Title: Target Lancer
Author: Max Allan Collins
Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
Though there have been countless major events during 20th century America, few come even close to being as sudden or as shocking as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was both a historical and cultural cornerstone for the Baby Boomers, much like the collapse of the Berlin Wall was for Generation X ,or 9/11 was for Generation Y. However, with mysterious circumstances surrounding the events, JFK’s assassination leads to countless conspiracy theories and what ifs. So it’s no wonder why Nate Heller, detective extraordinaire, would take a crack at it in Target Lancer.
Fiction (and non-fiction) stories surrounding the JFK assassination are nothing new, whether we’re talking about Don DeLilo’s Libra or Stephen King’s 11/22/63. And Target Lancer also has a great deal about the assassination plot…in Chicago. Not to mention that the beginning starts off with the infamous Operation Mongoose.
But it’s not just about the events leading up to that infamous ride in Dallas. It’s first and foremost a Nate Heller novel. And while the plot is driven by the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, the crux of the story is held by Nate Heller and his narration. It’s this that breaks it away from being yet another “Who killed JFK?” work.
A good first-person mystery is dependent on the quality of the narrator just as equally as the mystery itself, and although it’s my first Nate Heller novel, I dug Nate’s narration. There’s a laid back approach to the narration with plenty of wit and even some snark distilled into it. This is a much older Nate Heller, one who’s been through the ropes and knows what’s coming. A detective who’s now the head of his own firm, playboy who’s friend to Hugh Hefner and quite a few bunnies, and whose services are desired by the government. Of course, this sounds much like a stretch, but in the course of the novel it becomes more believable as Nate reminds new and old readers of the various world famous cases he’s worked on.
Do newcomers to the Nate Heller series need to catch up on his previous adventures to enjoy this one? Not really. The book is complete in and of itself, and any references not explained to newcomers aren’t necessary to comprehend.
Also, one doesn’t have to be a history major or a baby boomer to enjoy Target Lancer. Anyone with basic high school US History can comprehend what 1963 was, the importance of JFK, and the assassination and major conspiracy theories. There might be several characters and references that might not be as familiar to the alphabet generations, such as Sally Rand or Jack Ruby. But as with most well-written historical fiction, the story allows you to become familiar with the context whether you knew it before or not.
In fact, while the story is thoroughly researched, it’s indeed a mystery novel that avoids the pitfalls that some other historical based mysteries fall prey to. Although this story is chock full of facts that even the more knowledgeable historian might’ve forgotten, it never feels like a history lecture. There’s no cramming footnotes down your throat, or any attempts by Collins to show off what he learned researching the project. Nor are there forced “gee whiz” moments or over-done pop culture references to try and remind you that you’re in 1963. Target Lancer is simply natural in its approach and sincere in its story.
Same goes for the characters, both real and fiction. Because this is a fiction novel, it’s inevitable that the historical characters have been tailored for the novel or even changed into semi-fictional characters. But that’s fine, seeing that real life people such as Sally Rand and Jimmy Hoffa seem to come to life in this novel, with various traits and quirks giving them an unforgettable quality that goes far beyond the fact that they actually existed.
There are small nitpicks here and there, such as when Nate completely breaks the fourth wall and reminds the readers that they can skip the passage where he describes his apartment in detail. But these nitpicks are far and few. Target Lancer is the ticket you’ve paid for, a solid novel by a solid writer. There’s a satisfying ending that makes you question exactly what happened, without it falling prey to making an exact statement as to what happened. It leaves enough to make me interested in Nate Heller getting to the bottom of it all, which I’m sure he’ll get to soon.