50 Essential Science Fiction Novels (Part 2: 1979 - 2011)
Hindsight: James Smythe

Underground Reading: Two for the Money by Max Allan Collins

Two for the MoneyThis is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

Two for the Money (2004) collects Bait Money and Blood Money, two early books from Max Allan Collins (Bait Money was actually Collins' first published work). They're also the first two books in his eight book series featuring Nolan, an aging crook looking for one last score (Mr. Collins acknowledges his debt to Donald Westlake's Parker in the afterword). I've not read any of the other Nolan books, but as a two book sequence, Two for the Money stands very well on its own.

Bait Money starts with Nolan, age 48, recovering from a gunshot. His latest heist had taken him a little too close to Chicago - a no-go zone for him, ever since he killed the brother of an important mobster named Charlie. It had been years since he'd been near the city and Nolan had let his guard down. Oops.

Now Nolan's doubly screwed. He's broke and no one will work with him. The word is out that the mob's neither forgiven nor forgotten Nolan, so recruiting a gang of quality villains for a solid heist isn't happening any time soon. In the hopes of putting the past behind him, Nolan reaches out to Charlie through an intermediate... and learns that things are just getting worse. The mob are on to his secret identities, all carefully established over the years. With a word, all his cover businesses and assets will be reported to the Man, leaving Nolan (who is really keen on retirement now) completely exposed. 

Still, Charlie's willing to make a deal. If Nolan pays him $100,000 in one week, Charlie will bring his dogs to heel. The catch is, it has to be a new $100,000. Nolan may have the cash already under his various (untouchable) fake names, but Charlie wants him to see him squirm.

Nolan's left with a desperate heist - 'courtesy' of his friend Planner: rob a bank with the help of three rookie criminals: a comic book geek (Jon), a psychopath (Grossman) and an extremely dangerous young woman (Shelly). In seven days, Nolan needs to turn them into a lean, mean robbing machine.

Bait MoneyBait Money is mostly concerned with the mounting tension before the heist. Nolan's a consummate professional, but not a traditional team-player. And when it comes to fusing together his (not entirely willing) squad, he's not ashamed to try some rather unorthodox methods. The robbery itself is almost an afterthought - sandwiched between the internal conflicts of the young gang and the book's explosive denouement.

Blood Money picks up shortly after Bait Money concludes. Nolan and the mob have reached an uncomfortable sort of peace, but there are rogue players prancing about with unfinished business. Mayhem, betrayal, etc.

There's a lot that's compelling about Nolan's character - pretty much everything that works for Parker, to be fair. The need for 'one last score' and pleasant retirement is a plausible motivation, and even the convoluted way that Charlie forces Nolan into the bank deal makes sense in context. Nolan, Planner and Jon (one of Nolan's young cronies) all have their individual shticks as well. Nolan wants to manage a club, Planner loves political buttons and Jon's got his thing for comics. The author uses these to flesh out their characters. Jon ostensibly spends more time thinking about vintage EC comics than he does his budding criminal but, beneath the surface, Mr. Collins uses subtle cues to show exactly how nervous and fretful he is.

Mr. Collins also crafts parallel father-son relationships in Blood Money: Jon and Nolan, Charlie and his son. Both elder figures treat their sons gruffly, but Nolan also has a respect for Jon that's not mirrored in Charlie's treatment of his own actual flesh and blood. In turn, Nolan and Jon's relationship turns out to be the stronger. Nolan teaches Jon to command respect. Charlie teaches his son to desire approval.

Sadly, this depth doesn't exist everywhere across the two books. Many of the secondary characters don't get the level of detail they deserve. In Charlie's case, there's a great deal of telling going on - a lot of second-hand chat about what a crazy/vicious/scary man he is. It doesn't have the same impact as, say, Grossman, who, despite having a much briefer role across the two books, is shown to be genuinely crazy/vicious/scary, to the point where there's palpable nervousness every time he enters the room. Of course, the character who suffers the most is Shelly. Her shtick is that she's a nymphomaniac, a particular stereotype from 1970s thrillers that I've not missed. (Still better than "frigid", another classic female role from period pulp.) It isn't helped by Mr. Collins' adolescent fascination with breasts - every female character has hers described in loving detail, with the word "uplifted" used with surprising frequency.

The overall impression is a collection of stories that are, although solid, more important for the way they represent an era - both in the establishment of gritty, morally-ambiguous characters and the development of a key pulp and thriller author. Indeed, the book's (fascinating) afterword only reinforces this perception, as Mr. Collins explains his influences, what he believes the books signify and where he wound up going from there. There's the general caveat that accompanies any author interpreting his or her own work, but it makes for fun reading, not least of which for his recollections of the editorial processes at the time. Two for the Money represents a good opportunity to pick up two, fairly hard to find, vintage thrillers in a single volume. 

The cover for Two for the Money is by Mark Texeira. I'm guessing that the comic book styling is reflective of Jon's interests or possibly Mr. Collins' own work with Road to Perdition. I'm not sold on it though, and the two seated figures look distinctly uncomfortable (and anatomically... a little bonkers). That said, previous editions of both Bait Money and Blood Money have had distinctly unmemorable covers... about as generic as possible. Mr. Texeira's work doesn't float my boat, but it does at least try to do something.

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For a more detail on the original two books and the Nolan series, check out this post on Existential Ennui.

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