Chicago, September 1964. Beatlemania sweeps the nation, the Vietnam War looms, and the Warren Commission prepares to blame a "lone-nut" assassin for the killing of President John F. Kennedy. But as the post-Camelot era begins, a suspicious outbreak of suicides, accidental deaths, and outright murders decimates assassination witnesses. When Nathan Heller and his son are nearly run down on a city street, the private detective wonders if he himself might be a loose end. . . .
Soon a faked suicide linked to President Johnson's corrupt cronies takes Heller to Texas, where celebrity columnist Flo Kilgore implores him to explore that growing list of dead witnesses. With the blessing of Bobby Kennedy—former US attorney general, now running for Senator from New York—Heller and Flo investigate the increasing wave of violence that seems to emanate from the notorious Mac Wallace, rumored to be LBJ's personal hatchet man.
Fifty years after JFK's tragic death, Collins's rigorous research for Ask Not raises new questions about the most controversial assassination of our time.
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About the Author
MAX ALLAN COLLINS has been chosen as the 2017 Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). He is the bestselling author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition, the basis for the hit film starring Tom Hanks. He has won two Shamus Awards, for True Detective and Stolen Away, both from his series of Nathan Heller novels. A prolific writer, Collins' other works include mystery novels, screenplays, comic books, film novelizations, and historical fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Nathan Heller Mystery
By Max Allan Collins, Jim Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Max Allan Collins
All rights reserved.
My son's generation will always remember two key events of their teenage years — where they were when news came of President Kennedy's assassination, and seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
I learned of the former in a guest room at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion in Chicago — in the company of Miss November, fittingly enough. Soon, amid beauties with their mascara running, she and I had hunkered around a portable television with a little gray picture in a big shiny white kitchen. The latter broadcast I somehow missed, but Sam has made it abundantly clear over the years that the February 9 appearance of those four Liverpool lads on The Ed Sullivan Show was right in there with JFK getting it.
My son once told me that that joyful noise had signaled a rebirth for his generation, the Baby Boomers, granting them permission to smile and have fun and be silly again. But it also signaled the end of barbershops as we knew them and extended the fad called rock 'n' roll through the rest of the century and beyond.
Unlike many of my contemporaries — I was a successful businessman in my well-preserved late fifties — I did not have disdain for the Beatles. They were a pretty fair combo, better than most of the little bands that had made the Twist a very big deal on Rush Street, and they seemed to have a sense of humor. Earlier this year, Sam had convinced me to take in their flick A Hard Day's Night, and I'd liked it. More importantly, Miss November — who you may have calculated was younger than me — loved it.
The Beatles, through no fault of their own, had created a problem for me with Sam. He lived with his mother and my ex-wife (that's one person) in Hollywood with her husband, a fitfully successful film producer. Normally Sam spent summers with me in Chicago, but he had begged off of June and July because his combo — yes, the Beatle bug had bit him hard — had a weekly pool party gig at a Bel Air country club that paid "incredible money" ($100).
"So what about August?" I'd asked him over the phone.
"August is cool. August is groovy. Everybody's going on vacation with family, so we can't take gigs anyway. Dad, are you okay with this?"
"It's cool. Maybe not groovy, but cool." I had maintained a strong relationship with my son by not insisting on having my own way. That's right. I spoiled his ass. Divorced dads get to do that.
Have to do that.
And August had been swell. At a second-run theater in Evanston, we took in From Russia with Love, and before the film began I bragged about having met James Bond's papa during the war.
"I doubt Ian Fleming was on Guadalcanal, Dad," Sam had said skeptically over his popcorn.
"It was on Nassau," I said. "He was doing spy stuff."
"The stories you tell! How am I supposed to know when you're bullshitting me?"
Another way I spoiled Sam was to let him swear around me. His mother hated it. Which I loved.
I sipped too-sweet Coke. "Someday you'll appreciate your old man."
"Hey, as dads go, you're one of the cooler ones."
Not cool, just one of the cooler ones. I'd settle.
Sam — actually Nathan Samuel Heller, Jr., but his mother and I decided one Nate around the house was plenty (more than enough, as it turned out) — had caught up with my six feet now. He had my late mother's Irish good looks, the Jewish half of my heritage nowhere to be seen in either of us, and we looked enough alike to be brothers. If he had a really old brother.
Oh, and he had his mother's brown hair, not my reddish variety. Cut in that Moe Howard bowl haircut the Beatles had bestowed on American males. Once upon a time I'd wished he would let that dumb crew cut grow out. Careful what you wish for.
"Listen, uh, Dad ... I need to talk to you about college. I'm thinking about liberal arts."
"No. I want to be able to take music courses."
Like the Beatles had ever studied music!
Sam was my only son. My only kid period. I had no desire to reshape him into Nathan Heller, Jr., even if that was his name. But I did have a successful business — the A-1 Detective Agency, here in Chicago and with branches in Los Angeles, New York, and more recently Las Vegas — and I hoped he'd eventually take it over.
Not as a detective — private eye days were long gone. Hell, they'd even canceled Peter Gunn. But the agency was a very profitable business indeed, and Sam would make a great executive — he was smart and personable and already pretty darn savvy.
"Music, huh?" I said lightly. "You'll teach, then. What, marching band? Chorus? What's the starting salary, thirty-five hundred a year?"
"Money isn't everything, Dad."
Said the kid with two well-off parents.
"Anyway," he went on, "I don't wanna teach. I don't know what I want to do, maybe keep playing my music ..."
His music. The last time I looked, "his" music was the Beach Boys, Beatles, Chuck Berry, and, what was that instrumental group? The Adventures? Surf music. Jesus God.
"... or something else, maybe, but not ... business."
He said the word the way a Republican says Democrat.
"You know I'll support you any way you want to go, son. But you might, I'm just saying might, want to —"
"It's starting," Sam said, meaning the movie, or anyway the previews.
And it was starting. The first major struggle between father and son, at least since back when he wanted to stay up and watch Johnny Carson on school nights.
So August flew by, and we went to the fights and to ball games and more movies and had plenty of great food with an emphasis on Gino's pizza. We loafed around my Old Town bachelor pad and watched my color TV with its impressive 21-inch screen. I even arranged for an afternoon tour of Hef's mansion, just to give Sam a little hint of what being a successful businessman might bring.
Anyway, it was September now. This was Saturday and Labor Day was Monday. Back in Beverly Hills, school had been in session a couple days already, but I'd arranged for Sam to stick around so I could give him his seventeenth birthday present.
The Beatles were performing tonight at Chicago's International Amphitheater. This was the hottest ticket in town, the latest stop on a twenty-four-city, thirty-two-day tour. Tickets were going for $2.50, $3.50, and $4.50. A really great dad, with just the right connections, might be able to score his kid one of those tickets. But I could top that.
Just like the Beatles could top Elvis Presley, whose first Amphitheater appearance had required two hundred policemen, for security — three hundred fifty cops were being put on for John, Paul, George, and Ringo, plus a couple hundred firemen with half a dozen ambulances standing at the ready. But celebrities like these required personal security as well, for their Midway Airport arrival, their Stock Yard Inn press conference, and the concert itself.
And that was where the A-1 Detective Agency came in. Alan Edelson, who was handling press arrangements in Chicago, said Brian Epstein himself had requested me. I pretended to be impressed, and later really was, when my son informed me that Epstein was the boy wonder who had discovered and signed the Beatles. Mr. Epstein had apparently read of me across the pond in a News of the World story about Hollywood's "Private Eye to the Stars."
In reality I remained Chicago's private eye to anybody with a fat wallet, and spent at most maybe three months in California spread out over an average year. But Life and Look magazine articles, focusing on star clients like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and the late Marilyn Monroe, had made a minor celebrity out of me.
Normally as president of the A-1, I would have left this job to my staff and whatever add-ons from other agencies we might require. Sure, I'd likely stop around, shake a famous hand to provide the celebrity reassurance (and the A-1 a photograph), then go on my merry way.
But attending to the Beatles personally gave me an opportunity to maybe be a hero to my son.
We skipped the madhouse at Midway Airport because I knew the best opportunity for Sam to meet his real heroes was at the Saddle and Sirloin Club, the Stock Yard Inn's restaurant. The medium-sized Tudor-style hotel itself was at Forty-second and Halsted, adjacent to the amphitheater. Sam and I were already there — half a dozen of my agents were doing the actual security work — when the Beatles arrived in a phalanx of blue uniforms.
The dining room — a replica of an old English inn with oaken paneling arrayed with hunting prints — was jammed with linen-covered tables at which only invited reporters whose credentials had been checked were allowed. Screaming teenagers outside held back by sawhorses made a kind of muffled jet roar. Blue cigarette smoke drifted lazily in contrast to a general air of tension. Every table had a photographer on his feet with flash camera ready.
They were so young, these four superstars who took chairs at a microphone-strewn banquet table on a modest platform. With the exception of Ringo Starr, who was maybe five seven, the others were around six feet, slender, smiling, amused. They wore sharp unmatching suits in the mod British style, Paul and Ringo in ties, John with his collar buttoned, George unbuttoned. A row of cops, their caps with badges on, were lined up behind them, as if not sure whether to protect or arrest.
Sam was in a suit similar to what the Beatles were wearing, but it was a Maxwell Street knockoff I bought him, not a Carnaby Street original; like George, he wore no tie and his collar was open. His shoes were something called Beatle boots that a lesbian might have worn to an S & M party. Not that anyone cared, I was in a dark-gray suit by Raleigh with a black-and-gray diamond-pattern silk tie. And Florsheims, not Beatle boots.
Before the questioning could begin, I approached the raised table with Sam at my side, and introduced myself to McCartney.
"You're the private eye," he said, pleasant if not overly impressed. He was smoking. They all were. My God, they were young. Not far past twenty. Just four years or so older than Sam.
I handed him my card. "These are my private numbers, if you need anything or there's any problem at the hotel."
After the concert, they would be staying, briefly, at the O'Hare Sahara awaiting their Detroit flight later tonight.
"Obliged," McCartney said.
I took a shot. "This is my son — Sam. You mind signing something for him?"
They were all agreeable, signing a cocktail napkin. Sam was frozen, so I mentioned he was in a band himself.
"Watch what you sign, man," Lennon said, as he was autographing the napkin. He winked at Sam, who took the flimsy paper square and nodded and said thanks to all of them. They had forgotten him already, but I will always remember that they were nice to my son.
"Have you fellas given any thought to what you're going to do when the bubble breaks?"
"Well," Lennon said, "we're gonna have a good time."
"We never plan ahead," Harrison said.
"How about your retirement, or buying into a big business?"
"We already are a big business," Lennon said, "so we don't have to buy into one."
That was a smart-ass reply, which the reporter well deserved, but Lennon's lilting accent took the edge off. Americans were suckers for a British accent; there was something seductive about it. I'd been with a couple BOAC stewardesses myself.
"What do you think of Chicago?"
Gesturing as he spoke, McCartney said, "I'm looking forward to seeing the gangsters with their broad-brimmed hats and wide ties."
I'm sure the cute Beatle considered that a gag, but the day before, a restaurant got blown up on Mannheim Road for resisting the protection racket, and two mob factions were currently shooting at each other over control of gambling on the North Side.
Anyway, the lads were funny and made monkeys out of any number of smug reporters. Sam wore a big grin throughout, holding onto that cocktail napkin with both hands.
The concert started at 8:30, but the Beatles didn't come on right away. The vast high-ceilinged chamber was packed with fifteen thousand audience members, most of them teenagers, chiefly girls, often with beehive hairdos. They didn't scream much during the four opening acts — a couple of nondescript combos, an out-of-place R & B singer, and a long-haired blonde who looked like she belonged in the audience — and I started to wonder what all the fuss was.
I'd been told the audience would scream so loud, you couldn't hear a damn thing. I was hearing these opening acts much better than I cared to. When the blond girl wrapped up her short set, meaning the headliners were next, the screaming kicked in, the sound like a burning building with flames eating away.
Finally at 9:20, the Beatles emerged, led onto the stage by Chicago cops, coming down stairs off to one side. Grinning and waving, the three front men strapped on their guitars — Ringo getting behind his drums on a little stage-on-the-stage — and the place went wild. Stark raving mad. Like the Playboy mansion the day JFK was shot, lots of mascara was running. The shrieking was unbelievable. That muffled jet roar wasn't muffled now — the damn jet was flying around in circles in the place, which was almost possible, since they held indoor drag races in here. There were six hundred thousand square feet of it, after all, currently filled by thousands of girls having a nervous breakdown.
We had front-row seats and could almost hear the music. Well, Sam seemed to hear it just fine — he was singing along to "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout" and all the rest.
I officially joined the older generation by covering my ears. Oddly I could hear the music better that way, particularly the bass guitar and drums. The damn thing seemed to go on forever. I thought I might weep. Finally it was over — thirty minutes that had earned these four twenty-year-olds a grand a minute.
When the Beatles fled the stage, I took advantage of my security status to enlist a cop to lead Sam and me out a side exit while the audience was still on its feet screaming and crying. As for me, my ears were ringing. It was like I had a seashell up to either ear and could hear waves pounding the shore.
We came around to an ocean of cars — the lot held four thousand and was at capacity — but the kids hadn't started to stream out yet, lingering inside in the afterglow of Beatle hysteria. All across the lot, parents were standing by cars, waiting, smoking, the little red tips bobbing like fireflies in the night.
A fairly short walk away, my car was parked across from the Stock Yard Inn on South Halsted. Short walk or not, I was well aware that this was the South Side, an area tougher than a nickel steak, not that the Saddle and Sirloin Club had served up any nickel steaks lately.
The nearby stockyards consumed a sprawling area between Pershing Road on the north, Halsted on the east, Forty-seventh on the South, and Ashland Avenue on the west — close to five hundred acres. Still, you could neither hear nor smell those thousands of doomed cattle, unless you counted the fragrant aroma wafting from the Saddle and Sirloin.
"You want me to get that napkin framed up for you?" I asked Sam.
"You won't lose it or anything, will you?"
"No. I can be trusted with evidence."
"That would be fab."
Engines starting up, mechanical coughs in the night, indicated the teenagers were finally exiting the amphitheater for their rides. The wide street was still largely empty, though, as we jaywalked across, making no effort at speed.
We paused mid-street for a car to go by in either direction. Across from us, my dark-blue Jaguar X waited patiently, with its hubcaps and everything — not bad for this part of town.
"I'll just hold on to it for now," he said, meaning the napkin. It was still in his hands like the biggest, luckiest four-leaf clover any kid ever found.
He would be seventeen later this month, but I had that same surge of feeling for him I'd first experienced holding him in my arms at the hospital. I was studying him, trying to memorize the moment, slipping an arm around his shoulders, and he tightened, hearing the engine before I did.
It came roaring up from our left, where somebody had been parked on the Stock Yard Inn side, a light-blue Pontiac Bonneville, screaming down the street like those girls at the amphitheater. The vehicle, even at this stupid speed, was no danger to us, but we began to move a little quicker across our lane.
Headlights were bearing down on us. The Pontiac had swerved — not swerved, swung into our lane, as if we were its targets.
Maybe we were.
The damn beast was right on us and it clipped me a little but it would have been much worse if Sam hadn't tackled me and shoved me out of harm's way. I glimpsed a blur of a dark-complected face in the window of the Pontiac as it whipped by, dark eyes glaring at me as if I were the one who'd hit him. Well, I had, a little.
Sam and I both landed hard on the pavement, and I had taken some impact, a glancing blow but still painful, on my left hip.
I was on my other side and Sam was hovering, saying, "Dad, Dad" over and over, as I managed to sit up, pointing.
"Son! Get that license number! Can you see it?"
I was too dazed — all I could see were red halos around taillights.
Excerpted from Ask Not by Max Allan Collins, Jim Frenkel. Copyright © 2013 Max Allan Collins. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this final volume in the JFK assassination trilogy, Nat Heller is caught up in investigating events in Dallas that November 22nd, drawn into the story behind the murder of the President, when he finds out about a series of suicides and suspicious deaths surrounding the case of Billy Sol Estes, who was famously convicted of fraud. Suddenly he sees a parallel, as witnesses to the event in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza also seem to disappear by suicide, “accidental” death or murder. “Ask Not” follows the previous novel, “Target Lancer,” which recounts an assassination plot against Kennedy in Chicago mere weeks before his murder. Heller, who in the previous entry played a pivotal role in putting together elements of the mafia, CIA and other groups as a go-between in the effort to assassinate the Cuban dictator Castro, now finds himself, and possibly his son and ex-wife, in the cross-hairs in what appear to be an effort to clean up “loose ends” left over from the failed effort called Operation Mongoose. This sad affair presumably gave rise to the theory that Castro was behind the Kennedy assassination. But that does not stop the author from proposing other conspiracy theories as well, including Texas oil men and even LBJ. Mr. Collins researches his novels extensively, and wherever possible uses real life people as characters, including Robert Kennedy or fictionalized persons based on real ones, such as Flo Kilgore, who more than resembles Dorothy Killgallen, columnist and TV personality. Whether or not there is any authenticity to the conspiracies told in the novels, they are always entertaining, and the novel is recommended.