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Book Review: Black Hats by Patrick Culhane (Max Allan Collins)

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One of the things I love about Max Allan Collins's period-piece mysteries and suspense novels is the authenticity. If you read something in a Collins book, outside of the fictional spin he adds to and puts on things, you can bet it really existed at that time. He also delves deeply into the backgrounds of his historical "characters" and provides a good biography of them.

Collins wrote Road to Perdition, the graphic novel that inspired a movie starring Tom Hanks, and a novelization that he also wrote. True Crime and True Detective were just two of his Nate Heller, Private Detective novels that dealt with the 1930s through the 1950s and solved true life crimes with fictional, though probable, solutions. His disaster novels featured a famous writer paired with important people of the time period he was writing about. In addition, he’s also written hard crime series about a professional thief named Nolan, and a hit man named Quarry.

When I read that Black Hats was going to offer a confrontation between an elderly Wyatt Earp and a young, wet-behind-the-ears Al Capone, I was excited. I conjured up images of alley showdowns with six-guns and Thompson submachine guns. We almost got that here. I built up the possibilities too big in my mind, and that’s partly my fault. But how could you resist wanting to go over the top in a confrontation like that?

The action was a little more downplayed that I would have wanted, but I was working off my own expectations. Collins stayed within the truth of what really happened in those days in 1920, with a little bit of what could have happened thrown in. Collins gave us a fictional son of Doc Holliday and painted the Prohibition backdrop both eloquently and faithfully. His other "characters" like Texas Guinan, Jack Dempsey, and Damon Runyon were great and added a lot of color to the story.

I enjoyed the sense of time and place Culhane/Collins so easily brought to the introductions of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and New York. His research is on every page, from hairstyle to meals to what people wore at the time. His history of New York’s social circles during Prohibition was a blast and a tell-all of who’s who.

But it's Wyatt and Bat Masterson who really seize the spotlight. Their friendship comes across clearly and believably, and it was fun seeing them in action together. I remembered seeing Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt Earp and Gene Barry as Bat Masterson in their respective television roles. But the voice that Wyatt carried so effortlessly throughout the novel seemed to be more of Sam Elliott. I heard him in my head on several occasions, and I kept picturing him.

The plot was especially well done too. John Holliday had won a warehouse full of liquor in a poker game at a time when the rest of the city (and the state) were dry and having to import their liquor from Canada. It was a treasure trove on par with one of the archaeological finds that would have sent Indiana Jones scampering for his fedora and the first plane out of town.

I was a little disappointed with the ending because it wasn't as BIG as I'd imagined. But it had neat little twists that made everything come together well. Black Hats is a fast, fun read with plenty of history, atmosphere, and trivia to keep armchair historians and thrill-seekers turning the pages.

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