First published in 1973, True Detective: A Nathan Heller Novel is author Max Allan Collins' first book in his Nathan Heller series. Since then, he's written 11 more Nathan Heller novels. We're fortunate that it's been reissued as an eBook, as the original and subsequent paperback edition prices have risen.
True Detective is historical fiction, with the fictional private investigator and former Chicago Police Department detective Heller working cases involving real-life historical figures. In fact, nestled among the chapters are pictures of many personalities, clipped from old newspapers or gleaned from dusty archival files.
Collins' book won the 1983 Best Novel Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
I love the story's opening line: "I was off-duty at the time, sitting in a speak on South Clark Street, drinking rum out of a coffee cup." It says so much about 1932 Chicago and introduces us to Nathan Heller early in his career as a cop.
Nate quits the police force when he is tricked into being present at an attempt to kill Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, Al Capone's cousin and heir to the mob. He opens his own private investigation office and is hired by Al Brown (alias for Al Capone) prevent Nitti from hitting Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak ("Ten Percent Tony").
The assigned hit man is the same one who killed Alfred "Jake" Lingle, a dirty reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and got away because Nate played the game and helped finger the wrong man when he was just a traffic cop, many years ago.
In what appears to be an unrelated case, Mary Ann Beame, a beautiful woman in the black dress (the stereotypical PI client) hires him to find her lost fraternal twin brother, Jimmy. They quickly become lovers, and take a side trip to her hometown of Davenport, Iowa, where Nate does research on her brother. It turns out that Jimmy was involved in gangland activities more than they thought.
Everything comes to a head at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair – “A Century of Progress” – a celebration seen from an "other angle" point of view as to its raison d’etre.
Historical characters make their appearance in True Detective: Edward "Ted" Newberry, Capone’s competitor on Chicago’s Southside; Barney Ross, one of greatest professional prizefighters of the time, top lightweight contender; Gen. Charles G. Dawes, former United States vice president and Chicago banker; Eliot Ness, yes THAT Eliot Ness; and actor George Raft, in town doing personal appearances publicizing "Undercover Man."
True Detective: A Nathan Heller Novel had me from the opening paragraph and didn’t let loose until the “what they did afterwards” conclusion. It’s gripping reading and evokes images of a famous bygone era in United States history.
I’ve already purchased the second Nate Heller novel; it’s on my bookshelf waiting its turn.
Max Allan Collins
AmazonEncore (Paperback, $14.95 list; Kindle edition $4.50)