As we approach the official publishing day of Girl Most Likely , it is great to be able to chat with the book’s author Max Allan Collins. I would like to thank both him for taking time out from his no doubt hectic schedule, and of course, the event organiser Katie Olsen, from Little Bird Publicity.
I have also bent the rules a little, pushing Girl Most Likely to the top of my TBR pile, so that my own review will be ready to go in just a few days time. To say that I am excited is no exaggeration, as I enjoyed the story and can’t wait to share my thoughts with you all!
GIRL MOST LIKELY
In a small Midwest town, twenty-eight-year-old Krista Larson has made her mark as the youngest female police chief in the country. She’s learned from the best: her father, Keith, a decorated former detective. But as accustomed as they are to the relative quiet of their idyllic tourist town, things quickly turn with Krista’s ten-year high school reunion.
With the out-of-towners holed up in a lakefront lodge, it doesn’t take long to stir up old grudges and resentments. Now a successful TV host, Astrid Lund, voted the “Girl Most Likely to Succeed”—and then some—is back in town. Her reputation as a dogged reporter has made the stunning blonde famous. Her reputation among her former classmates and rivals has made her infamous. Astrid’s list of enemies is a long one. And as the reunion begins, so does a triple murder investigation.
Krista and her father are following leads and opening long-locked doors from their hometown to the Florida suburbs to Chicago’s underworld. They just never imagined what would be revealed: the secrets and scandals of Krista’s own past.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS
A frequent Mystery Writers of America “Edgar” nominee in both fiction and non-fiction categories, Max has earned an unprecedented number of Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991) and receiving the PWA life achievement award, the Eye, in 2007.
His graphic novel Road to Perdition (1998) is the basis of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Daniel Craig, directed by Sam Mendes.
Max’s movie novels include Saving Private Ryan, Air Force One, and American Gangster, whilst as an independent filmmaker in the midwest, he has written and directed five features and two documentaries.
His many comics credits include CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, based on the hit TV series, for which he has also written video games, jigsaw puzzles, and ten novels that have sold millions of copies worldwide.
Max’s hit one-man show, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, was nominated for an Edgar for Best Play of 2004 by the Mystery Writers of America; whilst his many other credits include. film criticism, short fiction, songwriting, trading-card sets, and a regular column in Asian Cult Cinema magazine.
His non-fiction work has received many honors, whilst as a musician (lead singer and keyboard), he has performed and recorded with his band Crusin’ since 1974.
Max, who also writes as Patrick Culhane, lives in Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife, writer Barbara Collins. They have collaborated on several novels and numerous short stories, and are currently writing the successful “Trash ‘n’ Treasures” mysteries. Their son Nathan translates Japanese into English with a number of novels and video games among his credits.
IN CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR MAX ALLAN COLLINS
Q: As someone who lives in Iowa, how did you decide to set this novel in Galena, Illinois? The setting factors prominently—was this an area that you were already familiar with, and what about it interested you?
A: My wife Barb and I – and I should say right now that Barb’s a writer, too (we do the humorous cozy “Antiques” mystery series together under the joint byline Barbara Allan) – have a habit of taking a short getaway at the end of a project. We sometimes go to the Chicago area, other times Des Moines, and frequently to St. Louis, where our son Nate and our daughter-in-law and two small grandchildren live. Galena, which is just across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa, is another of our favorite getaways, a couple of hours away from our home in Muscatine, Iowa. We’ve celebrated several wedding anniversaries with overnight stays in Galena, which has scads of good restaurants, all kinds of shopping, including antiques and used books, and is in just a beautiful, scenic part of the country.
Q: You’ve long been a fan of noir, both in film and literature, and you can see the Nordic noir influence in Girl Most Likely. What conscious decisions did you make to give the novel that feel?
A: A lot of what I’ve done in my career has been what you might call traditional noir or hardboiled, to use a term that’s out of vogue. Specifically, I’ve used my Nathan Heller character, very much a private eye in the Philip Marlowe/Mike Hammer tradition, to explore true crimes in novels like True Detective and Stolen Away.
At the same time, I’ve frequently written about contemporary subjects. My comic book character, Ms.Tree, pre-dated Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton’s female private eyes, and throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I explored still-relevant topics such as date rape, gay bashing and anti-abortion activism. So while I’ve often explored the past, perhaps most notably with Road to Perdition, I always have an eye on the present.
In recent years I’ve been particularly drawn to Nordic noir, which is character-driven but also concerned with contemporary issues. The female characters also tend to be very strong, as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Wallander, The Killing, and The Bridge. I began toying with the idea of an American equivalent, particularly one where a wintry setting might somewhat invoke the Nordic feel. Also, one of my mentors was a brilliant English teacher whose name was Keith Larson – he shared folktales from the Scandinavian countries with me, as well as his dry, quiet sense of humor. I named my male protagonist after him and kept his attitudes and those of his family in mind as I wrote – lovely, somewhat reserved people.
Q: One of the conflicts in Girl Most Likely is around #MeToo and the way events seemingly in the distant past can be revealed in a new light. What inspired you to explore this theme, and did day-to-day events in the news cause you to edit the book in real-time?
A: #MeToo didn’t kick in until Girl Most Likely was well underway, but that was certainly in the air. Its presence in the novel is not the author taking advantage of something in the news, but proof that what was in the news got there because of its resonance in all our lives. In mystery fiction, particularly the noir variety, the roots of a murder today are frequently found in our yesterdays.
But I have been mulling a class reunion mystery for some time. It fascinates me that our high school years – which are so brief and have us tossed together with others who just happen to be our age and live in the same town (or part of town) – follow us throughout our lives and continue to have an impact, even a hold on us. Who doesn’t want to show the people who underestimated or picked on us that we succeeded just the same? Who doesn’t want to show the boy or girl who rejected us that we are now happily married or have slimmed down or…fill in your particular blank, but I bet you have one.
Q: In this novel where the question of how well we can really know our peers factors so prominently, there’s an extremely close familial bond between police chief Krista Larson and her father. How do you think about writing familial bonds versus bonds with an ex-boyfriend or a high school best friend? Krista and her father have real trust and connection that sets their relationship apart from others. Was that an important factor as you were writing?
A: The Keith/Krista relationship was key, because the father and daughter had never shared the kind of closeness that each enjoyed with her late mother/his late wife. Basically, they are so much alike it’s gotten in their way. At the start of the novel, we find them drawn together in grief, but they don’t wallow in it or get openly emotional. I had several people, whose opinions are worth listening to, suggest that I give the relationship a more jokey, even snarky surface. I am good at such humor, being a smart ass myself (as my father often reminded me), but that’s not who these characters are.
I try to set characters in motion and let them reveal themselves to me, as opposed to figuring them out in depth beforehand. But of course even close friends – including boyfriends and girlfriends – have secrets, places where they don’t allow others to go. That’s the stuff of mystery fiction, getting into those places.
Q: There are a number of extremely successful women in this novel, like police chief Krista Larson and TV host Astrid Lund. But on the flip side, the victims of the crimes in this book are female, showing that women are often still vulnerable. Krista Larson is clearly aware of her gender and some of her decisions are driven by that. What made you interested in exploring that dichotomy of strength and vulnerability in your female characters?
A: I’ve presented any number of strong women as protagonists, from Ms. Tree to the damaged heroine of What Doesn’t Kill Her. I don’t do that to make a political or moral point, rather from the need for the main character in a thriller to be strong and interesting. I see the victims of the killer being vulnerable in a way that a male in that situation might also be – if you are dealing with someone who is secretly a homicidal maniac, your sex is an issue only if it’s an issue for what drives that killer. Gender has an impact on Krista in that she’s up against social conventions that are, thankfully, breaking down – i.e., that a police chief has to be male. One of the delightful aspects of writing this novel was discovering, when I began my serious research, that the real-life police chief of Galena, Illinois, was female.
On the other hand, I like any protagonist of mine to have both strength and vulnerability, and I don’t see that as a male or female thing, but a human one. My detective Nate Heller weeps now and then, and trust me – he’s stronger and tougher than the rest of us.
Q: The murder scenes in this novel are quite chilling, as they transport us into the mind of the killer so we see the events unfold from the killer’s eyes. Why did you choose to write those scenes the way you did, instead of in the third person? When in the process did you make that decision?
A: The immediacy of the present tense and the “you” as the point of view character gives readers an uncomfortable access to the killer – the reader is in the killer’s skin. Think of the point of view camera in Halloween, for example, as the killer closes in on his prey. The technique at once binds us to the killer, making us the killer in a way, at the same time that we are denied the killer’s identity.
I must credit my wife Barb with suggesting that I write these sections in such a way that we are not certain whether the “You” character is a man or woman. That was tricky but very worthwhile. But the “You” point of view was there from the beginning. I am trying to write a genre splice of thriller and mystery – without the chapters from the unknown killer’s point of view, we’re just a mystery. If we know who the killer is from the get-go, we’re just a thriller. Why not be both?
Q: This book has some laugh-out-loud funny asides and jokes made by the characters themselves. How do you think about the role of humor in mystery and thriller novels? When is it necessary and where is it useful to add in?
A: Humor is key to provide what they used to call “comic relief” in a tension-filled story. Humor is also revealing as to character. Keith encounters a woman in Chicago who really came alive, because of her humorous take on things. And with Keith and Krista having such a dry sense of humor, the wisecrack patter I sometimes indulge in just isn’t present.
But I can’t think of a time when I ever added humor to a story, say, on second or third draft. My method is to create the characters with enough roundness to know basically who they are, then set them free and let them bounce into and against each other, and develop naturally. I have a structure, a basic plot, but within that, it’s all improvisation.
Q: What’s next for you? Can we expect to see another novel set in Galena, Illinois with some of the same characters?
A: I am about to start a prequel called Girl Can’t Help It , which deals with a prior murder case that is mentioned in Girl Most Likely and will show Krista’s rise to police chief. Keith will still be on the Dubuque PD, and Krista’s mother will still be alive. It’s going to have a reunion aspect again – of a popular local band from years ago who are getting back together for a revival tour. This will give me an opportunity, finally, to deal with rock ‘n’ roll in a novel. I have played in rock bands more or less steadily – mostly as a weekend warrior – since high school. I play keyboards and sing, and two of my bands have been inducted in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, mostly recently Crusin’ this past summer. We’re in the company of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Everly Brothers, the New Colony Six, Brenda Lee, B.J. Thomas, Tommy Roe, Bobby Vee, and Paul McCartney. Plus a lot of bands from Iowa you never heard of. Like us.