I started Max Allan Collins’ Target Lancer with both excitement and apprehension. His character, Chicago private detective Nate Heller, solidified me as a fan of the PI genre. He’s got Marlowe’s mouth and Hammer’s hard boiled attitude mixed into a very complex hero who is easy to relate to. Nate also has a knack for getting involved in infamous crimes of the twentieth century, like the dealings of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and even Area 51. It was inevitable that Heller would somehow be involved with the Kennedy assassination, but it seemed like he would be visiting too-familiar ground, but Target Lancer proves I should never underestimate Collins’ skill as a storyteller.
The main thing he does to give a different take to the story is to keep the story in Chicago, dealing with little known speculation on a first attempt on the President’s life. Nate is asked by client and friend Tom Ellison to act as his bodyguard. Tom made the mistake of asking Jimmy Hoffa for a pair of sold out football tickets and has to now return the favor by dropping off an envelope full of cash to a bag man at the 606 strip club. Nate recognizes the bag man a kid he ran with who grew into a small time gangster, Jake Rubenstein, now known as Jack Ruby.
After Tom leaves, Ruby comes over to Nate with his friend Lee. He mentions Operation Mongoose, a plot to use the Mafia to kill Castro. Nate acted as a liaison between the Kennedy administration and the mob for the operation, a job he now regrets. When Ruby asks if he’s here for the mob, he assures him he’s not. A couple days later, Tom Ellison is murdered with an ice pick.
As Nate starts looking for the killer, he’s asked to do another job by Bobby Kennedy. His brother will be swinging by Chicago on his campaign before he goes to Florida and Dallas and they have information that an attempt will be made on his life. Because of his familiarity with Chicago, they would like Nate to assist with the secret service detail. It is not long before he starts seeing threads connected to both cases.
Part of the fun of the Nate Heller series is the interaction the detective has with historical personalities. Here, Nate reignites his affair with fan dancer Sally Rand, who appeared in the first book, True Detective, and sits down in a small club to hear electric blues pioneer Muddy Waters. He deals with mob bosses Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli, and even the henchmen are famed enforcers Chuckie Nicoletti and Mad Sam DeStefano. As always Collins treats them as characters, not icons, making them well rounded characters you can relate to.
Even though the book has a historical context, Collins never forgets he is first and foremost delivering a hard boiled PI novel. He uses both familiar and unfamiliar facts as great plot reveals. He also doesn’t skip on the action, like a chase after some Cuban gun dealers through the Chicago streets and a climax that gives that other historical assassination novel, The Day Of The Jackal, a run for it’s money. The very last sentence reminds us this is about a man out to avenge the death of his friend.
Target Lancer is a unique piece of thrilling detective fiction. It gives us fleshed out characters, whether based on real people or not, strong action, and a strong hero. It also delivers a fresh take on the plot against Kennedy, something that seemed impossible. Proof you can depend on Max Allan Collins, just like Nate Heller, to take on a tough job.