Skip to main content

Better Dead: A Nathan Heller Thriller


Better Dead: A Nathan Heller Thriller

Spring, 1953.

“...I can go out and try to clear the Rosenbergs, and get us the kind of headline publicity the A-1 hasn’t seen in a while.”

“You pull this off,” he said, shaking his head, “and you’ll make a lot of Republicans unhappy.”

“Just the crazy ones,” I said, “…And that still leaves all those Democrats.”

Nathan Heller, private investigator to the stars, is setting up a branch office of the A-1 Detective Agency in Manhattan. His No.1 man, Robert Hasty, is holding down the secretary’s desk while the rest of the desks remain unmanned. A Spade-like 1950s gumshoe, Heller has scruples --- at least his own kind --- but knows when to loosen them in order to survive. Besides that, the ladies love him, and why not? He’s successful and famous, and won’t hesitate to pull out his gun. In fact, he does. Quite a lot.

"You won’t find a more engrossing historical thriller than BETTER DEAD, nor will you have as much fun reading it."

In this latest job, a group headed by renowned writer Dashiell Hammett has approached Heller to find previously undiscovered evidence that might win a new trial for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, the Rosenbergs, Hammett and his comrades believe, were railroaded. A very zealous Senator Joseph McCarthy --- well known for his tenacious hunting of Communist Party members --- has hired Heller to report back to him all of his findings, the senator’s motive being, naturally, to keep the Commies safely locked away on Death Row. Heller might have sympathies leaning toward one camp over another, but knows better than to make an enemy of McCarthy. He adheres to the old adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” and that’s just what he does. Honesty is one of his best traits, though, so he stays mostly open with both sides, even while keeping some of the juicier facts to himself. There are some things he doesn’t need to share with his clients.

Heller interviews and re-interviews witnesses and covers old and fresh ground, but we all know what the outcome was for the Rosenbergs. It just remains to be seen how well Heller weathers the storm. Fortunately, McCarthy seems pleased with the results, and whether or not Heller wants him to throw more work his way, here it comes. Apparently, McCarthy has caught wind of some file with potentially damaging personal information on him in the CIA’s possession. He’d really like to get his hands on it, so he sics Heller on the case. Rumor has it that McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was also the subject of a file, but McCarthy steadfastly maintains that none of the allegations made against himself and/or Cohn are true. Heller doesn’t buy that line and would love to see Cohn put away in almost any manner possible as he’s a nasty SOB. But since the PI is being paid nicely and has some good contacts, he says he’ll see what he can do.

Tangentially, Heller lands another client, the famously provocative Bettie Page, who has heard rumors of some allegations she wants to go away, too. See, Bettie works as a certain type of model, and certain more prudish types object to the kind of modeling she does, Heller not being among those. But now he has his hands full --- in many ways (some more pleasant than others), although what started out seeming to be a simple task of calling in favors ratchets up into a lot more action than he’d have thought.

In addition to being a charming character with enviable bravado and witty repartee, Nathan Heller is a sort of old-fashioned hero that it’s nice to see come around again. He strolls around New York in a frightening time of our history, rubbing elbows with the likes of Bobby Kennedy and chatting casually with Dashiell Hammett, while handling the streets of New York City as only a Chicago boy can. The entire era comes to vivid life with a fever pitch. You won’t find a more engrossing historical thriller than BETTER DEAD, nor will you have as much fun reading it.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on May 6, 2016

Better Dead: A Nathan Heller Thriller
by Max Allan Collins