For the new RT Top Pick! Bye Bye, Baby, author Max Allan Collins (who is known for writng with his wife under her name, Barbara Allan, for their ”Trash ‘n’ Treasures” mystery series) delves deep into the conspiracy theories that surround the death of Marilyn Monroe. Learn how the author re-creates this famous starlet, with his wife's editorial aid,, for a tale that plunges PI Nate Heller into the center of the action when the icon's dead body is discovered.
I have watched with fascination, interest and bemusement over much of my lifetime as that iconic sex symbol Marilyn Monroe just refuses to bid us goodbye. While many similarly iconic actors and actresses have faded into TCM-salute obscurity, Marilyn continues to amuse and titillate, to inspire and sadden. Who might have guessed that superstars like Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, Tyrone Power, and Lana Turner would be left in the dust of time by Norma Jeane Baker?
Early death is part of it, of course — like Valentino, Harlow and James Dean, Marilyn had a mysterious and tragic passing that brought tragedy to an already larger than life figure — in her case, a largely comic one, which brings added poignance.
If Marilyn was a much better actress than she was ever given credit for, her comic gifts — in Billy Wilder’s two classics, Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, if nothing else — put her in a unique class. She was the rare sex symbol who made you laugh without losing her desirability. She was self-mocking without descending into self-parody, kidding her allure without losing it. And she had a vulnerability that perhaps no other film superstar, male or female, dared to display so openly.
I was fourteen when I heard the news over a car radio. I was driving on a learner’s permit and it was the first time I’d ever heard tragedy come over the airwaves while behind the wheel. The news seemed unreal to me. Maybe it still does. It’s like a sad novel or movie that you keep re-visiting, hoping it will turn out differently.
But my continuing interest in Marilyn probably has a lot to do with my wife. She is (and has been for decades) a lovely blonde with a resemblance to Marilyn. This is not wishful thinking or a reflection upon my admittedly less than stellar eyesight. For many years, strangers would approach Barb and comment on the resemblance. This never went to her head, although it did have an influence on her — she became interested in Marilyn and began to read voluminously about the actress, watching Marilyn’s films again and again, and along the way assembling one of the greatest MM collections anywhere.
Barb began writing short stories in the late ‘80s and before long we started collaborating on stories and, eventually, on novels. Before we began our ”Trash ‘n’ Treasures” cozy mystery series (mostly recently Antiques Knock-off), we did two standalone thrillers. One, Bombshell, was based around the historical meeting of Marilyn and Nikita Khrushchev. This novel took both of us beyond fannish interest in the actress into research and discussion.
True Detective, my first novel about private detective Nathan Heller, appeared in 1983 (it is about to be republished by AmazonEncore as part of an ambitious program to bring the first twelve Heller books back into print). I designed the first Heller to give me the ability to write about the traditional private eye of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane without descending into camp or pastiche. I had the idea —born out of noticing that The Maltese Falcon had been published in 1929, the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — that the private eye now existed in history. That instead of having Phillip Marlowe meet an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type. True Detective explored the supposed attempted assassination of FDR that resulted in the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. It was an assassination eerily presaging both the John and Robert Kennedy killings.
I always knew that Nate Heller would eventually deal with the Kennedy assassination, which meant along the way dealing with Marilyn Monroe’s death and the role that the Kennedys did (or did not) play in it. The Heller novels have covered the 1930s, 1940s and a bit of the ‘50s, but this would be the first time I explored the 1960s...an era I lived through. Also, Heller would be older, a man in his mid-fifties.
There are a couple of inherent problems with the Heller novels that I — and readers — have to surmount. First, in order to allow Nate Heller to be involved in many of the most famous unsolved mysteries of the 20th century — from the Huey Long assassination (Blood and Thunder) to Amelia Earhart’s disappearance (Flying Blind), from the Lindbergh kidnapping (Stolen Away) to the Roswell Incident (Majic Man) — a reader must have a tolerance for the unlikelihood of one investigator actually being thus involved. In the storytelling game, this is called the willing suspension of disbelief. I try to have fun with it, somewhat in the manner of the Flashman novels, since I am doing a very traditional kind of historical novel — fictional hero is involved with famous real people — gene-spliced with the noir detective story.
The other problem is those famous real people. It’s easy to be intimidated by them. I, frankly, have never had that problem. My approach is to treat famous people as if they were my fictional creations. Any writer worth his or her salt will give a good deal of thought to the creation of a fictional character, often creating back stories about these figures of imagination. I do the same thing, but start with research. I learn everything I can about Marilyn Monroe, for example. And then I treat her as though I had made her up.
My Marilyn is very real to me. She is funny and sexy and sad, like the real Marilyn, though I don’t pretend my Marilyn is anything more than a fictional creation of mine. It was important to me, though, that this book did not begin with her death. I wanted her to be real to the reader, for the reader to feel a loss for a person, not an icon. So the first half of the book puts my Marilyn very much on stage. I hope the reader will — like Nate Heller — fall in love with her, at least a little.
- Max Allan Collins