Ask Not by Max Allan Collins is historical fiction, the third novel in the Nathan Heller JFK Trilogy preceded by Bye Bye, Baby, and Target Lancer (available October 22, 2013).
It’s September 1964, in Chicago, and Nathan Heller, a P.I. to the stars, and his 20 year-old son, Sam, have just gone to a Beatles concert where they also obtained the signatures of the four superstars. The good times end abruptly, however, when they barely escape being hit-and-run victims of a driver who targets them.
Heller recognizes the driver as a Cuban connected to Project Mongoose, a 1960 secret terror plan to assassinate Castro, which he was involved in while working with the CIA. A rash of suspicious deaths have occurred in Dallas, such as questionable suicides, murders, and accidents similar to Heller’s near hit-and-run death. Most victims have been witnesses, or connected in some way to the assassination of President Kennedy.
The Warren Commission has yet to announce its finding. Heller soon discovers that the Dallas deaths are also viewed as attempts to clean up “loose ends” to the assassination. So he embarks on a journey to convince the CIA and the Mafia that he is not a “loose end.”
Like Sam Spade, Heller walks a fine line between two worlds. His A-1 Detective Agency that originated in Chicago had expanded to LA and Manhattan. Heller has had such clients as Marilyn Monroe. And Jimmy Hoffa has hired him to infiltrate the so-called Rackets Committee, which he did with the full knowledge of Robert Kennedy, chief counsel of the Rackets Committee.
His journey to save his life and his son’s takes him to Louisiana, straight to a swampy backwoods and a dwelling owned by the Louisiana Godfather, Carlos Marcello, better known as Uncle Carlos, who believes Heller is part of the Mafia:
“Back in dem racket committee days, when you was workin’ for Bobby? Little bastard never knew you was really workin’ for Jimmy, did he?”
Heller decodes the words of Carlos and other characters, making the reader an inside part of the conversation:
That was Jimmy as in Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters president the McClellan Committee had been investigating; but actually Hoffa was the bastard I still had fooled. I’d been Robert Kennedy’s double agent—an old secret that could still get me newly killed.
The most extraordinary aspect of Ask Not is that it ventures heavily into examining an aide of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Malcolm Wallace. Wallace, a convicted murderer, was also an aide when President Johnson was a senator. He is believed to be Johnson’s hatchet man.
The information is so astounding, that I will leave the details for the reader to discover right from the lips of Texas Ranger Clint Peoples, an actual real-live person, who was tracking Wallace, and to whom Heller reaches out on his journey of self-preservation.
Ask Not is an historical novel, yet only some of the names may be familiar, even to those of us who lived through the tragedy of the assassination. As Max Allan Collins tells us in his author’s note, “I Owe Them”
Most of the characters in this novel are real and appear under their true names, although all depictions herein must be viewed as fictionalized. Available research on the various individuals ranges from voluminous to scant. Whenever possible, actual interviews with the subjects have been used as the basis of dialogue scenes, although creative liberties have been taken.
He did change the name of Dorothy Kilgallen, a journalist, and of television game show fame (What’s My Line?). In Ask Not she is called Flo Kilgore.
Kilgallen’s death, from barbiturates and alcohol, is still viewed as suspicious by some. At the time of her death, she was investigating the JFK assassination.
Heller kept signature elements of Kilgallen’s life in the text, such as the game show, but Collins also tells us in the author’s note that:
Kilgallen is the sole historical counterpart for Kilgore, although the fictional character does not entirely parallel the real person (Kilgallen, for example, was a Catholic and married only once).
Flo Kilgore asks Heller to accompany her on her investigation into the assassination, believing that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone killer. In the excerpt below, she urges Heller to land her an interview with Jack Ruby.
“But Barney Ross is still a good friend of Ruby’s. If Barney put the word through that Jack should talk to me, and that you will be along as Barney’s surrogate, maybe . . . just maybe . . . I can get the interview that will crack this case.”
Heller asks permission from former Attorney General Robert Kennedy to assist Flo Kilgore in her investigation. Kennedy was at the time running for the U.S. Senate in New York. Nate tells Kennedy first about his near death experience and his quest to save his own life and his son’s. He also addresses the assassination of RFK's brother.
“No. I already knew it was a conspiracy before it went down—I was in the middle of the Chicago plot early November last year, remember? And I know who the big boys are. Oh, not necessarily all of them by name, but it’s oilmen and other right-wing wackos, and spook pals of ours from Mongoose and the Bay of Pigs, and their Cuban buddies, and of course, obviously, what we’ll quaintly call the Mafia.”
He promises to keep Kennedy informed of any breakthroughs. Kennedy assures him that once he reaches the White House he’ll investigate the assassination. In his Author's Note, Collins further reveals the years of passion and reading that were invested in writing about the assassination:
Generally I come to Heller novels with an open mind, following the research wherever it might lead; but I admit that where JFK’s murder is concerned, I long ago formed my basic opinions about the case, based upon voluminous reading. Nonetheless, I was prepared to change my mind.
That did not happen. Prior to the writing of Target Lancer, my longtime research associate, George Hagenauer, and I devoured scores of books on the assassination, and in the year preceding the writing of Ask Not went through several more shelves of research works.
But Nathan Heller does reveal new evidence, including a fingerprint found in the “sniper’s nest” that he identifies.
On the personal side, Heller (divorced) has true affection for an exotic dancer called Jada. He is also a frequent visitor to the Playboy mansion, yet Heller is not your typical hardboiled detective. He’ll not be calling women “dames” or “broads.” He insists on calling Jada by her given name, Janet Adams. Heller also admonishes himself, because while having a beauty like Jada in his life, he is still ogling 20-year olds.
I could not put down this book. I often found myself doing a little of my own on-line research, which resulted in my gaining even more respect for the author, and a determination to read the other two books of the JFK trilogy.
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Dorothy Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery.