Monday, November 18, 2013

Fifty Years Ago This Week...Review of ASK NOT 18 November 2013

ASK NOT: A Nathan Heller Thriller

Forge Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Chicago, September 1964. Beatlemania sweeps the nation, the Vietnam War looms, and the Warren Commission prepares to blame a “lone-nut” assassin for the killing of President John F. Kennedy. But as the post-Camelot era begins, a suspicious outbreak of suicides, accidental deaths, and outright murders decimates assassination witnesses. When Nathan Heller and his son are nearly run down on a city street, the private detective wonders if he himself might be a loose end...

Soon a faked suicide linked to President Johnson’s corrupt cronies takes Heller to Texas, where celebrity columnist Flo Kilgore implores him to explore that growing list of dead witnesses. With the blessing of Bobby Kennedy—former US attorney general, now running for Senator from New York—Heller and Flo investigate the increasing wave of violence that seems to emanate from the notorious Mac Wallace, rumored to be LBJ’s personal hatchet man.

Fifty years after JFK’s tragic death, Collins’s rigorous research for Ask Not raises new questions about the most controversial assassination of our time.

My Review: I am a big believer in Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is almost always the correct one. In the case of the JFK assassination, the simplest explanation isn't the Warren Report one, it's the conspiracy theory. I suspect we'll all be dead before the truth comes out, and even then it most likely won't be the whole truth, but eventually the zombies of the facts will rise and stink up the Body Politic. Usually I think conspiracy theories are silly, for one major reason: The Gummint can't keep secrets it *wants* to keep very well. So all the leaks and the murders and deaths surrounding the assassination, in my mind, make it more not less likely that they're still trying to keep a lid on whatever really happened.

Okay, so that's out of the way. This novel is the third by Max Allan Collins, an incredibly prolific writer, dealing with JFK's assassination. (As a side note, it's extremely weird to me that the publisher AND Amazon do not make it easy to find the other two titles, and not one database groups the titles in a convenient, easy-to-reference way.) It's amazing to me that Nate Heller, Collins' Forrest-Gump-esque PI character of what, thirteen or fourteen novels so far, who is at every single important crime anywhere ever, isn't the star of a movie serial franchise a la Bond or TV series by now. In a world that gobbles up Mad Men it would seem to me to be a no-brainer.

Go know from this.

As I read along, I realized that I was being fed an angled view of the motivations and purposes of the assassins, a slant on the facts that brought certain facets and shapes into sharper relief than the Official Version would have us look at. As any actor can tell you, lighting matters. The same face, the same lumps and bumps, look very different seen from an angle and spotlit as opposed to head-on and strobed. I kept looking stuff up. I mean to tell you, my Google history is causing fantods at the NSA data farm even as we speak. I am amazed at the sheer breadth of Collins' scope. I am impressed at his precise eye for which piece of what conspiracy theory to use in weaving his tale. This is some intricate construction, folks, and deserves its own round of applause separate from any other praise merited by the book.

Does the book itself merit some praise? Yes. It's a given that Nate Heller will be a self-deprecating wisecracking noir hero. You like that trope or you don't, and I do. What's not a given is the way that the fictional exploits of Nate Heller enhance and augment the historical record of the day and time under discussion. Collins does that job very well.

The book is a beaut. The story is one central to our country's image of itself. The long, long tail of conspiracy theories proves that. And now, fifty years after that hideous, agonizing day, the perspective of a people who went through Watergate, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the sheer passage of time provide us with a new angle from which we can view the idea that our government can lie, cheat, steal, and kill in our names while pursuing selfish, disgusting, wrong, and venal aims.

Will Nate Heller bring to mind Edward Snowden or Pope Francis? No, more likely he'll bring to mind Bond and company. He's got a lot of knowledge about stuff that scares powerful people. He's willing to trade silence for comfort (his and ours). But that's not a surprise. This isn't a character whose morals we're in doubt about at this late date in the series. But he's our eyes and ears on the scene, and he's invaluable to us as readers because he's got no illusions at all. So he blows our comfy little illusions all to hell.

Where they belong, and where clinging to them will lead us. Go on this trip. Collins takes us to the heart of one of the most important moments in twentieth-century US history very very plausibly.

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