Max Allan Collins has been writing about his hardboiled former Chicago cop turned private dick Nathan Heller for 30 years, which translates into 15 novels and four short story collections. Nate first appeared in True Detective (1983) and most recently in Ask Not (2013). In 1991 the first collection of Nathan Heller stories appeared, and its title story—the best in the collection—was a Shamus nominated novella titled “Dying in the Post-War World”.
“Dying in the Post-War World” is set in Chicago. July, 1947. Heller’s wife, Peg, is pregnant, and while business at his A-1 Detective Agency is slow—no one is getting divorced in the post war euphoria—life isn’t bad. That is until Bob Keenan, a high level administrator at the Office of Price Administration (OPA), calls with an emergency, and Peg tells Nate she wants a divorce. In that order, and just that quickly.
The emergency. Bob Keenan’s six year old daughter JoAnn was kidnapped from her room. The window open. A broken down ladder outside, and a note on the floor of the girl’s room:
“Get $20,000 Ready & Waite for Word. Do Not Notify the FBI or Police. Bills in 5’s and 10’s. Burn this for her safety!”
“Dying in the Post-War World” is an intriguing retelling of Chicago’s Lipstick Killer. The names have changed—William Heirens (the real world convicted Lipstick Killer) is now Jerome Lapps, and Suzanne Degnan (the kidnapped girl) is now JoAnn Keegan. Mr Collins also plays with the timeline, and adds an appealing mob connection in form of one Sam Flood (aka Sam Giancana). The details are interesting, but the magic is in the telling. The smooth integration of fact and fiction. The old world Chicago. A Chicago where it was both possible to buy, and people actually wanted, a brand new Plymouth. The humor—“crooked even by Chicago standards.”
The story is written in first person. It is something of a nostalgic memoir. It is hardboiled, lean, and tough as the Windy City. It also has a bunch of post war angst. The sort of angst we all feel; a little hope and a lot of fear for the future. Not necessarily our own future, but the future we leave our children—
“For that one night, settled into a hard hospital chair, in the glow of my brand-new little family, I allowed myself to believe that that hope was not a vain one. That anything was possible in this glorious post-war world.”
But the most powerful effect of the story? Doubt. Doubt about the killer. The future, and ourselves. And even a touch of shame; at what we do, how we do it, and worse, how we rationalize it.