Better Dead by Max Allan Collins

Robot Check | Max allan collins, Thriller, Bestselling author

To read Collins’ Nathan Heller series is to step back into Twentieth Century American history and actually live through events along with all the colorful characters. Heller is, of course, a fictional character – a sort of Sam Spade Chicago-based detective who finds himself linked to all kinds of historical figures including Frank Nitti (True Detective), Bugsy Siegel (Neon Mirage), The Lindbergh Baby (Stolen Away), Marilyn Monroe (Bye Bye Baby), JFK (Ask Not), and now Senator McCarthy (Better Dead).

This novel (which is really two interconnected novellas) drops Heller into the height of the McCarthy era, the Red scare, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the Atom secrets, the Kefauver Commission, Roy Cohn, a young Robert Kennedy, and the CIA and its experiments with LSD.

Along the way, Heller pals around with Dashiell Hammett and does more than just pal around with sexy Bettie Page.

What’s really irresistible about this series is how the characters from history are humanized with all their foibles. These are chapters of history not as well known today and many of the details about the hearings and the Rosenberg prosecutions are absolutely factual even if Heller’s presence isn’t. There is quite a lot to learn here, particularly when you look up the names and events and see how much of it really happened.

The book shines best when Heller goes into action, rescuing kidnapped damsels and pounding hoods and other tough guys.

Overall, the book depicts excesses of an era and the careers that were built on those excesses and those which were destroyed by them. But it doesn’t loose sight of the fact that there were real Soviet spies and that there were real threats to freedom.

Heller may be a private eye but that is really just the vehicle for telling the story, not the central point of it. Thus, it’s denser than most hardboiled PI fiction and it’s not really about solving the case so much as traveling through the events.

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