"But all they want to do/ is tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it. "
- Billy Collins, "Introduction to Poetry"
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Like the rest of the country, I'd seen in the papers that Huey had, on the floor of the Senate, accused FDR of aiding and abetting a murder plot against him; something about conspirators meeting at some hotel somewhere. But I'd really merely read the headlines, skimmed the stories. Nobody was taking it very seriously. After all, Huey made a habit out of such accusations. He was a wolf who kept crying little boy.
I'm delighted to have rediscovered Max Allan Collins's Nate Heller novels. They're textured and well-written, and something like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels in providing entertaining, excellently researched history lessons. I knew almost nothing about the death of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long before I read Blood and Thunder, but now I do.
The novel starts in 1935. Chicago private eye Nathan Heller has been persuaded by Senator Long (who met him on an earlier visit to the windy city) to become one of his bodyguards. After a visit to the Oklahoma State Fair they return to Louisiana, and Nate is introduced to the continual circus that is Huey Long's presidential campaign. Formerly a supporter of the New Deal, Long has broken with Roosevelt, and dreams of taking his populist wealth redistribution campaign to a national stage. He entertains visitors and reporters in his hotel suite dressed in green silk pajamas. He writes music. He parties hard. He has connections with organized crime. Heller has about had his fill of it all (in spite of an enjoyable affair with one of Long's ex-mistresses) when Long is shot to death. According to eyewitness reports he was killed by an angry dentist who was then riddled with bullets by Long's furious bodyguards (Nate is off on an errand at that moment). Nate goes home.
About a year later, he's invited back to Louisiana by Long's widow, who is now in financial difficulties. She wants him to prove that her husband was not killed by the dentist, but by the stray bullets of the bodyguards (that would make the death an accident, and trigger a double indemnity clause in Long's life insurance).
The solution Heller finds is not the one in the history books, but Collins makes a strong case for it, and explains in his Afterword what's speculation and what's documented fact.
Blood and Thunder is very enjoyable. Very educational. Huey Long truly comes alive as a historical character, so that the reader understands how this strange man came to be beloved by so many.
Recommended, with cautions for language and adult situations.