Max Allan Collins is so prolific that I had already read one his books long ago without realizing it (the novelization for the Dick Tracy movie, which I read on a school bus trip) until looking at his bibliography. Besides movie tie-ins, he has numerous detective series, hitman books and graphic novels to his credit. His first two crime novels, Bait Money (1973) and Blood Money (1973), were published together as Two for the Money by Hard Case Crime.
The Texeira cover art is reminiscent of a Sunday comic strip, with old two-guns Nolan firing away at something behind a bar scene with two younger characters staring out at us. It’s a more interesting painting at a second glance: the violence of that Nolan character looms over the other two in a way that foretells the plot.
The two parts of TftM are the start of a series about Nolan, a professional thief who comes out of semi-retirement for one last job to settle a debt with the Family. The Family, of course, is the syndicate of organize crime based in Chicago, with a reach all over the Eastern part of the country.
The first part, Bait Money, begins with Nolan in bed with a temporary girlfriend who has taken care of him while he recovered from a gunshot wound. That wound was a souvenir of a double-cross carried out by a gangster named Charlie. Charlie is a high-ranking member of the Family, with whom Nolan hopes to arrange a deal and regain access to his “cover” as a legitimate businessman.
If the above paragraph reminds you of how Donald Westlake’s Parker series started, that’s no mistake. Collins’ Nolan series is a tribute to Parker, and the postscript to TftM mentions Westlake approving of the Bait Money manuscript. Nolan is different than Parker in several important aspects; while Parker is so emotionless at times that he barely registers as human, Nolan shares much more of himself to others. This early exchange with the girlfriend (who is an incidental character, actually) would not fit anywhere in The Hunter, for example:
“Shut up, Nolan.” She sat down on the bed, facing away from him and touching her face with her fingertips.
“What’s the matter?”
“You don’t owe me a damn thing, that’s all. Do you understand?” Her voice was drum tight. “I am a lot of things, and I’ve been a lot of things, and I will be a lot of things in days to come. But I was not, am not and will not ever be a whore.” She was quiet for a few moments, then added, her voice hushed, “You don’t owe me anything, Nolan. And if you try to give me any money, I’ll tear your goddamn heart out.”
He touched her shoulder.
If Collins were simply attempting a Parker story, I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be any “What’s the matter?” or “He touched her shoulder.” in the opening chapter. The planning and aftermath of the heist at the center of Bait Money has Parker written all over it, but Collins is taking the character of Nolan in its own direction; we can judge these books on their own merits.
Nolan is not so much a hardened killer as Parker, but he is a seasoned criminal who had been tied up with the Family. He negotiates a meeting with Charlie through a mutual associate outside of Chicago (in the Quad Cities, in fact), and arranges to pull one last bank job, in order to pay off Charlie and get his cover back.
The robbery itself is something Nolan must arrange, but fortunately he knows a character named Planner, an antique dealer residing in Iowa City. Planner puts criminal opportunities together with prospective criminals, as a lucrative side business. Since Nolan’s reputation among the professional crooks was ruined by his situation with Charlie, he has to take on Planner’s young nephew Jon, a comic book-obsessed wannabe hood.
Jon, maybe modeled on Collins himself to some extent, knows another young couple deep in Iowa country that have access to a bank. It’s those two who I think are pictured in the Hard Case Crime cover. The boyfriend is a dangerous but naïve vagrant, and the girlfriend, working as a teller at the target bank, is clever but easily convinced to sleep with any male she encounters. Nolan manages to make these three into a capable conspiracy, and the bank has a vault full of cash.
Of course, the plot starts to twist with sex and gun violence when the bank teller strays and her boyfriend confronts her – in front of Nolan, Jon and the bags of cash. These characters are too shallowly drawn to impart any sense of tragedy when things go sour, but Collins manages to write in excitement and suspense. It is pulp fiction but it reads quickly once the robbery crew gets together.
Blood Money picks up where Bait Money ended, after the bank job and its messy aftermath. Nolan’s cash hoard is locked up in Planner’s store, waiting to be used to buy Nolan’s way back into the Family. Meanwhile, Nolan has secured a position running a swank Family hotel in Florida, passing the time with another temporary girlfriend.
Nolan’s old adversary Charlie, however, was left bitter and unsatisfied by the events of Bait Money. He tracks down Nolan’s stash and robs Planner. Since he is now isolated from most of the Family, he has to do this with his son Walter. We don’t get much detail in the way Charlie’s relationship with the Family goes sour – his death was staged as a car wreck, and he was supposed to just disappear – and this is unfortunate because Bait Money depends on embracing Charlie as a major character.
We do see that Walter is a loyal son to Charlie, saving his life after the violent robbery of Planner’s store:
Suddenly Charlie noticed his wound, said, “Jesus,” and settled back down on the table.
The doctor continued to work while Charlie talked to Walter. What the doctor did was give Charlie several shots — a tetanus toxid, some Novocain around the wound — and proceeded to debride the wound, stripping away the flesh that had died of shock on the bullet’s impact. What Charlie said to Walter was, “You stupid goddamn kid, we should be long gone from here by now, what the hell you doing dragging me to a doctor for, Chirst, a little goddamn scratch on the leg and you’re dragging me to a doctor, what the hell you use for brains, boy,” and more along those lines.
After the doctor was through debriding the wound, and his father was through sermonizing, Walter said, “Dad, you were unconscious and I felt I should get you to a doctor. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
The quote demonstrates the consequences of violence as well as the nature of the relationship between this son and father. Charlie dominates Walter, pulling him into his quixotic mission for revenge. This, and the final confrontation between Nolan and Charlie, are the strengths of Blood Money.
There are also weaknesses. The story drags noticeably when Nolan is investigating what happened to Planner and his money – these chapters take up maybe half the book. The assortment of mobsters involved as pretty much interchangeable as characters, not because Collins describes them similarly, but because they seem to be pulled from earlier books, movies and the like. Why Charlie’s former associates get culled is never satisfactorily explained, a large gap considering Nolan is trying to secure his place in the Family.
TftM is some of Collins’ earliest work, and shows a propensity for writing fast-moving crime fiction. The beginning of the Nolan series does not show the same promise as Westlake’s The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face (a classic), but show enough for me to pick up another Collins volume when I find it. 5/10.
NOTE: See this review for a more favorable take.