July 14, 2014

Near Future, Far Right: an interview with Max Allan Collins, author of "Supreme Justice"

Max Allan Collins' latest novel, Supreme Justice, hit shelves this month, published by Thomas & Mercer. You can snag yourself a copy over at Amazon.com if you like. But before you do, I had the good fortune to ask Mr. Collins a few questions about the novel and his writing career. Enjoy.

About Supreme Justice (courtesy of Amazon.com)After taking a bullet for his commander-in-chief, Secret Service agent Joseph Reeder is a hero. But his outspoken criticism of the president he saved—who had stacked the Supreme Court with hard-right justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, amp up the Patriot Act, and shred the First Amendment—put Reeder at odds with the Service’s apolitical nature, making him an outcast.

FBI agent Patti Rogers finds herself paired with the unpopular former agent on a task force investigating the killing of Supreme Court Justice Henry Venter. Reeder—nicknamed “Peep” for his unparalleled skills at reading body language—makes a startling discovery while reviewing a security tape: the shooting was premeditated, not a botched robbery. Even more chilling, the controversial Venter may not be the only justice targeted for death...

Is a mastermind mounting an unprecedented judicial coup aimed at replacing ultra-conservative justices with a new liberal majority? To crack the conspiracy and save the lives of not just the justices but also Reeder’s own family, rising star Rogers and legendary investigator Reeder must push their skills—and themselves—to the limit.

Gef: Supreme Justice is set in the near future, but where a science-fiction novel might be afforded certain allowances by readers as far as futurism and prognosticating on future technologies go, are thriller readers less forgiving? Did you feel or anticipate any push back with regards to how you imagined this near future America?

Max: Most of our readers so far have had no trouble with our "in the not too distant future" time frame, to quote Mystery Science Theater 3000.  I didn't want to be so far into the future that we'd have to indicate technological changes -- I wanted the book to feel like now.  My researcher/writing associate, Matthew Clemens, and I are discussing two possible follow-ups toSupreme Justice and are exploring whether to show some advancements in law-enforcement tech.  Basically I wanted a world with cell phones and texting and so on, which I think will be around for some time in more or less the same form.  There was immediate push-back from some conservative readers who felt I was banging a liberal drum by indicating a far right-leaning court could cause problems for America.  Frankly, I could have done something similar with a far left-leaning court.  The point was less left vs. right than extremism on either side being problematic for a democracy.

Gef: Your protagonist is an ex-member of the Secret Service. In your research, did you get much co-operation from the Secret Service or did they just put you on a watch list and call it a day? Have you ever had instances in your story research where resources or experts are just utterly uncooperative? 

Max: I knew better than to approach the Secret Service.  But I've done a lot of research on the Secret Service for prior books -- my JFK assassination novel, Target Lancer, in the Nathan Heller series, for example.  Also, I wrote the movie novel of In the Line of Fire, which is about a Secret Service agent, and my wife and I wrote a novel called Bombshell, with a Secret Service protagonist sharing the stage with Marilyn  Monroe.

Gef: So ... the U.S. Supreme Court certainly made headlines before they scurried off for their summer vacation. How did you perceive the whole Hobby Lobby ruling and the ensuing uproar?

Max: I wrote the synopsis of Supreme Justice five or six years ago.  I forget what it was they'd done that irritated me and got me thinking about the concept of a political activist trying to adjust the balance of the court by violence.   I knew that whenever I got around to writing it, the Court would do something to promote my book for me, by making a controversial ruling on something or other.  This group has really been going all out for me. 

Gef: I've read more than a couple reader reviews of thrillers, as well as other genres, that a writer's political bias distracts from the story. Do you find any merit at all in a sentiment like that?

Max: I admit I was surprised by how many readers on the right -- and a few on the left -- objected to political content in a political thriller. It's like somebody saying of a legal thriller, "Hey, watch it!  Too much law!" But honestly, Matt and I -- who are both left of center in our politics -- naively thought we'd hit the ball down the middle. We weren't trying to make a liberal point particularly, but maybe it's in the DNA.  The most blatant anti-right speech comes toward the end, when the hero is trying to manipulate the villain by pretending to be in sympathy with his motives. The point here, again, was the harm of extremism.

Gef: On your blog recently, you mentioned your reading time is spent with the classics as opposed to more modern fare. So for a fella like me who is still getting to know some of the writers from days gone by, like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald, who are some of the less ballyhooed writers I should be looking up?

Max: Well, I should start by saying I don't read political and legal thrillers. I didn't know about Grisham's The Pelican Brief, which has some similarity to Supreme Justice, until readers pointed it out, after publication -- I've never read him, or Vince Flynn or any of them really. In the political thriller area, I am more influenced by certain films and the books that inspired them, likeSeven Days in MayThe Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove. I am more a mystery/suspense guy, which is why my thrillers have a mystery component.  My heroes, besides those mentioned, are Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane,  James M. Cain, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Agatha Christie.   Other writers of the '30s - '60s who influenced me, and whose work I return to, would include Horace McCoy, Chester Himes, Donald E. Westlake (often writing as Richard Stark), Ennis Willie, and Ted Lewis. 

Gef: Along with Supreme Justice, Thomas & Mercer has published a fair number of your novels, one I recently purchased that really caught my eye, that being one you co-wrote with your wife, Barbara, Bombshell. I just want to know who came up with the idea of a story with Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Khrushchev on the lam in Disneyland? 

Max: The novel was Barb's idea -- she wrote a short story version first that was published in an anthology.  I thought it had the potential to be a full-length novel.   It was our second novel together, originally published under both our names but republished by Thomas & Mercer under our joint pseudonym, Barbara Allan.  That's the byline on our comic cozy "Trash 'n' Treasures" mystery series, the most of recent of which is called Antiques Con.

Gef: Supreme Justice has garnered some heaps of praise and a metric ton of reviews on Amazon, and that seemed to be in just the first week of its release, so how are planning out the rest of your summer and how can readers keep up with your shenanigans?

Max: We had a busy winter and spring, with several new novels under our belts (Barb and me, I mean).  We've done Antiques Swap together, and I did a western called The Legend of Caleb York based on an unproduced screenplay that Mickey Spillane wrote for his friend John Wayne.  I wrote another in my Quarry series for Hard Case Crime, Quarry's Choice, and completed an unfinished Mike Hammer novel from the Spillane files, Kill Me, Darling.   Now I'm researching the next Nate Heller novel, which will be about the McCarthy era and the Red scare of the '50s.   Barb and I, and our son Nate, will be at the San Diego Comic Con in less than two weeks as I write this.  Nate is a Japanese to English translator, and recently did a new translation of Battle Royale as well as a BR graphic novel, both for Viz.   I'll be presenting the Scribe Awards for the International Association of Movie and TV Tie-in Writers on a convention panel.  Back home, I'll be playing a few gigs with my longtime classic-rock band, Crusin'.

Big thanks to Max for stopping by the blog. And for the rest of you, if you want to keep up with the man, you can visit his website at www.maxallancollins.com/


  1. It does seem a little ridiculous for anyone to expect a political thriller to not have politics in it.