In case you haven’t heard, Nate Heller is back! Or more precisely, after too long a wait, Max Allan Collins’ BYE BYE, BABY, now out in paperback, continues the series of Nate Heller, a private detective whose career involved him with some of the most infamous historical individuals and notorious crimes this country has ever experienced, including the assassination of Huey Long, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
When Heller opened a branch office of his A-1 Detective Agency in Los Angeles, he soon became known as “the P.I. to the stars.” This latest story has him working for arguably the most enduring legend in the history of Hollywood: sex symbol Marilyn Monroe.
It’s 1962, and Monroe is at the height of her popularity and fame, but her often erratic behavior is soon blamed for delays in the production of her latest film, SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE. The studio is threatening to cancel her contract, so Monroe hires Heller to tap her phone so she can use the recorded conversations as evidence in case the dispute becomes a lawsuit.
When Heller sets up the tap, however, he quickly discovers the conversations in Monroe’s house already are being secretly listened to and recorded. Not long after, Heller learns of Monroe’s affair with President John F. Kennedy; then, three months later, Monroe is found dead in her home of an apparent suicide.
It doesn’t take long for Heller to see that the “official story” behind her death simply doesn’t make sense. But as he investigates, he soon finds how much a threat the star posed to the Kennedy dynasty, the family’s ties to organized crime (and the mob bosses who previously insured JFK’s election), and the mob’s connection to celebrities like Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack. The mystery of Monroe’s untimely death soon becomes not how she died, but who wanted her dead.
As is the case in all the Nate Heller memoirs, Collins’ research into the events and period of his novel is comprehensive and exhaustive. Thus, his portrayal of the early 1960s is wonderfully accurate without being heavy-handed. Through mostly brief references to the popular styles, fashion and cultural trend-setters — including Hugh Hefner and his then-emergent PLAYBOY empire — the author presents that patina of optimism and promise that dominated the early 1960s, while simultaneously keeping its darker side hidden in the shadows. Likewise, his portrayal of both the celebrities and criminals who populate the novel, with their various mannerisms and dialogue styles, is credible and evocative.
The complexities of Monroe’s private life and those it directly and indirectly involved can be dizzying, yet Collins manages to keep them coherent, thereby underscoring the tragedy of the glamorous icon’s underrated talent and her often misguided ambitions as Heller progressively pulls together the many pieces of her short but dazzling life.
Heller eventually “solves” the mystery, but again, as is often the case with the series, Collins’ will have readers wondering how close to fact his fiction truly is. He couldn’t have chosen a better or more ironically relevant topic to revive this excellent series. The fascination with Monroe never seems to wane, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of her tragic end.
He may not have invented the technique of historical/crime fiction, but like the late Ed McBain and the police procedural, Collins’ formidable skills has made this subgenre his own. BYE BYE, BABY will have fans of him and Heller rejoicing, and is as fine an introduction for the uninitiated as any in the series.
If it’s your first taste of Heller’s fascinating recollections, you best catch up on the earlier titles right away – as Collins has another Heller revelation, TARGET LANCER, due out around Thanksgiving. —Alan Cranis