Max Allan Collins is one of those authors that other authors don't want to hate, but simply have to because he is so prolific, and because he makes it look so easy. Since his first novel was published thirty years ago, Collins has churned out mystery series, stand-alones, comics, and movie and TV tie-ins to the tune of 80+ published full-length works -- even going so far as to write the novelization of the screenplay of a film (Road to Perdition) that was already based on his own work (in this case, a graphic novel)! Two for the Money contains his first two published novels (in their 1981 revised versions, as opposed to the 1973 originals): Bait Money and Blood Money, #1 and #2 in a series of five (so far) books starring professional thief Nolan.
The book seems to start at the end of one story and the beginning of another as we are introduced to Nolan 35 days into his convalescence from a gunshot wound. (Although "convalescence" may be the wrong word since he seems to be spending the majority of the time having sex with the waitress who has put him up -- and put up with him -- for all that time.) One phone call changes all of that, however, and he sneaks out soon after she goes to work.
The first book (Bait Money) of Two for the Money falls under the "last big heist" heading, with Nolan wanting to retire. He's 48 and it's definitely time to give up this high-risk business. Unfortunately, some "Family" members have a grudge against him that makes that difficult-to-impossible. But he has an out: if he pulls one more heist for them, to the tune of $100,000, they will "forgive" him. The catch is that he has to pull it with the planner's nephew, Jon. This contrasting of old blood and new has long been a cliche (it may even have been then), but Collins' skill at characterization makes it work, even if a few leaps of faith need to be taken.
Book Two (Blood Money) was written very soon after the acceptance of Bait Money for publication, and so follows closely on the latter's heels. Collins himself even sees the two as one long novel, hence the omnibus publication. In it, we learn more about Jon, an aspiring comics (or "graphic story") artist. Jon's love of comics is a thread that runs throughout Blood Money and this is a world that Collins certainly knows something about, having written for the comic strip Dick Tracy from 1977 to 1993 (Max Allan Collins fans should note that reprints of that series are becoming available under the title Dick Tracy: The Collins Casefiles), as well as authoring numerous graphic novels of his own creation.
Collins wastes no time getting Blood Money off to a running start. A vital supporting character from Bait Money is killed -- and $800,000 is stolen -- in the first few pages. Later, Nolan finds out that someone he thought was dead isn't. Collins uses a fascinating technique throughout this entry of having news delivered by telephone to one character and then backing up to show the story leading up to the exchange, this time from the caller's perspective. He also adds useful tidbits of information, like how having high blood pressure can make a victim more likely to die of a gunshot wound. He also showcases the unheralded victim of a gunfight: the guy who has to clean up the mess.
Darkly funny details like these make Two for the Money a joy to read, Max Allan Collins a new favorite author, and Nolan a character I plan on revisiting soon. Collins admits that Nolan is an almost complete rip-off of Donald Westlake pseudonym Richard Stark's Parker, but Westlake appreciated the differences Collins offered the stories and gave Collins his blessing to continue the series. These stories would make terrific movies, and artist Mark Texeira helps out Hollywood's casting directors by drawing his own preferences on the cover painting, with Nolan resembling a cleaned-up Nick Nolte, and Jon and the irresistible Shelly looking strikingly like modern "it couple" Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon. Someone should advise Nolte to latch on to this possible comeback opportunity. In the meantime, I'm going to latch on to all the Max Allan Collins books I can get my hands on.