Thursday, August 4, 2016

Guest Review: Better Dead

Summary: It's the early 1950's. Joe McCarthy is campaigning to rid America of the Red Menace. Nate Heller is doing legwork for the senator, though the Chicago detective is disheartened by McCarthy's witch-hunting tactics. He's made friends with a young staffer, Bobby Kennedy, while trading barbs with a potential enemy, the attorney Roy Cohn, who rubs Heller the wrong way. Not the least of which for successfully prosecuting the so-called Atomic Bomb spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When famous mystery writer Dashiell Hammett comes to Heller representing a group of showbiz and literary leftists who are engaged in a last minute attempt to save the Rosenbergs, Heller decides to take on the case.

Heller will have to play both sides to do this, and when McCarthy also tasks Heller to find out what the CIA has on him, Heller reluctantly agrees. His main lead is an army scientist working for the C.I.A. who admits to Heller that he's been having misgivings about the work he's doing and elliptically referring to the Cold War making World War II look like a tea party. And then the scientist goes missing. -- Forge Books

BETTER DEAD by Max Allan Collins sounds like an unusual thriller. After reading the book's description and my dad's review, I'm not sure I've ever read anything quite like it. The way the author blends truth with fiction sounds like he's done his research and created a realistic novel! Here are my dad's thoughts:

BETTER DEAD by Max Allan Collins is a 1950s detective novel featuring Private Investigator Nathen Heller as his main character. I believe this is Collins’ sixteenth novel featuring Nathan Heller. BETTER DEAD is set in the 1950s at the time of the Cold War and the well-known Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. One unusual aspect of BETTER DEAD is that the novel consists of two separate stories connected only by the presence of Senator McCarthy in each. Another unusual feature of the novel is the way Collins blends his fictional characters into an authentic historical story line.

In the first story Heller is hired by Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade and known American Communist Party member) to look into the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were on death row for conspiracy to commit espionage. At the same time and known to Hammett, McCarthy hires Heller to report to him on what he finds. Additionally columnist Drew Pearson, a prior McCarthy supporter, helps fund Heller’s effort with the promise of getting a “scoop” on McCarthy. Both sides were wary of a new trial for the couple. McCarthy and his council Roy Cohn were concerned with being exposed and the American Communist Party was afraid of the Rosenbergs naming names. Although Heller finds some new evidence, author Max Collins can’t change history and Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg are put to death.

In the second half of the novel, Heller is hired by McCarthy to find a file that the CIA apparently has on McCarthy and Cohn. Heller’s main contact into the matter is Frank Olson, an army scientist who has second thoughts about the work he’s doing for the CIA on testing biological and chemical warfare agents. When Olson goes missing, Heller investigates and finds that an experiment with LS-25 leads to Olson jumping out a 13 story window to his death. Heller realizes that his life may be in danger and swings into action to protect himself and his new romance, famous 1950s pin-up girl Bettie Page. Page was a target of Estes Kefauver in his McCarthy-like campaign on the effects of comic books and “dirty magazines” on juvenile delinquency.

Collins does a masterful job of combining his fictional characters with real life historical figures and making it seem real. His research into the political paranoia led by Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt to rid the United States of communism and the CIA chemical and biological warfare program is very thorough. His descriptions of real characters like Hammett, McCarthy, Cohn, the Rosenbergs, Kefauver, Olson and Page bring them to life. The author also brings back memories of some famous sites of 1950s New York City such as Greenwich Village, Village Barn and the Waldorf Cafeteria. In BETTER DEAD, Collins combines witty dialog, violence, sex and espionage into a great detective mystery novel.

Thanks to the publisher of providing a review copy of this novel and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.


bermudaonion said...

I've never read much about the red scare and don't think I've ever seen a work of fiction written around it. This sounds unusual in a good way!

Max Allan Collins said...

Lovely and much appreciated review...but, er, it's "Heller," not "Haller."