Nate Heller

Created by Max Allan Collins

“I was rereading The Maltese Falcon for a community college class I was about to teach, and noticed the copyright — 1929 — and had the thought, ‘Huh, that’s the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. That means Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries.’ That started me thinking that instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.”
— Collins’ oft-told tale of how Nate Heller came to be

s a crooked Chicago cop in the glory days of Al Capone, and later as a big-shot private eye, NATE HELLER seems to have wandered into every major crime story in the last century, in what’s turned out to be one of the most intriguing and enduring P.I. series to come out of the eighties.

Collins drew a little heat when he first lay claim to having invented the historical private eye novel (he seemed to have conveniently forgotten previous retro eyes such as Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters and Andrew Bergman’s Jack Levine), but he pointed out that “I deal with real crimes, real people; the closest thing to what I do that existed before me was Chinatown, which changed names, dates, etc., and certain episodes of the greatest of all P.I. series, City of Angels. Stu and the rest do period mysteries — using the setting, the nostalgia, some real people but not real events. That’s the diff.”

Regardless, Collins deserves credit for the skill he brings to his well-researched true crime/fictional P.I. masterpieces that not only humanize old stories, but force us to look at them again as he digs up old theories, and comes up with new ones. Who REALLY kidnapped the Lindbergh baby? Who REALLY bumped off Bugsy Siegal? Was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre REALLY a mistake? Who REALLY shot John Dillinger? What REALLY happened to Amelia Earhart? For any fan of classic true crimes and other unsolved mysteries of 20th century America, or anyone who just enjoys a great P.I. yarn, you could do a helluva  lot worse than this entertaining, and often, enlightening series.

And Nate is an intriguing appealingly-less-than-perfect, character. Half-Jewish, half-Irish, he’s greedy, horny, morally amivalent, if not downright ambiguous. He can be bought off, but only on his terms. Probably the key to his character is the death of his father: Nate’s old man was a dedicated leftist, an old union guy, who shot himself after Nate lied on the witness stand in order to join the police department (and therefore make his way to the trough). Nate carries the nine-millimeter with which his father did the deed, and he calls it “the closest thing to a conscience I’ve got.”

It’s frequently not enough, as Nate is more than willing to get his hands dirty, hobnobbing with mobsters, politicians and Hollywood starlets. Yet there’s a unflinching and impressive steeliness to his moral code (and his loyalty to his clients) — it may be flawed and as hard to pin down as Hell, but God damn it, Nate sticks to it.

“Let’s just say,” as he puts it in Target Lancer (2012) “that if the long arms of the law prove a little… short… I might sometimes find a way of evening a score.”

Nate’s journey through the series from loose cannon lone wolf P.I. with a one room office over Barney Ross’ Dill Pickle to the head of the A-1 Detective Agency with offices in Hollywood and New York (its headquarters remains in the sixteen-storey Monadnock Building in downtown Chicago, has proven equally impressive, as Nate moves from being a known acquaintance of the Windy City’s low-level thugs and B-girls to rubbing shoulders with high-flying crime lords, U.S. presidents (the Kennedys!) and Marilyn Monroe.

Besides creating Heller, he’s also responsible for continuing the comic strip adventures of Dick Tracy, as well as his own Mike Danger, Mike Mist, the rebirth of Johnny Dynamite, and possibly his greatest coup — the creation of Ms. Tree, the private eye heroine of the longest-running private eye comic book in history. He’s also written novels featuring professional thief Quarry and amateur sleuth/mystery writer Mallory, and several novelisations of various crime films and televsion shows. He’s also penned, along with James L. Traylor, One Lonely Knight, a spirited critical defense of his idol, Mickey Spillane; a project that lead to not only a long friendship with the creator of Mike Hammer, but a string of co-edited anthologies of original stories, all of which are recommended, especially 1998’s Private Eyes and, after Spillane’s death, the continuation of the Hammer series. In 2001, he’s released what might be stand as his non-fiction magnum opus, The History of Mystery, a personal and passionate stab at the entire crime fiction genre that revealed Collins, once and for all, as not just one of the genre’s most talented contributors, but also one of it’s greatest fans.


  • “It’d probably cost a fortune, but imagine a long-form television series that could either go chronologically through Heller’s life, or like the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, hopscotch around. Done right, it could be wonderful. As for casting, tough. John Savage is probably a little long in the tooth right now. The casting possibilities for the other characters especially the real people…wow!”
    — Ted Fitzgerald, May 1998 P.I. Poll on Television Eyes
  • “Heller was an idea I’d been developing since the early 70s, even prior to [the movie] Chinatown. I’ve said this many times before, but it was a re-reading of The Maltese Falcon that inspired Heller — not the book itself, but the copyright date: 1929. This caused me to muse, “That’s the year of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Sam Spade and Al Capone were contemporaries. That means that instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, a Phillip Marlowe type could meet the real Al Capone.” Realizing that the private eye had been around long enough to exist in a genuinely historical setting was the revelation…I have been chastised for making this claim, but I do feel I invented the historical hard-boiled detective novel. Not the period private eye novel ([Stuart] Kaminsky and [Andrew] Bergman and Robert Towne and maybe a couple others pre-date me), but using a fictional noirish protagonist in a story that is otherwise solidly based on fact. That’s my contribution.”
    —  Max Allan Collins, The January Magazine Interview






  • Dark City (1987; Nate Heller makes an appearance in this Eliot Ness novel)
  • Caribbean Blues (1988; Nate Heller makes an appearance in this multiple-author mystery)
  • Bullet Proof (1989; Nate Heller makes an appearance in this Eliot Ness novel)


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Bluefox808, and Max Allan Collins himself, for their help here.

One thought on “Nate Heller

  1. Without a doubt my all-time favorite P.I. Not only are they great books on their own, but they introduced me to real-life mysteries long-forgotten. I recently finished an in-order reread of every book in the series, and they stand up with the best of the genre.

    Not bad considering I picked up “True Detective” by accident, thinking it was a non-fiction book of the same title that told stories of the real world of private investigation…

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