Sunday, 9 August 2009


I'm always puzzled by the use of the public pseudonym, by which I mean one the author makes no intent to hide behind, as opposed to the more common use of pseudonyms to hide identities from the public eye for any number of reasons. Richard Stark and Tucker Coe became public pseduonyms, but not until after the 'secret' of their being Donald Westlake had already become common knowledge, which is a different thing.

It's interesting to speculate on why writers choose the nominal cover of an acknowledged alias. Some are producing work they see as substantially different from their previous, established image: Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, for example. It's as much a branding tool as anything else. Sometimes a writer with a 'mainstream' literary reputation wants to keep what he or she feels are genre books separate from their recognised oeuvre; though I'd argue that it's much harder to draw a clear line separating John Banville as Benjamin Black or Joyce Carol Oates as Rosamund Smith than either writer might want to accept. Then there are starnger cases. The apotheosis of the false dichotomy came when Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland published his first novel, an unthrilling 'thriller', using a deliberately public pseudonym, Sam Bourne, presumably chosen carefully for its Ludlum associations. Because of his media stature under his own name, this ensured maximum publicity, favourable reviews, and yet no slur upon his previously existing journalistic brand.

But Max Allan Collins, as a brand, covers so much and such varied ground I wondered why he needed to use the Patrick Culhane pseudonym for Black Hats, in which he brings Wyatt Earp (and Bat Masterson) face to face with Al Capone in the New York City of the prohibition era. Max is so prolific, and selling so well under his own name, that I suspect he did it so the Culhane books would not be subsumed in his Collins work. Because, to me, Max's best novels are the Nathan Heller historical crime books (I've lamented their relative lack of publication in this country many times before), and I also have a fondness for his Elliott Ness novels, a sort of spin-off of Heller. Black Hats has been followed by another Culhane historical novel, Red Sky In Morning, and I suspect that, in an ideal world, these books and the Heller and Ness ones would fall neatly under one name. Of course, I could be completely wrong too: often there turn out to be perfectly practical and simple reasons for such things, and my speculation may be unwarranted.

It is, however, affectionate speculation, because it's one thing to write, as Collins does in the Heller books, about crimes that remain unsolved, or less than satisfactorily solved, where Heller can come up with his own solution, and quite another thing indeed to write a book where the audience is aware (or should be) not only that both Earp and Capone will survive their showdown, but that Capone will also move to Chicago, and achieve his notoriety. In fact, Collins solves this problem quite cleverly, though it becomes pretty obvious what is going on, and the scenario is, in the end a familiar one, not least from other period pieces from the same era, like The Sting. Nor is using the aging Earp that much of an innovation; for example Matt Braun wrote about Bill Tilghman, who was still a lawman in Oklahoma in his 70s. But what makes Collins' book a success is its set-up, the way he contrives the conflict, and especially the conceit of giving Doc Holliday a son, and putting him on one side of the battle, and making him Earp's primary motivation.

Much of the novel tells another story in flashback, Collins' version of the OK Corral, and again, this works because he doesn't approach the material directly. That has been done very well already in Loren Estleman's Bloody Season, while Robert B Parker in Gunman's Rhapsody gave it his own fascinating spin, where the Earps echoed the private eye ethos of Spenser and his crew. In fact Parker approached it from the other side too, doing a Spenser novels as re-writes of westerns. But by making the big show backstory, Collins leaves himself leeway to follow his Earp deeper, and in what is otherwise a fast-paced straight-forward tale, the reminiscence and the interior portrait of Earp punctuate it with surprising and satisfying depth. In fact, Collins' Earp has many of the same qualities as his Ness: ramrod straight but not quite as pure or unyielding as TV mythology; it's interesting that both characters have been played on film by Kevin Costner, the epitome of the one-dimensional figure of tortured nobility. Costner is not one for ambiguity, but Collins wants his Earp to have just enough of it to make things, and him, interesting.

Collins' Heller books are always filtered through the detective's perceptions, here, Culhane is free to speculate, not about history, but about character, and motivation, and this is what Collins does very well indeed. The Earp story is one I've studied over the years, and what Collins has to say at no point jars what I understand from it, and adds some very subtle shading. It's also a story that has enjoyed, encouraged, and justified constant retelling, and this one is a first-rate addition to the canon—and as usual one with a useful bibliography if you wish to pursue the Earp story further. A diverting and enjoyable book.

Black Hats
Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane
Harper Collins (2008) £6.99 ISBN 9780060892548


Max Allan Collins said...

Thank you for this splendid review.

Two things: first, using a penname was foisted upon me as a marketing strategy that was, in my view, unproductive. I doubt I'll use "Culhane" again.

Second, I am at work on a new Heller novel (first of at least two) -- first in almost ten years.

Michael Carlson said...

I suspected the answer would be something like that: but it seems like a waste of time given that they need to use the 'real' you to get any benefit from it. Twenty years ago, if you were jumping genres, it would be worth a shot...

Good news re Heller: out of retirement in Miami all the way to Dealy Plaza?

Anonymous said...

You may be onto something about where I'm headed with Heller...but he's not retired in the early 1960s, he's only in his own early fifties....

Michael Carlson said...

check this out:

Max Allan Collins said...

Mike, don't know if you keep track of these comments when added to old posts, but I have no other way to contact you. I want to make sure a copy of the second Spillane/Collins Mike Hammer, THE BIG BANG, has found its way to you. If not, I want to send one. Contact me at