Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Better Dead -- Max Allan Collins

Nate Heller is back in another solidly entertaining historical p.i. novel (really, two connected novellas), set this time during the McCarthy era.  In book 1 it's 1953, and after seeing Dashiell Hammett testify before congress, Heller gets invited to lunch by the author, who wants to hire him on behalf of a group wanting to find evidence to clear Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to die for passing atomic secrets to the dirty Reds.  Hammett's group can't pay much, so Heller visits Joe McCarthy and Drew Pearson, who agree to pay him, too, if he'll pass them information.  Heller doesn't like them much, and he particularly dislikes McCarthy's henchman, Roy Cohn, but he likes their money.  Naturally there are people on all sides who'd prefer that Heller not find any evidence, so there's plenty of action, and some sex, too.  Heller does turn up evidence, but he can't save the Rosenbergs.  Not that Julius is entirely innocent.

Book 2 finds Heller involved with someone else who wants his help, someone much more attractive than Joe McCarthy -- Bettie Page.   To help her out, however, Heller has to get McCarthy to use his influence, and while McCarthy agrees, he also hires Heller to find out what information the CIA has gathered on him.  Sounds simple enough, but it's not, and Heller gets tangled up with the CIA and some terrible experiements with LSD-25.  

One of the things that's so enjoyable about the Heller novels is the way Collins presents the historical characters.  Collins's portraits of them are so convincing that it's like watching a documentary.  McCarthy, Cohn, Estes Kefauver, Bettie Page, the Rosenbergs, and many others come alive on the page, where their goodness (or nastiness) is revealed though their talk and their actions.  Speaking of which, there's no shortage of action, and there's no shortage of Heller telling people what he thinks of them or dishing out what they deserve in satisfying fashion.

Another thing that's always amazing is how well Collins can make real history fit into the story he's telling.   His research is deep and impeccable, and even when Heller is speculating (particularly in the concluding pages), I want to believe.  I have a feeling you will, too.

First-class entertainment, as always, and highly recommended.

7 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Amusing...though after a certain point does one get a certain Gump/Zelig sense of who Doesn't Heller have/get to deal with? A forgivable thing, if so...

Bill Crider said...

It becomes a bit like a running joke in the more recent books as the other characters call attention it.

Gerard Saylor said...

Collins does some fine work.

Max Allan Collins said...

I appreciate this fine review, and the comments as well.

Now and then people complain, or at least point out, the FLASHMAN-like unlikelihood of any one private detective encountering so many famous names. I try to have a little fun with it, as Bill points out, but the thing is: the premise of the series is that a Marlowe/Hammer style private eye encounters (and often solves) the great controversial real-life mysteries of the 20th Century. Meeting the famous and infamous is built in. I see this as no more unbelievable than any other mystery series in the classic mode -- didn't Perry Mason win 100 cases, even without factoring in several more hundred from television? Archie and Nero solved around 75 murder cases, and Poirot a laundry list of homicides. How many good (murdered) friends has Mike Hammer had to avenge? How many murder cases has Spenser taken on? To me, Nate Heller is no more (or less) unlikely than these famous fictional sleuths.

Bill Crider said...

And sadly for those others you mention, they didn't get to have fun with Bettie Page.

Max Allan Collins said...

And Sally Rand, Amelia Earhart, Jayne Mansfield, the Black Dahlia and Marilyn Monroe.

Richard Heft said...

And the biggest unlikelihood of all: who in God's name would invite Jessica Fletcher ANYWHERE?