Weaving the Hidden History
of a Girl Most Likely
By Alex Segura
If you’re a fan of hardboiled fiction or comics, the name Max Allan Collins is a familiar one. His CV is loaded with enough awards and accolades to make Meryl Streep blush. He’s written shelves of prose and lengthy runs starring characters like Dick Tracy and Batman. With a list of accomplishments that can be counted in miles, you’d think the veteran writer would settle into a comfortable routine, using the handful of tools and tricks he’s honed over decades to continue to create engaging and compelling narratives.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Collins’s latest, GIRL MOST LIKELY, is unlike any of his previous novels—except in one respect: it’s an addictive, propulsive read that lingers with the reader, loaded with the kind of thrilling, memorable characters that appear almost fully-formed. The protagonist of GIRL MOST LIKELY is Krista Larson, a woman in her late 20s who’s made a bit of history as the nation’s youngest police chief. As the top cop of a small Midwest town, Krista boasts a fine, blue blood pedigree: her father was a detective himself. While the job of small-town police chief can be boring on the busiest days, Krista’s routines get derailed soon enough.
When a famous former classmate—once dubbed the “Girl Most Likely to Succeed”—storms into town to take part in Krista’s 10-year high school reunion, the buzz surrounding her presence threatens to drown out everything else. But the drone of gossip becomes a shrill, fevered scream when three dead bodies appear. The investigation brings father and daughter together, putting them through their paces across their tiny home and beyond on a quest to figure out the truth about their bloody present, and Krista’s own secret history.
The idea for Krista Larson, who makes her debut in GIRL MOST LIKELY, was more of a slow burn than a byproduct of sudden inspiration, Collins admits.
“She evolved quite a bit. Initially, her father, Keith, was to be chief of the Galena, Illinois, police, having recently lost his wife and retired from chief of homicide across the river in nearby Dubuque, Iowa. The notion was that Krista had studied criminology and could have landed a major job somewhere, but instead took essentially a glorified parking meter attendant status to be near her father,” he says.
“But as I was developing the plot, it seemed clear that Krista was the lead detective here, with Keith as the support, and having her just a very low-on-the-totem-pole officer didn’t make sense. But the idea of a strong young woman (she’s the youngest police chief in the nation at 28) made all the sense in the world, in this era and this climate. Her age was in part dictated by the need for her to be part of the class celebrating their 10-year high school reunion, which is the basis and backdrop of the story.”
Even with Krista fully formed in his mind, Collins discovered some real-world similarities that confirmed he was on the right track in regards to creating the ideal protagonist for the book.
“Ironically, when I made contact with the Galena PD, to establish a police contact and do some interviews with personnel, the chief turned out to be a young woman,” Collins says. “Not as young as Krista, but the resonance was just one of those wonderfully serendipitous things.”
Collins refers to GIRL MOST LIKELY as “a prime example of my desire to understate the surface of a story that shouts”—and that comes from a surprising source of inspiration. As fans of Collins know, his work jumps around in terms of time, setting, and style—from the mean streets of Depression-era Midwest to Gotham City and beyond. But Collins knew he needed a small, intimate setting—at least to begin with—to properly launch his latest novel, finding inspiration in the Nordic noir TV series he and his wife got hooked on.
“I was drawn to the beautiful but rather bleak settings of those Nordic noirs and to protagonists who seemed more real to me than standard genre figures, including many I’ve written about myself,” Collins says. “I liked the combination of low-key reality in the protagonists and cast generally, and the larger-than-life villainy they were up against. I also liked the infusion of social concerns in the stories—child abuse, for example, in the Varg Veum series.”
When researching settings for the book, Collins found himself looking for the American equivalent of the Scandinavian countries that provided the backdrop to the Nordic TV he’d become keen on—and he found the perfect spot in the American Midwest.
“I finally settled on Galena, where my wife, Barb and I often have taken overnight trips, and which seemed ideal,” Collins says. “It’s a town of 3,000 but might in a year be visited by three million—a village with 65 restaurants. Plus, it’s scenic, with a lovely boutique-happy downtown and both summer and winter tourist seasons. The responsibilities of a small-town PD with so many visitors seemed to offer endless possibilities for stories.”
The dynamic between Krista and her decorated detective father is tenuous and realistic—a byproduct of the two characters being similar, Collins notes.
“They have both suffered a terrible loss in the death of the wife and mother who was more outwardly demonstrative than they are,” Collins says. “We are talking two fairly stoic individuals, who do warm to each other and really get to know each other for the first time after Keith moves into the family home with his daughter.”
It’s the arrival—or, rather, the return—of Astrid that turns the book on its ear, sparking events that will force Krista and her father to face down their own family demons, Collins says. But Astrid’s arrival is less about an outsider disrupting an idyllic world than it is someone returning home reborn.
“It’s less city mouse versus country mouse and more the country mouse who went to the big city and became a very successful mouse, a famous mouse, and in the eyes of some, a rat,” Collins says. “I’ve always been fascinated by class reunions and the shifting dynamics over time: the homely girl who’s now a knockout, the handsome quarterback who’s now bald with a pot belly. But even more, the old ghosts that keep haunting. Astrid’s homecoming creates a haunted house full of secrets and regrets.”
Collins calls GIRL MOST LIKELY a “hybrid” novel—a blended book that features elements of thriller and mystery, and one that follows the pattern of his previous thriller works, including the Reeder and Rogers trilogy (co-written with Matthew Clemens).
“The novels otherwise operate as thrillers, and in GIRL MOST LIKELY we do spend time with the antagonist in the very first chapter, with a number more such chapters scattered throughout the book—but that villain’s identity is concealed until the traditional mystery novel reveal toward the end,” Collins says. “For me, a murder mystery should be in part a character study of the victim. By looking at potential murderers, we get a growing sense of who that victim was and why someone felt that victim’s death was a good thing. That’s how Citizen Kane operates, of course.
“The same is true, I think, of the protagonist—we get to know them gradually, through their actions and dialogue. But I think writers gradually learn who their protagonists are, too. If you try to think everything through too much at the outset, you wind up with something sterile and contrived. A novel is, or should be I think, a voyage of discovery for both reader and writer.”
While GIRL MOST LIKELY feels like a fresh and unexpected work from a seasoned veteran, the move was anything but calculated, Collins says. If anything, the book serves as the latest step in his evolution as a writer—and his desires as a reader.
“To me, writing is about writing a book you yourself want to read. Take Stephen King, for example—Carrie had no obvious market at the time, then in a few years every bookstore had a horror section. I do have a sense that thrillers are a different readership than mystery, and I want to attract more readers—a bigger audience keeps me in business and, anyway, I like entertaining good-size crowds,” Collins says.
“But Supreme Justice really came from me saying, ‘What if somebody started bumping off Supreme Court Justices to change the balance of the court?’ My Quarry character came out of thinking about how my own Nolan books, and the Richard Stark ‘Parker’ novels that inspired me, were something of a cop-out—identifying with a thief was easy, particularly when the collateral damage was other bad guys. I wondered how readers would react to a professional killer as a protagonist, in first-person narratives. They reacted well, although it took decades for it to kick in. A book I began at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1971 became a TV series a year or two ago. That was hardly planned. So you have to write what appeals to you.”
When discussing people he owes a debt to in regards to the creation of GIRL MOST LIKELY, he was quick to name the person closest to him—his wife, Barbara.
“She’s my first reader of every chapter, and her edits and catches keep me honest. I do not take criticism well and yet she manages to make sure I don’t let myself off too easy,” Collins says. “She was key here in my writing a female point of view, more real, say, than my Ms. Tree private eye character.”
As a versatile writer who’s made a name for himself in various formats, one would think Collins has discovered a secret formula that is able to guide him toward the next, best project. But the author just attributes his success to a few basic concepts: willingness, hard work, and a little luck.
“In my case, it’s all about what avenue is open to me. Road to Perdition came about because an editor at DC asked me to do a noir graphic novel. You bet. When the Zanucks said they thought it would make a good movie, I couldn’t have agreed more,” Collins says. “But it certainly wasn’t the goal, which had been to give an editor what he asked for, so I could keep the lights on in the joint.”
Cover Photo: Max Allan Collins poses in front of the actual, preserved St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.