Monday, November 26, 2012

Pierce’s Picks: “Target Lancer”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Target Lancer, by Max Allan Collins (Forge):
Forty-nine years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated during a motorcade ride through the streets of Dallas, Texas. It was only the fourth time a U.S. chief executive had been murdered (following the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley), and though a government commission contended that ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy, questions still linger--more than enough to keep authors working on books about the assassination for years to come.

In Target Lancer, his 14th novel featuring Nate Heller--the intriguingly ubiquitous Chicago gumshoe who has previously “solved” the slayings of Bugsy Siegel, Amelia Earhart, Marilyn Monroe, and others--Max Allan Collins writes that he had originally intended to dispatch his protagonist “to Dallas shortly after the shooting and put him in the midst of everything. But it didn’t feel real, or right, and the massive nature of the evidence that needed presenting overwhelmed me.” Instead, his story takes place earlier in November 1963--in the Windy City, rather than Dallas. It was there, according to historical records on which Collins has built this new novel, that another attempt on JFK’s life was prepared.

Heller gets involved in this fast-rolling plot by way of a press agent friend, Tom Ellison, who does public-relations work for the Teamsters Union and asks our hero to watch his back as he makes a questionable money drop in a Chicago strip joint. While in that club, Heller is surprised to encounter a small-time hustler he’s known for years, Jake Rubinstein (now calling himself Jack Ruby), as well as “a nebbishy guy in his early twenties” named Oswald. The meeting doesn’t set off any alarm bells, though, until Ellison turns up dead in a hotel room, supposedly slain while cheating on his wife. Suddenly, everyone from Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa to mobster Johnny Roselli and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, wants an audience with Nate Heller. The AG--whose relationship with Collins’ aging private eye has hit a few bumps in the past--even recruits Haller to help the Secret Service investigate local threats against the 35th president, whose schedule will soon find him in an open car, parading through Chicago. But can Heller put together enough clues to what looks like a malevolent conspiracy to save JFK--code name “Lancer”--from being exterminated?

Author Collins is a master at integrating facts with his fiction, engineering encounters between Heller and myriad famous figures--including burlesque dancer Sally Rand, who he first got cozy with in True Crime (1984) and with whom, in Targer Lancer, he seriously discusses the possibility of marriage. Collins’ re-creation of early ’60s Chicago is convincing and detailed (sometimes a bit too detailed, as when he describes clothing styles), and his observations about politics and racism during the Kennedy era make this whole literary cocktail of sex, violence, and organized crime seem like something closer to history than mystery. The novelist has already finished a follow-up to Target Lancer called Ask Not, which he says will deal with “the dead witnesses in the wake” of the Kennedy assassination.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks for recommending this. I picked it up because of your mention, started reading, and found myself drawn in by the sharp writing.

It will get a mention on my best books list for the year. I think it is Max Allan Collins' best book yet by far.