Review by C.J. Bunce
The Sting and The Color of Money collide in a new edition of Max Allan Collins’ 1973 pulp novel, Bait Money. Hard Case Crime goes back to where it all started for the Collins’ Lee Van Cleef lookalike known only as Nolan in this first novel in his series. Nolan appeared to readers first as a 48-year-old hardened thief ready to retire a year after being shot at the direction of a man whose brother Nolan killed. Compare Skim Deep, written 50 years later (reviewed in January here at borg) to Bait Money and you’ll see Collins didn’t lose track of his character any over the decades–Nolan is a character for the ages and these novels feel like they could have been written a year apart. Bait Money is one of two novels in a new edition of Hard Case Crime’s classic reprint of the first two Nolan novels called Two for the Money, now available here at Amazon.
The story finds Nolan a year after the hit that took him out of action–age, pain, and time wearing on the fairly successful criminal who is reflecting on his past and trying to position himself for some kind of future. It’s been 16 years of dodging the mob, the Cosa Nostra, or as the current locals in the book call it, the “Family.” He wants to negotiate a truce with a mid-level mobster named Charlie, which leads Nolan into another job, one last job before he can retire in peace.
He gets sucked into a plot to rob a bank with three others, including a young man with drug world ties as the driver, his roving eye girlfriend as the “inside man,” and the nephew of one of his best contacts as the mastermind of the project. As in Skim Deep, the story takes place in Eastern Iowa and it’s good fun seeing how Collins masks the real-life local Iowa City favorite restaurants (like The Mill and the Hamburg Inn) into this narrative. And we meet Sherry for the first time–a woman that may be perfect for this washed-up soul.
Collins’ stories are so tightly written, and this is no different. The payoff is perfect, and the set-up of characters and new situations for this new character run parallel to Collins’ crime world, starts and stops and ups and downs of his anti-hero Quarry, yet Nolan is unique. Written while Collins was in college at the University of Iowa, Bait Money was inspired by Donald Westlake’s popular Parker novels. Now we have eight more Nolan novels to catch up with, and we’ll double back for a review of the second book in this twofer edition, Blood Money, in the coming weeks.
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 Two for the Money as well as the covers of Skim Deep, Double Down, and Tough Tender. Shown above are earlier covers, and the new 2021 cover art is the above image with “Max Allan Collins” in big yellow lettering.
Count Bait Money as another fun ride in the win column for author Collins, and a great way to usher in Hard Case Crime’s forthcoming reprints of all his Nolan novels. Skim Deep is available now in its first-ever printing, here at Amazon. Order the first two of his forthcoming Nolan novel reprints from Hard Case Crime at these links: Two for the Money (including Bait Money) and the next double-trouble set, Double Down, and keep coming back to borg for more reviews of Collins’ novels.