The War of the Worlds Murder - By Max Allan Collins


SUDDENLY 1975 SEEMS LIKE A long time ago.

Not as long ago as 1938—when the bulk of this story takes place (and long before I was born)—but nonetheless distant, right out on the edges of my memory.

I graduated with an MFA from the Writers Workshop in Iowa City in 1972, right after selling my first mystery novel, and promptly took a job teaching Freshman English at the small-town community college where I’d been attending a few years before. I was just a kid, really, though I’d been married since 1968.

By ’75 I’d already sold half a dozen mystery novels. But only two of them had been published when I decided to attend my first Bouchercon, which was in Chicago, a city my wife Barb and I both felt comfortable in.

My childhood sweetheart and I had honeymooned for a week in Chicago, going to movies, dining in wonderful restaurants, checking out the sights, as well as the usual things newlyweds some they don’t, specifically risking my bride’s life during those turbulent times by having her help me chase down old used paperbacks I needed for my mystery collection, in some of the roughest parts of town. Toward the end of that week, Robert Kennedy was assassinated—we were RFK supporters and anti-Vietnam War—and the the context of celebrating our marriage...brought home just how fragile happiness can be. On the other hand, we’re still together.

On this return visit to Chicago, Barb did not attend the convention: she shopped at Marshall Field’s and along Michigan Avenue, though in those days it was mostly window-shopping. I, for the first time, mingled with mystery fans and my fellow writers, awkwardly straddling the two factions. That it was the weekend before Hallowe’en seemed appropriate for such benignly criminal doings, and Chicago was its chilly windy city self, the Palmer House hotel in the El’s shadow (the Wabash-side entrance, anyway); I felt almost like a grown-up.

My generation of mystery writers was perhaps the first to emerge largely from “fandom”—we had not only read the fiction of our writer-heroes, we had written and published “fanzines” celebrating that fiction and those creators, much like the world of comics, where I was also a fan (but not yet a writer).

Had I not already attended two or three comic book conventions, I would have been much more intimidated at Bouchercon Six, with its bustling dealers’ room that seemed so large (though by today’s convention standards was minuscule) and its panel discussions bracketed by informal conversations (in hallways and bars and dealers’-room aisles) between strangers with mutual interests. Many of us were what is now called geeks and even then were known as nerds—lonely oddballs pleased to encounter their own kind.

Patterned after similar events that had grown up in science fiction, the Bouchercon—named after celebrated New York Times critic/mystery author Anthony Boucher—is the World Mystery Convention. Fans, authors, editors, literary agents, publicists and of course booksellers attend these fan-run gatherings, and as I write this in the early twenty-first century, the events—held in cities from London to New York, from Toronto to San Francisco—are attended by thousands, unlike the hundred or so who came to Chicago in 1975.

I was a barely published author—two paperback-original novels, Bait Money and Blood Money, had seen print—and certainly not a “name” fan, that is, a fan who’d published a fanzine. I’d contributed a few articles to such self-published publications, mostly defending and celebrating my favorite mystery writer, Mickey Spillane; but mine was definitely not a name that would resonate with the average attendee of Bouchercon Six.

I prowled the dealers’ room, wearing a name badge of course, and before long, a small miracle happened. A dark-haired, mustached kid stood grinning at me, his eyes large behind horn-rim glasses; he wore a light-blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and chinos, and seemed to be only mildly insane.

“You’re Max Collins!” he said.

I frowned. “That’s right...”

I checked the name badge of this guy: Robert J. Randisi. His home was identified as “Brooklyn,” a legendary city known only vaguely to Iowans such as myself.

“I can’t believe it!” this Randisi creature blurted.

Did I owe him money? I sometimes bought comic books and old paperbacks through the mail. Maybe he was a dealer I’d shorted on the purchase of Jim Thompson or Richard Stark paperbacks. He seemed harmless enough, if overenthusiastic—of medium size, solidly put together, but not a threat.

“You wrote the Nolan books!” he said, pointing a pleasantly accusing finger.

Nolan was the thief anti-hero of my two published