Sometimes, private eye Nathan Heller is about as hard-boiled as a Cadbury Creme Egg. He’d never admit to harboring a soft spot for his teenaged son (especially to the boy) or letting leak a drop of sweet and gooey center for the right kind of woman. But like all the best knights-errant, it’s there, under all the armor. Before long, somebody is dead, the crack gets sealed with thick, dark chocolate, and Heller is off to serve justice Chicago-style .
Bye, Bye Baby — the 13th book in the Nathan Heller Memoirs — is no exception. This time out, a middle-aged Heller is in LA checking up on the A-1 Detective Agency’s West Coast operations, spending time with his son, and helping his old friend-with-benefits, Marilyn Monroe, a girl for whom it’s damned near impossible not to be sweet on. Between her problems with 20th Century Fox and the silk sheet shimmy she’s doing with each of the Kennedy Brothers, Marilyn’s life has become . . . complicated. So she asks Heller to tap her phones; she wants to keep a record of the ongoings. Heller agrees –– only to find the lines already tapped and the rest of the house bugged. But who, exactly, is listening? The goons at Fox? Hoffa? Sam Giancana? FBI? CIA? And why?
Through Heller, Collins examines the many questions regarding Marilyn’s death. He shows who could have benefited and why, and maybe even how she was offed. There seems to be a raft of evidence that she was killed elsewhere in her house and was later moved to her bedroom where the tableau was set. He also makes the argument that Marilyn was a victim twice-over: being murdered then having no one stand up for her. Which (according to the book) would have been tough to do when so many parties were vested in squashing any investigation and pushing the official story of ‘suicide.’
The interactions between Heller and the early 1960’s celebrity set ring with authenticity. Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Bobby Kennedy –– usually portrayed as caricatures instead of characters or people –– are given nice depth, as is Marilyn. In fact, Marilyn is probably the most fully realized character in the book, even more so than Heller. Collins clearly has a thing for Marilyn, an affection for the doomed star and a longing to somehow retroactively save her from maltreatment and bitter fate. She’s the ultimate damsel-in-distress; always will be.
And while the plot is more of an unveiling of events than a mystery to solve, Collins’s solid writing and unorthodox take on the particulars make for compelling reading. Indeed. I sat on my ass flipping pages instead of taking care of things that needed my attention. (Special thanks the neighbors for calling about the burning barbeque grill.)
All in all, a good book worth reading. So good, in fact, that I am compelled to get my hands on Nate Heller’s other memoirs and catch up on the few I missed, including “Kisses of Death” –– the story in which Heller and Marilyn first rubbed . . . er . . . elbows.
If you haven’t read any of the Heller books, you’re in for a lot of time well spent. There is a reason they are award winners.
Bye, Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins goes on sale August 16th at fine bookstores everywhere.
And for a further bit of good reading, Chicago Lightning: The Collected Nathan Heller Short Stories will be available starting October 4, 2011.