By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register
Jan. 2, 2020
The story of how Max Allan Collins became one of the most prolific writers in Iowa history began in 1930 in Chicago, 18 years before he was born. President Herbert Hoover, a native of West Branch, Iowa, ordered U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness to assemble a team to bring down notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone.
Chester Gould, an artist at the Chicago Tribune, followed the lawman’s exploits and created the square-jawed police detective Dick Tracy as an homage.
The flesh-and-blood Ness and fictional Tracy would become frequent subjects in a writing career that spans comic strips, crime novels, historical fiction and screenplays.
At 71, Collins is at work on at least six books, including a second biography of Ness, “The Untouchable and the Butcher: Eliot Ness, Al Capone and America’s Jack the Ripper.”
“I’m still wondering where my next check is going to come from,” Collins said in an interview with the Register. “I’m waiting to hear back on three pitches right now. I’ve turned my hobbies into a career, but it’s still a hustle.”
Collins was born Max Allan Collins Jr., the son of Patricia Ann Rushing Collins and Max Allan Collins Sr., on March 3, 1948, in Muscatine, where he continues to live. Friends and family called the boy Allan; his father went by Max.
Patricia Ann read Dick Tracy comic books to her son. The youngster thrilled to the yellow trench-coated, fedora-wearing Tracy’s never-ending battle against the monstrous underworld filled with grotesque villains such as Big Boy, the Brow, Flattop, Pruneface and Little Face Finney (no relation to this friendly paragraph stacker.)
He spent his allowance on Dick Tracy comic books and he drew Tracy. His mother sent a letter with some of her son’s drawings to Gould.
Gould returned the note with a drawing of Tracy saying, “Hello, Allan,” and signed by Gould.
Gould “said of all the kids in America that sent him drawings, mine was the best,” Collins said.
Collins wanted to be an artist, but family friend Keith Larson, a poet, farmer and part-time writing teacher at Muscatine Community College, encouraged the younger Collins’ writing talent.
He had already written a book when he enrolled in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He sold two before he graduated.
Still, the early years were lean. Never sure when the next publisher would accept one of his books, Collins worked part-time as a writing teacher at Muscatine Community College.
Then Dick Tracy came to the rescue. Gould was retiring after writing and drawing the series for nearly a half-century. The Tribune syndicate invited writers, including Collins, to compete for the job.
“I had them a script in about three days: ‘Dick Tracy vs. Angeltop,'” Collins said. “I got the job.”
He became the regular writer on Dick Tracy, the comic-strip cop inspired by the real-life gangbuster Ness.
Collins befriended Gould, and one night over dinner, Gould gave Collins some advice.
“’You’re doing a good job,’” Collins recalls Gould saying, “’But, remember, this is mine. You need to create something of your own.’”
Collins took that to heart. In the years to come, he would produce more than 230 books and other works.
Collins was one of the first authors recruited by Hard Case Crime, a small imprint founded in 2004 that produces the kind of hardboiled pulp novels that were commonplace in stores and on newsstands from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.
Through 2019, Collins had contributed 17 novels to the publisher, the most of any of the imprint’s authors, which include Stephen King, Gore Vidal, Michael Crichton and Joyce Carole Oates.
“Max was the perfect person to reach out to when we were starting up Hard Case Crime, because he’s the person who kept the genre alive all these years,” said Charles Ardai, co-creator of Hard Case Crime. “He’s just such a pro, and his books read so well.”
Throughout his 50-year career, Collins became friends with crime-fiction greats such as Mickey Spillane, creator of the Mike Hammer series, and Donald Westlake, who also wrote under the pen name Richard Stark.
Collins didn’t know the connection between Westlake and Stark and once listed the two names as his first and second favorite authors, a story Westlake delighted in retelling at gatherings of crime writers.
Westlake advised Collins to move to either New York or Hollywood to be closer to the publishing and movie industries. Collins, though, decided he wanted to stay in Muscatine.
“I really didn’t want to quit my band,” he said of Crusin’, a 1960s tribute band he’s led for 45 years.
Collins came across Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” series, which was televised on ABC from 1958 to 1960. He read all the books and wrote prodigiously to Spillane.
Years later at a mystery writers convention, Spillane was introduced to Collins by one of the convention’s organizers. Spillane, Collins recalled, said, “Oh, I know Max. We’ve been corresponding for years.”
Collins said, “Yeah, about 100 letters from me and one from you.”
The two became close friends — so close that Spillane left Collins all his unpublished material to finish when he died in 2006.
Collins created his own of characters, from the post-Vietnam era hitman Quarry, no first name, to Chicago cop Nathan Heller, who, of course, is pals with Eliot Ness.
Ness stars as the main character in three Collins books and, in one odd twist, appears in an alternate history of Batman as the man — not billionaire Bruce Wayne — behind the Dark Knight’s cowl.
Collins’ skill was recognized with the Grand Master of Mystery Writing at the 2017 Edgar Awards Ceremony, the highest honor bestowed on a crime writer.
He’s probably best known for his 1998 graphic novel and its prose and comic sequels, “Road to Perdition,” which became a well-reviewed 2002 film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.
“That’s the thing I’ll always have that’s mine,” Collins said. “Everything I do from then on will be, ‘From the author of ‘Road to Perdition.’”
A tie-in to another movie kept the drumbeat of Eliot Ness alive for Collins.
In 1990, Touchstone Pictures released a “Dick Tracy” movie starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino and Madonna, with bright reds, blues, greens and yellows to imitate the palate of a newspaper comics page.
Collins insisted on writing the novelization of the movie.
“I wasn’t going to let anybody else do it,” Collins said. “I was the Dick Tracy writer. It remains one of my best-selling books.”
A. Brad Schwartz, a kid in East Lansing, Michigan, bought a copy of the paperback.
That book brought Schwartz both to Collins’ writing and into the world of crime fiction that Collins created.
Schwartz persuaded his parents to drive the 475 miles from East Lansing to Des Moines to see a play about — wait for it — Eliot Ness.
Collins had written the one-man show, which starred the late Des Moines actor Michael Cornelison at the Des Moines Playhouse.
Schwartz picked one of the few nights Collins wasn’t at the performance, but the cast hooked him up with a T-shirt. He wore the shirt when he met Collins at a book signing in Chicago, and the two began a correspondence.
Both bemoaned the absence of a thorough and historically accurate record of Capone and Ness.
Schwartz earned a history degree from the University of Michigan. He wrote his first book, also wrote for a PBS documentary, and entered Princeton University in the graduate program.
He kept in touch with Collins. When another of their conversations returned to the subject of Capone and Ness, Schwartz proposed a partnership.
“We’d complained about this long enough,” Schwartz said. “It was time to do something about it.”
Many of Collins’ novels are set during specific times in history. His Nathan Heller series hands the fictional detective some of the great unsolved crimes in American history.
Collins closes books with thorough notes to distinguish fact from fiction and explanations about how he developed a theory of the crime from his own research.
Schwartz was already an accomplished researcher and writer.
The combination of their research abilities and Collins’ crime novel experience resulted in “Scarface and the Untouchable,” a well-reviewed, historically accurate book about the battle between Capone and Ness that reads like crime fiction.
A second volume — due in 2020 — will explore Ness’ career after bringing down Capone on tax evasion charges.
Ness moved to Cleveland and eventually became the city’s safety director in charge of police and fire departments. He rooted out corruption. He pushed new police techniques to improve traffic safety and curb juvenile delinquency.
Ness’ police hunted a grisly serial killer who dismembered and decapitated victims, known as the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.” But he also stumbled into a series of personal and professional gaffes that saw his reputation and career erode.
Once offered a $2,000-a-week bribe by Capone’s men — about $36,000 a week in today’s money — Ness died penniless after a heart attack in a small Pennsylvania town. He was 54.
His life was one of twists, turns and mysteries, ultimately ending in tragedy.
It’s just the kind of story Collins, an Iowa kid who grew up reading Dick Tracy comics inspired by Ness, and Schwartz, a Michigan history writer, who grew up inspired by Collins’ writing, could make into a real page-turner.
“It’s funny how lives intertwine,” Collins said. “It’s a hell of a story.”
Collins would know.
Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.