Told in two novellas tied together by the unscrupulous Senator Joe McCarthy, Better Dead’s book one finds Collins’s Nathan Heller hired by writer Dashiell Hammett to try to find anything to clear Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on the eve of their executions. Heller uncovers some discrepancies in the Rosenberg trial, including discovering the missing drop-leaf table. But even in Collins’s world, he can’t change history, and the Rosenbergs still die. In the second book, Heller is retained by McCarthy to try to pry loose any information the CIA might have on him. As Heller digs more deeply, he becomes entrenched in a labyrinthine maze of CIA spooks, LSD-25 experiments on civilians and agents alike, and an unlikely partner in a young Bettie Page.
Collins’s writing is as electric as the Cold War atmosphere he’s set Heller into. All the characters, both real (McCarthy, Page, the Rosenbergs) and created, are authentic and believably written. There is a coarse, edgy feel to the writing that helps drive a frenetic pace to an ending that has Heller looking back at both cases with a sense of loss and wonder. In his wonderful take on the insanity of the McCarthy Red Scare and the CIA LSD-25 experiments of the 1950s, Collins weaves a fanciful story that honors history yet allows for his usual deft creative styling.
Review originally appeared in HNR May 2016: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/better-dead/