Angel in Black; a Nathan Heller Novel

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By Max Allan Collins

Horrifying murders, many unsolved, stain L.A.’s history.
One of the most haunting is that of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, whose naked, severed body was found posed in a vacant lot in Leimert Park on Jan. 15, 1947.
Over the years a variety of theories about who killed Elizabeth (Beth) Short and why have been proposed.
In ANGEL IN BLACK, Max Allan Collins takes his turn using his fictional detective Nate Heller to guide readers through the investigation into the murder of Ms. Short, known forever after as the Black Dahlia.
Nate is in L.A. to finalize the opening of his detective agency’s newest branch and to do a little honeymooning with his bride Peggy Hogan.
He’s driving with reporter Bill Fowley trying to squeeze some publicity for his new branch when the call comes through the police radio in Fowley’s car about a naked body in a vacant lot. Fowley, ever the news hound, wants to check it out. When they get there, he pressures Nate into taking photos so Fowley’s paper can get the scoop.
Much to his horror, Nate recognizes the girl. They’d had a dalliance in Chicago when Peggy had temporarily dumped Nate for another man. But just the day before, Beth had tracked Nate down and called his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was trying to blackmail him, claiming she was pregnant.
Nate realizes that if he doesn’t stay involved in the investigation, he could end up a prime suspect.
What author Max Collins does exceptionally well is research, which brings Los Angeles of 1947 to life in technicolor. Collins uses Nate to shadow the factual investigation and some of the theories about “who-dunnit.” Collins develops his own theory about who killed the Black Dahlia — and seamlessly brings him to justice without the benefit of the judicial system.
Ultimately, this novel seems contrived. Nate is keeping secrets from his press contacts, the police and his wife. He’s showing up in all the right places ahead of the police, which tests a reader’s credulity. He shows the darker, less appealing sides of Elizabeth Short, which takes away some of the power of the story.
Many nonfiction works, some even cited on the final pages of the novel, offer more convincing explanations of the Black Dahlia murder. Other fictional works, such as Megan Abbott’s novel, THE SONG IS YOU, do a better job of revisiting a haunting crime in fiction.
That said, Nate Heller is a compelling character. His many friends — crime fighter Eliot Ness, prize fighter Barney Ross and his various acquaintances in organized crime — make cameo appearances in this story. He has a chat at Paramount Studios with actor-director Orson Welles. There are plenty of peeks inside Hollywood in its Golden Years.
This is book 12 in Collins’ Nate Heller series. Other books in the series, all of which deal with real events of the 20th century, include the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of Louisiana politician Huey Long, the disappearance of pilot Amelia Earhart, conspiracy theories surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the apparent suicide of actress Marilyn Monroe.
CrimeReads contributor Miles Corwin has written an extensive history of the various theories about who killed the Black Dahlia, if you wish to know more about this unsolved crime.


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