Nine years after the release of Chicago Confidential, Max Allan Collins’ 12th and previous historical thriller starring Nate Heller, the resolute and randy “private eye to the stars” finally raises his head and guns again in a 13th outing, Bye Bye, Baby.
Read about M.J. McGrath’s White Heat in the last Rap Sheet.
Set during the summer of 1962, this much-twisted yarn finds Heller in Hollywood, far from his usual Windy City digs, working for silver-screen siren Marilyn Monroe. She’s convinced that the studio bigwigs behind her latest movie plan to pin delays in its production on her temperamental behavior, and she wants Heller tapping her phones in preparation for any future legal action.
But when Monroe suddenly turns up dead, allegedly from drug poisoning, Heller thinks he knows too much—especially about her links to mobsters, the CIA, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby—to write her passing off as mere suicide.
You’re constantly dropping your detective, Forrest Gump-like, into the known stream of history, where he comes in contact with such real-life characters as Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield, Al Capone and now Marilyn Monroe. Is this as fun an exercise as it seems?
I have a great deal of fun with the novels, but generally they are hard work. The first book was called True Detective (1983) and that has always been the mantra—to be accurate…
I never view the historical figures as historical figures. I do the research, usually enough to write a really definitive nonfiction book on the subject, but I then write a private-eye novel instead. And the process involves taking all that research on these figures and internalizing it, as if I had created these characters.
Despite the historical basis, the characters are my versions of them, my fictional characters. The moment I am intimidated by, say, Bobby Kennedy or Frank Sinatra, I am finished. They need to behave like fictional characters in a book I conceived out of whole cloth. This is, I admit, somewhat paradoxical, but it’s central to my approach.
Do you ever receive complaints about how you’ve made these real people behave in your novels?
I occasionally get negative reactions over Heller having sexual union, shall we say, with real women. I had death threats when he slept with Amelia Earhart [in 1998’s Flying Blind]. But the thing is…he didn’t really sleep with any of them, because he is a fictional character. My editor objected over an oral sex scene where Marilyn, uh, rewards Nate Heller. I countered by saying there is considerable evidence that Marilyn had done that kind of thing.
Bye Bye, Baby doesn’t shine the most favorable light on Jack and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom you suggest were sexually involved with Marilyn Monroe. Were your opinions of the Kennedys changed by your research for this new book? And do you think those brothers were actually complicit in Monroe’s fate?
I stand by my solution to Marilyn’s death, as depicted in this novel—I think I’m probably very close. The Kennedys were a tough one for me, as I am a left-of-center guy who has always admired them, and I know some people will be angry with me for painting them as the flawed individuals I think they were. I’m a little like Heller in this regard—he is Bobby’s friend and admires him and generally considers him to be on the side of the angels. But he is ultimately disappointed.
Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who was Monroe’s second husband (1954-1954), doesn’t come off here much better than the Kennedys. You cast him as abusive and possessive. Was he really such a bad sort?
I hope I don’t paint anybody “bad”—Heller’s world is a gray one, and I hope even the worst of the people he encounters have some humanity. That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally encounter a Nazi or serial killer, and of course Heller himself delivers some very rough justice on occasion. I’m already hearing that some readers are a little stunned by how he deals with Marilyn’s killer in Bye Bye, Baby.
As for DiMaggio, research is quite clear that he was at times an abusive husband, and the injuries Marilyn suffers at his hands in Bye Bye, Baby are depicted out of research, not imagination.
When you began this series, you were writing about the 1930s—before you were born. But time has advanced in the books, and Bye Bye, Baby takes place just half a century ago. How odd is it penning a “historical series” set during an era through which you lived and which you remember well?
I think you bring a certain authenticity to it, just having lived through the years in question, but you nonetheless have to do the research. As they say about the 1960s, if you remember them, you weren’t there. It is odd, scouring the Internet to see what songs were in the Top 40, what movies were popular, what TV shows were on and even what nights and what times they aired. Fashions, attitudes, current events. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember who was president in a given year.
Also, Bye Bye, Baby is set in 1962, and I was a kid in junior high then. So my world and Nate Heller’s were considerably different. He’s doing a lot better with the ladies than I was, despite his advancing age.
I hear you have two more Heller novels in the works, both dealing with the Kennedys. Tell me something about their plots.
There may be three more Kennedy novels. The Heller about the JFK assassination has been delivered [to my editor]—Target Lancer—but it deals with a little-known, Chicago-based aspect of the event. So I may follow up with a novel that deals with the aftermath of the assassination—the clean-up crew that went around bumping off witnesses.
Beyond that, I have a Bobby Kennedy novel that I hope can deal with Jimmy Hoffa as well as RFK’s assassination. I am looking at Martin Luther King and also Watergate. Many of the JFK assassination figures turn up in Watergate. And I hope to go back and pick up a few cases in the 1950s, as well. There’s still a lot for Nate to do.