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From The Handmaid’s Tale to The Man in the High Castle, there’s something alluringly dystopian about alt-history tales that put a sinister spin on the not-too-distant past. Maybe it’s just intriguing to fantasize over how closely society skirts the edges of almost living in that other world…or maybe envisioning how people get by in an evil-empire reality is just plain page-turning fun.
Either way, America’s close call with the political paranoia of McCarthyism makes for one whopper of an alt-history backdrop for Beat the Devils, a new book from SYFY WIRE contributor Josh Weiss. “I’m a massive fan of the alternate history genre, so it felt like a no-brainer to explore a world where the Red Scare put a fear mongering tyrant — i.e., Joseph McCarthy — into the White House,” Weiss explains of the book’s dark, fantasy-meets-reality backdrop.
Out this week, the novel is a tasty slice of noir fiction, set in a parallel America where being un-American can put anyone on the naughty list. After all, in this version of the late-1950s U.S., Joseph McCarthy’s been elected president — along with all the divide-and-conquer fear culture that implies.
Beat the Devils takes a page from Raymond Chandler and other noir writing greats with its deceptively sunny Los Angeles setting, throwing LAPD detective Morris Baker — “a Holocaust survivor who drowns his fractured memories of the unspeakable in schnapps and work” — down a rabbit-hole case for the ages. Famed film director John Huston and up-and-coming journalist Walter Cronkite have turned up murdered, and it doesn’t take long for Baker to realize his L.A. police snoop role — not to mention his Jewish background — put him at ground zero of a political conspiracy that goes straight to the highest reaches of power.
Wait — John Huston and Walter Cronkite? Murdered? Before Huston can live long enough to star in Chinatown? Before Cronkite can cover the Kennedy assassination? Aside from the intrigue of getting to the bottom of how such an unlikely pair got together in the first place (which the book deliciously does), offing the iconic duo shows just how deep McCarthyism’s culture-war roots are anchored in a land where everyone’s a potential traitor.
“The idea of killing off the great Walter Cronkite was born out of a desire to show how far the American ideal has fallen since McCarthy took office in this timeline,” says Weiss. “If one of the greatest and most reliable newscasters of the 20th century turns up dead while trying to expose the ugly truth, then what hope is there for anyone to cut through all the lies of this administration?”
As for Huston, known even in this topsy-turvy timeline as famed director of classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? He’s “inextricably linked with the genre, so it just felt right that he should be the one to kick off this complex web of lies and murder,” Weiss explains. “In this reality, he stopped making hardboiled movies and started living them.”
Oof. What kind of trouble were these guys mixed up in? No spoilers, but we’ve got our hands on a fun excerpt from the book’s 4th chapter — just when detective Baker’s getting an early taste of what he’s in for — and let’s just say this alt-history version of America takes Cold War social signaling to a whole new level. Baker’s bouncing back from an evening bender, cruising and surfing the radio in the L.A. sun, mulling the still-fresh murders. Of course, the radio news feed is jammed with dystopian chatter…which doesn’t exactly help pinpoint a signal amid all the noise.
Check out the excerpt below:
“ . . . met with President McCarthy in Miami yesterday afternoon to voice his thanks for the aid the American Expeditionary Force provided to Cuba in crushing the Communist insurrection that attempted to seize control of the small island nation. In addition to thanking the United States, President Batista stated that he was eager for closer relations between the two countries. As a sign of good faith, he will allow the US military to place Jupiter missiles in Cuba for the protection of both freedom-loving coun-tries. The public hangings of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the rest of their band of miscreants will be televised live on NBC this evening at six o’clock local time. The event is sponsored by Colgate toothpaste. Remember: Three ways clean is Colgate Clean! Following his meeting with Batista, President McCarthy urged the American public to remain wary of the Red Menace. Please do not hesitate to report any Communist, subversive, or deviant activity to your local . . .”
“HU-AC office,” finished Baker, putting a strong emphasis on the last two letters as if he had something vile stuck in his throat. There was nothing about Huston and Cronkite on the news yet, but the day was still young. He toggled the radio dial and was informed that traffic was still closed off near Griffith Park on Los Feliz Boulevard and West Observatory Road for “important road work.” Since he didn’t live near Griffith Park, which was also far away from the LAPD headquarters, he wouldn’t have to worry about it. After a coin flip, Connolly agreed to stay back and loiter around the crime scene, see what else he could sniff out. Baker, meanwhile, was headed back to the office to write up a report.
Baker turned the radio dial again, a bit more aggressively than he should have, and it popped out of its socket and onto the carpeted floor. “F***!” he bellowed, the go-to American curse dissolving into the air. Now he was stuck with nothing but garbled static. Perfect.
It was ten o’clock and the sun, which had finally dissipated all of the smog, was now on full blast as he sped past tall palm trees and neon signs that lined Sunset Boulevard. The signs were nocturnal creatures. At this hour, they sat blind and asleep, waiting for the sun to dip low in the sky so that they could wake.
On almost every corner, yellow posters stained black with the trefoil symbol of radioactivity indicated the entrances to public, underground fallout shelters. A large and sun-faded billboard at the end of the street showed a smiling Bert the Turtle. His ridiculous safari hat and bow tie firmly in place as he reminded folks to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack. Other phrases like oh my! DANGER! and you must learn to find shelter! were pasted across the billboard in screaming red text that was beginning to crack and peel from the intense California heat.
What the devil did that mean? And why in the world was Baker’s name written on that page? Somehow he didn’t think that Cronkite, a man he’d never met in his life, was setting himself a reminder to pick up a fresh loaf of bread on his way home. Not that he’d ever make it home now.
Baker did feel a little guilty about not telling Connolly about his name showing up on the note, but something deep within his brain (the raw animalistic part that had helped him stay alive during the war) told him to keep his trap shut. It could be a coincidence. But Baker couldn’t shake a growing sense of foreboding that made him shiver.
What person would want to kill an out-of-work movie director and a young CBS reporter whose career was nothing special?
Something just didn’t add up. Baker was resolved to get to the bottom of it, no matter how many Hueys got in his way.
Yep, we’re definitely playing in an alternate timeline here. But the alt-history trappings are only half the equation: Weiss says blending it with a deep noir fantasy — one that could only happen in a world this twisted — is a big key to Beat the Devils’ salaciously fun mix of mystery and McCarthysim.
“A lot of Beat the Devils is me trying to take the classic noir tropes and ramping them up to levels we haven't quite seen before,” he says. “Sure, we all know the stories about a lone detective fighting police corruption or shady land deals down at city hall, but what do you do when every single person — from the President of the United States down to your friendly neighborhood banker — is crooked? Is it even possible to do any good in a world like that?”
One of the book’s biggest delights is the way its characters keep a sense of humor amid all the piped-in oppression. That’s not typical of so many of the all-too-serious alt-history stories we’ve seen before — but after hanging out with Baker and the long list of unlikely associates who rotate in and out of his perpetually hung-over haze, maybe it should be. Weiss credits one especially unlikely movie influence (among others) for the book’s healthy sense of levity.
“I know this is a controversial opinion, but I love Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, particularly the way it depicts the ever-present tensions between America and the USSR,” he explains, ducking for cover from all the naysayers who hold a chilly opinion of the iconic series’ most recent film.
“The movie's first quarter or so was a big influence on this book, and the man who wrote it — David Koepp — actually passed along a note of congratulations last year, which was just awesome. The anti-communist paranoia of the mid-20th century has always fascinated me and in some ways, the ideology of McCarthyism is almost a hilarious parody of itself.”
It takes a pretty keen eye for real history to set a story in an American timeline whose events, at least for some, are still within living memory. But it also takes a keen ear for culture; for the decades-spanning undercurrents of art and entertainment that Beat the Devils reaches back and revivifies…with the benefit of hindsight, of course. In real America, the blurred line where news ends and fiction begins have served up some of the past century’s most sensational stories — and Weiss says the book is filled with nods to events both real and fictionally famous that are there for the finding.
“There is a phenomenal book written by Ian R. MacLeod — a master of the alt-history genre in my humble opinion — called Wake Up and Dream, which takes place in a reality where actor Clark Gable became a shabby P.I. when he couldn't keep up with a rapidly evolving Hollywood that figured out how to capture and project human auras. I read this book and was like, ‘Wait, you can take historical figures and put them into wildly different contexts?’” Weiss jokes.
“That book inspired me to go all in on the retro time period and bring in folks from the history books. Even if some readers don’t immediately recognize who they are, they still serve still as little Easter eggs for those in the know. Like Elizabeth Short, for instance. One of the most infamous L.A. murder victims is not only alive in this universe, she’s also dating the main character. It is just so much fun to turn the Black Dahlia into a two-bit actress no one has ever heard of.”
Then again, few Americans in Beat the Devils’ parallel world ever got to hear about Walter Cronkite — just as they never heard of a resourceful little Holocaust survivor-turned-detective by the name of Morris Baker. The joke’s on them: That’s just the way he likes it.
Beat the Devils, Weiss’ first novel (but likely not his last) makes its hardcover debut on March 22 at Amazon and other online storefronts, as well as bookstores nationwide.