Collins, a Dick Tracy cartoon writer, has also produced two hard-boiled, likably modest mysteries (The Baby Blue Ripoff, No Cure for Death)--but his uneven new novel is anything but modest: this cop/gangster/politics tale strains for the moral seriousness of Dashiell Hammett. . . while also trying (far too cutely) to be a name-dropping evocation of Chicago, 1932-33. The narrator is young plainclothes cop Nato Holler, who's guilt-stricken over his father's suicide--which followed Nate's involvement in a corrupt police coverup. And now Nate finds himself picked to participate in even worse cop shenanigans: he's the only witness when one of Mayor Cermak's elite policemen shoots gangster Frank Nitti in the back, later claiming (falsely) that Nitti had shot first. Will Nato--who himself shoots a mobster in the ensuing melee--go along with this crass attempt at official murder? (The killer-cop was paid off by a Nitti gang-rival.) Yes, he will, reluctantly--but he'll also quit the force, starting in the private-eye business with help from his two best chums: famed fighter Barney Ross and crime-fighter Eliot Ness. His first big case: A1 Capone, from prison (with George Raft as middle-man), hires Nato to try to prevent the Miami assassination of Mayor Cermak--a power-ploy plot by Capone's rival Nitti (who survived that shooting); and Nate accepts the assignment, especially since Nitti's hit-man for the job just happens to be his nemesis, the killer involved in that original police coverup. As history mavens will predict, however, Nate's much-detailed shadowing down in Miami fails: Cermak is shot (by a second hit-man) while standing next to FDR--and only Walter Winchell believes Narc's declaration that Cermak, not FDR, was the intended victim. And finally, back in Chicago, Nato falls in love with a young radio actress, tries to find her missing twin brother, trains the police pickpocket-squad for the World's Fair, stalks that hit-man nemesis, suffers through more mob/cop corruption--and brings a few of the plot-strands together in a disillusioning discovery: ""I killed the dream that I was the true detective who would find the heroine's brother and make the world right again. I killed the happy ending."" Unfortunately, despite this last-chapter tie-up, Nate's adventures throughout are episodic, shapeless--with only the most contrived connections. There's a problem, too, in the mixture of styles: the near-silliness (reminiscent of Stuart Kaminsky's dismal Toby Peters series) of the period cameos, including one by young sportscaster ""Dutch"" Reagan--as opposed to the portentousness (complete with pretentious sex scenes) of Narc's identity-crisis/soul-journey. Still, when not clumsily reaching for eloquence or import, Collins writes good plain action and good tough dialogue--so fans of gangster/cop fiction (especially those historically inclined) may want to meander along with Nate through this busy, overlong fact/fiction hybrid.