by Max Allan Collins
Published by Dutton Books
352 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
"I have a feeling that there is just one more good flight left in my system and I hope this trip is it. " -- Amelia Earhart, shortly before she vanished over the South Pacific
Confession time: I suffer from severe envy of Max Allan Collins. This is a condition of long standing, and from which I can't imagine recovering until I am able someday, somehow to engineer a best-selling fiction-writing career of my own. You see, Collins does pretty much exactly what I would most like to do in this world. He creates period mysteries around real characters and incidents. And he's damn good at it.
Flying Blind, in which Collins' Chicago private eye Nathan Heller "solves" the disappearance of renowned American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, is his ninth novel-length attempt to make sense of some of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century. This series began back in 1983 with the publication of True Detective, a Prohibition-era yarn that found Heller quitting the Chicago police force and taking on his first client as an independent investigator: gangster chieftain Al Capone, who hires him to prevent the 1933 murder of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermack.
In the years since, Heller has delved into the 1934 FBI shooting of bank robber John Dillinger (True Crime); failed to protect Las Vegas mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel from being gunned down in 1947 (Neon Mirage); figured out the real story behind the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping (Stolen Away) and the 1935 assassination of Louisiana governor-turned-US senator Huey Long (Blood and Thunder); and teamed with legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow to reveal the truth behind the revenge murder of a Hawaiian "native" accused in 1931 of raping a sexy socialite (Damned in Paradise).
Balancing fact and fiction like this is a trickier business than it seems. Because after spending weeks or months researching something like the Lindbergh case, a writer may naturally feel the urge to demonstrate his or her scholarship through lengthy digressions that only detract from the flow and purpose of a novel. Collins manages to resist that compulsion, instead delivering the historical facts behind Heller's inquiries in slow drips, as needed.
Nonetheless, his stories crackle with the authenticity of studied period detail, whether Collins is describing an illegal Chicago "speakeasy," tossing Heller into tête-à-têtes with G-man J. Edgar Hoover or notorious fan dancer Sally Rand, or re-creating Bugsy Siegel's murder ("Glass crashed as gunfire rocked the room, shook Ben like a rag doll, his right eye flying, nose crushed, and I hit the deck..."). Contributing to the verisimilitude are assorted other personages out of America's past -- from hit man Frank Nitti and celebrity columnist Walter Winchell to Olympic swimmer (and future actor) Buster Crabbe and Untouchables lawman Eliot Ness -- who make cameo appearances or have recurring roles in the Heller series. The only other author who rivals Collins at weaving a fictional gumshoe into the troubled lives of 20th-century American luminaries is Stuart Kaminsky, but his Toby Peters series (A Fatal Glass of Beer, Dancing in the Dark ) is more deliberately humorous than Collins' work.
The mystery of Amelia Earhart is certainly no laughing matter to our hero in Flying Blind. The story actually begins in 1970, after Nate Heller has semi-retired to Florida, where he exhausts his days betting at horse tracks and ogling bikinied young women. He hasn't thought much about Earhart for years, until a deep-pocketed Texan shows up on his doorstep hoping he'll participate in a new search for the missing pilot. Heller wants to tell him no; but hell, he wants to know, too, whether there was more to Earhart's story than he ever understood.
Flashback to 1935. Amelia Earhart -- "Lady Lindy," as the press called her, fashioning her as the distaff counterpart to Charles Lindbergh -- is near the peak of her fame. She's set flying records, shares a close friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, is a published author, and has even developed a new line of sports and spectator attire for women. At the same time, she's apparently the recipient of threatening letters. Her husband/manager -- a shameless promoter and book publishing heir named George Palmer Putnam -- wants Heller to protect her during a coming cross-country lecture tour. He also wants the detective to keep his eyes open for the possibility that Earhart is cheating on her marriage vows. Seduced by the money offered and having long ago shed any righteous repugnance toward the dirty laundry airing of divorce work, Heller takes the job.
It's a decision that he comes to regret. For as the pair cruise slowly over the byways of the United States, Heller learns to like this tall, slender and earnest flyer, with her honey-blonde hair and playful demeanor. "To the world, she was Amelia Earhart," Heller remarks at one point, "but to me, and only me, she was Amy."
Through Collins' fiction Earhart becomes fully-dimensional, as she rarely has been in factual texts, somebody ruled by her passion for planes (despite relatively mediocre skills as a pilot) and determined to open up new career prospects for women in the 20th century. Extrapolating from contemporary descriptions of her mannish attire and hints of her promiscuity, the author goes further in completing her character, depicting Earhart as bisexual -- an orientation that, while initially surprising to Heller, doesn't stop him from becoming the "other man" in Amelia's life, the very person Putnam had hired him to expose. This is a significant evolution for Heller, who in previous "memoirs" has enjoyed numerous sexual encounters with women, but sometimes demonstrated a sort of Mike Hammerish disregard toward them as continuing sources of affection.
There's no doubt of Heller's devotion to Amelia Earhart when, about two thirds of the way through Flying Blind, she supposedly crashes into the Pacific and dies during her 1937 'round-the-world flight. Although initially resistant to contrary suggestions that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, might have survived, Heller decides to poke further into the matter, eventually concluding that Earhart and Noonan have actually been captured as spies by the Japanese (who in the 1930s were building up their war armaments and Pacific island bases). Yet before he can do much more, Heller is set upon by government agents and convinced -- at least for a while -- to stop searching for his beloved Amy, to allow her release to be undertaken by diplomats rather than a lone detective.
"I was a good American, after all; and anyway, I had no desire to be the government's next disappearing act," Heller says by way of explaining his acquiescence, then adds:
But as the days and months passed, I would open the paper each morning, looking for the headline announcing her return. Amy's good pal President Roosevelt wouldn't let her rot in some Japanese jail, would he? An arrangement would be made; some exchange; something that would allow both countries to achieve their goals and the honorable Japanese tradition of saving face.
But the headline never came. Amelia Earhart had vanished from the pages of the papers as completely as she had somewhere over the Pacific. She had flown out of the news and into the pages of history, where she lay prematurely buried.
I shan't give away the ending, except to say that Heller was right: there was more to Earhart's story than he ever understood. At least, according to this novel, which draws heavily on postulations made over the last half century by both conspiracy theorists and some more level-headed historians. Amongst those, Collins has sifted in a few plausible complications of his own -- none of which may ever be confirmed by official reports or eyewitnesses, but which remain superb grist for intellectual debate.
Scrupulously plotted and gracefully written, with a judiciously restrained edge of violence, Flying Blind and the Heller series, in general, could be seen as a sort of microcosm of the American detective story. Like Dashiell Hammett, John Dickson Carr, James M. Cain, and the other "pulp" magazine writers who created this genre, Collins' stories find their footing in the 1930s and '40s, an age of financial depression, mob violence, and political corruption. Yet Nate Heller is clearly a man tempered by the sensibilities and self-reflection of our own era, someone simultaneously more prone toward compassion than say, Sam Spade, but less constricted by any personal moral code than Philip Marlowe or (in a more extreme sense) Spenser. Someone who, after a lifetime of action and one-night stands, might still credibly find himself dreaming in his 64th year about a tomboyish flyer who'd once captured his heart as easily as she did headlines. | September 3, 1998
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.
To learn more about the early life, celebrity, and last flight of Amelia Earhart, go to http://www.ionet.net/~jellenc/ae_intro.html