Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Max Allan Collins, Better Dead

Max Allan Collins, Better Dead
Forge Books, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0765378286
Also available as an ebook

While presented as a single story, I think it works better to consider Better Dead as two linked novellas (as in fact the TOC suggests).  In the first, Nathan Heller, Chicago PI with an office in LA and a newly-opened one in NYC, is hired by Joseph McCarthy to discover what is being hidden about the Rosenbergs, by a committee seeking a new trial for them (headed by Dashiell Hammett), and by columnist Drew Pearson seeking information to discredit McCarthy. 

For anyone who has (for whatever reason) followed the Rosenberg case at all, there's not much new here.   Despite the evidence that has emerged making it clear that at least Julius Rosenberg was a spy, the overwhelmingly strong case that the prosecution engaged in misconduct and that both the FBI and the CIA were pursuing ends other than a just resolution to this case, to me at any rate, remains the most important conclusion.  Collins (through Heller) dissects the evidence and the personalities quite well, and, if you are not familiar with the events, this about as good an introduction as you are likely to find. 

The second half of the book involves CIA experiments in the mid-1950s with LSD and other chemical means of controlling people. This section of the book spins off the career and death of a government chemist, Frank Olson, who was involved in the research in question, but who had a conscience.  Linking the two cases is Heller's involvement with McCarthy, who wants to go after the CIA.  Heller pushes through cover-ups, stonewalling, and what can only be called CIA malfeasance to an unsettling conclusion. 

If you want two mysteries drawn from the recent history of the US and of the involvement by government agencies in activities that will (I hope) make you think twice about government secrecy in general and the CIA in particular, these two tales will compel your attention.  They will not leave you feeling pleased or happy or safe.

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