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Target Lancer by Max Allan Collins

Where were you when JFK was assassinated?  I was in a high school class room. We watched on TV in horror as Walter Cronkite relayed information from the hospital confirming that Kennedy had died.  After class was dismissed we went home and continued to watch as the film of the motorcade and the assassination were played over and over.  That evening my parents and I, numbed by watching the same thing on TV over and over always with the same horrifying result, decided to go bowling for the evening. It was the first and only time family went bowling together and was a respite from the depressing task of watching the horror of the assassination of Kennedy, then of Oswald, and the funeral service all played out on TV over several days.

Max Allan Collins sent me a galley copy of his latest thriller, “Target Lancer,” due for publication November 2012.  Lancer is the name given to JFK by the Secret Service.  Extensive research has shown that JFK was a target throughout the month of November 1963 pretty much proving that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy that was ignored by the Warren Commission Report.  I had never been convinced by other conspiracy theory accounts; I am convinced now after reading Collins’ fictionalized but fact-based account of what happened in Chicago early in November in a plot to assassinate Kennedy during his planned visit to that city.

Now, I usually try to avoid a lot of detail in my reviews so as not to give away any spoilers.  I feel this book is so meaty and so important that the review needs to contain a few details from the book to illustrate.  Use this as a spoiler alert!  I assure you there is so much in this book that a few details now will not spoil the plot for you.

In Collins’ afterword he explains that, while the characters of the A-1 Detective Agency, led by his protagonist, Nathan Heller, are all fictional, most of the other characters in the book are real people, or composites of real people. Most of the events that are documented are real; Collins simply inserted Heller into them as a detective hired on a temporary basis to help protect Kennedy during his visit to the Army-Navy game at Soldier Field on November 2, 1963.  Kennedy’s open car motorcade was expected to run 11 miles from O’Hare into the city and to make a slowed-down turn on West Jackson Blvd. in the city.  That was where Heller concentrated his attention on potential snipers who had been traced to Chicago using intelligence from Bobby Kennedy.  There were two white guys involved and a couple of Cuban immigrants.  He found a sniper nest in the office building of a letter press operation on Jackson and another sniper on the roof across the street.  One of the men who worked at that operation had been a former Marine and U-2 pilot just like Lee Harvey Oswald and a check of his apartment revealed he had a stash of high powered rifles and thousands of round of ammunition.  Nothing could be done other than to set up surveillance because it was not illegal to have those armaments.

Early on in the book Heller is hired to be the bodyguard for an accountant he had done work for before.  The accountant delivered an envelope with $10,000 in it to a known mobster, Jack Ruby, the owner of a number of strip clubs in Dallas and the one who everyone saw take out Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV. It turns out that both Ruby and Oswald were in the Chicago area just shortly before Kennedy was expected to make an appearance in that city.  Later when the accountant dies under suspicious circumstances the widow hires Heller to find out what happened.  Heller traces back the death to thugs associated with any one of a number of mob figures including Jimmy Hoffa, Giancana and others.  Collins explains in the afterword that while in reality the accountant was not killed, the hand-off of cash to Ruby in Chicago actually happened.  Something similar happened as money was changed hands in Dallas shortly before Kennedy was actually shot.  There is also evidence that a plot to kill Kennedy was stirring in at least one other city where Kennedy was also scheduled to appear during November 1963.

Collins does a masterful job of putting his fictional character right in amid the actual people involved in protecting the president in the Secret Service, actual gangland figures, and assassins like Ruby and Oswald (who may or may not have been the actual killer and just a patsy for the real conspiracy).  The settings of the 1960s are spot-on and really take the reader back to that era.

There is enough circumstantial evidence and major coincidences to make it obvious now that there was a conspiracy leading up to the killing of Kennedy.  The exact players and their roles may remain a mystery.  Collins puts out his conjectures based on what happened in the little-known Chicago incident where Kennedy’s death was narrowly averted by his suddenly cancelling his visit.  What mystifies me is, with all that Bobby Kennedy already knew about the failed plot in Chicago, why would he not either contain things better in Dallas, or insist that his brother cancel that visit as well?  Perhaps politics and JFK’s overwhelming need to be seen and loved by the masses trumped his handlers’ arguments of what had to be done to protect the president.

Perhaps nothing could have saved him because the plot had actually infiltrated to some of his handlers within the FBI, CIA and/or Secret Service as well as to mobsters who had contacts with the Kennedy family and also people within the Cuban exile community.  Someone would have gotten Jack Kennedy sometime– it was a matter of when and not if–if the conspiracy theory is correct.

Target Lancer” may well reinvigorate the conspiracy theory arguments around the assassination of JFK.  It’s another winner for Max Allan Collins and his Nathan Heller series and an important historical novel about the Kennedy era.

Liz Nichols


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