BEAT THE DEVILS
By Josh Weiss
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
There is a long tradition of alternate history novels being written in the form of mysteries and Josh Weiss's Beat the Devils easily falls into that category. He introduces detective Morris Baker of the Los Angeles Police Department, who is called by his partner, Brogan Connolly, to the scene of a double murder. Upon arrival, he learns that the deceased are disgraced film director John Huston and up-and-coming reporter Walter Cronkite. They are quickly diverted by the appeared of the Feds, who insist they will be handling the case, and that should be the end of it.
Although this may sound like a straight forward beginning to a police procedural, Weiss has already indicated that Harris and Connolly are in an alternative world. Senator Joseph McCarthy managed to get himself elected President in 1952 instead of Dwight Eisenhower and six years later, the United States is a country which sees communists everywhere and Jews are treated as second class citizens. Since Baker is not only a Jew, but a Holocaust survivor, the current political situation makes his life even more difficult when he decides to continue investigating the murders despite being warned off and put on leave from the department.
Baker's investigation takes him against McCarthy's Hueys, named for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and into the arms of a Soviet agent who has determined that her goals and Baker's align. Baker's easy acceptance of Sophia Vikhrov's assistance seems at odds with the marginalized place Baker has in a society which is focused on homogeneity and views Communism as antithetical to everything in American society. The only thing that really seems to save Baker is the fact that the Hueys appear to be completely incompetent on every level and that while paying lip service to McCarthy's view of America, nearly everyone Baker comes into contact with is opposed to McCarthyism.
While Baker is focusing on the mystery of who killed Huston and Cronkite, his adventures also cause him to look into the secrets hidden by the US government dating back to before McCarthy's administration. This investigation allows Weiss to further create this alternate world. It also allows him to explore the horrors that Baker underwent while he was in the concentration camps during World War II, demonstrating that although this world of Beat the Devils may be dystopian, the very real world from which is sprung was, in many ways, worse that the world he imagined.
Beat the Devils offers a dark and potentially interesting world, but at the same time it has contradictions in the way it is depicted that tend to drop the reader out of the narrative. An authoritarian society that has plenty of room for individuals to revolt against it in their daily life. The fact that Vikhrov can move around at will raises questions about whether the McCarthyites have as strong a hold on the US as Weiss would have us believe and Baker's blithe acceptance of her seems to indicate that even he doesn't believe that there is any danger in his investigation or in being seen with a Soviet spy. The murders aside, the secrets Baker uncovers are relatively predictable as is the novel's denouement, although Weiss does throw in some surprises that feel, for the most part, superfluous.
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