'Better Dead': Private eye novel offers new take on history

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Muscatine author Max Allan Collins has inserted Nathan Heller into another fascinating episode in American history, and readers get what they always do — a well-researched, fictionalized look at our past and one heck of a fine hard-boiled private eye novel.

Heller has rubbed elbows with the likes of Elliott Ness, Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Huey Long, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. “Better Dead” (Forge, $26.99, 336 pages) takes us back to the 1950s and the McCarthy Era; you know — “better dead than red.”

By this time, Heller is president of the A-1 Detective Agency with a home office in Chicago and branches in New York and Los Angeles. He’s been featured in Life Magazine and is nearly as famous as the people he gets involved with. This time it’s, among others, McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Dashiell Hammett and Bettie Page.

Heller and Joseph McCarthy go way back, so the senator — deep into his quest to rid America of the Red Menace — asks Heller to join the team as an investigator. Heller had already been asked by Hammett to look into the Rosenberg case, and McCarthy wants him to take that job and work undercover for the government.

The Rosenbergs are awaiting execution for feeding atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. Hammett and other leftists are convinced they were wrongly convicted and want Heller to prove it.

So Heller gets knee-deep in that endeavor and bodies pile up — including the Rosenbergs, who are indeed executed. The CIA is involved by then, and Heller gets even more deeply entangled when an army scientist goes missing and eventually jumps (or gets pushed?) to his death from a New York hotel room. Meanwhile, Heller is carrying on a most satisfying fling with the breathtaking Page, including, of all things, a fun-filled night of square dancing in Manhattan.

Collins’ formula for the Heller novels is a thing of beauty. Heller gets entwined in famous American crime or intrigue situations and weaves his way to alternate, and quite often most logical, conclusions. The plotting, the dialogue, the wit, the charm, the artful character development, the captivating sense of time and place are all spot on. As always, the research is extensive and thoroughly explained in an “I Owe Them One” at the back of the book.

Collins has enjoyed a wide variety of writing success since his days long ago in the University of Iowa’s renowned Writers’ Workshop, the Quarry and Mallory series among them. But, in my opinion, the Heller series stands alone at the top of the list.

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