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Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller is a private eye who's in on the joke. He is a hardboiled detective, literally from the old school, who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time; Heller appears to have been acquainted with just about every high-profile vic, perp, witness and lawman of the 20th century. Over the course of eighteen novels, the former-Chicago-cop-turned-"Private-Eye-to-the-Stars" ("if you ever use that shopworn phrase again, I'll spank you," he warns his latest flirtation,) has worked with Eliot Ness, investigated the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart - in the same book! - and shed light on the death of Marilyn Monroe. He accepts this series of events as equal parts preposterous and thrilling, and readers are invited to do the same.
Nate's latest adventure takes place in the '60s, with the hero also in his '60's. He's taken his share of lumps, but is still the kind of guy you can rely on to thrash a couple of goons, bed a couple of good looking broads, and get in a couple of good wisecracks on his way to solving a high profile crime or two. In TOO MANY BULLETS, he's drawn into the investigation after a gig as a substitute bodyguard for his friend Bob goes horribly wrong. "Bob" is short for Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. ("none of us called him Bobby, by the way. Not even Ethel,") and Nate was filling in for the bodyguard on the night of RFK's ill-fated campaign stop at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, when he was assassinated by a political dissident named Sirhan Sirhan or so it is claimed.
Nate's investigation into the killing, at the request of a couple of journalists and a beautiful campaign volunteer, reveals a number of details that were either overlooked, or suppressed, by local and federal law enforcement. For starters, there's a discrepancy between the number of shots fired and the distance at which they were discharged, as well as the involvement of a mysterious hypnotist who may or may not have been on the CIA's payroll, and may have plotted a Manchurian-candidate style effort to convince Sirhan to fire a pistol loaded with blanks so that he would take the fall for another shooter who was never identified. Howard Hughes might have had a hand in it. And, don't forget the rumored presence of the alluring Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, who may or may not have been seen prancing out of the hotel saying, "Kennedy! We shot him! We killed him!"
What follows is a compelling fictional narrative, created from a meticulously researched examination of every conspiracy theory the plausible, the implausible, and the downright incredible ever proposed with regard to the 1968 assassination of RFK. Sirhan, of course, is a real person, who was convicted of the murder and remains incarcerated to this day, but the sexy campaign volunteer, the hypnotist, and the witnesses who encountered the Polka Dot Dress are also closely based on actual people. Nate has the opportunity to interview Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the real-life "coroner to the stars," who really did perform the Kennedy autopsy, as well as those of Monroe, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, and John Belushi. In Collins's skilled hands, Noguchi and all the others come to life as flesh and blood characters who draw Nate into their universe, with complicated results. "Keep in mind," the author reminds us "that conspiracy like robbery and rape, murder and treason is a real crime on the books. History, I'm afraid, is a mystery story without a satisfying resolution."
As with real historical events, the pacing here can be a little uneven. Some scenes, such as the assassination and a final showdown in the Nevada desert with some vicious killers not named Sirhan, set the heart racing, while others slow to a dreary pace as the detective, mourning his slain friend, travels around L.A. and Las Vegas, sadly wondering what's to be to gained from his travels. Still, it's no spoiler to note Nates's assertion, made on page 1: know this: I did get some of the bastards. This reader feels better for having seen him.
§ Mary-Jane Oltarzewski is an Assistant Teaching Professor with the Rutgers University Writing Program. In her spare time she enjoys coffee crawls, listening to jazz and show tunes, and spending time in the Catskills with her husband, and a cat who bears a strong resemblance to the Reviewing the Evidence mascot.
Reviewed by Mary-Jane Oltarzewski, October 2023
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