Thursday, December 13, 2012

TARGET: LANCER by Max Allan Collins: A Review

TARGET: LANCER is a stunning tour-de-force:  the memoirs of a private detective, both thriller and historical novel, written in a high humorous style and, the topping on the cake, with an eye-opening afterward by the author explaining his use of sources.

This is NOT just another fictional take on the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.  I've read over a dozen of those in the past dozen years, some of them quite good.  But Target: Lancer sets the bar beyond what I had imagined was possible.  It is, in a word--stunning.

It took me some time to read, not because it is difficult, but simply because I slowed down and took time to relish the pleasures of the story, stretching them out.  If you're like me, the style may take some getting used to, with the narrator's hyperbole used both for comic and period effect.

Nate Heller's lady friend, Sally Rand

The protagonist likes to compare almost everyone he meets with some then contemporary celebrity, like some eccentric uncle.  The overall effect of these references puts the reader back into the year 1963, a somewhere-in-time authenticity that includes the most elaborate descriptions of clothing this side of dedicated chick lit.

And Nate Heller's wry comments quite often make me laugh, bookmark my place, and go walk around a while, mulling over the deliciously humorous asides and plot twists, while grooving on some jazz piece by Henry Mancini or Dave Brubeck.

I'm not going to tell much about the details of the plot other than to say that it involves a little known but historically accurate plot on President Kennedy's life in Chicago and takes place in the fall of 1963.  I'm glad I found this without reading the reviews--I didn't even read the dust jacket flaps, and neither should you.  Let the narrator reveal the story.

Concerned about the boomerang effect?

The plot and pacing are excellent.  The novel starts more slowly as the historical characters are introduced and tensions developed.   An unexplained murder drives the plot around which the greater historical plot is unraveled and illuminated.   Not that the real history is free of such McGuffins.  Collins gives the astonishing real history at the end of the book.  Our government was then chock full of people who believed in the reality and the preferability of a James Bond universe.

There's a passage in the novel where Attorney-General Robert Kennedy and Nate Heller are discussing the circus nature of the attempts on the life of Fidel Castro.  Heller asks him a pointed question:

The James Bond Fantasy in 1963:  Black Ops, Gadgets, and Non-stop Women

"You guys do know that Ian Fleming is a fiction writer, right?"

To which Kennedy replies, "Actually, he was a real-life spy before he became a fiction writer.  Maybe you didn't know that."

The James Bond-like black-ops favored by the Kennedys touched the death of Marilyn Monroe and the murders of their fellow-Catholic heads of state in Vietnam at the time.  The recently published accounts of the White House recordings, edited in part by Caroline Kennedy, show how blithely the President promoted that CIA coup.

Last year, in November, I reviewed Stephen King's 11/22/63, and mused on how King's novel shows that, if one were to go back in time and prevent the Kennedy assassination, American history might have taken a much more tragic turn.  Karma.

You don't have to be a buddhist to see how the general policy of assassination is bad karma and can boomerang.  The second epigraph of Collins' novel alludes to this boomerang effect.  Or at least, I read it that way.  A mirroring seen in the novel's conclusion, years later.   

This is not a partisan argument. 
The fictional Nate Heller, like the author himself, is naturally a rather cynical Democrat.  But we know that power corrupts, and if you believe the arguments in Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, the positions of power in this country--corporate, political, and religious--are mostly held by psychopaths, manipulative people who have mastered the art of masking their lack of compassion.

Some scientists say that this is a more common physiological disorder than generally believed, and that most psychopaths are not dangerous--at least not in the conventional way.  In Target: Lancer, Nate Heller seems to pick up on this:

Dana Andrews in the movie, Boomerang

"Suddenly his expression carried a remarkable lack of human emotion, and it came to me that his Dana Andrews-ish features had probably never worn any actual human emotion.  He was one of those guys missing a small but vital part of the machinery we call humanity--an alien from Planet X who could only imitate human feeling."

Over at the Max Allan Collins' blog, link, he says, among other things, that some readers object to the sex in his novels.  I can't speak of novels I have not yet read, but in Target: Lancer, the sexual elements were neither too frequent, too ridiculous, nor too distracting.

Again, this is an important novel, a landmark novel in the genre of detective-novels-which-surpass-genre.  I can't speak of the entire Nate Heller series as I have yet to read them, but do yourself a favor:  Get this one.  Get Target: Lancer.


  1. This is, obviously, an extremely gratifying review. My researcher George Hagenauer and I have frequently discussed, in preparing the follow-up novel ASK NOT, the likelihood that many of these powerful people are sociopaths, or as George says, "Whack jobs." Imagine being a Texas oil man unhappy about taxes deciding that the answer to your problem is to shoot the President. This is textbook mental illness.

    Thank you again for this insightful piece. I will link to it at my website next week.

  2. Hey, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for writing such a great novel. I'll be looking forward to your next one, and meanwhile, the previous Nate Heller books, as I acquire them, will be jockeying for position on my to-be-read shelf.