Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Forgotten Books: Scratch Fever

With all the well-deserved kudos being paid to his Quarry series--Quarry in The Middle is not only Max Allan Collins' best Quarry but also one of his finest novels period--I thought I'd pick up one of my favorite entries in one of his other series, the Nolan series.

Nolan is a mostly retired ex-thief who is forced to learn the hard way that the past is never past. Om Scratch Fever, however, the lead character is Jon, Quarry's unlikely but steadfast crime partner, a twenty-something comic book illustrator who also fronts a rock cover band--just as Collins himself does. Jon wants to make it full-time in comics but is having no luck so his income, such as it is, is coming from the band which, as the book opens, is playing its last gig as a band.

The story here concerns a fetching but deadly woman who once tried to murder Jon with a shotgun. She wanted all the robbery money for herself. But she disappeared and was presumed dead. And the money was nowhere to be found. But then Jon is on stage playing his type of song (one of the reasons the band is breaking up is because Jon hates the heavy metal and Catch Scratch Fever crap they prefer) when he sees back in the shadows of the big dance barn.

What the hell is going on? Well, nothing that Jon could have foreseen and because Nolan can't give him a hand this time, Jon and the band singer Toni (a smart-ass you gotta love) are left to face a situation that keeps evolving into one perfectly cast suspense situation after another.

If you're at all nostalgic for the early eighties, this is your book. Collins has John O'Hara's eye and ear for era and dialogue. This is a time trip back to the growing emergence of punk and how it played in the bars and dance halls and clubs of Iowa and the Quad Cities. Collins always shows his readers an Iowa few writers ever have. His people tend to be working class or criminal class. His mob guys aren't the romantics of the Godfather but the soldiers of The Sopranos.

To me Collins has always been an exemplary story teller. When I got to the end of the long first chapter--which encompasses little more than two hours of the same night--I went back through it just to study the craft. There is so much energy in Collins' work that you never notice the careful way he lays everything out. This is one of those books where a part of your mind is constantly playing ahead of the pages. In this case you're dreading the inevitable showdown that Jon will have to face.

If you like hardboiled fiction, put the Nolan series at the top of your list. Scratch Fever is like reading on steroids.


Brian Drake said...

Ed, Great post. I remember reading Scratch Fever while I was working overnights at a radio station in San Francisco, and enjoyed the heck out of it. In fact, you've made me want to pull it off the shelf and look it over again.

Brian Drake said...

Ed, I just finished reading the first and second chapters of "Scratch Fever" and I agree: this is one terrific book. I may have to go back through the whole series.

Did you notice the name of the band that Jon plays with? They're called The Nodes. Did you also notice that Quarry comments on seeing the same band in "Quarry in the Middle"?

Nice touch, Max!

Dan_Luft said...

The Nolan books are told in a third-person, multi-viewpoint style. Each chapter is seen through the eyes of a different character. Collins did this smoother than O'Hara ever did. I had read most of the series before I became aware of this technique. This style also allowed Collins to have a lot of exposition and suspense in very few pages.