TARGET LANCER is the latest in Max Allan Collins’s long-running Nathan Heller series and is a sequel of sorts to his 2011 novel, BYE BYE, BABY. That title, which dealt with the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe, ended with Heller on the outs with his former friend, John Kennedy. If that sounds unusual to you, then it should be noted at the outset that part of the charm of this series is that Heller, the self-styled “P.I. to the Stars,” seems to be never more than a heartbeat away from any of the primary movers and shakers of the middle third of the 20th century.
The “lancer” of the title is a reference to President John F. Kennedy, code-named as such by the Secret Service (let it never be said that the employees of that branch of the Department of the Treasury are lacking a creative sense of humor) and concerns an assassination attempt on Kennedy’s life. It is not the successful one that occurred 49 years ago in Dallas that is the subject of TARGET LANCER, but a lesser-known plot that was to have been carried out in Chicago approximately three weeks before Kennedy’s ill-fated trip to Texas.
"TARGET LANCER will be of interest not only to fans of Collins and Heller, but also to history buffs in general, who regard Kennedy’s violent death as one of the major question marks of the last century."
This is perhaps the most ambitious of the Heller novels, given that Collins takes events preceding an exhaustively documented incident --- the assassination ---and attempts to make them interesting, with varied levels of success. It begins with Heller being hired by one of his clients to watch his back as he makes a money transferral in a dimly lit striptease establishment to a shady character. That individual is a former associate of Heller’s named Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner with underworld connections. Heller and Ruby speak later in the evening, with Ruby introducing Heller to a somewhat odd gentleman by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The entire evening leaves Heller vaguely puzzled and perplexed, as does a subsequent invitation from a labor leader named Jimmy Hoffa to a Chicago Bears football game. Hoffa, an odd little man who bears power far beyond his stature, expresses veiled concern about Heller’s client, sentiments that come to Heller’s forefront when the man is later found murdered in a hotel room, the victim of an apparent illicit tryst gone wrong. Heller feels duty-bound to get to the bottom of the death, a mission that coincidentally dovetails with a request by the Secret Service to have his A-1 Detective Agency assist them in preparing for a scheduled visit to Chicago by the President. Heller, with a lot of observation, some sharpened detective skills, and a bit of luck, uncovers what appears to be a plot against the President’s life, a discovery that literally puts him in the crosshairs of an assassin but also gives him the opportunity to put paid to his client’s lonely death in a hotel room.
In his afterword, Collins professes his beliefs in a conspiracy to take Kennedy’s life, as opposed to the theory that Oswald acted alone, if at all. Of course Collins is in good company in this regard, though the particular theory he espouses behind the assassination and the events leading up to it is one of many. That aside, TARGET LANCER will be of interest not only to fans of Collins and Heller, but also to history buffs in general, who regard Kennedy’s violent death as one of the major question marks of the last century.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 30, 2012