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by Max Allan Collins
Signet, February 2002
320 pages
ISBN: 0451205170

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Max Collins claims to have invented the hardboiled historical novel. Whether he did or not, he certainly pursues the form with enthusiasm. Like a noir Lanny Budd or Selig, his Chicago private detective, Nate Heller, manages to be involved in most of the major unsolved crimes of the mid-twentieth century and in this, the twelfth in the memoirs of Nate Heller series, he provides a solution to that icon of apparent sex crimes, the Black Dahlia slaying of 1947.

Nate has left his home turf of Chicago for Los Angeles, where he is opening a branch of his detective agency and enjoying a honeymoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Not bad for a private eye.) For reasons too tedious to recount, he finds himself in a vacant lot, Speed Graphic in hand, confronting the bisected corpse of Beth Short, her face horribly carved into a grotesque smile. His first thought is that she looks like the victim of another infamous serial killer, the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. His second is that he knows her; indeed he recently had something of an affair with her back in Chicago. So he not only wants to solve this crime, but he needs to do it before he himself becomes a suspect. His third is that this may not be the sex crime it appears, as the smile carved into her face is the trademark insult dealt out by the mob to punish informers.

Collins writes with all the subtlety of the Speed Graphic tabloid photo Nate takes of the corpse. He apparently is a painstaking researcher (though his sources fail to mention his novelistic predecessor on this case, James Ellroy), perhaps too painstaking. Virtually every famous and obscure figure connected with this case, from Orson Welles and Franchot Tone on down, make at least a walk-on appearance. His explanation of how Beth came to be killed, provided, curiously, to one of those involved in the murder, occupies an entire fourteen page chapter. But more troubling than his tedious exposition and his repetition of the injuries suffered by poor Beth Short is his attack on the victim, whom he presents as a blackmailing cock-tease, one who may not have deserved what she got, but probably asked for it. Most commentators on this case view Beth as an essentially nice, if very naive girl. In Collins's hands she becomes knowing, cunning, and manipulative. One might argue that this turn on the female is part and parcel of the period and the genre, and as such it might be forgiven were this pure fiction, but Elizabeth Short, dead at twenty-two, was a real young woman who died horribly. As such, more than misogynist speculation is required before subjecting her character to such a revision.

I have to confess that this is the first Nate Heller novel I have read. On the basis on Angel in Black, it will probably be the last.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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