With the first lines of “Target Lancer,” mystery novelist Max Allan Collins propels the reader into his take on the greatest murder mystery of the 20th century: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His vehicle for exploring the episode is his most well-known character, private investigator Nathan Heller.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Nathan Heller series takes place from 1932 to the early 1990s and follows Heller as he reminiscences about the cases in which he has been involved.
He begins in a single-room office in Chicago and, over the years, becomes the successful president of a company that has branch offices in Los Angeles and New York City. In the early 1960s, Life Magazine even labels him the “Private Eye to the Stars.”
Along the way, Heller meets such historical figures as Barney Ross, Frank Nitti, John Dillinger, Amelia Earhart, Bugsy Siegel, Orson Welles, Jimmy Hoffa, Sally Rand and Frank Sinatra. He works the Lindbergh kidnapping, Huey Long assassination, Black Dahlia murder, incident at Roswell, N.M., and the death of Marilyn Monroe, among other famous cases.
As an added bonus, Collins always writes an afterward that details the actual case, gives the sources he used in his research and as he is foremost a novelist, explains where he deviated from history to better tell the story.
The book begins as Heller is hired by a former client to act as a bodyguard during a payoff to an underworld figure at a Chicago strip club. The man who picks up the package turns out to be Jake Rubenstein, an acquaintance of Heller’s from the old neighborhood. As revealed in the book, Rubenstein had earlier changed his name to Jack Ruby. A subsequent gangland-style murder will have Heller wondering if he has become a loose end.
Almost immediately after, Heller is contacted by another old friend, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for help.
The president is to be in town for the Army-Navy game at Soldier Field, and information has surfaced of a coordinated assassination plot that involves multiple hit teams of Cubans and white paramilitary types. Also in the mix is an ex-Marine nut job with a room full of weapons and an apparently serious hatred for Kennedy.
Because the Secret Service is low on manpower in Chicago (typical for the entire service before Dallas), and Heller has certain links to the Outfit (the local name for the Mafia), the Attorney General asks him to assist with the investigation. Two years before, Heller had been marginally involved in Operation Mongoose, the failed assassination attempts on Fidel Castro involving the CIA and the Mafia.
As in every other book in the series, Collins has seamlessly woven his fictional creation into the historical events. Nate Heller is a believable character, equally corrupt and honest enough to survive the tough streets of Chicago. Like many other gumshoes, he is tough and cynical with an eye for the ladies but the author has given him an extra dose of realism by giving him an increasing measure of success in his field.
In a nod to Mickey Spillane, a close personal friend, Collins has shown the traumatic results of Heller’s military service on Guadalcanal and how it made him more willing to dole out violence to villains. Collins has always been careful to give plausible reasons how one man could rub elbows with so many historical figures.
Many of those relationships can be traced to his tenuous friendship with Frank Nitti. By the time of “Target Lancer,” though, Heller has grown tired of dealing with psychopathic mobsters, and expresses a desire to sever his connections to the Outfit.
Having a casual interest in the Kennedy assassination, I knew all of the major details concerning that day in Dallas. I suspect most people my age or older would also have at least a general knowledge. A retelling of such a well-known event would be hard to do with any real tension or excitement. With the Chicago plot in early November 1963 Collins has found a new aspect to the mystery few know of. Exhaustive research and a fast-paced plot combine to make this book a suspenseful, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel.
Darren Ivey is a firefighter and a Manhattan resident.