Dezenhall’s (Spinning Dixie, 2006, etc.) fifth novel takes a cast of characters from history— FDR, Walter Winchell, Meyer Lansky—sets the story during the bleak beginning of World War II, and adds a secret network of counter-spies who made their bones as gangsters.
Recurring narrator Jonah Eastman is the grandson of Mickey Price, an old man who earned a fortune rum-running during Prohibition and went semi-legit with an Atlantic City casino. Eastman is also a college intern at the Reagan White House. His boss there knows his family background and wants Jonah to interview “Uncle Meyer.” Meyer Lansky was the real-life shadowy genius behind much mid-century U.S. organized crime. The Reagan Administration has discovered that Lansky and his cohorts—the “Ferret Squad”—helped root out Nazi undercover agents during WWII. The politicians are unofficially interested in Lansky’s story because there might be something valuable to be learned to deal with Islamo-fascist terrorists threatening U.S. interests. The novel shifts back and forth in time, presented as Eastman’s report-from-notes made as he interviewed Uncle Meyer in Miami, mortally ill with lung cancer. Alternate scenes follow Lansky in the 1940s. Some dialogue is rendered in slang, which is sometimes overdone. Along with the background of the uneasy alliance between the Italian and Jewish gangsters who dominated the criminal enterprises around New York City, there are interesting character snippets of infamous gangsters like Lucky Luciano (whose Sicilian ties aid in the Allied invasion of that island), and Albert Anastasia, a rogue homicidal maniac, and Bugsy Siegel, as deadly as Anastasia but prone to follow Lansky’s lead. The author also fictionalizes— dramatically narrates—the participation of real-life Lieutenant Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden, chief administrator of “Operation Underground,” a man ill-used as bureaucrats grist-milled history in service of politics.
With “the fate of civilization rested upon a handful of weary sailors and patriotic crooks,” Dezenhall intrigues with well-imagined, little-known history.