New York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”
Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.
The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.
Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.
Jerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.
Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.
O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”