In Better Dead (Forge), Collins’ new, 16th outing for his resolute but randy protagonist, Heller goes from observing the 1950 “Communist takeover” of a Wisconsin town—at the invitation of Reds-baiting Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy—to being hired three years later by Pinkerton sleuth-turned-author Dashiell Hammett (a one-time member of the Communist Party of America, now representing a contingent of concerned literary leftists), who wants him “to conduct an eleventh-hour investigation into the alleged crimes of two people who are sitting on Death Row”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York City couple convicted of conspiring to commit espionage by leaking American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Heller accepts that assignment, for a respectable fee. But then he turns around and convinces prominent Washington, D.C., syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—who helped hound Secretary of Defense James Forrestal to an early death in Collins’ 1999 novel Majic Man—to provide further funds for the project. (Any suspicions of Heller being less than a capitalist are firmly debunked by this dexterous arrangement.) Pearson wants reports of any fresh findings in the Rosenberg matter. Meanwhile, McCarthy and his odious chief counsel, Roy Cohn, lean on Heller to tell them as well what he learns, if only so they can be sure it won’t result in the Rosenbergs ever again enjoying life outside the walls of Sing Sing prison.
With assistance from Natalie Ash, a confessed Communist and beguiling young Greenwich Village art gallery manager (“tall, in that shapely slender Lauren Bacall way”), who was once a neighbor of the Rosenbergs, Heller interviews and re-interviews witnesses to the incarcerated pair’s putative treachery. Over the course of it, he discovers discrepancies in the trial proceedings, and even turns up evidence that could be used to poke holes in the prosecution’s charges. Furthermore, he exposes secrets that might result in the federal government coming down harder than ever on Communist sympathizers in the United States. And of course, our 47-year-old hero soon winds up in bed with his own Red—in the notably hot form of the aforementioned Miss Ash. Collins’ Heller novels resemble what P.I. tales of the 1950s and ’60s might have been like, had there been fewer societal restrictions on language and sex scenes.
But as promising as Heller’s probe into the Rosenberg case seems, the author isn’t changing history, so we pretty much know how things will turn out (including facts that have come to light only during the last decade).
(Left) Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during their 1951 trial.
The same can’t be said of the second investigation conducted in these pages.
Again, “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy worms into the plot. He wants Heller’s aid in digging up proof that the Central Intelligence Agency is “riddled with Commies and security risks.” In addition, the CIA apparently has a file on the heavy-drinking McCarthy and his sexually suspect cohort, Cohn, that those two men would dearly like to get their hands on. However, it’s another senator, Democrat Estes Kefauver of Tennessee—the “hayseedish” foe of American criminality with whom Heller tangled in 2002’s Chicago Confidential—who really invites the detective’s entry into the separate but linked narrative comprising Better Dead’s latter half. It seems Kefauver has targeted a New York photographer, Irving Klaw, for distributing bondage-and-discipline shots of renowned pin-up model Bettie Page, and Page herself wants Heller to convince her fellow Tennessean to back off. Collins describes the Chi-town shamus’ initial impressions of his fetching new client thusly:
The beauty with the shoulder-brushing black hair in the pageboy cut was both exactly what I expected and not at all. Her face was perfectly framed by black locks, her make-up surprisingly light though the dark red lipstick brought Natalie Ash unsettlingly to mind.Heller doesn’t have much trouble persuading Kefauver to scratch Page from his lengthy roster of prospective witnesses, and in almost as quick order the P.I. commences a mutually enjoyable affair with the brunette bombshell. That’s only the introduction, though, to a much more complicated episode. It seems that a bacteriologist and CIA employee named Frank Olson has contacted McCarthy, and the Wisconsin lawmaker believes Dr. Olson can help him gather dirt on the Agency. But what Olson knows about government-condoned experiments with drugs and biological warfare, as well as “radical interrogation techniques,” could have more significance consequences than merely embarrassing America’s “spooks.” It could undermine the nation’s contention that it won’t stoop to the sort of propagandized human guinea pig tests conducted by the Soviets.
But this was no Bohemian, nor a wicked girl into sadomasochistic fun and games. Her quality was more girl-next-door, if you were that lucky a bastard, with a wholesomeness and a winning personality that leapt at you like a friendly tiger. She wore a pink short-sleeved sweater tight enough that the white bra beneath bled through, with a dark brown leather belt cinching a wasp waist above a tan skirt that hit just under her knees. Her nylons were beige, not dark black, and her high heels were low-slung, not sky-high. Subtracting the heels, I made her as five foot five, and despite a towering personality, she seemed almost petite. The scent of Ivory soap wafted. ...
“Oh, Mis-tuh Heller,” she said, and smiled like a cheerleader, her Southern accent honeying her sultry second soprano, “ah would know you anywhere.”
“For a certain type of militaristic mind, Nate, biological warfare is the best thing to come along since sliced bread,” Olson warns. “With atomic warfare, there’s complete destruction of private property. But with biological weapons? Only people get destroyed.”
Olson is clearly haunted by his participation in these studies, so it comes as no shock when the scientist suddenly disappears, his unexplained absence followed by assertions that he had been suffering from anxiety, had become a danger to his family, and was “dragged off almost bodily to see a ‘shrink.’” More astonishing is what Heller, acting on behalf of Olson’s spouse, learns about the CIA’s use of the psychedelic drug LSD. When, days later, the scientist perishes in a suspicious fall from Manhattan’s Hotel Statler (today’s Hotel Pennsylvania, across from Madison Square Garden), Heller turns his sights firmly on Olson’s boss, looking for answers that might strip the lid from a particularly egregious CIA undertaking.
Pin-up model Bettie Page, of course.
Iowa writer Collins has made a name for himself by inserting his detective protagonist into some of America’s most infamous crimes, but over the last several novels, he has definitely outdone himself. Fortunately, he and his longtime research associate, George Hagenauer, are quite thorough in their historical inquiries, which brings greater credibility to these yarns than a less-punctilious novelist might have achieved. The result, in Better Dead, is that the backdrop of 1950s New York City—where Heller has one of his A-1 Detective Agency’s three offices (the other two being in his hometown of Chicago and in Los Angeles)—comes alive with identifiable details, including buildings and businesses such as the Waldorf Cafeteria, the Village Vanguard music club, and a country music nightspot called the Village Barn. Collins is no less meticulous in portraying the numerous real-life figures who populate Better Dead. While he lavishes a great deal of attention on Bettie Page and the considerably less alluring Senator McCarthy, and plays up the understandable camaraderie between Heller and Dashiell Hammett (“If you keep talking like Sam Spade,” the Maltese Falcon author says at one point, “I’m going to have to charge you royalties.”), he is no less generous in giving dimension to secondary players whom readers might not realize are plucked from the real past, such as Frank Olson. The author even tosses in the occasional mention of a place or person that only somebody very well acquainted with the setting might recognize—such as James S. Bolan, a former New York police commissioner whose 46th-floor office in the Empire State Building, once home to a detective agency Bolan founded after retiring from public service, has been taken over in this book by Heller and his A-1 operatives.
That Collins executes these feats without fanfare shows how secure he is with his research. That he does so while also delivering witty dialogue, explosive moments of gunplay, and playful amorous twists in a story that would still be interesting even if it did not involve celebrities of yore … well, that’s just plain talent. Collins is more practiced and polished at doing what he does than most of his competitors. Better Dead, an eminently readable introduction to the McCarthy era—a period of political paranoia and division not so dissimilar from our own—puts his skills on full display.
More than three decades have now passed since Collins—who is known as well today for moving the late Mickey Spillane’s numerous unfinished Mike Hammer works toward publication (among them this year’s Murder Never Knocks)—began recording Nate Heller’s escapades, beginning with 1983’s True Detective. And though his storytelling formula has become quite familiar, I’m continually surprised at his ability to plumb new interest from his leading man. Heller, the half-Jewish, half-Irish son of a socialist bookshop owner, who joined the Chicago police force against his father’s wishes and grew up into a man Life magazine heralded as the “Private Eye to the Stars,” is at once a romantic and case-hardened, morally ambivalent individual prepared, when necessary, to exercise summary judgment (as he does in a gun-smoke-laden finish to Better Dead’s Book 1 that brings to mind Spillane’s I, the Jury). With any luck, we can expect his adventures to continue. As Heller noted at his debut, he was born in 1905. Yet Better Dead’s last chapter, composed in the gumshoe’s first-person voice, includes mention of events taking place as late as 2008—when Heller would be 103 years old. 2013’s series entry, Ask Not, brought our hero’s timeline up only so far as 1964. There are 44 years in between, plenty of time for him to have solved more notorious misdeeds, bedded more ballyhooed lovelies, and ventilated more than his share of overconfident malefactors. I, for one, can hardly wait to read about it all.
* * *This month marks 10 years since I launched The Rap Sheet. To help celebrate the occasion, Forge—Max Allan Collins’ latest publisher of his Nate Heller novels—has agreed to supply us with 10 books from that series, which we’re giving away to this blog’s loyal readers. Available are both five copies of Better Dead and five other copies of the previous Heller outing, Ask Not. If you would like to be entered in a drawing to win one of these fine freebies, all you need do is e-mail your name and postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to type “Better Dead Contest” in the subject line, and let me know whether you have a preference as to which of these two novels you would prefer to receive as a prize.
Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Friday, May 20. The 10 winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.
Sorry, but at the publisher’s request, this contest is open only to residents of the United States and Canada.
What are you waiting for? Get those entries in now!
READ MORE: “Better Red,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).