You may know Collins as the author of The Road to Perdition, the movie of which featured my friend Sandy Weisz as an extra. Two for the Money collects Collins’s first two novels, Bait Money (1981) and Blood Money (1983), Both feature as protagonist an honorable bank robber named Nolan. Collins explains in an afterword that he started writing the second novel the minute he heard the first had been accepted, figuring a sequel would be easy to sell, which was correct. He also explains that, though to him, Nolan never had a first name, an inventive copywriter at his first publisher, writing back cover copy, decided to call him Frank Nolan. I’ve written lots of copy with insufficient information, but making up a name for the lead character seems like going a bit far. That’s when you take five minutes and check with the author.
Bait Money and Blood Money are both solid crime novels, the first built around a bank heist in Iowa City, the second around the consequences of that heist. Collins does a particularly good job of depicting the Quad Cities and the remnants of hippie culture lingering there. The problem with them is one common to a lot of crime novels: it’s not completely clear why the protagonist is the one we’re rooting for. Oh, there’s no doubt he’s better than his Mafia opponents. When they’re not being untrustworthy or unduly violent, they’re being crass and opportunistic. Nolan, on the other hand, is not unduly violent, He’s extremely good at every aspect of his job, he cares about the safety of those working with him, and he appears to be a nice employer. He’s honorable so long as the people he’s dealing with are trustworthy, but he doesn’t take it to self-destructive extremes. He’s been doing this a long time, becoming a bit of a fogey, bordering on legend, along the way.
But beyond that, we have to just trust Collins that this guy, despite being a bank robber, is worth rooting for. I’m willing to do so—but knowing all the while that it’s not like following Philip Marlowe, whose primary concern is protecting the person he’s taken into his care, keeping his promises, and shifting the balance of this fallen universe just a tiny bit back towards the just. Nolan, on the other hand, may be good company, but he’s somewhat disreputable company.
It’s similar to Nolan’s characterization of his relationship with a comely young waitress he met at a restaurant . . . that he owned and managed:
However, he liked the feel of her in his lap, and before long Sherry was back on the carpet, but in a different sense, and out of her waitress uniform both temporarily and permanently. By that afternoon her name was listed on the payroll as “Social Consultant.” And so began a relationship that was clearly immoral, entirely corrupt, and wholly enjoyable.
Sure, I can ask more from a crime novel, but if once in a while all I get is something clearly immoral, entirely corrupt ,and wholly enjoyable, I won’t complain too much.