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Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

March 6, 2014 6 comments

Ask-Not-Nathan-Heller--350675-e15dcee7eb269f071963

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.

 

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

January 14, 2014 1 comment

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) deals with an interesting cultural phenomenon. In the physical world, a dreadnaught might sail through a deep but narrow channel. The combination of water displacement and powerful engine would cause the wake to overflow the banks and there would be “mayhem” on the adjacent land. Now let’s convert this to the metaphor of the city as a living organism — for those of you who like a more academic gloss, this would be an example of autopoiesis, a living system which organises and maintains itself. If a “monster” was to move through such a city, it would leave a wake. Inevitably people discuss the signs of its passage and speculate on why it does what it does and where it might do it again. Fear and apprehension spread the ripples far and wide as newspapers and other media pick up the story. Hence, a criminal like Jack the Ripper on his rampage can cause far more mayhem than one man should be able to. The city amplifies the effect. Even in Victorian times, when this book is set, the magnification process still works. Indeed, because the age still lacks a backbone of rationality theoretically flowing from compulsory education, superstition and myth-making aggravate the problem.

The book is based on the real-world Thames Torso Murders which occurred in 1888 at the same time that Jack the Ripper was active. Both cases have remained unsolved but the mythologising has focused on Jack and, until now, little interest has been generated by these equally horrific crimes. Hence, the book is partly a work of historical fiction, recreating the class-ridden and crime-infested London with which we’re familiar. Given the unstoppable flood of steampunk, the Victorian era is currently being overexploited as a setting. Since these science fantasy stories often feature crimes of varying shapes and sizes, including the exploits of Jack (see The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder) people reaching this point in the review might fear this book is derivative and unoriginal. Yet that is far from the case. This is an author with a real command of the craft of writing and this book finds her at the top of her form. This is how Victorian true crime novels should be written! Except, of course, this author is not known for staying within conventional genre boundaries and we’re soon haring off in pursuit of a quite different form of killer. What starts as a true crime novel slowly morphs into a supernatural thriller.

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough

In the opening chapters, we meet the surgeon Thomas Bond. He performs the autopsies and offers his forensic skills to the detectives in charge of the more challenging cases in the emerging police force. This is drawn from fact but, in spirit, he’s not unlike Joseph Bell who was the role model for Sherlock Holmes. The book retains complete authenticity by having a reporter use his dog to help find the missing body parts. This gives us a firm footing from which our forensic hero can set off in pursuit of the “monster” responsible for abducting these women and then dismembering their bodies. As a gruesome fact, this murderer removed the uterus from the women. There has never been an explanation for the dismemberment (modern profilers might suggest the killer keeps the heads as trophies) or the removal of the female organs of reproduction. This book suggests an interesting explanation for this behaviour.

The impressive aspect of this second stage in the narrative is that the style of its presentation is indistinguishable from the straight history that has gone before. There’s no need to make any formal change to the style. True crime is just as horrific as supernatural manipulation. So when Thomas Bond hears a story about a parasite, it offends his scientific mind. But when he hears the same story from a second source, it becomes more likely that it’s true. But how can he know for sure? Can there be tests for supernatural monsters? Well, I can see it might be challenging for modern science, so you can imagine the problems before you could take fun selfies with an MRI or similar machines to make the body transparent to human eyes. Fortunately, what turns into a gang of three (possible religious overtone there) has a propensity for derivatives from the poppy. It’s surprising what you might get to see if you smoke, drink or otherwise ingest something to stupefy. But once you start dabbling with drugs, how far can you trust your own senses? By definition, their operation is being distorted. The result is a carefully described journey where the rational man of science is seduced into believing in the irrational. It’s not a pleasant experience. Not only does he have the physical evidence on his autopsy table, he has the stench of death which rises like a miasma from the River Thames, infecting all those who stray too close to the host. And it’s through the wider population that the mayhem comes. When fear is rampant on the streets, the rational response is rarely going to be the right one. At some point, propriety has to be set aside and our three join the battle to save London’s soul.

Mayhem is a terrific piece of sustained writing, taking the tired streets of fictional Victorian London and reinvigorating them through the introduction of an ancient enemy. It’s well worth reading whether as historical true crime fiction or as a supernatural thriller.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Pinborough, see:
The Chosen Seed
A Matter of Blood
The Shadow of the Soul

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

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