September 6, 2012

True Detective ***

*** True Detective, Max Allan Collins, 1983

Collins can write, which comes as no surprise. He wrote Road to Perdition. This was an early attempt to reinvent the noir tradition. As indicated in the notes, his mentor and his agent said he needed to rewrite it because it was in first-person and over 100,000 words. His other mentor, Mickey Spillane (!!), called it the best private eye novel he'd ever read. Collins fired his agent, finished the novel, and it sold to the first publisher his new agent shopped it to. He went on to write 18 Heller novels, so far.

I have likes and dislikes with this novel, mostly likes. Great noir vibe, first person voice nails it. Great story woven into actual historical events with actual people from 1932. Buckley did this with the Blackford Oakes espionage novels and I ate them up. Collins brings it with the Heller series.

My only dislike relates to excessive backstory, which is info-dumped in the early chapters. He could have addressed the word-count objection by jettisoning whole chapters and weaving the essential information into the narrative.

Chapter 1 opens as it should, and develops as it should. Then we hit Chapter 2, which covers the Heller family history going back 100 years to his great-grandfather and working forward to the shooting at the end of Chapter 1. Twenty-plus pages of pace-killing back story. This happens in a few other places, to the point I skimmed to get back to the story.

But the story itself is excellent. It's worth getting and reading. And who knows, you may like the family history and the tour of Prohibition Chicago and not skim at all.


Max Allan Collins said...

I understand your difficulty with the background chapter in TRUE DETECTIVE. It was a strategic choice and calculated risk on my part, knowing that some readers would skim or skip it, and possibly be turned off to the entire enterprise. But a primary concept at work in TRUE DETECTIVE (and, if to a lesser degree, later Heller novels -- there are fourteen, including the upcoming JFK novel, TARGET LANCER), was to embrace the conventions of private eye genre fiction while digging into the roots of those conventions, to make Nate Heller more real than Spade or Marlowe or Hammer or their various offspring. I wanted Nate Heller to have had a mother and father (and of course that second chapter goes back farther than that) and not just be another P.I. risen from the ashes of pulp. I meant to include the tropes of these tales but by taking my detective back to the period in which Hammett and Chandler created him combine reality with genre fancy. In other words, I wanted to do a genre novel and a mainstream novel at the same time. I don't say that your objection is invalid, but I do say that I knew I risked some readers feeling that way, and pursued my goals anyway. The book has had considerable success over the years, from winning the Best Novel "Shamus" to being included on many Best Mystery lists, even getting to #1 last year as a Kindle e-book. So I stand behind my decision while respecting your opinion.

The idea of digging into the conventions of the genre and finding the core of reality in the cliches is probably best represented by THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND. Almost every P.I. (certainly the post-Spillane ones) was traumatized in the war -- some war, anyway. But it's always unexplored backstory. Instead I took Heller to Guadalcanal and made his experiences there a major part of the book. We see how and why he was traumatized. Again, these are my goals, and I may not have reached them in your view. That's okay. The reading experience is a collaboration between writer and reader, and not every collaboration works out. Ours seems to have been better than some and worse than others.

Brad Whittington said...

Yo, Max, thanks for dropping in with another perspective. As I said in the review I liked the novel and plan on reading more in the Heller series. Very nice work, as is evidenced by it's ongoing success.

But we do disagree about Chapter 2, despite the fact I've never won a Shamus. ;-) Making Heller more real than the seminal noir PIs by providing him with a family tree and maintaining narrative momentum are not mutually exclusive goals. I think you could make him real with a family through smaller chunks of back story strategically woven into the present-story-time scenes.

I'm actually attempting that very thing now in my current novel, taking out the 25K+ words of back story of the two main characters I interspersed in huge chunks and reintroducing them in a more subtle and nuanced fashion. It's a pain and I may fail, but as you say, the method of grounding the character in time and culture is a strategic decision that each writer must make to stay true to the vision of the work.

Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment. It made my day.

Max Allan Collins said...

Your strategy of gradual backstory, and giving glimpses of the iceberg and allowing the reader to extrapolate the shape beneath the surface, is a good one, and what I normally do. But part of the idea of TRUE DETECTIVE was to begin with a kind of one-two punch that would say this is not a typical PI novel -- first chapter, action; second chapter, background. Writing is largely strategy and I from time to time begin a book in a way that risks losing some readers -- as in my Quarry series, where in the first chapter the protagonist usually does something reprehensible that sort of thins the herd among readers. Again, it's a risk. But calculated.

Brad Whittington said...

Good point. With a smaller body of work and fan base to build from, I'm more risk averse. Who am I kidding? I'm just risk averse, period. ;-)

Best wishes to you and I look forward to catching up on the Heller series now that I stumbled upon it.

Kayla said...

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