Sunday, 21 October 2012


In an appealling bit of synchronicity, the Guardian on Friday ran an interview with Martin Landau, who,asit happens, dated Marilyn Monroe in the Fifties when both were at the Actors' Studio. Landau was explaining how he felt neither James Dean nor Marilyn were suicidal, and their deaths have been remembered for all the wrong reasons. 'There's always a lot of conjecture about Marilyn's death,' Landau explained. 'It's still a mystery; no one seems to know exactly what happened. Yes, there were ongoing issues with Marilyn, but they did not support the idea of suicide in any way, shape or form.'

The quote struck me because I had literally just finished Max Allan Collins' Bye Bye Baby, his thirteenth Nate Heller historical true-crime novel, but the first to be published in nine years, and it deals with the death of Monroe, in 1962. I've written before about the Heller series, and what a crime it is, if you'll pardon the expression, that they have basically avoided publication in Britain. Perhaps British publishers thought that American crimes, like the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahlia murder, or the assassinations of Huey Long or Chicago's Mayor Cermak, wouldn't have any appeal to their audience. But Heller has also investigated Amelia Earhart's disappearance, the sighting of aliens at Roswell, and the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, which involves the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And now Marilyn.

By the time the book opens, Heller is highly successful, the PI to the stars, and he has a close relationship with Monroe. She hires him to big her own house, and he discovers that she is already being spied upon, by multiple snoops. You should know the story by now—having been dumped by JFK and begun an affair with brother Bobby, she was also embroiled in a feud with Paramount over the filming of Something's Got To Give (remember the poolside photos?). Her death was suspicious in many ways—not least because the police were not called for hours afterwards, and the amount of barbituates in her system was so huge it's hard to imagine how she might've ingested them all.

Around this story Collins weaves a plot which draws Heller back into the orbits of many people he's worked for or encountered before—not just the Kennedys and their hangers-on, but Sam Giancana and the mob, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Hoffa. This is one of the strongest points about the Heller series—Collins has patiently been building the connections which amount to a dissection of at least part of the secret history of the United States. It's odd that he should be travelling in much the same circles as James Ellroy—I recall in an interview his explaining how much he liked Ellroy while at the same time being unable to read his books—but of course coming at the material from a very different style.

Heller the character veers between two points. He is a hard-boiled but soft-centered detective, which occasionally makes him a very appealling character in a sentimental sort of way. This is essential to Collins because the Heller books are told in the first person, with a real sense of nostalgia about them. As he himself has noted, they are not strictly speaking, period pieces, like Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters or Andrew Bergman's Jack LeVine, but to me they are often close in tone to Herman Wouk's Wind Of War, with Heller sometimes playing a Pug Henry type character, almost an observer, occasionally a catalyst for history.

What's interesting in Bye Bye Baby is how much the success of the novel depends on the depth of the characters—for example, his composite detective who's doing the bugging of Monroe's house, and his Dorothy Killgallen et al composite journalist are both key characters with whom Heller has to interact—and neither gets the time to be totally convincing. On the other hand, his historical figures are much more so—both Kennedys, John Roselli, Giancana, Joe DiMaggio, Peter Lawford and even Sinatra all fit the personalities we think we know, but have real and sometimes surprising depth. The lesser-known figures around Marilyn are likewise drawn well—though some of them, especially Dr Ralph Greenson, were sort of parodies of themselves already. I was curious to learn that James Hamilton, of the LAPD's Intelligence Division, was briefly head of security for the NFL; I've met a couple of his successors along the way.

The key, of course, is his Marilyn. There is an element of voyeurism to Heller's own relationship with her, as well as a couple of very touching moments. But where Collins gets it best is when he shows her trying to control her own life, particularly her business side, but being vulnerable because she can never control her emotional life. That insight, and the way it's expressed make the book work. And the 'solution' makes a certain amount of sense—it may well be the only way to draw all the anomalies of the case together.

For all the careful characterisation, there is also a moment of unintentional humour, which comes from the unavoidable need to sometimes be expository in the story-telling. Heller and some cops are talking to Eunice Murray, Marilyn's housekeeper, and one of the shadier people in the story, Heller notes that her story sounded prepared. 'Marilyn was “motionless” and “looked peculiar”...who talks like that?' he asks. When, later in the book, Heller discusses Marilyn's non-vindictive nature with Flo Kilgore, and brings up her feud with Joan Crawford. 'I remember that,' he says. 'But she expressed her disappointment and hurt over the affront,saying how much she'd always admired Crawford.' I made a quick note, asking 'who talks like THAT?'

But I also found it intriguing that, when Heller does his summing up, for our benefit, of what happened to the characters, his mentions that Roselli was found floating in an oil drum in Biscayne Bay. He doesn't mention that he was found just before he was scheduled to tesitify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Maybe that's because he's saving that bit info for the aftermath of his next Heller book, Target Lancer, due out in November, which will mark the 29th anniverary of the first Heller novel (pubished in 1983) and the 49th of the JFK assassination. As I said, Heller has already dealt with many of the key figures around the assassination—including (I've been working my way through his short stories too) one Jake Rubinstein, a Chicago hood Heller knew in his early days, who wound up owning a strip club in Dallas where he was better known as Jack Ruby. I'm looking forward to it already.

BYE BYE, BABY by Max Allan Collins
Forge Books (USA) $7.99 ISBN 9780765361462


M. Pritchard said...

I just heard your commentary on the presidential campaign on BBC World Service Newshour through National Public Radio here in the States. I appreciate your insight, as I'm sick of the pundits and the rhetoric presented in soundbites instead of detailed analysis of each candidates' positions. I had to look you up to find out if you've written any more about U.S. politics, but I only found this blog and your others on art, literature and cinema. I'd be interested in reading more on the state of politics in the U.S. from the viewpoint of an expat.

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that--I'd suggest getting in touch with NPR and/or BBC and make the same might help!

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