As is obvious from both the title and cover art, Max Allan Collins’ latest Nate Heller thriller, ASK NOT, again focuses on perhaps the most written- about and debated event in contemporary American history: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But, like last year’s TARGET LANCER, the author’s narrative approach is unanticipated, making this one of the most shocking and memorable entries in an already thought-provoking and groundbreaking series.
The year is 1964 and the Warren Commission is about to publish its conclusion that a “lone nut” — Lee Harvey Oswald — was solely responsible for the shooting death of JFK in Dallas. Still, several Americans have their doubts. One of them is renowned private investigator Nate Heller, who previously helped expose and foil an earlier attempt on JFK’s life (in TARGET LANCER).
One evening, as Heller and his teenage son leave a Beatles concert in Chicago, a speeding car swerves past and nearly kills them both. Heller catches a glance at the driver and is immediately certain the event was not random, so Heller immediately uses his contacts on both sides of the law to determine if a loose end needs to be eliminated.
Then a suicide and possible insurance scam takes Heller to Dallas, where he meets his longtime friend Flo Kilgore, a celebrity columnist and star of a popular TV game show. Kilgore is involved in a story that she is certain will expose the hidden secrets behind the JFK assassination and asks for Heller’s help. As the two track down and interview those surviving witnesses of the dreadful event, they uncover the truth behind several sudden deaths of those whose testimony contradicts the findings of the Warren Commission, and come closer to realizing who was really responsible for the killing of the president.
From the very first chapter, we know that Collins is not involving his protagonist with the assassination itself, but rather its disturbing aftermath and the frightening attempts to keep the truth hidden. Heller has long suspected the killing was the work of an odd legion of both mobsters and politicians, but even he is taken aback by how far up the chain of command the involvement goes. He quickly realizes that it all comes down to those who had the most to gain by eliminating JFK, and the cost of pointing the blame for the killing as far away as possible.
Yet in the midst of all this complicated conspiracy, there is much to remind us that this is still very much a Nate Heller story. There’s the spot-on period recreation, thanks to Heller’s constant attention to his clothes (Botany 500, Cricketeer and other popular men’s clothiers of the time), references to landmarks that no longer exist (especially the Playboy Clubs in large urban cities), and popular culture (mid-1960s TV shows, movies and The Beatles’ early overhaul of rock ’n’ roll). While Heller’s slow slide past middle age has slightly dulled the sarcasm of his narration, he is still more than willing to enjoy the favors of a well-preserved stripper and other obliging females.
Most notable and recognizable, however is Collins’ expert intermingling of both fictional and actual characters — the latter of which here includes individuals such as Bobby Kennedy, Jim Garrison and Jack Ruby. As is always the case with the Heller series, this interaction of not only adds to the verisimilitude of the story but, especially in this instance, adds an eerie and unsettling sense that the fiction may contain more insight into the truth than the various “nonfiction” accounts of the historical events.
In his “I Owe Them One” afterword, Collins acknowledges the extensive reference sources consulted in this third Nate Heller-lead exploration of the JFK killing (that began with 2011’s BYE BYE, BABY and continued with the aforementioned TARGET LANCER), as well as the basis for several of the other fictional leads. Hardcore JFK conspiracy theorists will likely find a few volumes they somehow neglected.
Collins has long been hailed as the undisputed master of historical crime novels, and ASK NOT proves that he has not lost one ounce of the power to enthrall, inflame and entertain us with this challenging format over the intervening years.
If what he says in the concluding paragraph of his afterword is true, Nate Heller still has a few memorable stories to reveal, including one involving “a certain minor burglary at the Watergate Hotel.” —Alan Cranis