Review by C.J. Bunce
Author Max Allan Collins doesn’t let up and neither does his A-1 Private Detective Agency hero Nathan Heller. His client list is one-of-a-kind, including the likes of Clarence Darrow, Amelia Earhart, and Dashiell Hammett. After 17 novels and three collections of short stories, Heller, the “P.I. to the stars” is back in The Big Bundle, an all-new 1950s crime story from Hard Case Crime, available for pre-order now here at Amazon. The first of two historical crime novels from Collins tying in a fictionalized version of Robert F. Kennedy, the story brings together again that classic 1950s triangle: RFK’s Congressional racketeering committee efforts, Jimmy Hoffa’s role in the labor movement and his questionable cohorts, and the antics of low-and mid-level members of the Mafia. But that’s really only the background for a real-life kidnapping that took place in Kansas City in 1953, and Heller, once handpicked by Lindbergh to find the villains in the case of his own missing son, is brought into another similar, gut-wrenching case. His first client was Al Capone. Frank Nitti was his father figure. His best friend was Eliot Ness. But that’s in the past when Nate Heller’s next story begins.
Collins and his well-dressed hero are in prime form–this is one of those Collins novels that one-ups his own famous Road to Perdition, blending in some nasty villains straight out of Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. His expert storytelling investigates whether or not bad guys have a code, and how much they’ll stick to that code when big money is at stake. Heller comes across bad cops, cops that are just bad at being cops, street thugs, minor and major mobsters, organized labor leaders, politicians, and just plain evil people with no soul. They all say the same thing: “I’d never touch that kind of blood money.” So who is lying and who is telling the truth?
The real-life facts are on the record, but if you believe an event 70 years ago can remotely be a spoiler to talk about, move along and come back after you’ve read the novel, but just note that the story isn’t the reason to read the novel–it’s Collins’ storytelling.
Keeping with his four-decade-long series, Heller sounds like a real person, but he’s not. Heller is Collins’ fictional private detective who has clients of every ilk, but notably each novel features Heller’s exploits with a famous celebrity or historical event–Heller this time has many clients, often with conflicting agendas. In The Big Bundle that includes RFK, Hoffa, and Kansas City multi-millionaire Robert Greenlease, Sr. It’s Greenlease whose six-year-old son Bobby was walked out of a Catholic school by a woman pretending to be his aunt, never to be seen again, as part of an infamous, nationally-reported kidnapping in 1953. A drug-addicted and alcoholic couple from St. Joseph, Missouri–a “Bonnie and Carl,” Bonnie Heady and Carl Hall–were sent to the gas chamber for their crimes, Heady notably as only the third woman ever killed by the federal government, following Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt and the convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg.
Greenlease, a wealthy Cadillac dealer, paid $600,000 to the kidnappers, the largest ransom ever paid at the time. Only $288,000 of the ransom was recovered by authorities. Collins breaks the story into what reads like two separate books. The first covers Heller as one of the shadowy figures that was brought in (as happened in real life) to help sleuth out the kidnappers and hopefully save the boy in time. The second follows Heller as he’s tapped by multiple factions to leverage his underworld relationships–many via characters introduced by Collins in his previous twenty-plus stories.
Collins makes a good effort upfront and in an afterword to make it clear how the events have been altered for storytelling purposes. Heller is an interesting storytelling device, a bit of a time traveler that didn’t exist that is thrust into these historical events as our tour guide. It works, but Heller’s voice may strike fans of Collins’ other voices, like Mike Hammer (who he shares with Mickey Spillane), Quarry, and Nolan, as the furthest away in style and manner. Without reading his past exploits it’s not clear why Heller can afford to be so confident. He strides into situations where others are getting killed for doing much less, and yet he walks out clean–like a protagonist in a slasher film.
The Big Bundle is a noir crime novel, so Collins splices in his dark hero getting a piece of the physical action, like getting beat-up by thugs, and also with the femme fatale/good-bad girl types, including a few sex scenes that seem a little too steamy for a plot about a real-life child kidnapping. But that may just be a matter of personal taste.
Collins’ use of real people gives this novel a cinematic feel in the vein of Oliver Stone, especially his JFK, and David Mamet’s Hoffa. The story shuffles back and forth from the real and fictional somewhat better than in the recent movie based on real facts, Amsterdam. Readers who are fans of The Untouchables will find the setting familiar, and St. Louis and Kansas City is a great undertapped (and the real-life) 1950s venue for a major work like this. Collins’ exhaustive research into the nooks and crannies of every bar, diner, and seedy hotel is evident. The approach reminded me at times of former Kansas City Star reporter Giles Fowler’s non-fiction work Deaths on Pleasant Street. It also plays out like another D.B. Cooper rabbit hole for federal investigators.
Paul Mann creates a very good spin on Heller as he might have been portrayed by Robert Lansing for his painted cover art.
The Big Bundle should land as a major work for Collins, and that’s saying a lot for someone who is so prolific. It’s prime for a movie, complete with a dozen odd characters to be filled by your favorite character actors. This is a must for all noir crime readers, fans of Collins and his detective Heller (especially his 1991 novel Stolen Away), 20th century crime stories found in the movie The Changeling and in the books In Cold Blood, Union Station, and A Bloody Business. Pre-order The Big Bundle in hardcover now in its first-ever publication here at Amazon, scheduled for arrival next Tuesday, January 24, 2023.