My book cases’ Collins (and I don’t mean Wilkie) section takes up most of a long shelf, and that’s only the Max Allan Collins solo titles (his co-authored completions of Mickey Spillane novels being in the even bigger Mickey Spillane section). Collins shares some shelf space with Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peter series, which I consider a pretty honorable place to reside. From Michael O’Sullivan and The Road books to Ms. Tree, Maggie Starr in the 1950’s NYC comics scene series to the new Galena, IL police chief Krista Larsen series, it’s a long and continually growing row. There’s even an ancient Mallory hardcover from 1984, Kill Your Darlings (a used bookstore find, that one). I’ll admit to coming up a little shy on his Nolan and Quarry novels. Still, call me a fan.
But the longest portion of that long bookshelf is taken up by Collins’ Nathan Heller books, among my favorite mystery/crime fiction series, right up there with Estleman’s Amos Walker and Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself. There are hardcovers, trade pb’s and pocketbooks from Tor Forge, iBooks, Harper Torch, Signet, Dutton, Thomas Mercer and more…you have to stay on top of things if you want to catch the Hellers, and I do try to be diligent about it.
Advance PR noted that 2020’s Do No Harm would thrust Chicago P.I. Nathan Heller and his A-1 Detective Agency in the middle of a sensational 1950’s murder case: The Sam Sheppard affair. Heller has found himself in the midst of Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh kidnapping and Marilyn Monroe’s death among other high-profile cases. I’ll admit to enjoying Nathan Heller most when tangling with the mob in his Chi-Town home-town, his early career the most interesting. Frankly, I knew little about the real-life Sheppard murder other than it being ‘sorta-kinda’ the inspiration for the popular 1960’s TV series The Fugitive.
Dr. Sam Sheppard was a successful suburban Cleveland physician and apparently a bit of a philanderer. Late at night after an Independence Day get-together with neighbors, Marilyn Sheppard was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered right in the family’s lakefront home’s upstairs bedroom, while their son slept just down the hall and Sheppard himself snoozed away on a downstairs sofa. Law enforcement bungled the investigation and the local press more or less convicted him long before charges were filed or his trial commenced. Sheppard was found guilty and sent away for life. Many, however, felt he was railroaded.
Collins’ Nathan Heller novel includes a large cast of characters both real and imagined/composited, including Elliott Ness (who moved to Cleveland after his notorious ‘Untouchables’ escapades in Chicago), Perry Mason creator Earle Stanley Gardner and celebrity defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Collins’ and long-time associate George Hagenauer’s thorough research is evident throughout, the book reading at times like a true crime book and at others like a rousing Nate Heller noir novel. Sheppard was ultimately retried and exonerated, though he earned no brownie points for his antics during his post-prison life, and while Collins seems convinced of the doctor’s innocence, Do No Harm doesn’t whitewash the man. The author concedes that he changed his own mind several times about who really murdered Marilyn Sheppard during the wee hours of July 4th, 1954.
If my work schedule was a little less overwhelming, I’m sure I’d have plowed through this book in a couple days. As it was, I was forced to read a chapter or two at a time over several days, but always anxious to get right back to it. Nate Heller books are just like that. Do No Harm was actually the very last new book added to the normally overflowing to-be-read heap on the writing lair’s endtable. That pile will grow again and soon enough, though it’ll take a little more doing than usual to rebuild the stack to normal size. And it’ll take some patience to wait for another Max Allan Collins Nathan Heller novel.