By Max Allan Collins
These are the latter two acts in a trilogy that, at least at this time, bookends Collins’ most voluminous body of work, the Nathan Heller Mysteries, which began in the 1980s with “The Frank Nitti Trilogy” (set in the 1930s-1940s) and end, at least for now, with “The JFK Trilogy” (set in the early 1960s). The opening tale of the latter-day trilogy was, of course, Bye Bye, Baby (2011). Interestingly, the time displacement between historical setting and publication era has remained about fifty years, although the 1980s-2010s interim has seen publication of various other tales, both novels and short stories, set in more randomly ordered eras between the 1930s and the 1950s…. Collins has been spinning tales in the long career of Chicago detective Nate Heller for an equally long time; I’ve not been reading them nearly so long, only discovering them about a decade ago. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of the series (well, except for one novel which inexplicably has remained unread on my bookshelf for several years – for some reason the opening of Damned in Paradise just hasn’t grabbed me the few times I have attempted starting it).
I read (and reviewed – link) Bye Bye, Baby about a year ago, Collins’ treatment of the mystery surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe; I recently followed it up with Target Lancer and Ask Not, back to back, and therefore I’m writing them up together here. Without getting too spoilery, the former concerns Heller’s role in helping to thwart a little known plot against the life of President Kennedy in Chicago only a few weeks before the fateful trip to Dallas later in that same month of November 1963. The latter takes place some months afterward, dealing with events rippling out from the day that changed our nation forever. In neither novel does the specific mystery that brings Heller into play have anything specifically to do with the assassination attempts, and yet Heller’s investigations do quickly bring him right into the middle of the swirling morass of unholy alliances, rivalries, and plots that converged in Dealey Plaza, mainly because of Heller’s long associations with most if not all of the major players at every level inside and outside the law. Unexpectedly, to me at least, there’s little mystery in Heller’s (and therefore Collins’, and – if you accept his analysis – the reader’s own) mind regarding the broad strokes of Who Killed JFK? – He knows full well that it was a combination of government agencies (yes, including the CIA), organized crime (Chicago and New Orleans, at least, with their own agendas), Cuban interests, and US business who all have their own reasons for wanting JFK gone. One problem, especially driving the plot in the closing tale, is that Heller indeed knows ‘way too much and can be considered a “loose end.” Negotiating the threats against himself and those he loves keeps Heller on his toes from start to finish, and in the course of emerging with some guarantee of security Heller does come to some understanding of the specifics how the assassination was carried out (according to Collins’ typically convincing reconstruction).
As usual, Collins includes an afterword entitled “I Owe Them One,” acknowledging his sources and aides in researching a topic which has –in common with many, many others for the past fifty years – fascinated him all his life. It’s a combination bibliographic essay and guide to the many historical personalities who explicitly, or perhaps in fictionalized composites, populate his pages. As usual, even though Heller is not the spry young man he once was (he's in his fifties now), he remains both tough as nails and virile as all get out, continuing to enjoy frequent explicitly written sex with such famous beauties as burlesque dancer Sally Rand [link and link] (who obviously aged as well as Heller himself is described to have, given that she continued to perform the titillating fan and bubble dances which so scandalized the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago – yes, she appears [including in Heller's bed] in the earlier books as well – well into the 1970s!) and stripper Jada [link and link] from Jack Ruby’s own Dallas strip club! There are, of course, a host of other such figures, most memorable for me given the Louisiana connections being New Orleans mafioso Carlos Marcello [link].
Above, I qualified the image of “The JFK Trilogy” bookending the Nathan Heller series with “The Frank Nitti Trilogy.” According to the afterword in Ask Not, such was Collins’ intention for his saga. Nonetheless, Collins hints at a change of mind: “For those who consider that [the Kennedy assassination being the end of Heller’s story] bad news, I can reveal that Heller is contemplating a memoir about Robert Kennedy (dealing with both rackets committee days and RFK’s assassination) as well as one on the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s even possible that Heller will one day discuss a certain minor burglary at the Watergate Hotel” (@98% - page 316 of 318 - loc 5029 of 5126 Kindle edition).
To which I can only say, Hell yeah!
Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!