Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stolen Away by Max Allan Collins (Nathan Heller historical mystery series #5)

The fifth novel in Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller series of historically accurate private-eye mysteries not only won the Shamus Award for best private-eye novel (the second in the series to win after True Detective), but is also, at 600 pages, the longest private-eye novel ever written.

But there's a lot of story to cover in Stolen Away, which focuses on the kidnapping of the "Lindbergh baby," 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr., son of the famous pilot ("Lucky Lindy"), who flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic and was the first person to do it solo.

The story begins, however, with Heller, at this point still a cop on the Chicago force, following a suspicious-looking blonde, baby in tow, through the local train station. The Lindbergh kidnapping is only a few days old, and Heller thinks he might be on the trail to solving it, which would do wonderful things for his career.

He tails the woman all the way home, only to discover he's stumbled onto another kidnapping entirely. But this case catches the attention of Charles Lindbergh ("Slim" to his friends), who requests Heller's assistance in the investigation of his own child's disappearance.

Since Heller is still a cop throughout most of the book, Stolen Away walks the line of being a true private-eye novel. It is only Heller's distance from his normal jurisdiction that, in the long run, makes it feasible -- that and its part in the already established series. Heller works alone, and I guess that's what counts.

Having an elderly Heller writing his "memoirs" from his retirement complex in Coral Springs is a nice touch. It lends a realism that an actual person is recounting these events from memory (though he must have Archie Goodwin's memory for dialogue to be able to remember conversations as clearly as he does).

Collins' solution to the kidnapping is a little too clean for my taste, but Stolen Away as a whole is quite a gripping read with a surprisingly emotional conclusion. Fans of the series will tear through this, but I would especially recommend it to those interested in the Lindbergh kidnapping as history, given that Collins's usual exhaustive research is in high gear here. All the characters, except Heller, are either real people, "have real-life counterparts," or are composites of real people, and their actions and motives are taken from various articles and books about the case, mostly written by the participants.

That it all fits together so well is a testament to author Max Allan Collins's skill, especially since, in his "I Owe Them One" afterword (where he lists his sources), he cites the "conflicting source material" and the fact that "none of the books contemporary to the Lindbergh case proved entirely reliable." Nevertheless, Stolen Away is by far my favorite Heller mystery, and Collins is always my go-to guy whenever I want to indulge my taste for a great historical whodunit.
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