Published by New American Library
304 pages, 2002
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Despite the obvious downsides of 2002 -- escalating violence in the Middle East, George W. Bush's deficit spending and exploitation of terrorism fears for political gain, TV's The Chair, etc. -- this year may be remembered fondly for its wealth of nostalgic American crime fiction. Even if the sheer quantity of well-plotted and atmospheric novels set during the early to mid 20th century isn't extraordinary (and I'm not sure that it is not), the quality of those stories certainly merits attention.
We began the year with Eddie Muller's The Distance, set in the boxing world of 1948 San Francisco, and The Jazz Bird, Craig Holden's bewitching fictionalized account of a notorious 1927 Cincinnati homicide trial. Then came the latest of Ed Gorman's Sam McCain novels, Save the Last Dance for Me, built around attempts to solve two Iowa killings in advance of a campaign sweep by presidential candidate Richard Nixon; Tropical Heat, John A. Miller's outstanding tale of a serviceman's murder in small-town, 1950s Virginia; William Diehl's Eureka, an imperfect but nonetheless engaging thriller about gangsters and apparent political cover-ups in Southern California; and To Catch a Spy, Stuart M. Kaminsky's 22nd Toby Peters novel, which finds that bumbling 1940s Hollywood gumshoe trailing Nazi sympathizers in company with the suave Cary Grant. Soon to see print as well are Steve Monroe's second noir novel, '46, Chicago, and The Righteous Cut, Robert Skinner's sixth mystery featuring New Orleans club owner/detective Wesley Farrell, opening on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Let's not forget, either, Max Allan Collins' Chicago Confidential. This 12th novel-length investigation for randy but resolute P.I. Nathan Heller isn't so darkly compelling as Collins' last Heller outing, Angel in Black -- a book that is competing for, and deserves to win, the 2002 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Novel. Yet it still showcases the skills of a crime fictionist at the very top of his game.
Although Heller has defined himself as a Chicago sleuth ever since he debuted in True Detective (1983), the last novel that found him working primarily in the Windy City was The Million-Dollar Wound (1986), the third entry in Collins' series. Subsequent books have sent Nate off to Las Vegas (Neon Mirage), the Bahamas (Carnal Hours), Louisiana (Blood and Thunder), Hawaii (Damned in Paradise), New Mexico and Washington, D.C. (Majic Man), Los Angeles (Angel in Black) and pretty much everywhere in between (Flying Blind). But he returns to his native turf in Chicago Confidential, just as America's first congressional inquiry into organized crime, led by presidential-hopeful U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver, sweeps into town in 1950, borne on a wave of press and political hype.
Heller isn't anxious to participate in this subpoena-waving "circus":
While not a mob guy myself, I had done jobs for various Outfit types and had certain underworld associations, and hence did know where a good share of the bodies were buried. Hell, I'd buried some of them.
And as Chicago Confidential gets underway, it looks as if our hero may be able to stay clear of the inquiry limelight. He's back out in L.A., where he shares a branch suite of offices in the historic Bradbury Building with his West Coast partner, Fred Rubinski, and where his now ex-wife, Peggy, lives with their young son and her movie director fiancé. Heller even has a case -- and a curvaceous new client -- to distract him from thoughts of Kefauver's probe. Vera Palmer, a naïve, 19-year-old college student and Miss California contestant (destined to be re-created in a few years as film fox Jayne Mansfield) says she needs Heller to protect her from her serviceman ex-boyfriend, who's taken to appearing wherever she goes. The "ruggedly handsome," 45-year-old P.I. can hardly pass up such a straightforward assignment, especially as it comes with carnal perks.
However, the discovery that Vera hasn't been exactly candid with him, which follows the news that one of his Chicago operatives is getting overly chummy with Kefauver's bunch, drives Heller back to Illinois and drops him into a dangerous squeeze between ambitious politicians and remorseless gangsters.
The op at the top of Heller's worry list is Bill Drury. An uncommonly honest former police lieutenant who, thanks to his persistent badgering of hoodlums, earned the sobriquet "Watchdog of the Loop," Drury was railroaded off the Chicago force amid charges that he had "fixed" witnesses to a shotgunning murder. Since he'd once saved Heller's life (when they were both cops on a pickpocket detail), Nate gave Drury a job with his growing A-1 Detective Agency. But the latter has been ignoring his recent A-1 assignments in order to gather evidence for Kefauver's Senate Crime Investigating Committee. The last straw for Heller comes when he finds Drury stationed in the basement of an apartment building, clandestinely monitoring conversations among residents of that structure's top three penthouse floors. That those residents happen to be the Fischetti Brothers, "the late Al Capone's cousins," men who probably belong behind bars, does nothing to mitigate Heller's exasperation.
"You're going to get yourself killed, this time," the shamus rages at his recalcitrant employee. "Worse, you're going to get me killed."
Drury tries desperately to convince Heller that he should go talk with Kefauver about local criminal dealings and double-dealings ("Look -- you're the only guy in this city not mobbed-up who knows the mob like I do ... Fact, you know things I don't"). Nate, though, will have none of it, and fires his old friend rather than risk drawing attention to himself because of Drury's crusade "to cleanse this city." Their heated exchange nicely exposes Heller's concerns about maintaining his delicate neutral position among Chicago powers, legal and not, and hints at the troubles to follow.
While he doesn't immediately realize it, Heller invites these troubles on himself. After leaving Drury's basement listening post, he runs into Joey Fischetti, the youngest and least criminally culpable of the three siblings under surveillance. Joey asks the P.I. to come up and see his more thuggish brothers, Rocco and Charley. Seems they want Heller's assistance in heading off any "bad publicity" Drury could cause them by testifying about their activities before Kefauver's committee. The detective does his best Switzerland imitation, trying to steer clear of conflict or commitments. Yet just as he's preparing to drive away from this uneasy encounter, he spots Rocco's newly discarded girlfriend, a shapely blond showgirl in her 20s named Jackie Payne, who -- with a black eye and an armload of suitcases -- is waiting on the street for a cab. "You need a lift?" Heller asks, little knowing the disastrous consequences of that white-knight act.
Anyone who's been keeping up with the Heller "memoirs" over the last two decades knows this guy isn't shy around women, and his attentions are lustfully reciprocated. (Readers who turn squeamish before playful scenes of passion might as well avoid Collins' novels in favor of cute cat mysteries.) It doesn't take long for Nate to fall for the "stunning" Jackie Payne, an aspiring performer half his age, with a "special sweetness, like she'd wandered off the set of an Andy Hardy picture into Little Caesar." The sour edge to that sweetness is that Jackie's a heroin addict. She was turned onto the stuff by Rocco Fischetti, to cure her depression, and now she needs the resourceful Nate's help in finding fixes -- at least until she can break her habit. Heller is reluctant; though he has never quite measured up to Raymond Chandler's ideal of the private eye as someone "who is neither tarnished nor afraid ... a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it" -- he also doesn't generally conspire in the despoilment of (relative) innocents. But he goes along, confident that he can cure and protect Jackie at the same time as he fights to save Bill Drury from harm and keep his own bacon free of the fire.
That proves to be too tall an order. Heller's decision to flaunt Jackie on his arm at a popular nightclub frequented by the malicious Rocco turns what had been a benign association between the gumshoe and the racketeer into an combustible rivalry. Meanwhile, lawyers with the Kefauver committee pressure Nate to spill what he knows about organized crime in Chicago, even if it's only done behind the scenes. But the P.I. isn't impressed by their threat to publicize his mob links if he fails to talk. ("[T]he more sleazy and connected to gangsters you make me sound," Heller contends, "the more desirable and glamorous I'll seem to potential clients.") Even entertainer Frank Sinatra is ready to put his pal Heller in harm's way. Already at a low point in his career, the crooner is suffering further as federal agents scrutinize his association with underworld figures like Lucky Luciano, and as he becomes a target for Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose infamous campaign against American Communists -- both factual and fanciful -- is just shifting into high gear. ("I'm sweating, man," Sinatra tells Heller. "If they label me a pinko, I really am washed up.") The singer wants Nate to pay McCarthy a visit and "find out what it'll take to get him off my ass."
Whatever hope Heller had that things could be peacefully resolved here is blown when Bill Drury's particularly ardent investigation of a crooked Chicago police captain makes the "Watchdog of the Loop" a target for hit men. The subsequent abduction of Jackie Payne finally convinces Nate that if there's any justice -- and maybe revenge -- to be had from this situation, it's up to him to find it. Even if that means throwing his lot in with Kefauver and chasing crooks down Mexico way.
Like previous Heller novels, Chicago Confidential is enriched by thorough historical research and enlivened by its blend of real characters with concocted ones. In addition to Sinatra, McCarthy and the Fischetti trio, Collins provides cameos for mobster Sam Giancana, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson (who also had a role in Majic Man) and Jake Rubinstein, a mobbed-up informant for the Kefauver committee, who's on his way to becoming better known as "Jack Ruby." (Since Collins frequently turns walk-on players from one book into major participants in succeeding novels, readers can be forgiven for wondering whether Ruby's involvement here portends the plot basis for a later installment of this series, centered around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and/or the death of Kennedy's purported paramour, actress Marilyn Monroe.) This yarn also benefits from an appearance by Estes Kefauver, the Democratic senator (and soon-to-be vice-presidential candidate) from Tennessee. A "goofy-looking combination of hayseedish and professorial qualities," Kefauver comes off as a firm yet pragmatic believer in the ability of government to expose, if not curb, criminal might. Two-thirds of the way through this book, he and Nate debate the value of the Senate Crime Investigating Committee's labors. Heller begins:
"I don't mean to be a hostile witness. It's just that I don't approve of your committee's methods. Your traveling circus rolls into town, you make a lot of noise, cause a lot of trouble, and move on, leaving the rest of us to clean up after the elephants."
What's missing from this tale, of course, is the sort of celebrated "unsolved" mystery that has propelled the action in Collins' previous "true-crime novels." The fate of Bill Drury, a cop turned crime reporter turned congressional investigator, who most folks will never have heard of, hardly measures up to the slaying of legendary bank robber John Dillinger, the otherworldly Roswell Incident or the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, all of which Nate Heller has investigated in the past.
If there's another weakness to Confidential, it is Heller's improbable resiliency of the heart. Though he appears devastated by the loss of one romantic interest on page 233, within only a few more pages he's in Acapulco, enjoying a giddy "pretend honeymoon" (the colorful specifics of which I shall leave to your imagination) in the arms of a different "bombshell." There's no doubt that Nate is one tough nut, but for his dolor to be taken seriously, it ought to last longer than a horse race. Collins did a better job of saddling Nate with palpable grief in Flying Blind, which found the P.I. seducing aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
But these faults ultimately detract little from Chicago Confidential. With its quicksilver dialogue, truly menacing action sequences, political undercurrents and unexpected solution, this is one gangbuster of a book. | June 2002
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.