Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins

Thirty years ago Max Allan Collins introduced his private investigator Nathan Heller in the novel True Detective. In the course of that novel Heller witnesses the slaying of Mayor Cermak of Chicago who was shot down by a killer who claimed he was trying to kill President Roosevelt. Thus started the story of Nathan Heller. Over the last thirty years he has appeared in fourteen novels and over a dozen short stories. Now thirty years later in the character’s timeline he is wrapped up in another assassination plot. The plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Chicago.

This time Heller is contacted by his old friend Bobby Kennedy. It is October 1963, and there is a strong likelihood that an attempt will be made on the president when he visits Chicago. Heller is wrapped up in this plot in more ways than one. Years earlier he had been the intermediary who hooked up the CIA with organized crime. The CIA wanted to kill Castro, but they needed deniability. The Mob wanted Castro dead as well, so Operation: Mongoose was launched. Unfortunately these attempts were laughably inept and everyone is getting worried.

On a bodyguard job Heller witnesses his client pass a payoff from Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa to an old childhood buddy of Heller’s, a man named Jake Rubenstein. Rubenstein had changed his name by that time to Jack Ruby. After his client is murdered Heller promises the widow that he will help track down the killer. So, while his agents try to locate a murderer, Heller is temporarily assigned to the Secret Service to prevent the assassination of the President.

Of course we all know that President Kennedy did not die in Chicago in November 1963. He died in Dallas. We also know that mobster Jack Ruby, with a sudden rush of patriotism shot down the man who killed Kennedy. While the story and some of the characters are fiction, Collins puts a lot of work into his novels. This research gives the stories an air of believability.  I was unaware of the story of the Chicago plot. Who was involved? We may never know, but Collins gives us a tight, tense narrative. If you enjoy fast paced, hardboiled detective writing then you should be reading the Nathan Heller novels. If you have not read any of these books then do what I did, take a chance. You won’t regret it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Nathan Heller books by Max Allan Collins

I just wanted to do a quick post about the Nathan Heller books by Max Allan Collins. I discovered these books last year. Amazon had a sale on one of the books. At $1.99 for the Kindle book I took a chance. I fell in love with Nathan Heller right away. When I saw more books on sale I snapped those up as well. I have now read through the entire series. I read several of the books last year, but gladly re-read them this year. They very enjoyable. Heller is a classic hardboiled detective. He has the mouth, the rules don't always matter to him. Despite what he claims though Heller is a very moral figure. His armor may be blemished, but he is still a knight who fights to right wrongs. Heller lives in a corrupt world. While he realizes it he manages to avoid getting himself dirtier than he has to. He always manages to interact with organized crime without becoming part of it.

All of the Heller cases involve famous crime stories. The characters that Heller encounters are quite a gallery. Elliot Ness, Al Capone, Mayor Cermak, Frank Nitti, Charles Lindbergh, Bobby Kennedy, and so many more. He also has a tendency to get involved with a lot of famous women. He may be the person other than Jack Kennedy who bedded both Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Of course he outdid even JFK in t hat regard. After all, Kennedy never bedded Amelia Earhart.

As a kid I discovered classic Hollywood films like The Maltese Falcon. These films grabbed the imagination of a 13 year old boy. I have never lost that fascination. At times my interest waned. After all, good hardboiled fiction is very hard to write and not always easy to find. Discovering the Heller novels last year rekindled my interest in the genre. I recently celebrated my 39th birthday and love reading as much as I did as a kid. Authors like Max Allan Collins routinely remind me of why I love to read so much. If I have a choice between watching a movie or reading a good book, the movie will just have to wait. So thanks Max for all of the great books. Now it's time to check out your other series. Keep up the great work.

To read my reviews of the Heller books check out these links:

1. True Detective (Assassination attempt on Frank Nitti, the killing of Mayor Cermak)
2. True Crime (Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Barker Gang)
3. Million Dollar Wound (Guadalcanal, the Mob tries to take over Hollywood)
4. Neon Mirage (Bugsy Siegel)
5. Stolen Away (Lindbergh kidnapping)
6. Carnal Hours (Oakes murder)
7. Blood and Thunder (Huey Long)
8. Damned in Paradise (Clarence Darrow)
9. Flying Blind (Amelia Earhart)
10. Majic Man (Roswell)
11. Angel in Black (Black Dahlia case)
12. Chicago Confidential (Crime commission, Frank Sinatra, Joe McCarthy)
13. Bye Bye Baby (Marilyn Monroe)
14 Target Lancer (JFK Assassination)

Short Stories Collections:

Chicago Lightning by Max Allan Collins

Chicago Lightning is the second collection of Nathan Heller short stories that Max Allan Collins has released through Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. The first volume, Triple Play featured novellas and longer short stories. This volume covers the more standard sized short stories. This collection of thirteen stories fill in some gaps in the Heller cases. A few are cases that are referred to in the Heller novels.

Collins says that he prefers to write novels more than short stories, but you wouldn’t know that from the stories in this collection. Heller is at some of his finest. In “The Perfect Crime” he is bodyguard, and avenger of Thelma Todd. In
“The Strawberry Teardrop” he helps Elliot Ness track down, and then cover up the identity of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. The novel Angel in Black is a sequel to this story. In “Scrap” Heller does a job for an old neighborhood friend named Jake Rubenstein. Rubenstein is a minor racketeer mixed up in a crooked union. We meet Rubenstein again in Collins’ novel Target Lancer. Of course most of us know Rubenstein by the name that he used when he moved to Dallas: Jack Ruby.

These are good stories and it is enjoyable to occasionally see Heller work on a case that doesn’t involve a famous character. The more I read the Heller novels I don’t know why someone hasn’t jumped on the chance to make these into a series. These short stories prove that Heller isn’t just a vehicle that Collins uses to talk about famous cases. Of course those of us who have read the books could readily attest to Heller’s likability. I for one would love to see Heller developed by a station like HBO or Showtime. Of course I would only like to see it if Collins were part of the project. Nothing would be worse than seeing these fun, well written stories messed up. Don’t wait for a TV deal. Get the Nathan Heller novels and story collections by Max Allan Collins and enjoy some really great hardboiled, noir fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Heist is the first book in a new series by authors Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. Evanovich is best known for her Stephanie Plum novels and Goldberg is a well established television writer and novelist, best known for his work on shows like Monk and Diagnosis Murder.  Kate O’Hare is a no nonsense FBI agent on the trail of master thief Nick Fox. Kate is a former Navy SEAL whose closest friend is her father, another former special ops warrior. Fox is an amusing, charming man who seems impossible to catch. Even when caught Fox is able to escape.

Kate tracks him down to a small Mediterranean island. Not one to be deterred by the niceties of international law she goes after him. She finds not only Fox, but also her boss at the FBI. It turns out that the FBI has allowed Fox to escape in exchange for his help in tracking down other elusive criminals. Much to her chagrin, Kate O’Hare is now partnered with the very man she spent years trying to catch.

This novel is a lot of fun. O’Hare and Fox assemble a motley crew to go after an embezzler who has disappeared with a fortune. The book reminds me a lot of a television series. No surprise considering Goldberg’s background. I could easily see this as part of the primetime lineup on USA Network. The characters are fun and quirky, the story is far fetched, but good enough to just be believable. If you are looking for a novel to deal with the larger questions of man’s place in the world or the horrors of modern society you won’t find that that here. If you want to sit back with a good book and enjoy yourself then pick up The Heist. I look forward to the next three books that are scheduled in the series.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The New Value of the Critic

The critic is a creature that has probably existed since man first learned to tell stories. In the glory days of journalism critical response could make or break authors, artists, playwrights, films, and any other form of art or entertainment. This had an ugly side of course. Critics too often viewed themselves a defenders of the culture and far too often they tried to determine the course of the arts. In doing this they stopped being individuals who shared opinions and became dictators of taste culture. As they did this they lost a lot of credibility. Books, films, and music often flourish in the wake of critical approbation while those lucky enough to be lauded by the critics were avoided. In fact an overwhelming favor with the critic could be seen as a reason to be cautious. Films and books loved by critics could often be pedantic, tedious, and dull. At the same time the films and books that people enjoyed might be mocked and derided.

Then print journalism began to suffer in the digital age. The professional critic was often a casualty of budget cuts. At the same time retail websites began to allow consumers to post opinions the product’s page. This diminished the critics influence further because now everyone was playing the game.

The new digital age gives us a world of new opportunities. First with the rise of the internet and now with social networking authors, musicians, artists, and others have the ability to create and distribute their material in new and exciting ways. Once it would have been nearly impossible for me discover some indie musician in another part of the country, or the world. Now someone recommends them, I can go online, check out some samples, download a track or a whole album.

While musicians were some of the first to take advantage of the internet’s potential authors were not far behind. The rise of self publishing platforms and ebooks has opened up venues that would have been hard to imagine twenty years ago. Prior to this new technology a person had to either get a publishing deal, or self print through a “vanity press.” Of course publishers could only afford to support so many new books and authors, and books, unless very popular, would often go out of print. It might be possible for a self published author to place books in a local bookstore, but there was little or no chance of taking a book like that into a national marketplace. Of course it was also a financial risk because an author would have to print thousands of copies with no guarantee of ever selling them,

With ebooks and with print-on-demand options from CreateSpace, Lulu, and many others it has become possible for anyone to be published and distributed worldwide with little or no expense up front. This is a wonderful boon for those who might be good writers, but will never end up on the bestseller list. Now they have an international audience.

Unfortunately with the good comes the bad as well. Some authors are not published by major publishing houses because they simply haven’t been discovered or because their book isn’t quite commercial enough. Others are not published because they really aren’t that good. In fact amateur is quite often a better word than indie for many of these writers. Some of them have good ideas, they simply do not currently have the skills necessary to write a really good book.  Most of the time the writing comes across a bit juvenile. It feels more like a high school writing project than a book. I always hate it when I come across this, because I often like the plot ideas, the execution is simply lacking.

So what does this mean for the critic? I believe that the critic is once again a necessary part of the arts and entertainment. After all, someone needs to wade through the jungle of material that is out there. While I believe the critic to be necessary I also believe that the critic needs to be aware of the limitations of the job. First and foremost the critic should be a reporter, and not try to be a shaper of culture. After all, a critic is simply a person willing to share an opinion. Critical opinion has been as wrong as it has been right over the years.

As critics we need to enjoy what we do and we need to view our jobs as sharing that love. Sometimes negative criticism is necessary, but it should be viewed in a helpful, not a harmful manner. An acerbic wit might be fun to read at times, but in the end it does not help the reader. After all, works that are now considered by many to be great literature suffered scathing reviews from the critics. We should remember that the primary responsibility of the book critic is to help the reader to find a book that is enjoyable to the reader. The secondary responsibility is to help authors to improve in their craft. A gentle nudge will often gain more in that area than a biting attack.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the most interesting storytellers of our time. From his award winning Sandman comic book series to his award winning novels like American Gods he has shown an amazing ability to look beneath the surface and give us a dream like experience of reality. His newest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. It is often hard to tell what is real and what is a dream. Or is it all a dream?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at one level, the story of the narrator as a seven year old boy. The novel begins as the narrator is taking a drive down memory lane after a funeral. He drives past his childhood home and then finds himself going to the home of a childhood friend. He goes around to the back and sits down. As he sits he begins to remember the events that took place when he was seven. The seven year old boy is very familiar to me. At one level he is a reconstruction of Neil Gaiman as a child. I see myself in the boy as well. I too found my friends in books and preferred their company to that of other children. Like the narrator and the author some of the first books I remember are the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.

The world of this seven year old is turned upside down when the man who is renting a room in their house commits suicide. This suicide wakes up something primordial. At the scene of the suicide the narrator meets Lettie Hempstock. At first Lettie seems to be nothing more than an eleven year old girl living with her mother and grandmother. These three women are far from normal. They are something larger and more powerful. By accident the narrator lets a great evil through into our world. Now, with the help of the Hempstock women he has to try and contain this evil and send it back where it came from. 

This is more than just a story of childhood fantasy. It is the story of good against evil. Of powers beyond our control invading our world and trying to turn it upside down. It is the outside world trying to rob the innocence of children. It is the story of losing something, of something being taken as we grow older. Actually it is a story of childhood fantasy. It’s not the awakening to evil, it is the realization of good. Gaiman lists G. K. Chesterton as one of his childhood influences. Perhaps this quote from Chesterton’s essay “Red Angel” would help illuminate this book:

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This is an amazing book. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for small children. I say I am not sure, not because it is frightening. I think that this book is more than that. I think that this book is for those who need to find the belief in something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen

Andrew Yancey is having a rough time. He is about to lose his job. It turns out that cavorting about with the wife of a rich and politically well doctor, then publicly assaulting the doctor in a fight is not the best way to keep your job in the Sheriff’s office. Even though he is about to by cashiered the Sheriff asks Yancey to do him a little favor. It seems that a human arm has turned up on the fishing line of a tourist. The Sheriff would like to pass the problem off to Miami. So he asks Yancey to take the arm up from the Keys to the city in the hopes that this case will go away. Miami doesn’t want the arm, the Sheriff doesn’t want the arm. Yancey thinks that there may be foul play. In the meantime Yancey is given a new job as a Health Inspector. Counting roaches and rat droppings is not why he went into law enforcement. So he keeps the arm in his freezer hoping to solve the crime and get reinstated.

This fun novel has a cast of zany characters and hilarious scenes. As Yancey tries to solve a crime that no one even thinks happened he is also waging a private war against a developer who is building a huge mansion next door to his home. He is getting to know a new girlfriend, a coroner, who has some interesting ideas about how to have a good time. He has an Oklahoma lawman asking questions about the married woman he was having an affair with. As if that wasn’t enough he also has to deal with a voodoo queen in the Bahamas who has a voracious appetite for men, a shady real estate deal, and a fisherman who just wants his land and his obnoxious pet monkey back.

While the characters are quite funny and even enjoyable at times they aren’t always very likable. After all the “hero” of our story is a cop who likes to get high and fool around with married women. The dialogue is fun and well written for the most part. The only real problem with the novel in the Bahamian patois. Writing in patois is difficult and reading it is even more difficult. I found it very hard to “hear” the dialect as I was reading. Perhaps that is just my own problem and others will find those passages easy to read. Don’t let this one quibble get in the way of reading the novel. I had a good time reading it and more than once attracted attention to myself by laughing out loud while I was reading it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Triple Play by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has given us a number of Nathan Heller novels. In this book he collects three novellas from the world of Nathan Heller. There is a grand tradition of these stories that are longer than short stories and shorter than novels. Once it was common to feature these in short story magazines. Authors (or publishers) would often collect three of these novellas and publish them in a single volume. Collins points out that this was a standard practice for Rex Stout. As short story periodicals have disappeared so have the novellas.

Collins says that he prefers writing novels to short stories. You wouldn’t know that from reading these stores. Of course they are not as in depth as a full novel, that would not be possible given the size of the story. For these stories Collins choose cases that were not as large in scope and so they allow for a shorter story. “Dying in the Post War World” covers the Lipstick Killer case. In this story Heller helps to track down a serial killer whose brutality leaves him ready to take matters into his own hands. In “Kisses of Death” Heller gets his first opportunity to work for Marilyn Monroe. While working for Ms. Monroe he is reacquainted with some members of the Chicago literary scene, mainly the obnoxious poet and author Maxwell Bodenheim. His look at this leading jazz age figure is less than flattering, but oh so wonderfully written. Finally in “Strike Zone” Heller goes to work for Bill Veek. Veeck was a well known character in the world of baseball. He loved to pull stunts to entertain the crowd. One of his best known stunts was to draft a midget as a pinch hitter. Eddie Gaedel will always be remembered as the shortest man who ever played professional baseball, even though he was later disqualified. Heller investigates the death of Gaedel after the man’s mother claims that he was murdered. There was a line in this story that had me laughing until I hurt.

All three of these novellas are well written and wonderful to read. I enjoyed each of them and can recommend this to any lover of great hardboiled detective stories.