Max Allan Collins on The Disaster Series
Question: It’s unusual for a series of mystery novels to lack a continuing character; however this series is based on a thematic unity. You focus not only on famous historical disasters, but also on a succession of famous mystery and thriller writers, as your hero/detectives. How did you come up with that approach?
Max Allan Collins: Somewhat by accident. As with most of my series books, this one spun off of a novel intended as a one-shot The Titanic Murders. Shortly after I saw James Cameron’s film, I was talking to an editor at Berkley Books about the movie, and its enormous popularity, and mentioned in an off-hand way that a famous mystery writer of the era had died on the Titanic, Jacques Futrelle, author of the Thinking Machine stories, which I’d read in junior high. I said, off the top of my hand, that somebody should write a mystery in which Jacques Futrelle solves a closed-environment, Agatha Christie-style puzzle aboard the doomed ship. Wouldn’t it be darkly amusing for the detective to solve a murder mystery, pronounce all right with the world, and then hear a WHUMP, and say, “What was that?” And then after a long pause, my editor said, “Can you get me something this afternoon? Just a paragraph?” I said sure, did so, and the book was sold. Same day.
Q: But how did The Titanic Murders lead to a series?
MAC: When it came time to negotiate the contract, I was told that the publisher wasn’t taking on anything but series books and that I had to come up with two more books. I said, “Well, the detective dies at the end, it is the Titanic, after all.” Too bad, but you have to do a series, I was told. Again, off the top of my head, I said, well, I could do other famous disasters, like the Hindenburg and the Lusitania.
Q: But not all of the writers were actually present when the disaster in the novel took place, correct?
MAC: Most were. Agatha Christie was certainly in London for the Blitz. Edgar Rice Burroughs was in Pearl Harbor during the attack. S.S. Van Dine did travel on the Lusitania, although not during the fateful voyage. And Walter Gibson, as the creator of the Shadow, had an obvious connection to Orson Welles, making Gibson’s presence at the War of the Worlds broadcast believable.
Q: Will there be more Disaster novels?
MAC: Well, I always say it’s nice to write a novel that’s a disaster on purpose. But during the writing of The Lusitania Murders, 9/11, the worst disaster of recent memory, occurred and took some of the fun out of my notion. I never made light of the disasters I was dealing with, except perhaps in The War of the Worlds Murder. But the distance of time does provide a cushion. I’ll be interested to see how new readers, coming to the Thomas & Mercer editions, feel.
Q: We understand all of the books will be available on audio.
MAC: Yes, most of them for the first time. It’s fun to have these stories, these characters, come so vividly to life.
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