Originally published as two books (Bait Money and Blood Money) with a near-simultaneous release in 1973, Two For The Money compiles slightly altered 1981 editions of the two into a single book. Collins himself says they make the most sense together in the afterword, making a single volume out of the first two books of Collins’ noteworthy antihero Nolan. The novel(s) are well-rounded, fast-paced, and tightly knit; Collins is a master of dialogue and description, even at the age of twenty-two (these are his first published books, by the way), and makes true hardboiled novels with a side of humor. In the end, they make one great read; it has some minuscule flaws, especially when you’re chewing your way through the second helping, but this volume is entertaining and engaging. I couldn’t put it down even if I wanted to.
In Bait Money, Nolan is on the run from the mob, having left the organization after killing the brother of higher-up mafioso Charlie and making off with his money. Aging and looking to retire from his life of crime, Nolan attempts a deal with one of his remaining mob connections, and Charlie makes him a bargain: pay $100,000 in under a week. So, to pay off Charlie, Nolan sets off on the quintessential Last Big Heist, along with Jon, the nephew of his info contact, and some other amateurs. It’s a wonderful experiment in watching crime happen, with some great planning and a lot of lead-up. Normally, this can be a seriously tedious exercise, but Collins manages to make it work through some reoccurring characters and a cast of trouble: an ex-football star turned Mafia hitman, the angered doorman of Nolan’s last contact, and a lot of sex, drugs, and drama between the amateurs.
Blood Money picks up shortly after the first book ends; one of the more important secondary characters from the first book is offed, and the killer makes off with a lot of Nolan’s retirement fund. Now, it’s time for revenge; Nolan begins tracking down the killer, only to find out that he’s not the only one searching. It’s got less planning, more action, and a slightly slower start, even with the aforementioned killing and robbing. Blood Money has a notable amount of exposition compared to the first book, and by now some of Collins’ (early?) stylistic choices begin to show up in full force (starting a chapter with a scene only to divulge into exposition of how the characters got to that scene while said characters eat a sandwich, which seems to happen about every other chapter). It’s a little weaker than the first book, and the various “big reveals” aren’t as big or revealing as one would hope, but in the end the book is still solid.
I’ve noticed in a lot of debut novels from young (later famous) authors that there’s a definite enthusiasm, mixed with a lot of creativity, brought down by an abundance of cliches/genre tropes and a few rookie mistakes or just plain bad decisions—something like a learning experience, since they’re mistakes not repeated. In Max Allan Collins’ case, the enthusiasm is there, as are some of the cliches, but the mistakes aren’t. (Also, some imitation, in that Nolan’s reminiscent of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s Parker.
This is a fine book, two engrossing novels in one: the bank heist is engrossing and well-planned, but not without twists, and its sequel is laden with action, violence, and revenge. Back to back high entertainment. The first novel is great, and while the second one isn’t as good, and has a number of flaws, it’s no slouch either. To be honest, the major complaints I have are 1.) I wish this double was a dos-a-dos double, and 2.) the cover art is underwhelming at best. Not that they are the non-plus-ultra of crime novels, but they make a stunning debut.