Sunday, December 01, 2013

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

Conspiracies and paranoia are, of course, the essence of noir fiction. And Max Collins, a throwback to the days when the likes of Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer churned out novels for paperback companies at a super-human pace, is well aware of that fact. Since 20th century America is infested with such conspiracies and paranoia, Collins has had no problem finding the appropriate subject matter. Having said that, these days conspiracies are a dime a dozen- from 9-11 to Obama’s secret agenda. Even so, present day paranoia seems to at least in part have its origins in the Kennedy assassination in Dallss, November 22nd, 1963. Ask Not is the latest instalment in what Collins calls the “Nathan Heller memoirs,” which began in 1983 with his True Detective and represent some eight years of American history, from prohibition, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, the origins of Las Vegas, the Lindberg kidnapping, and Huey Long to Rosewell, the Black Dahlia, the death of Marilyn Monroe, and the death of John F. Kennedys. Some eighty years of American history, or at any rate, a secret history, all fodder for Heller’s investigative eye. Collins’ last three books- By By, Baby, about the death of Monroe; Target Lancer, about a failed assassination attempt on JFK in Chicago just weeks before the real thing, and involving the same characters, and now Ask Not, which moves into post-assassination territory. Here Heller investigates the numerous unexplained deaths- whether “suicides” or outright murder- focusing, for the most part, on noted columnist and TV celeb Dorothy Kilgallen, (here called Flo Kilgore), who at the time had been  looking into the assassination, and whose death remains suspicious. 

Collins has definitely done his research on this one, enabling him to bring an array of facts to life, albeit with a dash of novelist’s license.  As he admits, he has long been interested in the subject and has read all the relevant material. Though it appears the book mostly relies on Douglass’ excellent JFK and the Unspeakable. But Heller has also poured through numerous fringe books, watched the relevant films and visited the various websites. He’s certainly no nutter, but he's also no conspiracy-denier.  The problem here is how to interject a fictional Nathan Heller into this historical occurrence. Collins does this by allowing Heller to take on the guise and findings of real life investigators, while intervening in particular places, such as the death of alleged LBJ henchman Mac Wallace, an instance where the mystery remains unsolved.

Yes, Collins’ book does cover the same ground as fiction writers Ellroy and DeLillo. But Ask Not is unlike either of their books (Collins is said to purposely avoid reading Ellroy for just that reason). For one thing it sticks as close to the facts as possible, or at least to the facts according to Collins’ research. The result is like a pulp version of the events, without Ellroy’s obsessional, high-octane prose, and DeLillo’s literary contextualisation. It’s simply a different take, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though Collins’ narrative seems somewhat thin in comparison.  But then that’s Collins’ shtick. He prefers to simply state his case and move on. After all, this guy produces a lot of books, including the graphic novel Road to Perdition. Consequently, the book floats on a cushion of historical fact, sometimes feeling as much like reportage as fiction. Having said, and despite its thin and occasionally clumsy narrative, I rate it as one of the year’s best crime novels if only because it’s actually about something, serves a function, and is, in its own way, an important book.

It should be said that one need not have read the previous two books in the trilogy to appreciate this one (perhaps the operative question should then be ask not what the novel can do for you but what you can do for the novel). Though, as I’ve said elsewhere you have to work hard to suspend your disbelief when you read these books simply because Heller, as the “p.i. to the stars,” has done it all, knows everyone worth knowing and some who aren’t, and has intervened in at least fifteen crucial events in twentieth century American history. Call me cynical, but that’s stretching credulity to breaking point. But, okay, I’ll go along with it. Particularly since Nathan is getting on in years, and his his days are obviously numbered. Still, if you want to learn about what happened in and around those events in Dallas, you could do worse than read Ask Not.  As for where Collins goes next with his Heller memoirs, he strongly hints that it might well be the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Heller’s pal and former boss Robert Kennedy. Then there’s always Watergate. After that things get murky, while noir becomes more an excuse, or at any rate a commodity, than a manifestation. Anyway, by then Heller most certainly will be living with the worms. Though these books are easy to criticise, I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

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