There’s a sense half way through “Target Lancer” that Max Allen Collins has maybe found a crime that looms too large in the American psyche to cleanly tackle. The newest Nate Heller mystery (can we call the Heller series mysteries?) uncovers an assassination conspiracy against President John F. Kennedy. But instead of Dallas, November 22nd, we’re in Chicago three weeks earlier with a scenario of multiple gunmen setting up a patsy as the lone gunman fall guy. Sound Familiar?
This is a great story uncovered by Collins and his long time researcher, George Hagenauer, a Chicago plot that essentially mirrors and involves the central players surrounding the Kennedy assassination. That they bring this plot to light is a testament to research. The Chicago angle is a great addition to the Heller oeuvre which is good because you can tell that November 22nd was weighted down with too much evidence, conspiracy theories and opinions.
As usual Collins and his researcher have done their homework. Based in fact you find Jack Ruby in Chicago along with a slew of mafia circling the scene and CIA/Secret Service making their presence known as they prepare for a Kennedy visit. JFK wants to pay respects to Mayor Daley, a repayment for the Illinois vote (and a nod forward to the ’64 election.) Collins weaves in Jack Ruby, Jimmy Hoffa, the first African American Secret Service agent and even Lee Harvey Oswald. All cross paths in a not-so-practice run of a fateful day. And here’s the rub of this particular volume of a great mystery series, there’s too much name brand dropping. I get it that we’re establishing veracity, but by now I’m over that. I know Heller knows Chicago so let’s relax with the cut of the suit from particular tailors and explaining the importance of particular buildings of Chicago. But building a solid story around an overlooked and underplayed plot line that mirrors the Dallas scenario is fascinating, and it’s the only way you could write a fresh and compelling JFK story.
We can guess what’s next. After “Bye Bye, Baby” dealt with the Monroe death, this one covering JFK, there’s only one more place to go. As Robert Kennedy said at the end of his California primary victory speech before he walked into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”