eastbrook painted him on the cover of Skim Deep and the forthcoming re-releases of his series, featuring two novels in each volume. Two for the Money includes Bait Money and Blood Money, Double Down includes Fly Paper and Hush Money, Tough Tender has Hard Cash and Scratch Fever, and Mad Money will have Spree and the prequel Mourn the Living. We’ve seen no cover for the last one yet, but check out the other great covers by Eastbrook above!
I’ve read and enjoyed every Collins novel I’ve gotten my hands on. This one depicts a much seedier world (even than Quarry, which is saying something), but the twists and angles and throwbacks are every bit as exciting as his Mike Hammer collabs and his scrapes and near-misses in Quarry and Ms. Tree–especially how he weaves in the skimming plot telegraphed in the title. Recommended for fans of vintage crime novels and Collins’ writing, Skim Deep is available now in its first-ever printing, here at Amazon. Pre-order the first two of his forthcoming Nolan novel reprints from Hard Case Crime at these links: Two for the Money and Double Down, and keep coming back here at borg for more reviews of Collins’ novels coming later this year.