TARGET LANCER (2012)
by Max Allan Collins
Review by Mike Dennis
November, 1963. Private eye Nate Heller has been enlisted by the Secret Service to help prevent the assassination of John Kennedy. Snipers with high-powered rifles are slated to shoot the president as he passes by in an open convertible, a patsy has been arranged to take the fall, and the mob and the CIA will get their revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. One thing, though: it will happen in Chicago.
When author Max Allan Collins sat down to write Target Lancer (Forge), he had planned to involve Heller in the JFK Assassination as it actually occurred in Dallas on November 22 of that year. However, amid grueling research for the novel, Collins unearthed fragments of data relating to a November 2 plot to kill the president in Chicago. Suddenly, his attention shifted and he realized he had an entirely new book on his hands, one that would prove to be far more original in content and revealing in scope than any previous JFK-related novel.
Nate Heller is no stranger to iconic individuals and major historical events. His Chicago-based private eye agency has been in business since the early 1930s, when the earliest Heller tales were set, and over the decades, he has intersected with the likes of Huey Long, Frank Nitti, Mickey Cohen, and Bobby Kennedy.
Now, however, it is 1963. Heller is well into his fifties and starting to slow down. One of his old pals, a civilian from Milwaukee, is in town and asks Heller for a favor. Seems he’s been asked to deliver an envelope full of hundred-dollar bills to a stranger in a strip joint, which is located in a questionable neighborhood, so he needs Heller to bodyguard him while he makes the delivery. Heller agrees and the handoff goes as planned, only the stranger receiving the money turns out to be Jack Ruby, Dallas strip club operator and minor underworld figure.
Heller and Ruby are old acquaintances and before you can say “grassy knoll”, the two of them are chatting it up inside the strip joint with Lee Harvey Oswald.
They stroll down memory lane, recalling the good old days of 1961-62 when they were all trying to kill Fidel Castro in Operation Mongoose, a series of convoluted CIA schemes. Pretty soon, Ruby wants to know if Heller was sent to the strip joint by “the Outfit” (the Chicago branch of organized crime) to keep tabs on him. Ruby is clearly worried about this possibility, signaling something larger might be going on, and it sets the plot in motion. Heller is then led into a byzantine world of Secret Service intrigue, bent cops, shadowy Cubans, and assorted mob characters, all somehow connected to a plot to kill the president during his scheduled motorcade through downtown Chicago.
Most of the characters in Target Lancer are real (using their real names) or thinly veiled versions of real individuals, and this lends a documentary-like feel to the novel. There are a lot of real people we know, like Jimmy Hoffa, Johnny Roselli, and Sam Giancana.
There are also some we may not be familiar with, like Dick Cain, former Chicago cop, later mob assassin, and here the head of the Cook County Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit. There’s also Thomas Arthur Vallee, a “known right-wing radical” with several eerie parallels to Lee Harvey Oswald. Collins uses these true-life characters to their fullest advantage, bringing heavy doses of reality to the book. Like frost on a windshield, the story covers you with the chilling sense of history, that this really did happen, that it’s not a figment of the author’s fevered imagination.
The thing you have to remember here is that Heller isn’t your average fictional private eye. He’s extremely cynical, not above setting someone up to be killed, or doing it himself, for that matter. Yet at the same time, he’s fully capable of heartfelt romance, as Collins portrays in Heller’s on-again, off-again relationship with fan dancer Sally Rand. Like all of us, he has flaws wired into his DNA, and this is what springs him to life on the page.
The author leaves no doubt he believes JFK was killed by a tangled conspiracy, a belief I share. And I, like Collins, continue to be mystified at the supposedly intelligent people who have swallowed whole (or at least, say they have swallowed whole) the indefensible myth of the lone gunman.
Target Lancer is a fresh treatment of the runup to the most significant single event of the twentieth century, and Nate Heller is the perfect protagonist to lead us through it. Max Allan Collins has hit a home run.