January is a great month for reading, wasn’t it? February is too. So, here’re three wonderful books that you should know about.
The Big Bundle
By Max Allan Collins
It’s so good to start the year off with another Nate Heller thriller. Like so many in this series, this mystery is brilliant. It’s hard to believe, but about 35 years ago I stumbled across Max Allan Collins’ first story featuring Heller. I had enjoyed the Ms. Tree strip, written by Collins and illustrated by Terry Beatty and Collins’ Batman adventures (although not everyone did.)
Nate Heller is a fictional detective, a hero yet a flawed person full of many regrets, who typically gets involved with the biggest cases and personalities in the last 50 years. Collins has written stories where Heller gets involved with the gangsters who ‘created’ Las Vegas, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Marilyn Monroe’s death, Huey Long’s assassination and more. And just when you think Collins has exhausted all the good stuff, the next novel comes roaring back.
The latest historical adventure, The Big Bundle, has a lot of roar in it. This one focuses on the Greenlease kidnapping in the 50s. I didn’t know anything about this one, and I don’t know much about St. Louis’s history, despite visiting the city a couple of times. My trips there were nothing like Heller’s, though. He gets into it all in a way that turns what you thought was going to be a casual read into a “I can’t put this down” book.
These Heller books are meticulously researched with juicy details. I found myself pausing to run down little rabbit holes along the way. For example, Heller rides the historical landmark Angel’s Flight. It was described in such a way that I had to learn more about this narrow gauge funicular railway. When I’m reading, I usually like to leave my cellphone in the other room, but with this Heller mystery, I had to keep it handy for additional research. Collins tends to introduce me to so many fascinating places, events and people.
As a writer, Collins always finds innovative ways to describe people and settings. This is a crime thriller to be sure, but I often pause at the clever descriptions. For example.
The hero walks into a diner and Collins gives the reader something to think about and to remember:
”The bedraggled adults in booths and at tables were like predictions of how the town’s teens would turn out.”
Or earlier in the novel, as Heller meets a key character:
“In his mid-thirties, my host was of average height and weight with a squared-off head and a rounded jaw, his forehead so high it was like his features had slipped down too far on his oval face.”
After reading a novel like this, my pal Mike Gold used to always make the joke “If you only read one Max Allan Collins novel this month, make it this one.” The gag still holds up and it’s truer than ever.
Title: The Big Bundle
Author: Max Allan Collins
Publisher: Hard Case Crime (Titan)
Hardcover: 304 pages
by Chuck Dixon
Back in the day, it seemed like you could “always” pick out a Chuck Dixon comic story because it would open in the middle of an action scene. That wasn’t always the case, but it seemed like it. And despite that, I always loved Dixon’s writing for his nuanced, tight-lipped characters more than his action scenes. He’d always get to the heart of the matter and then present it all in a way that you’d not forget anytime soon.
Levon’s Prey is the latest in long series. It’s subtitled as “A Violent Justice Thriller”, and that’s truth in advertising. It’s actually the second latest, as I’m one book behind. The 11th, Levon’s Range, was published late last year.
I almost wish the books were published in the old paperback format – so you could put them in your back pocket and carry them with you. They are each a quick and compelling read – the kind that make you smile, make you worry and make you cheer on the good guys.
And as a father of daughters, I especially can relate to Levon. Although I’m not nearly as tough as Levon. Not by a longshot.
Title: Levon’s Prey
Author: Chuck Dixon
Publisher: Rough Edges Press
Paperback: 174 pages
The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle
by Wayne Federman
Auburn Public Theater hosted USC’s Professor Wayne Federman recently. As an expert in comedy and standup, he gave a greatly abbreviated version of his USC course to a local crowd. It was fascinating. I liked it so much I wanted to fly to LA and figure out a way to audit the course. And I don’t even consider myself a stand-up enthusiast.
His book, The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle, was eye-opening. I didn’t realize how little I knew about Stand-Up. Oh, I guess I’m pretty good with understanding the radio comedians, and guys like Steve Martin were where it was at for me and my gang back in the day. I think I bought my brother a Steve Martin LP for Christmas one year because I wanted to listen to it.
Federman, who as you can imagine is hilarious onstage, keeps it light, bright and fascinating. This was an enjoyable read and never once did I have the urge to ask, “Is this on the final?”
Title: The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle
Author: Wayne Federman
Publisher: Independent Artists Media
Paperback: 180 pages
Pour a glass of your favorite beverage, put your feet up and enjoy a little reading.