By Max Allan Collins
Perfect Crime Books
All readers have favorite writers; those talented scribes who spin a yarn in a style and fashion that entertains our personal taste in fiction. In the field of mystery fiction, Max Allan Collins, is one of mine and getting a new book with his name on it is always a cause for celebration. Whereas this one is of particular significance as it collects three of Collins’ first ever attempts at crime writing and offers us a glimpse into his evolution as a writer.
The book, handsomely produced by Perfect Crime Books, features two of Collin’s short pieces that date back to his college days and a longer novella. Believe me; digging into this book was akin to finding long lost treasure ala Indiana Jones.
“Public Servant,” is the first short and is clearly an homage to Jim Thompson’s classic “The Killer Inside Me,” which Collins admittedly confesses. Still it has a sharp slicing bite like an innocuous paper-cut; looking innocent but leaving a trail of blood. Whereas the second short, “The Rack,” is a tip of the pulp fedora to classic noir novels and films wherein the luckless protagonist, despite his best efforts, is doomed from the beginning and can do nothing but accept his damning fate. It’s not a genre I’m particularly fond of and the less said here, the better.
The book’s real gem is the novella, “Shoot the Moon,” which is a twisted, funny crime caper that goes horribly wrong for two naive high school graduates. Fred, who likes to gamble too much, and his best friend, Wheat, owe the school’s muscle bound football jock a lot of money. When the jock’s bimbo cheerleader suggest they run naked through a wedding reception at a nearby by hotel, the boys agree to the stunt strictly to satisfy the debt. What neither realizes is that the girl being married is the Police Chief’s daughter. They are both caught, arrested for streaking and sentenced to lock up in the county jail for several months.
That punishment isn’t very severe as the facility is used primarily to house inmates awaiting trial. Those convicted of serious crimes are sent to the state penitentiary. While serving their time, the lads make the acquaintances of Elam and Hopp, two older seasoned criminals, who con them into play cards to help pass the time. Without giving away the plot, the boys get conned and, upon their release, go home thinking owe the crooks a few dollars. A few weeks later, Elam and Hopps show up on their doorstep demanding thousands of dollars. Then truth of their predicament descends on our heroes like the proverbial ton of bricks.
Once again they are in a jam because of a gambling debt only this time the buy-out isn’t going to be simple prank. Ed and Hopp have their eye on a small bank in a nearby town and coerce Fred and Wheat to helping them rob it. They do this by fabricating yet another lie which our gullible protagonist swallow, hook, line and sinker.
What happens next is an unexpected literary curve ball thrown at us by a truly gifted writer. Collins has always had a penchant for infusing even his most gritty tales with off the wall comedy bordering on screwball antics. In “Shoot the Moon,” he dishes it out in perfectly measured doses and Fred’s dire fate begins to spool out of control while he desperately tries to find a way and save himself and Wheat.
The plot threads come together so brilliantly at the conclusion, I was both shaking my head and laughing at the same time. Honestly, this madcap crime tale would make a truly funny short film. Till then, do yourselves a favor, pick up a copy and laugh a little. It’s good for the soul.