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Ask Not by Max Allan Collins


Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge, 2013) (Nathan Heller Mystery 17) If you look back over the last fifty years, the most talked about event in conspiracy circles has been the JFK assassination. Over the years, everyone and his/her dog has had a theory about who might really have been behind the killing and why. So here we have a well-researched book with guest appearances from Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison and others. It begins with what most people take to be the agreed facts and then spins the author’s own interpretation on top. Frankly, I’m not really into the mythology of this sad incident. It comes of being born and raised on the other side of the Pond. I remember the British current events satire show called That Was the Week That Was, devoted all its running time to a commentary and tribute to JFK but, in 1963, it was just one more thing in a busy world to think about. To Americans, of course, it came as a shock that someone would be bold enough to kill the President in such a public way. Alongside the assassination of William McKinley, the combined shock effect was the equivalent of this century’s 9/11, scarring the psyche of America.


This is the final book in the JFK trilogy sequence of Heller novels and short story collections, and a direct sequel to Target Lancer. It starts in September 1964 immediately after a concert given by the Beatles. As Heller, the PI to the stars, and his sixteen-year-old son are crossing a Chicago street, a Cuban tries to run them down. The PI knows this man was involved in an attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago three weeks before Dallas and may also have been involved in “Operation Mongoose”, the failed attempt by the CIA, Cuban exiles and the mob to take down Fidel Castro. Since there are a number of reasons why interested parties would have a motive for killing him, Heller spends his money to place protection for his ex-wife and son, and begins to research who might be behind the attempted hit.

Max Allen Collins

Max Allan Collins


So what we have here is a PI novel which is playing the true crime game in a historical mystery format. I confess a lot of the history was completely new to be. Blame thousands of miles and a lack of motivation for my ignorance. I therefore have no idea how much of the content is rehashing what’s already in the common domain. All I can say is that, after a while, I thought the facts rather drowned out the action. If I’m going to sit down with a PI novel boasting potentially noir overtones, then that’s what I want. I felt this was trying too hard to fit into the straightjacket of history. Yes, there are no doubt some wildly speculative bits in there, but I neither know nor really care where the facts stop and the fiction begins. This has the assassination and the Warren Commission’s botched attempt to clarify matters as the backdrop. There are a surprising number of bodies. The majority are probably victims of a clean-up squad which is touring the country eliminating those who might be able to disturb the cover-story of a lone gunman. Assuming this to be a true recital of the number of deaths, it’s a sad indictment of the willingness of the powerful to sacrifice the innocent. Towards the end, there are other victims who more immediately surround our hero and may be killed because of his investigation. Heller joins forces with journalist Flo Kilgore, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Kilgallen (1913–1965). As the date shows, she also died in the real world while investigating the assassination.


I wanted to like this. The writing style is engaging and when we’re purely into fictional PI novel territory, the effect is very pleasing. But I felt submerged in factual information, much of which was not directly advancing the fictional PI story being told. Background which tends to suggest conspiracy and cover-up has a particular interest to those who want to consider whether the alleged conspiracy is real. PI novel readers want to see their hero fight his way through to the end and beat the bad guy. Because no-one actually knows the “truth”, there can’t be a convenient “Heller catches the bad guy” ending. The best he can do is survive. So Ask Not is less satisfying as fiction and too heavy on real-world history for a Brit like me.


The the review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Supreme Justice.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


  1. March 6, 2014 at 1:53 am

    The truth is… The truth is that saying that “nobody knows” is like saying that nobody knows whether the Apollo astronauts really landed on the Moon or the Apollos missions were an elaborate government hoax. Or whether or not 9/11 was a conspiracy and the jihadists were helped along by demolitions planted in the two towers.

    Books have been written. More books will be written.

    As an American who didn’t even know who JFK was when he was assassinated, I’ve never had a dog in that fight. As a student of history who likes to know the facts, and has some reading on it, my conclusions are this:

    JFK was a liberal, Democratic president. He was killed in Dallas, the heart of conservative, Republican Texas. The automatic response was to make JFK a martyr for the Left–obviously he was killed because his liberal ideology and politics made him enemies on the evil Right. It made for a very heroic, dramatic meme.

    Then Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. The evidence against him was overwhelming, but there was one problem–he was a rabid leftist. He had even “defected” to Soviet Russia at one point, and after returning to the US he tried to assassinate another public figure (this one on the Right). Then of course Oswald was killed vigilante-style before his trial, so we never heard his testimony and have to guess at his motivations.

    So here’s the thing: if Oswald acted alone then either he was a nut-job, or he was “primed” by the Russians. Personally I vote for nut-job–all the evidence seems to indicate that his political radicalism was at least in part a manifestation of his mental issues. But you see the problem: Kennedy can’t be a Liberal Martyr if he was killed by a kook or a communist. It’s hugely cognatively dissonant–like when President Reagan (a hero of the Right) was shot and almost killed by a dude trying to impress his girlfriend.

    So obviously it couldn’t be that simple–there HAD to be something else behind it. From such natural impulses conspiracy theories are born and thrive, but to people outside of the meme-commitment, the whole thing probably seems pretty pointless now.

    • March 6, 2014 at 2:51 am

      This series has been working its way through the history books with our Ace Detective observing or actually being involved in all types of excitement. For those that enjoy this way of absorbing history, I’m sure this all both informative and entertaining. For me this proved dull. However, the writing is good so I’ve asked for another by this author to read.

  2. March 6, 2014 at 3:13 am

    I hope you enjoy his next book more.

    • March 6, 2014 at 3:34 am

      The next Collins is quite a long way away. I’m reading through the current batch from SFBRs but a box of books I paid good dollars for arrived today (it’s a disgusting habit I keep trying to break, but not all the books I want to read come up for review). So we have to get through all those before the next boxes arrive from SFBRs. I requested the Collins today so, assuming it’s allocated to me, think a couple of months before I get to closer to reading it.

      Good to see your new site taking shape.

      • March 6, 2014 at 4:15 am

        Thanks. I put it off way too long…

  1. March 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm

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