THE WAR OF THE WORLDS MURDER by Max Allan Collins

Collins_War-of-the-Worlds_berkeleyIf, like me, you are a devoted fan of the amazing writer-director-producer-actor-showman Orson Welles, a sucker for magic tracks, love listening to Old Time Radio, and enjoy the pulp adventures of The Shadow, then this book is most definitely for you! Oh, and there’s also a murder mystery to solve too. The time is 1938, the place New York, and all is chaos as Welles, the perpetual enfant terrible, juggles a variety of projects and gets involved in a murder investigation on the night on which he will broadcast his most famous radio show …

I submit this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“… a homicidal maniac is running through the halls of the Columbia Broadcasting Building looking for … for more victims? Orson, it’s unbelievable.”

In October 1938 Gibson is summoned to New York by Welles to work on a film adaptation of The Shadow but they never really have time to do it due to the star’s hectic lifestyle, which on top of the proposed film currently includes (deep breath): keeping various amorous dalliances on the go (he is thus fighting with his wife and George Balanchine, one of whose own girlfriends Welles has been seeing), putting on a Broadway production of Danton’s Death, fighting off gangsters from the Cotton Club and producing a radio version off HG Wells’ The War Worlds too … Along the way we meet many of Welles’ friends and collaborators from the time, including producer John Houseman, budding actress Judy Holliday and composer Bernard Herrmann.

The power of radio was perhaps never displayed as powerfully as in the 1938 Halloween adaptation War of the Worlds, which terrified some listeners by presenting the story as a series of live broadcasts reporting a Martian invasion. Collins’ book, appropriately enough, is steeped in the radio lore of pre-War America and he includes huge amounts of historical information with his story, frequently interrupting the narrative to provide context around the real-life events and personalities being depicted. So if the murder plot feels a bit secondary, well, it is, but it doesn’t really get in the way of the main enjoyment that comes from a rich depiction of a very specific time and place and a unique personality in the shape of the great Orson, who here pulled off his greatest ever illusion.

The writer said, “I’ve finished my investigation. And I know you’re responsible.”

Collins_War-of-the-WorldsWelles and Gibson have both appeared as fictional characters in other novels – the pulp author would go on to star in Paul Maidment’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (2006), while Welles had previous appeared in Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991) and Me and Orson Welles (2003). Welles’ celebrated 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds became the TV-Movie The Night That Panicked America in 1975 (co-written by Nicholas Meyers by the way, author of another pop culture mashup, The Seven Percent Solution) and was also was the subject of Mark Gatiss’ delightfully funny Doctor Who audio, Invaders from Mars (2002).

I thoroughly enjoyed this tribute to a bygone age (though admittedly I could have done without the bashing of the late Robert L. Fish in the opening sections set in 1975) and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the era. It was the last in Collins’ series of books set around historical disasters in which famous authors helped solve fictional crimes during real-life events.

The Disaster series

  1. The Titanic Murders (1999) – featuring Jacques Futrelle
  2. The Hindenburg Murders (2000) – featuring Leslie Charteris
  3. The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) – featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs
  4. The Lusitania Murders (2002) – featuring SS Van Dine
  5. The London Blitz Murders (2004) – featuring Agatha Christie
  6. The War of the World Murders (2005) – featuring Walter Gibson

To find out more about the author, visit his website, www.maxallancollins.com

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Orson Welles, The Shadow, Walter B Gibson. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to THE WAR OF THE WORLDS MURDER by Max Allan Collins

  1. Oh, Sergio, this does sound like a great look at that time and place! It’s hard to believe now how powerful radio was, but it was. And this sounds like a fascinating peek at Welles’ life, too. That’s an added appeal for me. Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting post.

  2. tracybham says:

    I have been wanting to read something by Max Allan Collins. I believe I have two books from this series and some of his books from other series. This sounds like the perfect book for you and packed with interesting stuff.

  3. TomCat says:

    Great review, Sergio. I have read all of the books in this all together too short a series and The War of the Worlds Murder remained my personal favorite throughout. It’s an absolutely wonderful story and I recommend listening to the original Panic Broadcast, before dipping into the book. I can also highly recommend the other entries in this series and in particular The Titanic Murders and The Lusitania Murders, which are great seafaring crime stories aboard two tragically doomed ocean liners.

  4. JJ says:

    This series has been hovering around the edge of my awareness for a coupe of years now, no doubt helped by TomCat and others’ reviews. There’s just something about the use of real life figures that seems a little…off to me, especially Futrelle who — lest we forget — actually died on the Titanic. I’m further dissuaded by experiences like Ed Hoch’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which cram in historical figures all over the place (Futrelle! Lewis Carroll! Erskine Childers!) purely so that Holmes can look great or, again in Futrelle’s case, a veneer of needless heroism can be applied to him like it makes his death more meaningful.

    I’m not a fan of it in Doctor Who, either, though, so maybe it’s just fictional narratives taking untold liberties with people who actually achieved a tremendous amount and so lessening their achievements (because, let’s face it, that Who-explanation for Death in the Clouds was a slap in the face). Or, y’know, maybe I’m overthinking stuff like this and should just learn to relax. That’s always a possibility.

    • Take it easy JJ! I think you should definitely take a chill pill and relax dude 😉 I have no problems with the approach, whether it is Nicholas Meyer, EL Doctorow or Stuart Kaminsky, as long as it is done credibly. If you excluded all real people from fiction you would lose a massive amount of stuff – some of it is good, some of it not but I don’t think in a proportion that is different from fiction in general. They can;t all be War and Peace of course …

  5. Colin says:

    i like the sound of this quite a bit, lots of interesting ingredients. I also think the other books in the series ought to be worthwhile too.
    Although I haven’t read any of Collins’ work yet, I do have a number of his Quarry on the shelves.

    • You are probably in the right place, along with the Nate Heller series. I thought this was very good fun (but then it played to a lot of my pre-existing interested!)

  6. Jeff Flugel says:

    Nice one, Sergio! I’ve been interested in these “Disaster” books for some time, but have yet to read any. I HAVE read some of Collins’ QUARRY novels, which are excellent (a TV series adaptation is coming soon). Wouldn’t be surprised if you hear from Mr. Collins at some point, or at least receive a link to this review.

  7. I’ve been reading Max Allan Collins for decades. He is a consummate pro. I’ve enjoyed every one of his books that I’ve read including his collaborations with Mickey Spillane.

  8. Yvette says:

    I haven’t read these yet, Sergio, though I’ve known about them for awhile. I’d like to take a look. But my favorite mysteries of this sort, set during the early part of the 20th century and featuring famous actors and/or celebrities of the age (including I think, one with Orson Welles) are the Toby Peters books by Stuart Kaminsky. I heartily recommend those. VERY funny and almost farcical in tone, they are a total delight. Many famous people of the times show up in these pages, including:
    Joan Crawford (MILDRED PIERCED), Salvadore Dali, Mae West, Albert Einstein, John Wayne, Bela Lugosi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bette Davis, etc.

    • Thanks for that Yvette – and yes, I started reading the Toby Peters series in the early 80s and they remain probably my favourites in this particular historical ‘mode’

  9. I read and liked this one, and the others I’ve read. Next up in this series for me – I’m reading it out of order, I think – is the one about Amelia Eirhart.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Hell, like Ron Goulart, who does this kind of thing well, as well, or for that matter Loren Estleman…or Bill Pronzini…I can’t imagine giving up on historical crime fiction altogether, albeit outrageously false historical fiction, where the author has difficulty telling excrement from wild honey (hello, Paul Maidment) can be dispensed with.

    You do have me wondering how Robert Fish is dumped on, and what motivated that.

  11. Matt Paust says:

    I’ve read a couple of Al’s history mysteries, Sergio, and enjoyed them. This one sounds fun, too.

  12. Here’s another tremendously productive writer. I’ve never fancied this series, but the mention of Amelia Earhart by one of your commenters did intrigue me.

    • Thanks Moira – the one with Amelia Earhart is not from this series but from the ones featuring Nate Heller, entitled Flying Blind from 1999 (not read it myself).

  13. Interesting character twist to crime fiction, Sergio. I wasn’t aware of the Disaster series though I have been looking for his post-Spillane Mike Hammer novels as well as a copy of his graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION. Frankly, there’s an awful lot of stuff by Collins that I need to read.

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