Hardcase crime author Max Allan Collins answers the question: "Who do you read?"

Max Allan Collins wrote the award winning graphic novel Road to Perdition. His new Hard Case Crime novel, The Consummata is out today! Here's an essay Collins wrote for Boing Boing, titled, "Who Do You Read?"


By Max Allan Collins

As a published writer, the question I get even more often that the venerable (and stultifying) "Where do you get your ideas?" is the one posed above.

Readers always want to know who you read, for reasons I've never quite figured out. Of course they mean currently publishing writers, and I suspect there's a kind of wish that their personal list will match mine, and everybody will be able to bask in a glow of vindication for sharing such great taste in literature.

But I read almost nobody who's current. I have a few friends whose work I keep up with, and thank God they are very good - among these are Ed Gorman, John Lutz, and Bob Randisi (there are others) - but mostly I avoid everybody else. Occasionally I serve on a committee for the Mystery Writers of America or the Private Eye Writers of America, and plow through a current stack of novels. Now and then some author gets so popular I have to break down and read a book or two to see what the fuss is about. But that's marketing, not entertainment.

There's a basic "busman's holiday" reasoning behind this. If I'm working on a suspense novel all day, why should I relax by reading...a suspense novel? A guy who works at the ice cream shop doesn't go home and say to his significant other, "Let's go out for hot fudge sundaes!" Actually, that's a bad example, because I would probably do exactly that, and plenty of drunks have sought (though rarely kept) jobs as bartenders.

Let's start over. Here's the real reason: all other writers fall into the following categories: worse than me, so why should I put myself through it; as good as me, so why should I bother; and better than me, and, well, screw those guys.

You might rightly ask, can't you learn from these new, superior writers? But another major factor here is that I have a pretty good ear, and have a tendency to mimic. Early in my career, when I was moving from fan to pro, I was still reading a lot of crime fiction. I was working on a book called Blood Money while reading a book by George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. And suddenly all of my dialogue started to sound like George V. Higgins.

Through all these years, there have of course been exceptions - yes, I've read Parker and Coben and even Ellroy, just not everything. And I continued to follow the writers who had influenced me prior to my turning pro. I read every 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain until the end just a few years ago. I kept up with Donald E. Westlake and was giddy when he started writing his Richard Stark "Parker" novels again, which had inspired my Nolan series. And on the rare occasions that Mickey Spillane graced us with a new book, I was first in line.

Perhaps oddly, I love to go to movies by whoever is hot in the mystery field - a Gresham or Lehane or Connelly-derived film, I'm there, man. Can't explain it. Like red hair, it just happens (to steal from Chandler).

And that brings us to the real point. If I'm going to steal from anybody, let it be those I grew up on. I still re-read Dashiell Hammett. No one has written a better tough detective story than The Maltese Falcon, and no one ever will. I love to read Doyle's Holmes stories, which remain as fresh and crisp as, well, Hammett. Chandler is the guy who taught me both first-person and to bring a sense of poetry. From Spillane I learned the value of putting sex and violence and emotion into my prose, and no one ever wrote better action scenes or more noir-ishly evocative description.

I can re-read the best of James M. Cain again and again. Even lesser Cain is worthwhile (I'm proud to have played a role in getting his unpublished novels into print, first with Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press and now - with the forthcoming The Cocktail Waitress - with Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime). I was one of the first to write about Jim Thompson - a monograph that Ed Gorman and I did at the start of the '80s helped spark the Thompson revival. And I can never get enough of Horace McCoy's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.

Not just tough stuff, either. I am a big Agatha Christie fan, Poirot and Marple both. I have been through the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books (novels and novella collections) four or five times. I've read every Perry Mason by Erle Stanley Gardner, and there's a bunch of them.

Stealing from these masters - well, let's call it being influenced - is safe. Because these are the writers who shaped me. There were others in the genre, plenty of them - Ennis Willie, W.R. Burnett, Chester Himes, Ian Fleming, Mike Roscoe, Roy Huggins, Ted Lewis, Richard S. Prather, and many more - and these, too, I revisit. I have mainstream favorites that I re-read, though my favorites are a quirky lot - Calder Willingham, Mark Harris, William March, and my mentor at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Dick Yates. Another teacher at the University of Iowa told me a writer who has never read Proust is worthless, so I have never read Proust, just to spite him. He probably never read Hammett.

So if you're wondering what (or who) I'm reading, if it isn't research for the next Nate Heller novel, it's likely one of my teachers (but not the Proust guy). As for people who started writing professionally after I did, I wish them well - within reason - and hope some of them are influenced by me.

Buy The Consummata on Amazon


  1. Another teacher at the University of Iowa told me a writer who has never read Proust is worthless, so I have never read Proust, just to spite him. He probably never read Hammett.

    Amen to that, brother.  I struggled through about 100 pages of Remembrance of Things Past, falling asleep every half a page before I finally worked up the courage to toss it dans la poubelle.

    I’m not familiar with Collins, but I love Mickey Spillane and I’m totally sold on the old school pulp paperback art the graces the cover there.  And, indeed, The Maltese Falcon is still totally badass.

    1. Count me among the many who have tried Proust.  I’ve heard so many good things but it was just too much for me.

      However, I do recall sleeping really well at the time I was working my way through it so I can’t say it doesn’t have its uses on my shelf.

  2. “I still re-read Dashiell Hammett. No one has written a better tough detective story than The Maltese Falcon, and no one ever will.” Ah, but someone has.  It’s called The Glass Key, which just so happens to be written by, well, Dashiell Hammett.

  3. Knitters like puzzles and so tend to be mystery/suspense readers.  After many years of reading mysteries, the characters I would faithfully follow were those written by Nevada Barr, Sue Grafton, and Dana Stabenow.  However, I got tired of watching my favorite heroines get the shit kicked out of them in every single new novel, to prove some point about women being just as tough as men and to sell books.  If these were the smartest, funniest, middle-aged detectives I knew, why couldn’t they think, joke, and out-fox their opponents first once in a while, rather than wiggling out of yet another near death experience, adding to the road map of scars on their bodies, and the body counts of dead friends and lovers? 

    No woman, even a fictitious one, would stay working as a detective, if it meant getting beaten up and nearly killed every 18 months!  A smart woman would find gainful employment doing something else, anything else!  So, the characters lost plausibility with me and I quit reading those stories.

    I guess I’m saying, this is who I’m no longer reading.

  4. I am (and have been for over 20 years) an avid reader of Max Allan Collins and could not agree more. I still re-read Hammett and Chandler, and waited eagerly for my pre-ordered Max and Mickey collaborations (including this one). 
    I’ve been a follower of Hard Case Crime since the inception and heartily recommend it to everyone who loves the form- http://hardcasecrime.com/. 

  5. @facetedjewel:

    So it’s not just the guys…
    My brother gives me private eye stories where the peepers regularly get the shit beat out of them. I mean totally get the shit beat out of them; pages-long descriptions of brutal ass-kicking fests. What’s going on here? Are all the fans of this weird genre vicarious sadists or masochists? I don’t know this Collins guy, but I’ll bet his fictional avatar is just another goddamn punching bag. It’s a long way from Chandlers’s tap of a sap behind the ear and a plunge into temporary unconsciousness.

    1. Apparently the beatings to the heroines are administered about the head and shoulders causing some kind of amnesia, because by the next novel they’ve gotten really fuzzy on assaults that would have permanently traumatized any live human, and they’re ready to go another round with the Bad Guys.  Maybe the authors are just trying to compete for the same entertainment dollars as the movie studios and that over-the-top violence.  It just seems more violent and wrenching to me when it’s in print.

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