Nathan Heller, the fictional detective involved in almost every criminal cause célèbre of the 20th century, investigates the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe in Max Allan Collins's Bye Bye, Baby.

How did the Heller series come about?

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.

Which comes first—the historical mystery or the time and locale you want to use?

The mystery/crime comes first. I prep as if I were doing the definitive nonfiction book on a subject—the Lindbergh kidnapping, say, or the Roswell incident—and then I write a private eye novel instead. I strive to find a logical role for Heller, ideally a role actually played by an investigator in real life—a bodyguard job, for example, as in the Amelia Earhart book [Flying Blind], or an insurance investigator in the Huey Long [Blood and Thunder]. The plot usually presents itself to me as I assemble the research into a narrative.

What about Marilyn Monroe fascinates you?

She was the sex symbol of my youth, and she died during my youth, so there was an impact. I'm of the right age for her image to be the epitome of female sex appeal, and I proved it by marrying a woman who looked a great deal like her, and still does. In fact, it was my wife Barb's fascination with Marilyn—she has a huge library of Marilyn books and an enormous collection of memorabilia—that made it inevitable that I would write about Marilyn.

How do you decide when it's fair or unfair to bend the historical record?

Hollywood has played so fast and loose with the facts in their historically based films, I can be forgiven some composite characters and time shifting. I always write a bibliographic afterword that spells out not only where I got my information but what liberties I have taken. A key aspect of my approach is not to be intimidated by historical figures. I treat them as I would any fictional character I might develop. I want Huey Long to seem like this fantastic creation of mine, representing the craziness of American politics. I want Marilyn Monroe to be read as a real, flawed human being, sexy and fun and sad, but not an icon.