'Road to Perdition' author wanders varied career path

Collins to speak at Coe's Ed Gorman Celebration of Popular Fiction

MAC Productions

Mickey Spillane (left) chats with Max Allan Collins of Muscatine at the Tower of London. The two writer
MAC Productions Mickey Spillane (left) chats with Max Allan Collins of Muscatine at the Tower of London. The two writers became great friends early in Collins’ career, and he was entrusted to carry on Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” novels after Spillane’s death in 2006.

When you work in a solitary field, it pays to develop a close-knit network of like-minded individuals.

For celebrated mystery writer Max Allan Collins of Muscatine, that equally celebrated circle included Ed Gorman of Cedar Rapids and Mickey Spillane of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Both of those friends have died, but their memory continues to pulsate through Collins’ life and work.

Spillane’s dying wish was for Collins to finish the “Mike Hammer” novel Spillane was writing as his health deteriorated. Collins honored that wish, and has gone on to write 11 more. Spillane published 13 tales of the private eye, so Collins has nearly doubled that canon.

The prolific Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum, now 71, has carved his own niche, however, through five decades of creating comic books, the Dick Tracy comic strip, novels, graphic novels, video games, jigsaw puzzles, trading cards and more. In demand to turn movie scripts into books, his novelizations include “Saving Private Ryan,” “Air Force One,” “U.S. Marshals”; several iterations of “X Files,” “The Mummy” and “G.I. Joe” films; and for the TV series “NYPD Blue,” “Dark Angel” and “Bones.”

Among his many industry accolades, in 2017 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and has received 23 nominations for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award. His latest mystery, “Girl Most Likely,” swirling around murders casting a dark shadow over a 10-year high school reunion in Galena, Ill., goes on sale April 1.

His biggest pop culture acclaim, however, came when his “Road to Perdition” graphic novels inspired the 2002 film starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig. With six Oscar nods, it won an Academy Award for cinematography and drew a Golden Globe nomination for Newman in the supporting actor category.

Collins also is a double member of the Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 2008 with his ’60s garage band The Daybreakers, which broke up in 1972, and in 2018 with his band Cruisin,’ which started in 1974 and continues to rock on.


On Tuesday (3/19), Collins will discuss his career during a free 7 p.m. presentation in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. It’s part of the Ed Gorman Celebration of Popular Fiction, established after Gorman succumbed to multiple myeloma on Oct. 14, 2016. The fund will bring writers of mainstream or genre fiction to campus to meet with creative writing students and to give a free public reading.

Collins is pleased to be honoring his friend.


“He was one of, if not my best, friend in the writing business,” Collins said by phone from his home. “We were very close pals.”

Citing “a number of amusing stories” about their friendship, one involved the way Gorman was regarded as being “incredibly supportive” of other writers, yet viewed as semi-reclusive, since he balked at attending conventions and book signings.

“He had really deep friendships with a lot of writers by phone,” Collins noted, adding that the two of them took turns running up each other’s phone bills.

“The notion that he was kind of an anti-social person is completely a misnomer,” Collins said, adding that since their wives also are writers, the couples met “fairly regularly.” Another writing couple from the St. Louis area would meet them periodically in the Amanas to talk shop over dinner.

Gorman’s reluctance to go to awards events, conventions and book signings gave rise early in their friendship that Gorman actually was Collins, writing under an assumed name.

“This was based on some similarity in our styles, but also the fact that we’re both from Iowa,” Collins said. “You get outside of flyover country, and they can’t even believe there’s two mystery writers in Iowa. How would that even be possible? So that was kind of amusing.”

He’ll share other anecdotes during his upcoming Coe appearance.

“I was unusual in that I had a face-to-face relationship with him,” Collins said. But with Gorman’s background in the advertising realm, attending business lunches and meetings, Collins said that when you did encounter Gorman, “He was witty and seemed at ease — and made you feel at ease. He was like the most affable and social person you could imagine, but inside of him, the opposite was going on. ...

“He was very important to me in my life.”


A lifelong love of reading sparked Collins’ career.

“I’ve always been a reader,” he said. “My mom read to me.”


Dick Tracy comic books became his obsession, along with Batman, and Collins began making his own comic books in seventh grade — a sort of “homemade version” of MAD magazine. He’d make one copy and kids would read it and pass it around their school.

Mystery and crime genres captured his fancy in the ’60s, with such TV shows as “Peter Gunn,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Perry Mason” and “Mike Hammer.”

His interest in drawing fell by the wayside. Instead, he wrote a mystery novel every summer during high school. He tried to market them during the school year, with no success.

“While the books were obviously unpublishable, at a young age I learned the craft of writing. I got better and better, so by the time I was in the early years of college, I was pretty much writing on a professional level,” he said. “I did sell my first two novels when I was in grad school.

“It was a steady progression. It was always storytelling, and then, of course, the fact that I’d grown up on comics and had been so immersed in comics and had stayed interested in comics, when I was approached to do Dick Tracy, I had been unwittingly preparing for that job for all those years,” he said.

“When I got the Dick Tracy comic strip, that opened up the world of comic books. I had people in the comic book business approach me to do original work, to do Batman, to do various things.

“So while I do more novels, more prose than anything else, there has been over the years at least a side trip into comics most of the time. And ‘Road to Perdition,’ which is the most famous thing I’m involved with, was a graphic novel originally.”

But he left the artwork to the pros.

“I never progressed past my seventh-grade skills,” he said. “I probably am still among the better seventh-grade cartoonists in the country. I would love to have done that, and I still love comic art, but I don’t think I made the wrong decision.


“I always say it’s a lot harder to draw a Buick than to type the letters b-u-i-c-k. ...

“I’ve had a very wonderful, strange career,” he said.


“I had two heroes growing up. One was Chester Gould, who wrote ‘Dick Tracy,’ and Mickey Spillane, who created ‘Mike Hammer.’ And the beginning of my career, basically, was taking over ‘Dick Tracy.’ Now in the last act of my career, I have taken over ‘Mike Hammer’ — and I knew both men. They were incredibly wonderful to me.”

His adoration for Spillane led Collins to write him 100 fan letters in his youth, and in 1973, he sent his first two books to Spillane.

“He wrote me a lovely letter, welcoming me to the writing field.”

Collins continued to write him off and on, so that not quite a decade later, when Collins was invited to meet his idol, Spillane said, “I know Max. We’ve been corresponding for years.”

“‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘One hundred letters from me, one from you.’ He laughed, and we became great friends.”

Collins visited Spillane at his home and collaborated on many projects.

“Mickey was unique, however. My wife loved him, he was my son’s godfather, and he was funny, complex. Stacy Keach said he was a pussycat. He had a reputation for being a tough guy — and he was a tough man — but he was a lovely guy.”

Gorman was aware of the visits and work Collins shared with Spillane, and thought the fact that Collins was continuing the Mike Hammer line “was pretty cool,” Collins said.

That’s the kind of support that would make Gorman pick up the phone about a dozen times after reading one of Collins’ books over the years, and tell him it was one of the best he’d ever written.


“He was the most sincere, enthusiastic booster of other writers that I have ever seen,” Collins said. “That’s why the idea of doing an annual event for writers is so, so appropriate for the memory of Ed Gorman,” Collins said. “I think his work will be read for many, many years.”

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If You Go

• What: Author Max Allan Collins: public reading of his works

• Where: Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7 p.m. Tuesday (3/19)

• Admission: free; part of Coe’s Ed Gorman Celebration of Popular Fiction

• Author’s website:

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