A Few Quick Questions: Max Allan Collins Talks to Jan Burke

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Every now and then we hear from someone with whom we can’t manage to schedule an interview, but we’d like you to know about.  So we’re starting an experiment, “A Few Quick Questions,”which will feature brief written interviews here on the site with those folks we didn’t get to talk to, but whose thoughts we believe will interest you.

We’re pleased to begin with Max Allan Collins, the New York Times bestselling author of Road to Perdition, whose latest book, Ask Not, is just out from Forge Books.  He’s also the author of ten novels based on the CSI television series — which have sold millions of copies worldwide — as well as CSI comics, video games, and puzzles. A multiple-nominee for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards (he has won the Shamus for best novel twice), he also received the Eye, the Private Eye Writers of America’s lifetime achievement award. In addition to numerous comic book credits, he is also an independent filmmaker who has written and directed five features and  two documentaries. You can read more about his many works of fiction and other accomplishments here.  We managed to steal a few moments of his time to talk about Ask Not.

1) So much has been written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  What inspired you to take another look at it?

I was a sophomore in high school when JFK was killed and it made a big impression.  I followed the books on the subject from the very start.  When the Nathan Heller series began with True Detective in 1983, the subject matter was political assassination — the supposed attempt on President Roosevelt’s life that resulted in the death of Chicago’s Mayor Cermak.  Heller is a young man in that book, his mid-twenties, and I figured that eventually he would look into JFK, possibly as his last case.  I’ve since decided to write several more Heller books, but I am gratified that I was able to reach the goal of writing about this most significant of American crimes.

2) You are known for your research.  I have no doubt that you bring the 1960s to life in this book, but since our program focuses on forensics and criminal justice, can you tell us about your research into the investigation of the assassination, and also about what you learned about the forensic science of the time?

You raise an interesting point.  Because there have been incredible advances in forensics science over the decades, I had to be careful in a book set in 1964 that Heller didn’t come up with evidence and theories that he couldn’t have had at that time.  Of course, the basics of forensics were already in play, and for example the indications of a shot from the front, as seen in the Zapruder home movie, were clear even then.  I wrote ten CSI novels, back in the early days of that successful TV show, and learned a lot about forensics that came in handy here, and frankly in every other crime novel I’ve written since.

3) The storyline sounds (as we expect from Heller!) thrilling — is there evidence that witnesses to the assassination were killed?

The evidence that a number of witnesses were killed is presented in Ask Not in a factual manner that belies its “fictional” description.  I always research a case as if I were planning to write the definitive non-fiction work on it…then write a private eye thriller instead.

4) What surprised you most while you were doing your research?

I had intended to have Heller investigate the suspicious JFK-related suicide of Lt. Commander William Pitzer, and had amassed considerable research for that approach.  But along the way another suicide in Chicago, relating to LBJ’s crony Billie Sol Estes, opened the door on a whole succession of fake suicides that most researchers lay at the feet of LBJ hatchet man, Mac Wallace — a convicted murderer who served no time, thanks to political influence.   Everything I learned about Wallace led me to believe that he was the key to understanding what really happened.

5)  Give me a few examples of ways you did your research for Ask Not.

Primarily book, magazine and newspaper research, supplanted by Internet searches.  To find out details about the Texas School Book Depository, I approached the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealy Plaza, Gary Mack, who answered several important research questions.   One offbeat reference was a low-budget film called Naughty Dallas, which featured Jack Ruby’s most famous stripper, Jada, as well as scenes shot outside the Carousel Club and within the Colony Club.  Vintage magazines were key, including issues of Playboy, particularly useful for men’s fashions, and Cabaret, which featured photo-filled articles about Dallas nightclubs.   A particularly useful book was a paperback, Dallas Public and Private by Warren Leslie, published in 1964 (the year of my novel’s action), which deals with the aftermath of the assassination in that city.

6) How can readers who are interested in your research learn more?

The bibliographic essay at the end of Ask Not includes many books with my assessments, and the names of various articles that can be easily found on the Net.

7) Did we learn anything from the assassination of President Kennedy?  What are some of the changes that came about as a result of that horrible day?

 I doubt we learned anything positive, beyond the need for ramped-up Secret Service protection for presidents.   The Warren Commission was a stacked deck of members, many of whom were anti-Kennedy, and the purpose was to quickly explain this awful thing away…and keep us out of war with Russia.  It’s possible that the loss of innocence experienced by the Baby Boomers due to November 22, 1963, led to the rebelliousness that included the Beatles-led revolution in popular music, and the cultural change that led a generation to protest, and eventually end, the war in Vietnam.

Visit Max Allan Collins’s Website to learn more about him and his books: www.maxallancollins.com