The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part II–Not Quite Parker review and guest post

The Nolan Series, Part II

By Mr. Dan Luft

After Max Allan Collins published the first two books of his Nolan series, his publisher asked for a full-blown series.  Collins then wrote another three volumes, but they would sit unpublished for years after Collins’s first publisher, Curtis, was purchased by Popular Library (I don’t know if he was paid for them).  This is too bad because the Nolan novels would’ve fit in well with Ralph Dennis’ Hardman PI series and Martin Myers’ John Hardy books as well as other series that Popular Library published at the time. Instead the next three Nolan novels sat in a file cabinet for seven years.

Collins eventually regained his rights and sold the series to Pinnacle, which was the king of series fiction in the 70s and 80s. These later entries are a bit shorter than the first two books. Though all the Pinnacle books clock in at about 180 pages, the later books have noticeably larger print. This is a good thing–there is a bit of breathing space in these books. Collins was not trying to write a standalone novel nor was he writing a highly-stylized sequel. He was consciously writing a series and had begun to pace himself. Like the first two books of the series, these were revised for the 1980s setting but there is less emphasis on cultural commentary of the now long-gone hippie culture and more focus on the characters of Nolan and Jon, and the plots at hand.

Also, during the gap, Collins had published the first four Quarry novels. When looking at the Quarry novels, the reader can see the author decide to tighten the books up as the series goes along. The first Quarry novel, though better than the first Nolan novel, still feels a little long and there are too many unimportant details that slow the plot down. The subsequent Quarry novels are tighter, faster affairs that can zip by in a single sitting. Collins brought that experience to revising the Nolan novels for publication in the 80s. These are swift reads, each one more tightly written than the last.

Fly Paper, Collins has said, is the most revised of the books. Part of the book concerns a skyjacked plane. FAA regulations had changed over the eight years between the book’s initial writing and the finished product that was printed. So he rewrote to get the details a bit more realistic for the time period. Of course the word “skyjacking” had become antiquated in the intervening years too as the odd fad had disappeared. Also, there is a moment in the book when Nolan, staying at a hotel where there is a science fiction convention, bumps into James Doohan, the actor who played  Scotty on Star Trek. Doohan is described as thin and good looking while we all know what Scotty looked like by 1981.

The plot begins with a bouncing point of view much like Blood Money, but this time, the background information about the characters pours more easily and much faster.

Jon has moved himself into his late uncle’s antique shop and is setting up a comic book store. His night is destroyed when an old friend of both his uncle and Nolan shows up at the door covered in blood. Jon gets the man, Breen, inside and calls Nolan while a father and son criminal team of rednecks, the Comforts, are driving though the city looking to track the guy down and finish the job.

Breen knows that the Comforts have a safe full of money at their farm outside of Detroit. This sets into motion Jon and Nolan driving up to rob the Comforts which might be enough plot for a book but Collins decided to throw in a parallel skyjacking plot as Nolan is coming back by air. It feels like padding: we get that character’s perspective throughout the book, but only in little snippets. It is a small subplot that takes up an extra 40 pages. Without it, Fly Paper would have been a very tight novella.

Hush Money dabbles in the same parallel plot structure as Fly Paper but is more successful. It reads as though Nolan and Jon have stumbled into someone else’s novel.

It concerns a Vietnam vet, Steve McCracken, who is showing signs of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s back from the fight pretty banged up and then his parents die due to their mob associations. This turns him into the proverbial lone gunman that was starting to become a staple of men’s adventure fiction in the early 70s when the book was written and was about to become lionized by Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris in the early 80s when Hush Money finally saw print. This book might’ve been just fine without the recurring characters but it is a breath of new air for the series.

Hard Cash starts off with a near replay of Blood Money where Jon’s uncle got murdered. It begins with the Breen character from Fly Paper getting barged in on by more of the Comfort crime family members and killed. They are looking for Nolan like the gangsters at the beginning of Blood Money were looking for Nolan’s money. But the similarities pretty much end there.

Nolan is back in Iowa and runs into the bank manager that he and Jon had robbed back in the first book of the series (Bait Money). As Nolan contemplates whether to kill the guy or not, the manager asks Nolan if will help him rob his bank again. He’s been cooking the books and needs a robbery to cover his ass. Nolan and Jon decide to go along with the heist even after they are introduced to Julie, the bank manager’s mistress, who is also a badass hairdresser with a fondness for shotguns.

Hard Cash might have been written in 1970s like the others but it doesn’t show. It’s a great book from any decade. It uses the double plot structure like the two previous books but here the threads are braided together flawlessly. It is also one of the few times Collins used the archetypal femme fatale to twist the plot into uncomfortable positions. The prose is clean, the characters are more defined than before and, with the possible exception of Spree, this is Collins’s best heist novel.

Mr. Dan Luft will return to cover the last two books in the Nolan series.

Posts in this series:

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part I

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part II (this post)