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

Nolan - Scratch Fever by Max Allan Collins

Note: Huge apologies to Mr. Dan Luft for the long delay in posting his Nolan series. Although I’ve got plenty of excuses, it really is inexcusable.

I’m hoping to get up two more long-delayed guest posts in the coming week or two, and to get back into the groove of regular posting soon.

Thanks to Dan for his great contribution to the site.

Nolan in the 80s

by Mister Dan Luft

Scratch Fever and Spree are a little different from the other books in the Nolan series because they were actually published when they were written. The first two books in the series were published in 1973 and then revised for re-publication in the early 80s to give them a contemporary veneer. The rest of the books sat awaiting publication for years and were re-written in a similar style. Mourn the Living is a revived “trunk” novel that was published 30 years after it was written and is not technically part of the series.  But Scratch Fever and Spree were published immediately after they were written so there is no fear of the anachronisms that sometimes pop up in earlier volumes.

In Scratch Fever, Collins really proves that he is a chronicler of mid-sized, midwestern cities. Where so many crime stories have always taken place in coastal cities or tiny, isolated towns, Collins goes for a more easily recognizable, small city venue that is almost universally ignored by crime fiction.

Scratch Fever begins with Jon playing keyboards in a regional band, The Nodes. The trappings of the 1970s are now gone, this is a recognizable early 80s book. New Wave is the sound of the moment sweeping England and the larger cites but in smaller towns a new wave band survives by doing covers from the whole history of rock music. The Nodes are a talented bar band going nowhere as they play their last gig before the members go their separate ways. During this final show, Jon spots Julia, the violent femme fatale from the previous book, in the audience.

Though Scratch Fever is not structured as neatly as the previous book in the series, Hard Cash, it is still better written and better paced than all earlier books in the series and is a quick read.  Hard Cash was a sequel to the original Nolan novel, Bait Money. Scratch Fever is structured similarly to Blood Money, the second book in the series, in that they both deal with the fallout of the robberies committed in the books that precede them. They also both take place in a single day with the action told from a constantly shifting point of view. But Blood Money, ambitious as it was, showed its structure and could creak in some scenes, Scratch Fever is a tightly wound novel by a more experienced writer.

Both Hard Cash and Scratch Fever show Collins’ growth. These books mimic the heist/regroup theme the first two books of the series but they work much better. Collins gets both the physical and mental attributes of the characters across to the reader in a lot less time. The plots zip by logically and the shifts in character viewpoints are smooth, almost cinematic. He spends a lot less time inside characters’ heads but conveys more character and motivation through action and dialogue.

For a while, this was the end of the Nolan series but five years after Pinnacle dropped the series Collins brought out Spree for Tor books. This was the most visible book in the series with a big print run and a cover that was plastered with blurbs by hardboiled icons like Charles Willeford, Joe Gores, and Richard Prather. It was sold as a stand-alone novel rather than part of a men’s adventure series. This book, like Scratch Fever, really digs into the 80s. The object this time is to heist the most obvious symbol of the decade, a mall.

In between the action of Scratch Fever and Spree, Nolan has used his money to go straight and has bought and maintained a thriving restaurant. He’s settled down with his girlfriend from a previous book, Sherry, and is friendly with the small businessmen’s association. He’s finally leading the boring life he was almost leading just before the series began.

Collins takes his time with this novel as if he is re-introducing himself to the characters.  This makes for a slow beginning as we see Nolan and Jon living separate, domestic lives before the action begins. Nolan is living blissfully while Jon is breaking up but in both cases the dialogue between these guys and their ladies is stilted and awkward. The action begins when Nolan’s girlfriend is kidnapped by yet another wing of the Comfort family and he is blackmailed into heisting the mall that houses his restaurant.

The book is paced nicely and moves faster with each chapter. But there is too much time spent on the Comfort family. By now, the redneck family had become very rote device in these books. The gist is that a father-and-son team of violent hicks hate Nolan. There are also some scenes of “hillbilly humor” in the Comfort sections along with a young Comfort daughter, Cindy Lou. These scenes fall pretty flat.

This is part of another tradition of paperback writing from the 50s and 60s that Collins may have read as a kid. Charles Williams and Gil Brewer among others wrote about bad things happening, sometimes humorously, in backwoods environments. But in Spree the Comfort family makes for a bad match with the rest of the book.

And the rest of the book, the heist, is excellent. Throughout the series Nolan is continually described as an experienced, professional thief whose specialty is large-scale heists where he works with other professional criminals. But this is the only book  in the series that has a crime of this scale. Collins gives us a cast of criminals who each have skills that are needed for stealing the mall. The reader is led step by step through the process which pays more tribute to Richard Stark (or Lionel White) than any other book of the series. That said, the Nolan series stands on its own and is no knockoff.

With the Nolan series Collins really grew from a merely publishable writer into an author with a voice of his own with a control over plot, character, dialogue and description. More than in any of his other series he tried out his techniques here. This makes for messy reading at times as Collins is deciding what kinds of characters, plot devices, and narrative voices he’s comfortable with. There are less successful books in the series but he never stops exploring his characters and their possibilities. None of these books feels rushed to deadline.

Also, in the later books in the series Nolan becomes more assertive and almost casual about the violence he commits to stay alive and make his money. In the first book Nolan skirts the issue when someone else becomes violent and carries out all the dirty work. The series isn’t a descent into Nolan’s amorality; Nolan is always characterized as a violent man. But in the early books of the series, he acts more reserved than any of the hype that precedes him. This progression is probably because the author was figuring out for himself how to handle violence in his writing and learning to describe the action. The later books are the better for it.

Collins has said that he has long had the idea for another Nolan book stuck in the back of his head, a story that would now be historical taking place in the late 80s or early 90s, but he has not felt compelled to write it. He probably should.

Collins is now older than Nolan for the the first time in his career. Nolan continually ponders getting older but now the author knows (remembers) how a body that age feels. Collins has proven that he can return to a series after many years. Since he returned to the Quarry series after a long gap, he has reshaped and improved the series which includes writing the very best one: The First Quarry. And, if Collins really wants to keep his self-described Richard Stark rip-off theme going in the series, he could continue by ending a twenty-plus year gap between volumes.

Posts in this series:

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part I

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part II

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