During my final year at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where I was studying for my MFA, I taught part-time at the community college in my hometown in nearby Muscatine, Iowa. My last semester at the Workshop, I sold two novels – Bait Money and No Cure for Death – and soon began to phase out of my teaching job.
In my five years teaching part-time at Muscatine Community College, I taught literature courses designed to (a) engage the students, and (b) maintain my sanity. Toward these ends I taught what were among the first college courses offered in science-fiction and mystery fiction.
Not surprisingly, among the mystery novels I had my students read was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. In revisiting for the umpteenth time my favorite detective novel, I glanced at the copyright page – 1929 – and thought, “Huh – the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries.”
This meant instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.
I knew at once I was on to something and began gathering research. From the start, I knew I wanted to write about Chicago, not only because of its rich mob history but because Sinatra’s Kind of Town was the only big city I’d spent any time in to speak of. I had relatives in suburban Elmhurst and our family often stayed in the Loop on Christmas vacation to see musicals and shop.
Having been a fan of TV’s The Untouchables, with a keen interest in the real Eliot Ness, I knew of the assassination of Mayor Cermak and the theory he’d been the victim of a mob hit, with a Sirhan Sirhan-style lone gunman taking the fall. I didn’t start writing because I wasn’t ready – I didn’t feel up to the task of the big book I had in mind. But at that stage of my career, the Nolan series was in publishing limbo and Quarry had come and gone. I needed something new. Something my own.
The idea percolated for almost a decade while my shelf of research material grew. Along the way the character Nate Heller was created for a potential comic strip (before my involvement with Dick Tracy); it sold but the syndicate editor who’d nurtured it lost his job and the strip was dropped before it ran.
Still, the private eye in ‘30s/’40s period was becoming something of a sub-genre, thanks to Chinatown (1974), the efforts of writers Stu Kaminsky and Andrew Bergman, and several TV series (Banyon, City of Angels). Setting a mystery in the era of Bogart justified working in an apparently passé genre (Robert B. Parker and Sara Paretsky hadn’t yet revitalized the contemporary private eye).
History officially treated Cermak as the unintended victim of an attempt by Giuseppe Zangara on the life of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But mob buffs knew that, just two months before, Major Cermak had tried to have Capone heir Frank Nitti killed, and believed Zangara was a Sicilian on a suicide mission. This set the stage for future Heller novels to look into famous unsolved (or controversially solved) crimes of the Twentieth Century.
I discussed the book with Donald E. Westlake, who urged me not to write about a private eye. “Make him a reporter or a cop,” he advised. He also thought doing a first-person book of the length I proposed was a bad idea. This was a key moment: I had to either follow a trusted mentor’s advice, or my own instincts. I chose the latter.
I asked my good friend, lifelong Chicagoan George Hagenauer – a fellow comics fan and who I hung out with at the big comics convention in Chicago every year – if he’d help me on not just the city’s history, but its attitudes and geography. He came aboard, agreeing to take payment in comic art originals, our mutual hobby.
I started by filling him in on my novel’s plot. Nate Heller would be an honest cop who quit the force, offended by the rampant graft and corruption.
George began to laugh. “Max, you don’t understand! You get on the PD for the graft! And in those days you had to bribe your way on. You needed a Chinaman.”
“A powerful guy with connections.”
In that moment my private eye was truly born – he would not be an idealized modern knight in the Phillip Marlowe mode; Nate Heller, the youngest plainclothes detective on the Chicago P.D., rose by way of exceptional abilities...and a powerful uncle. He goes from uniform to plainclothes by lying on the witness stand as a favor for the Capone mob.
Heller is not a dirty cop, despite the devil’s deal that got him into plainclothes. But he swims in dirty, dangerous waters, and is a skilled survivor. Like Sam Spade and other tough detectives, Heller has his own code. After Mayor Anton Cermak’s bent cops drag him unaware into their botched attempt to hit Frank Nitti, Nate goes private. He draws the line at murder – particularly the botched murder of a mob boss who will hold him partly responsible.
And when Heller eventually testifies in Nitti’s favor, Al Capone’s successor becomes the young detective’s unlikely and often frightening surrogate father. Nate’s real father, an idealistic old union guy, committed suicide back when Nate took that career-making bribe. The gun Heller’s old man used to kill himself, a nine-millimeter Browning, is the weapon Nate carries.
“It’s the only conscience I have,” he says.
Now I had something.
George helped me develop an elaborate back story for Heller. An early chapter of the novel is a family history spanning decades – unlike the private eyes before him, Heller had parents, and grandparents.
Yet in many respects Nathan Heller is a traditional tough private eye – smart-mouthed, randy, a handsome six-footer. But he is also a complex, complicated human being, who develops and changes.
I wanted this to be a more realistic version of the classic PI, to explore the realities that had fed the cliches and tropes of the genre. He would meet real people, but not in a superficial manner – if George Raft or Sally Rand appeared, I would have researched them thoroughly. The idea was to make Heller a private-eye witness to history.
The book took a long time to write. The first chapter went through fifteen drafts, and those were typewriter drafts, not computer. Don Westlake read the first chapter and gave me an important piece of advice. I’d had Heller grabbed in a speakeasy and taken to Frank Nitti’s office by the two crooked cops, and done so with typical pulp speed.
Don said, “This is the first chapter. You’re taking your reader on the time machine. Give us the ride to Nitti’s office. Tell me what’s in Marshall Field’s window. Point out the guys selling apples on a street corner.”
Sometimes you ignore your mentor’s advice. Not now.
But the research and the writing were simultaneous, making for a lot of rewriting along the way. Working on a typewriter meant every draft required rolling more paper into the machine, and not just retyping the new material, but everything that hadn’t changed. It was brutal.
This was around 1980 or ‘81. Computers and word processors were just coming out. I knew of no writers using one. But I felt the only way the Heller novel could be written was on a word-processing computer because the ground under my feet kept changing with the ongoing research.
We had two cars at the time, and I asked my wife Barb if we might sell one and buy a computer. We did. It cost $5000 for 16k. But it made writing the first Heller novel possible.
Originally, the final section would cover the shooting of John Dillinger at the Biograph Theater. The plot would have wedded that event to the Cermak shooting by way of the same assassin. But I was deep in when I woke up my wife – I worked through the night in those days – and said, “I’m in trouble. This damn thing is going to be 1000 pages.”
“That won’t do,” Barb said.
“It sure as hell won’t.”
She shrugged. “End it sooner.”
And went back to sleep.
So, of course, I ended it sooner. The title was Tower Town after an area that was, in its day, the Greenwich Village of Chicago. Yes, I had Robert Towne’s Chinatown in mind. That was the title from fairly early on and I was pleased with it. I sent the novel to my agent, Knox Burger.
Not long before, I’d had a problem with Knox on a standalone suspense novel, Midnight Haul, inspired by the Love Canal disaster. He didn’t like the book and turned it down. This caused me a lot of grief and suddenly I was marketing the novel myself. (I did sell it. It’s still in print.) But I had no idea an agent could turn down a book.
I was, I think, understandably proud of the Heller novel. But Burger was not impressed.
He said, “It’s long for a first-person novel. And it’s not exactly Holden Caulfield. Maybe I could sell it to a paperback publisher.”
I said, “We’ve come to the end of the road. Send it back. Thanks for what you’ve done for me.”
“You’re firing me?”
Just as I hadn’t known an agent could turn down a book, Knox apparently didn’t know a writer could fire an agent.
I was understandably adrift. I sent the book to Don for his advice and he didn’t like it, either. He still thought I shouldn’t write about a private eye and advised me to rewrite it in the third person. This rocked me.
Barb suggested I get Mickey’s opinion.
Mickey Spillane and I had become friends after I had served as liaison between him and the 1981 Bouchercon in Milwaukee. I’d interviewed him there and it went over well. Plus, we’d really hit it off.
I called and asked if he’d read it, warning him the book was long. He said send it along. Mickey was a notoriously lax correspondent and I wasn’t sure he’d even get back to me at all. I started sniffing around for a new agent and my writer friend Bob Randisi recommended his agent, Dominick Abel. I approached Dominick and he expressed a willingness to read Tower Town.
In the meantime, I got a phone call from Mickey Spillane.
Let me pause for a moment.
I got a phone call from Mickey Spillane.
And Mickey said, “This is one of the best books I ever read! That stuff in Florida with Mayor Cermak, wow, that’s great stuff. Let me give you a blurb for this.”
I may not have cried, but I damn near did.
Dominick liked the book, too, but suggested I cut it by 10,000 words, which I did. He sold it first time out, to St. Martin’s Press. It won the Shamus for Best Private Eye Novel of 1983.
Here’s who I was up against: James Crumley, Loren D. Estleman, Stanley Ellin, and Robert B. Parker.
Suck it, Knox.
Tower Town had been deemed a poor title by editor Tom Dunne. It’s tough to ditch a title after living with it for two years, and I struggled. But the old magazines that had been a major part of my research provided the answer – True Detective.
Tom wanted a sequel, and I immediately knew that I could essentially finish the first book by going back to the Dillinger shooting. I was nervous because it had taken so long to write the first book. But with True Crime, what had taken years for the first book took months for the second.
Over the almost four decades of Nate Heller, I’ve had several publishers; but he and I have held on. Nate Heller’s cases have included the Chicago mob takeover of Hollywood unions (The Million-Dollar Wound); the birth of Las Vegas and death of Bugsy Siegel (Neon Mirage); the Lindbergh kidnapping (Stolen Away); the Nassau murder of Sir Harry Oakes (Carnal Hours); the assassination of Huey Long (Blood and Thunder); the disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Flying Blind); the Black Dahlia (Angel in Black); the Roswell Incident (Majic Man); the post-war Chicago mob (Chicago Confidential); the death of Marilyn Monroe (Bye Bye, Baby); the assassination of JFK (Target Lancer and Ask Not); and forthcoming works about Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa (The Big Bundle and Too Many Bullets).
Nate began as a young man on the make, hoping to thrive on the corrupt Chicago PD. When that corruption threatened not just what remained of his integrity but his life, he struck out on his own. As a small businessman in a one-room office, Heller scrambled for work in the Depression. He faced police who now despised him even as he walked the tightrope of Frank Nitti’s favor.
He went to Guadalcanal as a Marine and returned with the kind of wounds that don’t show. This more hardened Heller was prone to settle scores with off-the-books rough justice. He expanded his A-1 Detective Agency, taking on more operatives and adding a post-war California branch, until by the late 1950s he became known as “the private eye to the stars.” He married, had a son, got divorced.
He and I have lived much of our lives together.