Vikas Datta profiles Max Allan Collins and his works in his weekly column Bookends
They can plan and commit the most perfect crimes and, on the other hand, solve the trickiest conundrum or unravel the most twisted conspiracies – on paper! But can mystery writers exhibit their skill they imbue their detectives with in real life too?
Leaving alone detectives-turned-authors – a prime example was Dashiell “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett, who was once a Pinkerton agent – there have been only a few who tried to do so.
Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probed cases of two men (including half-Parsi London solicitor George Edalji) who he believed were unjustly convicted and succeeded in getting them exonerated. Others seeking to solve some sensational unsolved crimes – Jack the Ripper’s identity for one – were not successful and faced derision for their efforts, be it Edgar Allan Poe, P.D. James and Patricia Cornwell, creator of forensic sleuth Kay Scarpetta.
But have there been cases we don’t know about – where some renowned writers happened to be around when a foul murder took place, were summoned or volunteered to help and solved the crime – but at the cusp of a major incident that ensured their accomplishments would be overshadowed?
Seems a fascinating idea, doesn’t it? And such is the curious pattern of human life, call it coincidence or whatever you like, some prominent writers were present in some of the most unforgettable tragedies of the 20th century’s first half – a celebrated author was aboard the Titanic, the original grand dame of crime was in London when it faced fierce German bombing during the Second World War and another renowned author, though not of mysteries, was in Pearl Harbor that fateful first week of December 1941.
This was all needed by prolific American mystery writer Max Allan Collins (b.1948) to create his “Disaster” series where murders – occurring prior or during some famous disasters – are solved by the likes of Agatha Christie, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leslie Charteris, Jacques Futrelle, S.S. Van Dine and Walter B. Gibson (the last four may seem somewhat unfamiliar to most modern readers but were most famous in their time, and two of them arguably had a hand of sorts in development of iconic characters like James Bond, and Superman and Batman).
It begins with most famous ship disaster of all time – fresh in our memories even after a century – especially due to the James Cameron’s 1997 film, which in a way, was an inspiration for the series.
Wondering if it wouldn’t be interesting to have Titanic passenger Futrelle, creator of Prof. Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen or “The Thinking Machine” who solved crimes by inexorable logic, solve a locked room murder of the sort he wrote about just as an iceberg loomed, led to “The Titanic Murders” (1999), which draws in two otherwise blameless passengers as villains and ends as just the alarm is sounded.
But as the publisher wanted a series, Collins was forced to delve deeper. “The Hindenburg Murders” (2000), postulating a possible cause of the blaze that reduced the airship to ash, stars British-Chinese author Leslie Charteris but with a little artistic licence – the creator of the sophisticated Simon Templar alias Saint who made the leap to radio, comic books, TV (played by Roger Moore) and film – did travel on the airship but not on its last voyage in 1937.
As far as “The Pearl Harbor Murders” (2001) was concerned, Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, was in Honolulu that week Japan attacked while “The Lusitania Murders” (2002), with Willard Huntington Wright ‘S.S. Van Dine’, again takes a slight liberty – he sailed on the luxury liner but not in 1915 when it came in the sights of a U-boat.
“The London Blitz Murders” (2004) actually deals with the spike in crime that took place in the blackout, particularly a string of murders with a sexual motive, where jumps in Agatha Christie Mallowan, after prevailing on celebrated pathologist Sir Bernard Spillsbury to let her accompany him to some crime scenes.
A fitting finale is “The War of the World Murders” (2005), in which William B. Gibson, a one-time disciple of Houdini and creator of “The Shadow, ‘who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men’ “, tasked with solving a crime in the time Orson Welles scares a nation with his dramatic, contemporary radio adaption of H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion.
Collins, best known for his Nathan Heller series of a hard-boiled investigator rubbing shoulders with quite a few of the famous and infamous in pre-WWII US, replicates his magic here too. He builds a fine head of tension by restricting the timeframe to just a few days, while the meticulous research, spotless evocation of the era portrayed – and for good measure, replicating style and ethos of the author being featured, make for a most satisfying read and provide the best example of literary historical crime fiction – in all senses!